Article| Back in the Day: Underground Hip Hop Aesthetics and the Nostalgia of the Golden Age by Ediz Ozelkan

Back in the Day: Underground Hip Hop Aesthetics and the Nostalgia of the Golden Age

Ediz Ozelka

Underground hip hop has been the topic of scholarship in several fields without a concrete foundation of its aesthetic objectives. Most of this work has focused on the unidimensionality of underground rap music as chiefly concerned with an antagonism to the hegemonic grip of the music industry machine which dictates the stylistic underpinnings of mainstream rap music. I argue that this understanding of the underground as the savior of rap music is a flawed conceptualization that should consider the multifaceted foundation of a more nuanced and humanistic worldview that the underground represents, which is more inclusive than what scholars typically consider underground music; that is, conscious rap.                    

To construct my argument, I will briefly illustrate the broader hip hop aesthetic. Couched in this aesthetic perspective, I argue that hip hop seeks to continuously revise its history, and thus the creation (and consistent recreation) of the mythologized “golden age” in the hip hop imaginary was the fuel that instigated the underground movement in its nascent stages. This is the moment where the underground emerges as savior, a messiah of the populist conception of hip hop culture. Unfortunately, scholarship on the hip hop underground has remained in this crucial liminal phase, without a comprehensive look at the forces that currently shape it, chiefly, the fetishized golden age that is romanticized through a collective memory of hip hop citizenship.

This fetishization is complete with a moral and philosophical prerogative that is implicitly humanistic in its teleology, which supports the elitist conception of underground as good and mainstream as bad rap music. This bifurcation is further cemented through the idea of “conscious rap” as being synonymous with or representative of the underground. I problematize this shaky relationship by introducing the forces that authenticate conscious rap compared with other forms of rap music, including other forms of underground rap. With the moral and philosophical foundation of the underground outlined, the origin of the underground and its persistent reimagination can be expounded upon. The reinvigoration of a “golden age” through underground hip hop culture and rap music provides a framework through which hip hop scholars can investigate what it means to live, think, make, and do hip hop in the underground.

Finally, I argue that the humanistic prerogative of these community knowledges should serve as a basis from which we can liberate academic discourse on the underground from its conscious/industry, good/bad binaries that serve to suppress lateral discursive perspectives that exist between these points. My “data” is derived from my time in the field as an aspiring MC1 as well as various academic perspectives which have blatantly uni-dimensionalized underground hip hop by opening a series of potential theoretical gateways through which the same dichotomous tautologies can be confirmed and further cemented with every iteration of “new” research which just produces a circular discourse that ultimately fails to augment or supplant the mainstream/conscious binary which has terrorized hip hop scholarship.

The Hip Hop Aesthetic

The hip hop aesthetic is indebted to the African American literary and linguistic tradition of signifying. Henry Louis Gates Jr. defines it as “a metaphor for textual revision,” which is at the core of hip hop expression, relying on innovation and ambiguity in meaning making endeavors.2 Here, I use the term text rather liberally as it pertains to all manners of expression within hip hop culture, including fashion, vernacular, dance, visual art, musical objects (within and outside of rap music itself), and even artists’ personas, among others, which are all informed by hip hop cultural traditions and standards. However, in this paper, I will primarily be utilizing signifying as a theoretical framework to dissect hip hop culture’s most pervasive element, rap music, and in particular, underground rap. Indeed, reducing sounds to texts is a polemical hermeneutic enterprise, but the process of revision, particularly within the realm of history and community knowledge, rather than the idea of a text itself, is used in this paper to navigate the complex world of hip hop. While this essentialist understanding of hip hop culture is extremely limited and not at all an exhaustive investigation into its myriad idiosyncrasies and manifestations, it is a building block for an examination into the chthonic world of underground hip hop. How does hip hop culture revise its own history in a way that informs its current and future trajectory? More importantly, how does the idea of the “underground” figure in this conception of its teleology?

The notion of signifying as a continuous revision or “sampling”3 of various texts is a staple of hip hop cultural practice. Hip hop’s fashion has borrowed from Afrocentric and Eurocentric designs, the politics of hip hop is intertwined with historical black militancy and sociopolitical struggles, and the language of hip hop is a clear extension of African American vernacular English, reconfigured to suit its needs. In particular, rap music, both performed and in its recorded form, relies on this same method of intertextuality and the constant revision of old musical forms through DJing. This sampling produces clandestine meanings that act below the surface of lyrics, inculcating a sense of history in the musical form while also performing a dance of continuity through its refashioning.

Tricia Rose, a pioneer of hip hop scholarship, augments this analysis by saying “rap music is, in many ways, a hidden transcript. Among other things, it uses cloaked speech and disguised cultural codes to comment on and challenge aspects of current power inequalities.”4 While this work was written in 1994, it speaks to the “original” (if we as hip hop scholars, practitioners and fans can reach a consensus) ideological standpoint from which hip hop culture has since signified on and in many ways, strives to recover, through its conception of the underground and the golden age. Through this lens, rap music’s components are all examples of signifying, predominantly expressed through lyricism, but also present in other facets of the culture. Miles White lends further evidence, declaring “in hip hop culture, uniqueness and the expression of individual identity are prioritized through behavior, modes of dress, language, and more. Even when styles and expressive performances are emulated, imitated, and adopted by those wishing to identify with the culture, they are often at some point adapted and signified upon.”5 If we take these perspectives as valid, hip hop is a manifestation of signification in contemporary cultural discourse, creating a conversation revolving around continuity and perpetuity in the African American cultural lineage.

One can still observe this process in motion through myriad avenues of defining the term “hip hop” in the modern era. Who are its founders? Who/what can properly represent it? Who is the next one to “blow up?”6 More importantly, how do these two groups (the old and the new) negotiate their aesthetic positioning in juxtaposition to each other? Hip hop culture, manifest is a subversive force that prides itself on a familiarity with and reworking of its history through the present. This reconciliation is principally exercised via the conceptualization and practice of the underground aesthetic, which is implicitly founded on a connection to an imagined golden age. Thus, before a definition of the underground can be reached, an analysis of the mainstream hip hop arena, which was the predecessor of an ideologically antagonistic underground culture, beginning with its glorified golden age, is warranted to illuminate the ideological and stylistic foundations of hip hop culture and the subsequent reimagination of this history through a collective memory that is maintained through the underground aesthetic.

The Golden Age

The golden age of hip hop (largely recognized by scholars and practitioners as between the late 1980’s to mid-1990’s) is mythologized as a rubric for authenticity and provides modern hip hop practitioners and fans with an evaluative lexicon. Although this is heavily contested, some may confine it to just the late 1980’s or only the early 1990’s or any time prior to rap music’s commercialization in 1979. For my purposes here, I wish to describe the fact that there is an apotheosized golden age, which, while existing in a vacuum of conflicting time periods, is still a salient trope and a force that has shaped the hip hop worldview, rather than espousing a definitive period of time that the golden age encapsulates.

