This post is part of our forum on “Hip Hop at 50.”
This is an interview with Mickell Carter, PhD Student in Africana Studies at Brown University, and Mark Anthony Neal, the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of African American Studies and Chair of the Department of African & African American Studies at Duke University. He is the founding host of the Webby-nominated video podcast Left of Black, now in its 14th season. His most recent book is Black Ephemera: The Crisis and Challenge of the Musical Archive (NYU Press, 2022).
Mickell Carter (MC): When were you first introduced to Hip Hop? What was your first reaction?
Mark Anthony Neal (MAN): I grew up in the Throggs Neck projects in the Bronx, a short bus ride from where so much was happening in the Bronx River Houses with Afrika Bambaataa and Zulu Nation. As early as the spring of 1978 – I was 12 – I have memories of various Hip-Hop crews doing live sets in the park just outside my apartment window. Some of my younger and peers and I began to collect break beats – Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache”, T-Connection’s “Groove to Get Down”, Herman Kelly’s “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” – and make “pause button” mixtapes, looping break beats and rapping over them. I had a short career – real short — as MC Tony T. When I heard “Rapper’s Delight” on WBLS in the Fall of 1979 after hearing Chic’s “Good Times” bumping throughout the summer of 1979, I knew my generation (I’ve always considered myself as one of the last of the baby-boomers) had our own soundtrack.
MC: How has Hip Hop influenced your life and scholarship?
MAN: In the early days I was less invested in Hip-Hop as a culture or style. I went to high school in Brooklyn (Brooklyn Tech) with a bunch of Five-Percenters and many of my peers were already wearing Adidas hard-shells, Cazels, Sheepskin coats, and Kangols. That wasn’t really my thing, but I have so many memories of the music tied to my teenage years and early adulthood. For example, I first heard RUN-DMC’s “Sucker MCs” while riding home in a limo the morning after prom night or I have memories of doing “The Wop” at college house parties circa 1986/87 to Eric B and Rakim’s “My Melody” or LL Cool J’s “I’m Bad”. It changed for when I heard Public Enemy’s “Rebel without a Pause” in the summer of 1987, as the music connected to my then Cultural Nationalist politics. When Chuck talked about raising “5000 Black leaders”, I took that as a challenge and a charge. I went into graduate school hoping to write a dissertation on Hip-Hop, but a conversation with Tricia Rose at an MLA in the early 1990s, two years before her classic Black Noise was published, pushed me to think about Hip-Hop as part of a larger tradition of Black Expressive Culture. Hip-Hop as archival practice and form – Rose talks about “flow and layering” in Black Noise – continues to influence my intellectual practice.
MC: How have you seen Hip Hop evolve in the last 50 years?
MAN: When I first engaged Hip-Hop it was a legitimate sub-culture of Black youth in the United States. Hip-Hop made Black youth both visible and heard in ways that were somewhat unprecedented. 50 years later Hip-Hop is so many things that were unimaginable. We don’t talk enough about how Hip-Hop has become a lingua franca for youth across the globe, not so ironically, while the most visible (and well compensated) artists in the US have become mouthpieces for neoliberalism. Hip-Hop has been legitimately held accountable for its sexism, misogyny, and homophobia, but it was those who most loved Hip-Hop that were often at the forefront of those critiques. And I specifically shout-out Dr. Joan Morgan, here as our friendship is five years older than Hip-Hop. That we can speak of almost two-generations of Hip-Hop Feminists, for example, speaks to one of the ways Hip-Hop had evolved over the years. One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is that two generations ago, if you called yourself “Hip-Hop”, you embodied it. For many of the young folks that I encounter these days, including my adult daughters, Hip-Hop is just “pop” music.
MC: What role does Hip Hop play in the long Black freedom struggle? What is Hip Hop’s liberatory potential?
MAN: Hip-hop in the New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the way that Black and Latinx youth responded to erasure, dislocation, disinvestment, and criminalization. Indeed, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five’s “The Message” is an early dissertation on that reality. Hip-Hop seemed to capture a specific political moment in the late 1980s; a generation of Black college grads exposed to Black studies programs, Jesse Jackson’s presidential runs, especially in 1988, the reemergence of the Nation of Islam with the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. Public Enemy was dropping names like Assata Shakur (“Recorded and ordered, supporter of Chesimard”) KRS-One was sampling the voice of Kwame Touré, Queen Latifah featured collages of Black women leaders in her music videos, random brothers on the corner were citing the language of Five-Percenters, and the films, music videos and commercials of Spike Lee presented a refined and curated visual narrative of the era. By the time of the Rodney King beating and the rise of NWA and Ice Cube, I believe many of us thought Hip-Hop was the music of liberation – Ice Cube’s “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted” stills sounds like a call to arms – much like Be-Bop was in the 1940s and Soul music was in the late 1970s. I’m not sure it was ever sustainable. Indeed, as it offered an opportunity for White kids to be radicalized, it became more of a threat to the social order. The response to Body Count’s thrash metal recording “Cop Killa” (a group fronted by Ice T) is but one example of law enforcement and others criminalizing the lyrics of artists. There’s no small irony that two generations of Americans mostly know the artist formerly known as Ice T as Detective Fin Tutuola on Law and Order: SUV. That said Hip-Hop’s rank-and-file still must own and transcend the transphobia, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny that has dogged virtually every major Black political movement and undermines its progressive possibilities.
MC: Who are your favorite MCs (and why)?
MAN: I will forever have an East Coast bias, but my favorites are the MCs that made “the word” so important to me. Rakim simply blew my mind as a lyricist. In the early days of my academic career, it wasn’t unusual for me to begin talks by dropping, “I’m the intelligent, wise on the mic, I will rise right in front of your eyes ‘cause I am a surprise. So I’ma let my knowledge be born to a perfection, all praises due to Allah, and that’s a blessing.” Those lyrics are still as natural to me as uttering the names of my daughters. I still love Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, MC Lyte, De La Soul – to have been in New York City when all these artists were at or close to their creative and commercial peaks, was simply amazing. But if I’m being honest, my earlier critique of neoliberalism notwithstanding, the artist who lives most in my head is Jay Z. When I’m grinding, it’s “Roc Boys”, “My First Song” or “American Gangster” playing in the background.
MC: Where do you see Hip Hop going in the next 50 years?
MAN: I’ve never been one to predict so far out; no one could have predicted what Hip-Hop has become, and the impact that it has had globally. I could have never predicted that for a decade, I would be able to co-teach a large lecture course with Grammy-winner 9th Wonder at an institution like Duke. I have tried to get off the train numerous times since the 1990s, but the genre and culture continues to surprise me. The one thing I have faith in is that Black youth will continue to find ways to make their presence known – and respected – in the world, if Hip-Hop is any evidence.permission.