Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop / Edition 1

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At once the most lucrative, popular, and culturally oppositional musical force in the United States, hip hop demands the kind of interpretation Imani Perry provides here: criticism engaged with this vibrant musical form on its own terms. A scholar and a fan, Perry considers the art, politics, and culture of hip hop through an analysis of song lyrics, the words of the prophets of the hood. Recognizing prevailing characterizations of hip hop as a transnational musical form, Perry advances a powerful argument that hip hop is first and foremost black American music. At the same time, she contends that many studies have shortchanged the aesthetic value of rap by attributing its form and content primarily to socioeconomic factors. Her innovative analysis revels in the artistry of hip hop, revealing it as an art of innovation, not deprivation.

Perry offers detailed readings of the lyrics of many hip hop artists, including Ice Cube, Public Enemy, De La Soul, krs-One, OutKast, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Tupac Shakur, Lil’ Kim, Biggie Smalls, Nas, Method Man, and Lauryn Hill. She focuses on the cultural foundations of the music and on the form and narrative features of the songs—the call and response, the reliance on the break, the use of metaphor, and the recurring figures of the trickster and the outlaw. Perry also provides complex considerations of hip hop’s association with crime, violence, and misogyny. She shows that while its message may be disconcerting, rap often expresses brilliant insights about existence in a society mired in difficult racial and gender politics. Hip hop, she suggests, airs a much wider, more troubling range of black experience than was projected during the civil rights era. It provides a unique public space where the sacred and the profane impulses within African American culture unite.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Prophets of the Hood is the most comprehensive and intellectually original study to date of hip hop as a complex and innovative literary narrative form. Written with a refreshing blend of savvy critical rigor and brave and imaginative narrative verve, Imani Perry’s study is an impressive analysis of late-twentieth-century American popular culture.”—Daphne A. Brooks, Princeton University

“Imani Perry has written the most subtle and nuanced treatment of hip hop that I know. Her complex view of hip hop as black democratic space subject to prophetic utterance and mainstream cooptation is powerful. Her call for the local engagement and global vision of the underground to revitalize hip hop is compelling. Her seminal work should silence all naive or ignorant trashers of this vital cultural form!”—Cornel West, Princeton University

“Imani Perry’s Prophets of the Hood is an extraordinary and brilliant book. Eschewing a rigid division between the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ in hip hop, she takes the discussion of rap to new depths and greater heights with a probing analysis of the poetic and political dimensions of the art form. With lucid explanations, crisp writing, and sharp analysis, Perry has managed to actually say some very important things in a strikingly fresh manner. With the storytelling skills of Nas, the passion of Tupac, the lyrical dexterity of Lauryn Hill, the verbal mastery of Talib Kweli, and the conceptual acuity of krs-One, Perry has produced a stunning, magnificent work of art.”—Michael Eric Dyson, author of Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822334460
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 248
  • Sales rank: 628,509
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Imani Perry is a Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University.

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Prophets of the hood

Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop
By Imani Perry

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3446-1

Chapter One

Hip Hop's Mama

Originalism and Identity in the Music

Good music often has a beauty identifiable across the boundaries of nation and culture. And yet a musical composition, and musical forms in general, have identities rooted in community. The community might be as small as an artistic collective or as vast as a continent. While the individual artist and the individual composition provide compelling subjects for analysis, the validity of that analysis in part depends on knowledge of the community from which it emerges. To know that community means that the critic possesses both a historic and an aesthetic body of information relevant for understanding the music's original context. Of course, isolating the relevant community that is the source of knowledge forms part of the critic's work, and such discernment fundamentally shapes the critical process. Here I would like to posit an argument as to what community rap/hip hop music belongs to in the United States. The arguments that follow in later chapters will rely on this foundational argument.

Hip hop music is black American music. Even with its hybridity: the consistent contributions from nonblack artists, and the borrowings from cultural forms of other communities, it is nevertheless black American music. It is constituted as such because of four centralcharacteristics: (1) its primary language is African American Vernacular English (AAVE); (2) it has a political location in society distinctly ascribed to black people, music, and cultural forms; (3) it is derived from black American oral culture; and (4) it is derived from black American musical traditions. I argue that to describe rap or hip hop music as black American is not inconsistent with an understanding of its hybridity, a characteristic that will be elaborated upon later in the text. While I will rely on Afro-Atlantic theory to put forth this argument, I will also suggest that the manner in which the Afro-Atlantic model has been used to consider hip hop in its transnational rather than multiregional focus with respect to an analysis of American hip hop is flawed, although the model does offer great benefits when analyzing hip hop as a global phenomenon.