The chief (but not sole) exemplar of an academization of the golden age is the volume Born to use Mics: Reading Nas’ Illmatic, edited by academic powerhouses Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai.7 Essentially, the tome pays homage to a crucial album in hip hop history, Illmatic, and places it within the context of a liminal or transitional stage in broader hip hop culture. Illmatic, released in 1994, according to this work, is the interface between a bygone era of hip hop and its current form, demarcating a definitive golden age of hip hop by two crucial hip hop scholars (the editors) and further validated by the litany of academics that contributed to the volume as well as Common (a well-known conscious rapper), who wrote the foreword. The term golden age appears five times in the book, and Sohail Daulatzai maintains that 1987-1994 was the golden age in the introduction, establishing this range as the dominant accepted time period for hip hop’s flourishing and unencumbered childhood.8 He establishes this time frame by saying “in 1994 hip-hop was at a crossroads… the tail end of the ‘Golden Age.’”9 While there are obviously many more hip hop scholars and practitioners that have addressed this idea, I will not provide an exhaustive list here, proceeding with the assumption that there are conflicting conceptions of the golden age and this anthology is one exemplar of many that has worked to reduce the time frame of the golden age to a specific period of time, largely within the late 1980’s to early 1990’s. I want to stress the point that the focus of this paper is not to define when the golden age is, but to delineate its significance in shaping underground hip hop aesthetics in the modern era.

Image result for cover of Nas'Illmatic

Cover of Nas “Illmatic” (copyright: INFO) 

Harkening back to the golden age has been a widely held practice that demonstrates cultural knowledge for practitioners, scholars and fans alike. An implicit assumption of the abilities of hip hop practitioners and fans includes “doing the knowledge,”10 what Marcyliena Morgan considers the fifth element11 (alongside the original four elements: MCing, DJing, breaking, and graffiti12) of hip hop. This means that, since hip hop’s teleology is implicitly linked to textual revision, understanding the roots of hip hop culture and the complexities of its historicity in the evolving landscape of cultural expression is a harbinger of what the future will look like. More importantly, it is a conversation with continuity to salvage the vestiges of an idealized past, exemplified in the construction of a fetishized golden age, to bring about a more utopic future. Here, we can see that cultural knowledge and community understandings are extremely important when striving for authenticity in general. Artists and fans alike need to make aesthetic decisions that display cultural familiarity and historical expertise, including several aforementioned signifying tropes. Thus, a sociohistorical understanding of hip hop’s roots is the accepted and preferred foundation for innovation and is the key to unlocking underground hip hop’s aesthetic prerogative.

However, a comprehensive view of hip hop history is not the only relevant skill needed to signify and adapt. As a culture founded on African American musical and literary forms, an understanding of African American intellectual movements, political struggles, and race consciousness is another crucial element shaping the hip hop aesthetic.13 Basically, hip hop can be understood as a consistently revised continuation of these movements and is thus reliant on similar tropes and ideologies. The golden age of hip hop brought these racially charged issues to the forefront of the American media machine, situating a utopia of hip hop as running parallel to these political stances. Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Salt N Peppa, among others, brought forth the black feminist movement’s voice through beats and rhymes, N.W.A. and gangsta rap served as explicitly political reminders of the deplorable conditions of the American underclass, and Nas and other conscious rappers illuminated the black intellectual tradition. Marcia Dawkins goes as far as saying “Hip Hop is black rhetoric… as it pertains to hip hop, [it] is the symbolic social construction and reconstruction of the African American community by African Americans.”14 The weight of the culture is due to its widespread salience and the fact that it is a black form made by mostly black people15, with agency and autonomy. Rap music is a continuation of these ideals, placing a premium on those cultural objects that reflect black rhetorical traditions. Still, these strategies do not exist solely within the vacuum of hip hop culture.

During the golden age, these artists, and many more omitted from this rudimentary summation, used rap music as a vehicle rendering visible African American cultural, economic, and political criticism that was relegated to the peripheries of the American imagination.16 The highly political and subversive nature of this era has been valorized as the true or authentic vision of what the culture should look like, hence the imagination of a golden age defined by these characteristics. This archetype was formulated based on these crucial years of hip hop’s development into the corporate and cultural giant it is today. This rebelliousness defined the movement and has been adapted and improved upon ever since. Paul Gilroy states that “hip hop’s marginality is… routinized… yet it is still represented as an outlaw form,” which demonstrates that even as a formulaic conception of nonconformity, the outlaw figure and the recalcitrance that has characterized the hip hop worldview has and will remain at the crux of its aesthetic.17 Still, this imagination and reimagination is an ongoing process, so this outlaw aesthetic is difficult to properly pin down to a specific epoch of hip hop history, especially since this trope holds salience even today. This golden age is a widely accepted and romanticized past, which varies significantly from person to person, but is couched in a rhetorical strategy that establishes an outlaw aesthetic. This marginal stance, I argue, is a means of combating the commercialization of hip hop and thus, since the golden age is construed as an organic moment of unbridled creativity without the supervision of corporate oversight, hip hop’s subsequent exit from the imagined golden age.

From the foundational alterity that is implicit within hip hop’s lyricism and artist personae, one can find several iterations of the outlaw character, furthering its implicit link to African American cultural traditions.18 This outlaw character is an outsider to mainstream white America, but is also manifested as an outsider to hip hop in some cases, most notably, the underground, through its aesthetic practices. Thus, the underground rapper/MC, b-boy, graffiti artist, or DJ embodies this affective stance through their expressive politic.19

After the golden age, rap music underwent a major transformation as it was commandeered by major record corporations. To capitalize on the perceived authenticity of rap artists, record companies began to make music that had crossover appeal, eschewing the golden age outlook and replacing it with the guiding hand of competition.20 The free hand of the market, however, cannot properly give dap.21 As this change occurred, the rise of the “Bling era” (post-golden age, arguably still underway depending on who you talk to) was ushered in by these same corporate influences to secure higher profits. The music from this era is characterized by ostentatious materialism, hyper-sexualization, hyper-masculinity, and hyper-violence.22 While these characteristics are not unique to this era alone,23 the near monopoly of these voices on the radio and television, bereft of any significant conscious or slight deviations from this norm (outside of maybe Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, who are both simultaneously socially conscious and “gangster”), was the accepted form that hip hop took in the mainstream. Uncomfortably close to racial caricature, it garnered massive record sales and secured hip hop’s commanding position in the global music industry.

