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Scholars capture essence of hip-hop

That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, Edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, Routledge, 628 pp., $35

Beats born in the belly of the Bronx have long been part of the heartbeat of America. From hip-hop's birth in the late 1970s to its current commercialization in the new millennium, the music has proven its first critics wrong: Hip-hop is no fad, but a full-on cultural phenomenon.

Hip-hop -- whose four elements include rapping (also called MCing), breaking, graffiti art, and turntablism (also called DJing) -- has had a more than 20-year shelf life that seems to be approaching the half-life of uranium. In the spirit of the late great comedian Robin Harris, hip-hop won't die; it multiplies.

Editors Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, hip-hop scholars and professors at Northeastern University and the University of Texas at Austin, respectively, have done a service of biblical proportions to hip-hop heads living everywhere from the New York City boroughs to the halls of the ivory towers.

"That's the Joint!" is an eclectic collection of more than 40 previously published articles and essays that capture the emergence and growth of hip-hop culture. Colorfully titled essays such as "Never Trust a Big Butt and a Smile" by Tricia Rose, and "Check Yo Self Before You Wreck Yourself" by Todd Boyd deconstruct hip-hop using a kaleidoscopic lens of research techniques drawn from sociology, musicology, linguistics, political science, feminist theory, and economics. Every article, written in the distinct style of its author, paints the multifaceted face of a multicultural reality.

Essay standouts include Craig Castleman's "The Politics of Graffiti," which delves into the New York City effort to wipe the transit system clean of graffiti, once referred to by the 1972 New York city council president Sanford Garelick as "one of the worst forms of pollution we have to combat." Castleman illustrates how the graffiti deemed as eyesores by government officials were actually colorfully created out of a burn for artistic expression and respect by the often-silenced youth of color. Kyra D. Gaunt's "Translating Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop: The Musical Vernacular of Black Girls' Play" finds an overlooked link between the ghetto art form of double-dutch and the hyper-masculine and uber-sexual hip-hop culture.

Gaunt demonstrates that the chants and rhymes that accompany the fury of the twisting double-dutch ropes are a way that little brown girls can dance themselves into an often exclusive culture, writing "the games that African-American girls play suggest that both women and girls should recognize signs of their own private play in hip-hop music in addition to hearing it as an expression of black male life."

"Organizing the Hip-Hop Generation" by Angela Ards uncovers the possibilities of using hip-hop as a tool for black youth political mobilization while recognizing the ironies of using such a commodified art form as a vehicle for social change. Ards writes "whereas blues embraced pain to transcend it, hip-hop builds walls to shield against further injury. So getting to a place where music might once again speak of individual frailty and collective strength is a difficult task."

Some of the articles are heady and hard to wade through. Imagine the gray-haired Harvard hip-hop studies professor pillaging her thesaurus for just the right hard-to-pronounce word. Yet others, such as Tricia Rose and Nelson George, slide between the cracked concrete sidewalks of south-side Philadelphia and the marbled hallways of the Ivy League speaking the "slanguage" of both worlds with the ease of the consummate academic chameleon.

In the introduction, the editors set forth a disclaimer for their anthology, saying it is not meant to be the "final word on hip-hop scholarship; rather, it is an accumulation of essays and articles" in hopes that we would forgive them for forgetting any well-known academic magnum opus. The collection only includes one article on the globalization of hip-hop, called "Hip-Hop am Main, Rappin' on the Tyne," which shows how German youth have localized American hip-hop music to address their own cultural needs. With well-grown niches in South Africa, Italy, and even Japan, hip-hop as a globalizing force should be recognized. In addition, including more articles touching on hip-hop outside the American context would have made the anthology more complete (albeit a bit longer.)

The import of studying hip-hop music and culture is indicated by the number of college courses dedicated to the subject. Most Ivy League institutions have offered a hip-hop course recently or have at least paid some lip service to the culture in courses under the ever-growing umbrella of African-American studies. Erudite hip-hop heads will certainly uphold this as one of the widest samplings of hip-hop scholarship to date.

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