The assertion that hip hop is a form of black American music is in some ways radical (and unpopular) given current trends in hip hop scholarship that emphasize the multiracial origins of the music, in particular the significant contributions of Caribbean, white, and Latino communities and artists. Many critics have resisted the description of hip hop as black American music because they quite appropriately contest any suggestion that it is "100 percent black" given the active participation of other groups in the world of hip hop since the nascent days of the music. Critiques of the description of hip hop as black music also often stand as critiques of racial essentialisms, or critiques of the way in which culture is marketed through race at the same time that it is fundamentally hybrid. I caution, however, that taking issue with essentialisms should not occur at the risk of failing to understand politics or cultural frameworks, and hip hop does exist within black American political and cultural frameworks. The accuracy of the assertion that hip hop has multiracial and multicultural origins does not suggest that it is not black. Only a worldview that subjugates blackness marks the phrase "it's just black" as an offensive designation. Why can't something be black (read, black American) and be influenced by a number of cultures and styles at the same time? The idea that it cannot emerges from the absurd reality that blackness in the United States is constructed as a kind of pure existence, a purity, to most, of the negative kind, defined by a pure lack of sophistication and complexity and a pure membership in a group of undesirables. To deem something French or English rarely implies that there were no Germanic cultural influences, or Irish, or even Algerian. Why, then, is it so troubling to define something as black? Color consciousness that allows for an understanding of both the political implications of the category of race and the cultural forms that have emerged under that category is useful and progressive, and certainly not essentialist.

I would argue that while critics have good intentions when they pay attention to the numerous nonblack American influences in the music, and nonblack audiences for the music, there is an inconsistency between that side of the argument and their concurrent alignment of rap to the sociology of black America and the politics of black existence. The paradigm effectively applied to a music drawing on hybrid influence yet also having a black political and social existence is one that understands hip hop as existing within society as black music, but also one that assumes that black music is and has always been hybrid, drawing on influences from other cultures and places. In fact, music is never compositionally pure, even as it exists within a culture and is identifiable with a community.

Part of the resistance to the description of hip hop music as black music results from an emphasis on "originalism," that is to say, a fixation on who made the first records or created the first dances and what ethnic groups they came from. This focus on originalism, while important for historical acknowledgment, seems to fail with respect to identifying an art form as a cultural project. Certainly, although hip hop was born in the multiethnic, colored melting pot of New York and has become a national form with dominant voices emerging from the three other major geographical regions of the United States (the south, the midwest, and the far west), it is far more identifiable in the American imagination and in American practice as particularly black American in terms of what group rappers are constituted from and which communities push forward the music's artistic growth. Ethnomusicologist John Szwed, with respect to originalism, asks,

Does rap have a beginning? Where does the credit or (some might say) the blame lie? The quick answer is to say that it's an African-American form, for which, on a diasporic flow chart, you could plot an unbroken line from African to the Caribbean and on to the United States. Or maybe bypassing the Caribbean altogether, but in any case ending with the youth of the black working class. Yet things in the United States have never been that simple. Or that pure. The origins of everything American twist and shout their way through history, giving and taking as they go, inventing and reinventing themselves, praising their authentic beginnings about as often as they deny them.

Szwed locates the music as African American, and yet he also understands that this categorization cannot refute hip hop's creolite. Paul Gilroy, who in his outstanding critical work resists the identification of hip hop as black American music, nevertheless acknowledges the danger of relying on originalist sensibilities for discussions of hip hop. He writes,

No straight or unbroken line of descent through either gendered line can establish plausible genealogical relations between current forms and moods and their fixed, identifiable and authentic origins. It is rather that the forbidding density of the processes of conquest, accommodation, mediation, and interpenetration that helps to define colonial cultures also demands that we re-conceptualize the whole problematic of origins.... Our difficult object: black performance culture and its social and political forms is a profane practice. It has been propagated by unpredictable means in non-linear patterns. Promiscuity is the key principle of its continuance.

Gilroy and I part ways, and therefore reach divergent theoretical conclusions, because he takes as his unit of examination for black performance culture the Afro-Atlantic, rather than any national community. Nevertheless, I agree with his argument concerning the nonlinear and promiscuous course of cultural production within the African American context in particular. And certainly it is the case that at critical moments in the development of hip hop the participation of nonblack Americans was paramount. Yet I argue that the promiscuous composition does not destroy cultural identity. The manner in which the music became integrated into the fabric of American culture was as a black American cultural product, through an overwhelmingly black American audience (no longer the case), and using black American aesthetics as signature features of the music. As Szwed has also written, "Having noted rap's broad affinities, its American-ness, its creole emergence, and its lack of exclusive rights to be offensive, no one would be fooled into missing the fact that it finally is also very much an African American form."

Although I am asserting that hip hop is black American music, I do not want that to be mistaken as a nationalist glorification or simplification. It is the very fact of postmigration fragmentation and reintegration that explains much of the music's beauty, as well as its various regional and international variations and interactions. It is black, and yet it is certainly "impure." What is southern hip hop without the tension between the urban and the rural South? What is New York hip hop without the Caribbean and African American blend, the memory in text of experiences of adolescents who returned to ancestral homes for summer vacations or to get away from the negative influences in the city? What is West Coast hip hop without the shadow of Hollywood and the history of the Black Panthers, funk, and blaxploitation? These questions are impossible to answer because the cultures in question are constituted by a postmigration mosaic at once plagued by the feeling of loss, by constant efforts to recover, and by the celebration of the current hybrid self. Russell Simmons once noted that hip hop was about doing the unexpected. That unexpectedness constitutes the par excellence feature of hybridity: unexpected encounters lead to unexpected productions.