The dissemination of racially derogatory imagery and the dilution of song lyrics in the mainstream eventually created a situation that required a cultural upheaval of the status quo among dedicated hip hop practitioners that saw their cultural agency slipping away. Access to mainstream success was being dictated by a consolidated network of record executives as the entire industry was being amalgamated through mergers and acquisitions in the 1990’s and 2000’s.24 The tyranny of these record corporations monopolized the only avenue to success for practitioners, which squeezed artists into more and more formulaic personas with increasingly less creative control. The underground soon emerged as the hero/outlaw to save hip hop from its corporate masters to preserve the perceptibly organic roots of the idealized golden age.

The Underground as an Answer to Mainstream Monotony

Some fans used the underground as a protective shield from the polemical depictions of “street” culture: “they wanted to point to the underground as proof that things were not so bad. It was as if the mere existence of underground artists meant that hip hop was healthy.”25 Meanwhile, Rose conceptualized mainstream hip hop as music that “refers to the heavy promotion of gangstas, pimps, and hoes churned out for mainstream consumption,” but does not offer an analogous definition of the underground.26 This follows the general trend within hip hop scholarship and those within popular music and cultural studies in that popular or mainstream cultural products take center stage (literally and figuratively) in our discussions on these matters but countercultures or underground counterparts are merely situated in a dialectical and reciprocal relationship to their progenitors.

Historically, the underground, outside the context of hip hop, delineates several recalcitrant practices in African American culture. James Braxton Peterson connects this historical conception of the underground to hip hop thus: “the central concept of the underground is that of revolution… The hip-hop underground signifies on much of this historical, political, and literary energy.”27 Within hip hop, the underground arose as a means of reconciling the modernism of commercialized rap music and the origins of the culture. Hence, the mainstream/underground or industry/conscious dichotomies that are used when describing hip hop subgenres or performers are totalizing constructs that are dialectically opposed. Consider Danny Hoch’s declaration: “We often speak of two hip-hops. There is the corporate one… Then there is the other hip-hop, practiced by the grassroots artists and activists… for social change and community education and empowerment… the ‘righteous.’”28 Here, Hoch illuminates the antagonisms that define hip hop after the golden age. He mentions misrepresentations and unidimensionality, which are the primary accusations against mainstream rap music. However, this is yet another romanticized notion of the underground as the last semblance of redemption in an otherwise adulterated cultural movement. Conversely, he also offers an elementary definition of the underground as directly antithetical to the industry that represents the ingrained capitalistic power structure that usurped hip hop of its politically charged righteousness. This is a standpoint that many scholars and hip hop heads have adopted when defining the underground, and while it offers a slightly more nuanced perspective, it still falls short.

The fight for the underground, aside from its economic facets, is mainly a fight for sovereignty. Ivor Miller looks to the underground “to comment upon unhappy social realities,” but ultimately defines it in terms of artist control.29 Kimbrew McLeod avers an analogous theory, defining the underground as an “independently owned network of distribution” chiefly as an answer to the hip hop modernism defined by corporate structures.30 More importantly, this independent network is significant because distribution is where record companies hold the most control over the success of individual artists.

Similarly, Mickey Hess argues that underground identity is implicitly linked to a disdain for the music industry: “many artists currently identify their music as ‘underground’ hip hop to indicate a musical aesthetic that differs from mainstream pop rap. The term ‘underground’ can designate artists who record for independent- rather than corporate- labels, yet even those artists who do record for major labels can align themselves with underground styles.”31 Thus, not only is the underground an identity that embraces agency, it is also a tool for attaining cultural capital both in the mainstream and in the underground through its antagonism to the mainstream.

However, the underground artist has more to gain through this cultural stance than those who have already attained mainstream success. Anthony Kwame Harrison, in his seminal ethnography in which he participated as an MC in the Bay Area, asserts that “underground hip hop artists sought to distinguish their music from major record label releases… pointed critiques of the music industry…were requisite elements of nearly all underground hip hop songs.”32 While being against the music industry is an integral aspect of an underground identity, it can also boost one’s cultural capital through defiant lyrics. Basically, most scholars, even the actual hip hop practitioner of the bunch, took on this dichotomous categorization to describe the two different worlds of hip hop. This is the accepted rubric for discussion on the matter and even has salience when recording music. However, the underground is much more than anti-commercialism.

These ideas are similar to those espoused by many originators of hip hop and more importantly, manifested in the golden age. Social memory is reliant on a common experience, and thus, this omnipresence during the golden age, when hip hop began to dominate the media landscape, rather than the inception of hip hop, was the solidifying force of hip hop historicization. This is an aesthetic that needs to be preserved and signified upon because sovereignty and agency are a crucial aspect of the hip hop body politic. This collective memory that informs the historical consciousness of hip hop heads is constantly being reformulated to conform to an evolving nostalgia which figures this fantasy as derived from its infancy.

Contrarily, Christopher Kline offers a less heroic notion of the underground by saying “while some romanticize certain eras in hip-hop or its origins or characterize underground hip-hop as the culture’s purest form, there is also a well-known sentiment in hip-hop circles that an underground artist is simply another name for an artist without a record contract.”33 In a later work, he states that “underground hip hop artists… are more likely to seek to recapture the early counter-hegemonic impulses than their more commercially successful peers,” demonstrating the influence of scholarship over the years and the changing perception of the antagonisms between the underground, mainstream, and the golden age.34 What does this mean in the broader context of this discussion? When Kline wrote his dissertation in 2007, at the height of the bling era, there was a less romantic notion of the underground but in 2014 he subscribes to the same gallant sensibilities that the underground has held for many other hip hop heads for some time. Clearly, the conversation has been changing as the bling era evolved and is currently being renegotiated and signified upon yet again. Perhaps in the mid-2000’s, when Nas famously declared that hip hop was dead, scholars and practitioners were still in denial about the trajectory of mass commercialization. Maybe there was still hope for the industry at that point. Ultimately, it begs the question: can we continue to look at the underground as the savior or revitalizing force of the golden age?

While the underground reinvigorates the essence of hip hop’s golden age in many respects, there is a much more nuanced conversation to be had about its objectives. Geoff Baker describes the underground in Havana as being explicitly critical of the ingrained official economic structure: “underground is… less about non-commercialism than about unofficial ways of making money, since rap has been a significant source of income for many hip hoppers.”35 So while the underground is indubitably anti-commercial, it is counter to not just the music industry, but the socioeconomic conditions of the neoliberal economy36 or wage labor in totality. This argument adds another element to the underground redemption story but ultimately bolsters the same story: if the music industry is synonymous to or symptomatic of the burgeoning neoliberal economic policies that shaped it, then this enmity towards capitalism relies on the same premise that forges the underground-as-savior narrative. Therefore, while seemingly widening the scope of exploring underground culture, this perspective and those akin to it do little to expand the scholastic imagination.

Jon Ivan Gill writes about underground culture in a more bourgeois light: “a culture that encompasses art, philosophy, competition, and the development of the self… underground hip-hop serves as a microverse within a macroverse of hip-hop itself, equipped with its own values, norms, infractions and expectations.”37 According to this conceptualization, the underground is an elitist conception of authenticity, truth, and politics. This elitism has manifest in scholastic studies since the underground has been under academic scrutiny. However, what does that mean for hip hop practice when this elitism conflicts with the economic power of the mainstream? What aesthetic posturing is available to underground artists within this framework? With this elitism, what is the proper way to do underground hip hop without embracing the aspects that could make one appear too commercial or less enlightened? Can there be a populist vision of the underground without the narcissism and air of superiority that comes with privileged discourses of high and low culture?38 And finally, where do the community knowledges that develop and transmit an evolving conception of the golden age figure in this elitism?

Conscious Rap and the Underground: Good Versus Bad

The conception of bad music is arguably more important than the definition of good music, especially within the underground/mainstream antagonism in hip hop, placing this binary in a moral context. Much like one is “innocent until proven guilty,” Frith argues that all music is inherently good music, but “music only becomes bad music in an evaluative context,” securing its implicit social foundation.39 As with any mention of aesthetic value, social context is significant, especially within a culture that places a premium on specialized knowledge and expertise. Thus, an examination of underground hip hop’s social environment, in which these evaluations occur, may help to illuminate its aesthetics and its moral footing.40 

Importantly, in any conversation of the underground, we must consider the ever increasing number of rappers within the underground. On average, because the underground consists of amateurs and professionals alike, there is usually a higher artist to listener ratio than there might be in a mainstream performance or fan base.41 Essentially, the underground is contested terrain, highly critical of its peers to produce superior quality cultural products thoroughly couched in value judgements.42 These value judgements are implicitly linked to a moral code that the underground espouses.

Theodore Gracyk takes this a step further, linking music appreciation to musical/cultural knowledge. This sort of informed listening is a vital aspect of any musical genre and often separates the more devoted from those who are less engaged with the culture outside of its commodity form, the music itself.43 Underground practitioners and fans rely on this cultural competency and elitism to propose that underground hip hop is more pure, authentic, and ultimately valuable than mainstream hip hop. Thus, while this paper is primarily concerned with rap music, the conception of the underground spreads beyond just the music itself into the broader culture of underground hip hop, which is the primary focus of my broader research.

Miles White connects taste to a higher moral resolve: “in hip-hop, distinctions are considerably made stark between music that is considered mainstream/commercial and seen as having dubious social merit, and that which aspires to some higher moral or socially redemptive purpose.”44 This idea is especially important as it concerns continuity, respectability, and loyalty to the culture, particularly within the mainstream/underground dichotomy. A higher moral purpose is implicitly linked to some higher power, and in the case of the underground, it is hip hop culture. Thus, being true to the culture and demonstrating levels of fandom and intimacy with esoteric artists, unknown mixtape markets, and other amateur endeavors are used to demarcate who are merely fans and who are avid listeners/practitioners,45 or those with skin in the game.46 Loyalty is everything, and it also implies that one is a better human being by not succumbing to the mainstream agenda, which is decidedly immoral. Underground hip hop is defined as “the ultimate space and place of humanity,” implying a connection to the human species, above just cultural objects or movements; a call of the wild or a natural inclination toward the values that the underground conveys.47 Thus, the underground aesthetic is founded on a moral high ground that motivates and incentivizes community while demonizing commercialism and, by extension, capitalism in general.48 

This inner humanity that underground hip hop represents is an important trope that situates the underground, and underground hip hop heads by extension, as virtuous and aesthetically superior to their mainstream counterparts because of their perceived enlightenment, particularly in light of the paltry compensation that underground artists receive compared with their mainstream counterparts. Carl Wilson, discussing the ability of people to criticize music, writes that “critical authority… hinges on turning your readership into an in-crowd, smarter than some less-discerning audience.”49 With the discerning tastes of underground artists and fans comes the subjugation of the mainstream aesthetic to a secondary or peripheral status. This is how the elitism endemic to hip hop is demonstrated within underground circles, which are justified in their shrewd acceptance of only (perceptibly) high quality products but also reproduce the power structure that they were trying to protest through this hierarchy. Kristine Wright, expounding a similar thesis, writes “underground ‘conscious’ hip hop is not any more real if only privileged persons hear it. Having access to underground websites and buying every CD that drops implies some level of middle class… The underground scene often romanticizes revolution, but rarely reaches out to those most oppressed.”50

However, Wright wrote this with the understanding that underground hip hop has become a space for white people to privilege certain forms of hip hop that seem more amenable to them. While I agree that this is the case, the underground is defined differently by different groups, races, genders and classes and is characterized differently in specific places.51 Still, the presence of a moral superiority within underground circles is certainly symptomatic of white appropriation and hegemony. While it is clearly based on African American cultural traditions and signification, any discussion of hip hop in general or the underground in particular would be insufficient without a look into how whiteness has shaped the culture, and it is definitely most noticeable in the underground, which is home to many white rappers since most of them do not ever pass the threshold into mainstream popularity. It has been indelibly shaped by this white presence and is illuminated by this adherence to a moral superiority, a modern white man’s burden.

Ultimately, underground rappers are seen as representing the “real” hip hop. This is a widely held perception among practitioners and fans alike, however elitist the argument is. David Hesmondhalgh highlights the significance of fans’ opinions of music through their evaluative rubrics that focused on a song’s worth “in terms of its expressiveness and its ability to externalize or reflect emotions.”52 In the end, we need to understand that the production of the imagined underground is merely an outward expression of musical evaluation in hip hop based on multiple factors including but not limited to musicality, sonic dimensions, and sociopolitical relationality. Thus, the way that hip hop heads talk about rap music is significant when defining the underground.53 More importantly, musicality must externalize or evoke emotional responses in fans, creating an intimacy between artists and fans that is not unique to underground hip hop but is valued in many genres. This idea is mirrored in Aaron Fox’s delineation of country music having “feeling,” or being relatable, defined succinctly as “essentialized, ineffable properties of social and aesthetic experience.”54 There must be a connection between sociability and aesthetic practices, which is true for mainstream hip hop, but is even more salient in the underground climate because of the physical intimacy at small concert venues or cyphers, the moral closeness based on underground ideals, and of course the emotional connection evinced through lyrics.