The most powerful critiques of the construction of hip hop as black American music have come from people who understand how critical the influences of the English-speaking Caribbean have been, in particular in the early days of hip hop formation and in the creation of DJ technique. Jamaican deejaying techniques directly influenced DJ styles in hip hop, yet, while the technology proves significant, I agree with Szwed that the musical sound is what makes hip hop compelling and that the technology was simply used to reproduce sounds already deemed aesthetically pleasing to a black American audience. It was a point of cultural consistency. Szwed writes, "Much has also been made of the technologically sophisticated context in which rap emerged-the use of sound processing, sampling, mixing, drum machines, and the panoply of studio apparatus typically used with today's raps-as a means of showing that rap is radically new and only secondarily beholden to folklore and tradition. But sophisticated as these productions may be, the artful logic that lies beneath them has been part of African-American aesthetics for at least a century." He references sounds from earlier blackmusic that resembled those of scratching, delay, and even those of sampling: "Even drum machines were anticipated by scat singing (and in case anyone forgot, human beat box imitations of drum machines also remind us that drums were once used to imitate voices for sending messages)."

Hybridity in rap takes place on a cultural plane, and the terms on which it exists depend on that plane. The moments at which nonblack American cultural influences take root in hip hop often occur at crossroads of sorts, at which the aesthetics of two cultures are in concert with one another. For example, we can observe this phenomenon in the discursive space using tricksterism, an Afro-Atlantic folk cultural practice with rich roots in West Africa. The storytelling of a Barbadian mc, which emerges from his linguistic and cultural tradition, might resonate with a black American audience with has similar storytelling traditions, as well as with other Afro-Atlantic listeners.

It is, however, important to recognize the substantive contributions of non-African American cultures on hip hop music. I would argue that there are at least three principal areas of English-speaking Caribbean influence on hip hop that are consistent with Gilroy's conception of transcultural and transnational cycles of cultural flow.

I will critique the employment of this concept by some critics later in this chapter. Each area of influence is primarily Jamaican, although a number of hip hop artists clearly have other Caribbean ancestries. These influences are:

1. The use of DJ techniques and recording technology as it would be fully embraced in hip hop. Much as the R & B melodic form influenced reggae, hip hop was influenced by a form of Jamaican deejaying that would eventually develop into a black American version in the United States. 2. The imagery of the black outlaw. While heroic images of the black outlaw exist in African American tradition, the specific practice of using mainstream, and particularly white, heroic figures in the process of self-defining the self-proclaimed outlaw originated in the practices of Jamaican folk culture. This likely resulted from the appropriations of second-run cinematic images to postcolonial identity. The outlaw language in hip hop is often traditional black American language, but the use of identities such as Dirty Harry or figures from the Godfather movies likely derives from Jamaican employment of such imagery. 3. The presence of reggae music in hip hop compositions, which I would argue found a formative entree into black American musical culture through Stevie Wonder's appropriation of reggae beginning in the late 1970s and the global popularity of Bob Marley during the same era.

Similarly to the Caribbean influence, the Latino influence on hip hop resulted from crossroads moments. As Nancy Guevara has argued, "The appropriation and dissemination of rap by Puerto Rican DJs like Charlie Chase were facilitated by the similarity in verbal dexterity and rhythmic use of voice prized in these black traditions to those common to such Latin musical styles as the Puerto Rican decima and plena."

However, that crossroads space became defined through politics and the cultural identity of the form by its blackness, not its crossroad nature. Mandalit del Barco has noted that "as rap began in the 1980s to develop a more political focus on black nationalism with the advent of Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, Brand Nubian, XCLAN, and other groups, the visibility of Latinos in hip hop faded."

The African aesthetic origins of hip hop, as with all black American music, allows for it to have a shared resonance among a wide range of diasporic and continental Africans. As Jon Yasin has written, "the spoken word of African-American music has its origins in Africa and survived the middle passage to the Western hemisphere."

And at the same time, the history of black power movement talk, and its impact on the development of hip hop, located it as a musical form at best revolutionary and at least rebellious for young listeners across the globe. According to Yasin, "During the black power movement the original rappers of the 1970s were adolescents. As teenagers, these rappers had been exposed to revolutionary poetry and the spoken word of the traditional African-American secular and sacred music."

Of course, U.S. global domination, and the power of the American culture industry, also play a significant role as a means by which the music of black Americans has become music of the world at large-embedded with both the possibilities of the history of black American resistance and struggle and the vacuousness, conspicuous consumption, and negative "-isms" of American culture.


Excerpted from Prophets of the hood by Imani Perry Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Hip hop's mama : originalism and identity in the music 9
2 My mic sound nice : art, community, and consciousness 38
3 Stinging like Tabasco : structure and format in hip hop compositions 58
4 The glorious outlaw : hip hop narratives, American law, and the court of public opinion 102
5 B-boys, players, and preachers : reading masculinity 117
6 The Venus hip hop and the pink ghetto : negotiating spaces for women 155
7 Bling bling ... and going pop : consumerism and co-optation in hip hop 191
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