What kind of emotions and affective stances does underground hip hop create? Moreover, what do fans think it produces? This is important because the underground, much like the golden age, are imagined ideas based on the ambitions of hip hop heads who feel cheated by the modernism that has been defined through corporate interests in mainstream rap music. Nevertheless, the idea that a specific type of rap music is more relatable means that it is more human; morally superior and closer to “real art” as opposed to its commodified form. Underground rappers can be considered the “true bards” of hip hop.55 Not only are these artists representative of “true” hip hop, but they are also purveyors of black rhetoric and take on the role of community organizers through music, which comprise the cornerstones of underground hip hop practice as implicitly grounded in the pillars of community and locality, bereft of the resources to succeed in the mainstream to reach wider acclaim.

The human side of hip hop is undeniably political and seeks change. Within this same framework, the true bard is described as an archetypal being that relies “on the premise that music is more than the beat, it is the rhythm of humanity that justifies an allegiance and commitment to bring music to a higher social level.”56 Consequently, the discussion of underground cultural production consistently revolves around evolution, signification, and humanity. These ideals are antithetical to commercialism and the mainstream hip hop sphere: “the underground is for emcees and deejays who have messages to spread, not for monetary gain necessarily, but for respect and community building purposes.”57 In essence, to be underground is to be socially, politically, and economically conscious, hence the coining of the term conscious rap.58 Moreover, this consciousness should be the aim of one’s underground participation, despite the economic pressures of not being marketable, producing an army of economic martyrs that are committed to community and social consciousness.59

Furthering the political impetus of conscious rap, Murray Forman argues that conscious rappers “clearly and consistently articulate community concerns, positioning them in the vanguard of social activism… they are commonly cast as role models or leaders,” forcing a politicism onto artists.60 This confirms that humanity is political, and as such, hip hop artists, especially those in the underground terrain, have sociopolitical expectations. Conscious rap can be construed as an underground form due to its perceived commercial infeasibility, and can thus represent the valorized vision of the underground as overtly political. Based on the ideas that the underground is moral, political, and does not sell well, conscious rappers are the epitome of the underground form rather than a distinct group that can be separated from the broader underground moniker.

However, underground rappers do not always include explicitly political messages in their lyrics, uprooting this cozy conceptualization. They may imply certain agendas, but that does not mean that they are apolitical.61 Within Tricia Rose’s framework of “ideological insubordination,” the signifying trope that exemplifies the underground aesthetic produces an incessant demand for political action and social consciousness. Clothing styles, vernacular choices, sampling options, instruments, and vitally, lyrics, all display this penchant for politicism in the underground when mainstream hip hop may not overtly do so. Ultimately, the underground values politicism, militancy, and community uplift, but this is not only a distinction made against the mainstream, who are arguably, in Tricia Rose’s framework, also perpetuating ideological insubordination (in 1994).

While political action, in its various forms, is the foundation of hip hop in both the mainstream and underground, it is an argument more for the inherent politicism of humanity rather than only within the culture. Jeff Chang, writing about this shared sense of humanity, argues that it is hip hop’s most significant contribution worldwide: “rap’s pop dominance has eclipsed hip-hop’s true importance. In particular, it has hidden the way that hip-hop has become one of the most far-reaching and transformative arts movements of the past two decades.”62 What exactly has hip hop transformed? I argue that the quintessential characteristic of hip hop culture is its loyalty to humanity, and thus, worldwide, hip hop has come to symbolize struggle, that most human of endeavors, in all forms. Hip hop culture has been the soundtrack, and lexicon of the struggle inherent within the human condition. This is exactly the kind of altruism that the underground, in its idealized and fetishized form, propagates, defends, and personifies.

To understand the underground, we need to clarify the connection between hip hop writ large and a sense of humanity, and by extension, morality. However, morality is a socially defined concept and is subjective in its very nature. To appreciate the moral foundation of hip hop in totality, without the adulterating influence of commercialism, we should look to the creation and persistence of a social or collective memory within the hip hop community and its retrospective indignation of modernism in the underground community.

The Underground, Nostalgia, and Social Memory

As we have seen, the underground is a manifestation of and signification on an imagined past, specifically, the golden age of hip hop, which is connected to an inchoate humanism that privileges struggle as endemic to the human condition. William Jelani Cobb illustrates this emotional connection between the golden age and the underground by asserting “the fetishization of the ‘underground’ was like swearing allegiance to an imaginary homeland.”63 The golden age symbolizes an era of artistic freedom, unbridled economic uplift (granted, for record corporations more than practitioners), and a worldwide stage to voice political concerns. The underground, however, grew from the creative abyss that the music industry filled with formulaic and increasingly stereotypical imagery. To preserve this past, a sense of nostalgia has to have purchase among hip hop practitioners and fans, and more importantly, this social connection must have salience for newcomers as well as the OG’s that experienced that fetishized epoch.

Ron Eyerman writes that “the past is a collectively shaped, if not collectively experienced, temporal reference point, which is formative of a collective and which serves to orient those individuals within it,”64 emphasizing the need for every collective to have within its development a past that informs the present. Meanwhile, George Lipsitz focuses on popular culture in particular, imbuing it with a social significance in forming memories because it has “been one of the main vehicles for the expression of loss and the projection of hopes for reconnection to the past.”65 First, with an understanding that every community has a past within its social experience, we can contextualize this within hip hop. With its increasing omnipresence worldwide since the golden age, it is undoubtedly considered popular culture, giving Lipsitz’ argument weight in this matter as well. Hence, to look at the underground’s social memory, we must place it in juxtaposition to the collective memory of hip hop in aggregate, but in particular, to its emotional association with loss.

While the underground is explicitly tangential to its commercial counterpart, industry rap music yearns to establish a connection to the underground; relying on manufactured lapses of  perceptibly authentic vernacular, fashion, and personae that can be associated with it. Even in this battle for mainstream success, popular music adopts conventions of the underground to remain relevant in hip hop social circles, forever denying its distance from the aesthetics of the underground. Essentially, while hip hop prides itself on an ability to signify and adapt, a reconnection to its imagined past informs fantasies of the underground while reifying its significance.

The idea of the underground is a practice of restorative nostalgia which “does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition.”66 The yesteryears of hip hop are often referred to as the golden age of rap which offers an ideal representation of the culture, hence the adherence to the practices and scriptures that inform it. The golden age is constantly in flux and is internalized by each generation of hip hop heads differently, evincing the subjectivity of this phenomenon. The idealized sentimentality of the golden age is merely a fetishized abstraction of the values that hip hop valorizes, namely, less corporate influence, a proliferation of innovative cultural styles, and artists that serve as a rubric of authenticity. This is the aesthetic that the conception of the underground strives to conserve and signify upon in the modern era.

However, many hip hop heads, especially those younger practitioners and fans, have not lived the golden age. They hear mention of this creative utopia and adhere to the norms that supposedly characterized it. In this, we can see that the underground, as an expression of golden age morals and values, is an indoctrination of an invented tradition. Eric Hobsawm defines a golden age as “a set of practices,… which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.”67 The key here is repetition. If the older heads held a sharp disdain and critical relationship to modernism and the corporate structure that defined it, then the future of hip hop should emulate this moral outlook. However, it is also this same modernization that gave hip hop a platform to thrive. Thus, the true symbolic nature of this invented tradition is the negotiation of their relationship to corporatism and not necessarily the sonic or literary components of rap music during this time, although the “boom bap” sounds and lyrical styles of this era are still lauded and echoed in modern rap music. The underground, by virtue of its lack of market success, is a testament to independence from the oligopoly of the music industry. Furthermore, many prominent underground artists proffer a critique of the power structure both within the music industry and in the milieu of neoliberal loss of opportunity/social mobility through their lyricism and MC personae.

The golden age aesthetic, and by extension, the underground worldview, is a mythologized version of historicity. Peter Burke, writing about social myths, declares “unintended consequences are turned into conscious aims, as if the main purpose of these past heroes had been to bring about the present- our present.”68 This is an introspective look at social memory in general. As it pertains to hip hop, the underground seeks to embrace and adhere to the norms that their heroes/OG’s have created, even though this may have completely changed the trajectory of the culture in the first place. We can describe the golden age, and consequently, the underground, as a form of social myth. However, this mythology has had increasing influence on contemporary musical and cultural production. Is hip hop supposed to adapt solely based on the “original” foundation of a vastly different socioeconomic reality? What does hip hop music in 2018 have in common with the South Bronx in the early 1970’s? While there are surely similarities, the advancement of technology, the changing landscape of the finance economy, globalization, increasing income inequality and gentrification have produced a new discourse within the culture, and thus its teleological implications need to adopt new heuristics rather than clutching to an imagined and static nostalgic past.

Ultimately, this nostalgic embrace of the deified golden age is representative of the moral codes and sociopolitical positionality of the hip hop community in the past. With these foundational norms in place, the cornerstones of the culture’s epistemological, expressive, philosophical, and aesthetic priorities have been established in conversation with the power structure that sought (and still seeks) control over it. The underground accordingly symbolizes the perpetuity of these ideals and personifies the struggle with and against modernism. The collective memories and sensations consolidate to form this aesthetic capacity and humanizes the culture by disempowering corporate involvement. The production of the underground aesthetic philosophy is an eternally multifaceted negotiation and reconciliation of past, present, and future.

The Underground, Misunderstood

The objectives of the underground are political. However, many scholars have unduly romanticized this trajectory. Matthew Oware began with a political illustration of the underground like so many before him, but goes on to say that “Black male gangsterism did not permeate the underground,” which is typical of most compensatory arguments that defend the underground by ignoring its less desirable or palatable aspects.69

While the underground is home to many conscious and respectable (read: amenable to white/crossover appeal) artists, there is definitely no dearth of gangsterism in the underground milieu. While the underground actively resisted this imagery, it also signified upon it, subverting the cultural (and economic) capital that comes with it in the mainstream into a powerful tool for critiquing the critique. The underground-as-savior notion has been upended and commandeered to enable even more brutal and gruesome lyrical images in some cases through the horrorcore, juggalo, and hardcore subgenres, among others.

In a more nuanced understanding, Reiland Rabaka makes a distinction between underground and conscious/message rappers due to their political stances, contending that conscious/message rappers are more politically radical than the “drive-by social critique and commentary” of the normal underground artists.70 Whereas there are distinctions between subgenres in hip hop culture like those that Rabaka has mentioned, here, the underground has been defined by its divergence from industry rap music, so it will inevitably include the conscious/message rappers that Rabaka separates from his definition of the underground. Rabaka remains one of the few scholars to separate conscious rap from the underground.  We must consider conscious rap as representative of the underground due to its lack of market success. However, we should also understand that there are several different manifestations of the underground in practice that do not coincide with conscious rap music.

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Vinnie Paz, Post from September 6, 2017,

Thus, the underground is both harkening to an imagined past of the hip hop golden age but is also an anti-capitalist/commercial critique that inculcates a sense of agency and cultural politics into practitioners and fans alike regardless of the lyrical content. Essentially, while the underground is often lauded for the significant contributions of conscious rappers, Common and Talib Kweli are just as “underground” as Insane Clown Posse, Brotha Lynch Hung, and Necro. If scholars continue to maintain that the underground is merely an answer to commercialism alone, it would be an incomplete comprehension. Accordingly, any conceptualization of conscious rap and underground rap as synonymous must be meticulously scrutinized to facilitate more inclusive perspectives on underground hip hop culture and rap music outside of Nas, Black Thought, and Immortal Technique. At the root of this concern is the distinction between conscious rap, which falls into the category of underground music but is not analogous to it, and the understanding that they are not mutually exclusive either.

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Common, Image from

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Aesop Rock,

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R.A The Rugged Man,

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Tech N9ne,

Conversely, we must listen to the underground as the hip hop community negotiates its humanity. It is in the underground that we see a constant signification upon moral codes, decency, politicism, and democracy. The underground symbolizes the golden age, which was a symbol for anti-commercial rhetoric, agency, and humanity but also represents the freedom of expression to include extreme versions of polemical lyrical panoplies as well. The social memory of the hip hop nation was fabricated on the same power structure that exploited and then eviscerated every positive feature of the culture. Within this feeling of loss and deception, the bifurcation of hip hop into mainstream and underground was a natural progression built on the bricks of social memory and cemented with the mortar of a humanistic moral code. The edifice of the underground that stands before the world today is undoubtedly shaped by these same collective experiences but has been misunderstood, conceptualized poorly, or otherwise ignored for compensatory arguments that looked to the underground for salvation. In the bling era, many scholars, practitioners, and fans looked to defend hip hop, and the underground seemed to incorporate some semblance of the nostalgia of the golden age, which suited their narrative. In this post-bling era, we should look towards a much more nuanced description of the underground as it encapsulates most of the rap music that is being recorded and released by volume. Whether these artists glamorize violence, valorize hyper-sexuality, or lionize sociopolitical emancipation, the underground is a dynamic discursive space that houses them all.

Rap music, the genre, is an embodiment of hip hop culture writ large and any monolithic depiction of its myriad expressions reduces all discourse around it to essentialist tautologies that empower the epistemological terrorism of the underground/mainstream binary. Consequently, a turn towards ethnographic methods and a combination of interdisciplinary approaches can produce a more comprehensive understanding of underground hip hop culture and underground rap music either together or separately. Juba Kalamka, in a discussion with author, educator, and hip hop artist Tim’m West, venerates this spectrum by asserting “binary relationships like ‘mainstream versus underground’ are ultimately self-defeating because… they tend to dismiss the existence of lateral spaces of creative output and the conversations that happen within those spaces.”71 Thus, we as scholars and, in many cases, hip hop fans (and increasingly practitioners as well in the academic sphere), must strive to illuminate the multifaceted universe that underground hip hop culture exemplifies, proliferates, and signifies upon.

  1. An MC is an acronym for master of ceremonies and is like a rapper in many respects, although the crucial MC/rapper dichotomy can be described through their objectives. A rapper is committed to producing rap music, and is thus concerned with the commodity form. An MC, on the other hand is more attuned to the idiosyncrasies of hip hop culture more broadly – that is, many MC’s make music but they also engage in freestyling (improvised rapping/rap battles ( a competition of rap), and even beatboxing (making percussive sounds using only our mouth), among other cultural practices, which connotes a more comprehensive relationship to hip hop culture rather than just rap music as a commodity. This is explained more thoroughly in my broader work. Still, while this definition may be contested, this has been my experience in the New York underground.
  2. Heny Louis Gates Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 88. Meaning making endeavors is clearly a loaded statement, but the most salient example of signification in rap music is a punchline, which often uses cimiles, metaphors and double entendres to obscure the true meaning of a lyric to those not familiar with African American vernacular English or hip hop culture
  3. Sampling is the process of a DJ taking a fragment of sound from a previously recorded song, then refashioning it to produce a rap music instrumental. For a more comprehensive discussion on hip hop Dj’s and their sampling techniques, please refer to Schloss, Joseph Glenn (2014) Making Beats: The Art of Sampling-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.
  4. Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. (London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 100.
  5. Miles White African American Music in Global Perspective: From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap and the Performance of Masculinity. (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 33.
  6. To “blow up” is to reach fame or to succeed in the music industry, growing in popularity quickly. See Jooyoung Lee. Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
  7. Eds. Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai. Born to use Mics: Reading Nas’ Illmatic. (New Yorks: Basic Books, 2009).
  8. Sohail Daulatzai. “Introduction, Illmatic: It was Written.” in Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’ Illmatic. Eds. Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 1-13, 1.
  9. Ibid., 3.
  10. “Doing the knowledge” is the practice of knowing the foundations and origins of hip hop culture, an integral aspet of hip hop culture in its current form.
  11. Marcyliena Morgan. The Real Hiphop: Battling for Knowledge, Power, and Respect in the LA Underground. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 55.
  12. Jeff Chang. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005).
  13. Imani Perry, Prohepts of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 10.
  14. Marcia Alesan Dawkins, “Voices Underground: Hip Hop as Black Rhetoric,” Literary Griot: International Journal of Black Expressive Cultural Studies 10, no. 2 (1998), 62.
  15. At least in the public eye. Hip hop culture and rap music is visibly black. White record executives and producers largely remain behind the scenes and this influence should not be ignored.
  16. Simona J. Hill & Dave Ramsaran, Hip Hop and Inequality: Searching for the “Real” Slim Shady (Amherst: Cambria PRess, 2009), 122.
  17. Paul Gilroy, “After the Love Has Gone: Bio-Politics and Etho-Poetics in the Black Public Sphere,” Public Culture 7 (1994).
  18. Imani Perry asserts that “outlaw status is conferred only metaphorically…but on a deeper more symbolic level, it is achieved through a position of resistance to the confines of status quo existence.” Perry, Prophets of the Hood, 102.
  19. Moreover, hip hop heads are constantly defining themselves dialectically in juxtaposition to major forms and structures of power. With this in mind, the inevitable commercialization of rap music, being the most popular form of hip hop culture, would bring about a number of outlaws and outsiders through signification and the underground aesthetic. This commercialization and the impact it has had on rap music and hip hop culture more broadly is more comprehensively examined in an upcoming work.
  20. I will discuss this trend in a more comprehensive manner when my book is completed as it is a crucial aspect of my overall work.
  21. Hip hop culture’s variation of the handshake, often culminating in a hug.
  22. Tricia Rose. The Hip Hop wars: What we talk About When we Talk About Hip Hop–and why it Matters. (New York: Basic Civitas, 2008), 24.
  23. Evidenced by Ice-T, the Geto Boys, N.W.A and other hardcore rappers earlier on in the 1980s.
  24. This is further extrapolated in my broader work, but it will suffice to say here that in 1988, there were six major record labels that controlled production and distribution, down to four by 2004 and finally three in 2011.
  25. Rose, The Hip Hop Wars, xi.
  26. Ibid., 26.
  27. James Braxton Peterson. The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface. (New York,: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 139.
  28. Danny Hoch, “Toward a Hip-Hop Aesthetic,” in Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetic of Hip-Hop. Ed. Jeff Chang (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2006), 361.
  29. “Counteracting the Hip-HOp produced by big business with its negative stereotypes, promotion of violence, racism, degradation of women, and the worship of money, artist controlled productions are giving highly personal and intelligent messages.” Ivor Miller, “notes from the Underground: Hip-Hop’s Increasing Relevance.” Black Renaissance 6, no. 1 (Fall, 2004), 153-154.
  30. Kimbrew McLeod, “Authenticity within Hip Hop and Other Cultures Threatened with Assimilation,” in That’s the join! A Hip-Hop Studies Reader, ed. Murray Forman & Mark Anthony Neal (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2012), 170.
  31. Mickey Hess, “The Rap Career.” in That’s the Joint!, 642-643.
  32. Anthony Kwame Harrison. Hip hop Underground: The Integrity and Ethics of Racial Identification. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), 29.
  33. Christopher (Kip) Kline. “Represent. Hip-Hop and the Self-Aesthetic Relation.” Dissertation, Indiana University, 2007, 54.
  34. Kip Kline. “You Better Lose Yourself: Reformulated Praxis Theory, Spirituality, and Hip-Hop Aesthetics,” in See you At the Crossroads: Hip Hop Scholarship at the Intersections eds. Brad Profilio, Debangshu Roychoudhury, & Lauren M. Garner (Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2014), 75.
  35. Geoff Baker “Mala Bizta Sochal Klu: Underground, Alternative and Commercial in Havana Hip Hop,” Popular Music 31 (2012), 8.
  36. Or arguably the Cuban manifestation of communism since this example is based in Havana.
  37. Jon Ivan Gill. “The World Creates God: A Process Aesthetic Religion as Lived Out by Underground Culture.” Dissertation, The Claremount Graduate University, 2016), 15.
  38. Most notably discussed in the works of Teodor Adorno and Simon Frith, among others.
  39. Simon Frith, “What is Bad Music?” in Taking Popular Music Seriously: selected Essays. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 317.
  40. The justification behind calling one music bad or another good is multifaceted and varies on an individual basis. Frith, in the sociological imagination, attributes these distinctions to critiques of the power structure, commercialism, or social stratification when he says “music is judged bad in the context of or by reference critique of mass production.” This analysis is more relevant in any analysis of larger groups of people, because they may or may not share emotional similarities or ambitions across the entire population, but they are surely part of the broader social hierarchies that encapsulate modern life. This is why sociological notions of aesthetics are often construed as based on the economic structure of a society, typically in a Marxist lens. It is something everyone has in common. This is not to discredit this perspective entirely, but that it is a necessary point of view when applying it to large groups of people; whether by race, ethnicity, or otherwise, we are all exposed to this superstructure. This is especially significant for an argument of hip hop aesthetics because the culture was borne out of the deplorable socioeconomic conditions of the South Bronx in the 1970’s (see Tricia Rose, 1994). Furthermore, the underground is understood as a direct response to the culture’s increasing commercialization, making the movement implicitly socioeconomic at least ideologically.
  41. I have no data to back this up, but of the underground hip hop spaces and places that I have inhabited, a large proportion of the “audience” were practitioners as well to some degree, whether there were writing, performing, mixing, or producing, It makes sense that underground spaces are inhabited by underground fans, and fans that can see a highly visible apprenticeship at work through cyphers, battles and amateur performances, are more likely to enter the world of cultural production in some capacity, whether or not they make it public. Many hip hop fans have tried to write a rap song. It would be an interesting area of study to see if this propensity is unique to underground circles or not.
  42. Morgan, The Real Hiphop.
  43. Theodore Gracyk. Listening to Popular Music, or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Led Zeppelin. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 95.
  44. White, African American Music in Global Perspective, 55.
  45. Crystal Belle, “From Fay-Z to Dead Prez,” Journal of Black Studies vol 45 (4), (2014), 292.
  46. Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018).
  47. Morgan, The Real Hiphop, 16.
  48. While I subscribe to that notion, this may be the affective stance of underground hip hop in it totality. While socialism, communism and general Marxist thought are symptomatic of a university setting of which I am no stranger, actual hip hop practitioners, while couched in anti-corporate rhetoric that is derived from some of these perspectives, are not often explicitly critical of capitalism as theory, more so capitalism in its current form, in my experience.
  49. Carl Wilson. Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. (New York: Continuum, 2007), 15.
  50. Kristine Wright, “Rise Up Hp-Hop Nation,” in That’s the Joint!, eds. Forman and Neal, 524.
  51. For example, Wright examines white appropriation of the underground but primarily relies on online participation and the hegemony of whites in these online spaces. Go to a street cypher of KOTD rap battle and you will see a vastly different experience. This is an area of future study which interest me and should be undertaken in some form to complicate the very unidimensional and anti-appropriation rhetoric of Wright’s claims, among others that rally behind a white appropriation theoretical background. Spaces will largely dictate this appropriation, so while white appropriation is clearly a problem, it may not be such a salient force as to garner attention in the mainstream or outside of the predominantly white echo chambers of websites like or Facebook groups like Underground on Top. More on this in my broader work.
  52. David Hesmondhalgh, “Audiences and Everyday Aesthetics: Talking about good and bad music.” European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol 10 (4), (2007), 517.
  53. which runs parallel to Frith’s main thesis in Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).
  54. Aaron A. Fox, Real Country: Music and Language in Working-Class Culture. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 155.
  55. Not interested in monetary gain, but rather those that want “to identify the causes that contribute to inequality and oppression and to promote social change…reintroduce into the content of their rhymes a celebration of blackness, critiques of capitalism, and imperialism, articulation of antiwar positions, and critiques of the bling-bling culture of commercialized hip hop.” Hill & Ramsaran. Hip Hop and Inequality, 115.
  56. Hill & Ramsaran, Hip Hop and Inequality, 69.
  57. Marcia Alesan Dawkins, “Voices Underground: Hip Hop as Black Rhetoric.” Literary Griot: International Journal of Black Expressive Cultural Studies 10, no. 2 (1998), 64.
  58. Defined: “Rap that is socially aware and consciously connected to historic patterns of political protest and aligned with progressive forces of social critique.” Michael Eric Dyson, jay-Z, and NAs. Know What I Mean?: Reflections on Hip-Hop (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007), 64.
  59. This economic precarity is not a requirement, is it often forced onto unwilling artists. Many underground artists would likely aspire to financial independence and a means of making a living while also gaining respect.
  60. Murray Forman, “Conscious Hip-Hop, Change, and the Obama Era.” American Studies Journal 54 (2010). PG?
  61. Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 100-101: “Not all rap transcripts directly critique all forms of domination; nonetheless, a large and significant element in rap’s discursive territory is engaged in symbolic and ideological warfare with institutions and groups that symbolically, ideologically, and materially oppress African Americans… Rappers act out inversions of status hierarchies, tell alternative stories of contact with police and the education process, and draw portraits of contact with dominant groups in which the hidden transcript inverts/subverts the public, dominant transcript. Often rendering a nagging critique of various manifestations of power via jokes, stories, gestures, ad song, rap’s social commentary enacts ideological insubordination.”
  62. Jeff Change, “Hip-Hop Arts: Our Expanding Universe” in Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. ed. Jeff Chang (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2006), ix.
  63. William Jelani Cobb. To The Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic (New York: NYU Press, 2007), 72.
  64. Ron Eyerman. “The Past in the Present: Culture and the Transmission of Memory” Acta Sociologica vol 46, no 2 (2004), 160.
  65. George Lipsitz. Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990), 12.
  66. Svetlana Boym, “From ‘Nostalgia and Its Discontents,'” in The Collective Memory Reader. Ed. Jeffrey Olick, Vered Vinitzky-Seoussi, and Daniel Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 453.
  67. Eric Hobsbawm. “Introduction: Inventing Traditions,” in The Invention of Tradition. Eds. Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 1.
  68. Peter Burke, “History and Social Memory,” in The Collective Memory Reader. Eds. Jeffrey Olick, Vered-Vinitzky-Seoussi, and Daniel Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 191.
  69. Matthew Oware “(UnConscious (Popular) Underground: Restricted Cultural Production and Underground Rap Music,” Poetics vol 42 (2014), 65.
  70. Reiland Rabaka, Hip Hop’s Amnesia: From Blues and the Black Women Club’s Movement to Rap and the Hip Hop Movement. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012), 252.
  71. Juba Kalamka, “Discussion with Tim’m West: It’s All One.” in Total Chaos Ed. Jeff Change, 198-208.