The Real Hiphop: Battling for Knowledge, Power, and Respect in the LA Underground

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Project Blowed is a legendary hiphop workshop based in Los Angeles. It began in 1994 when a group of youths moved their already renowned open-mic nights from the Good Life, a Crenshaw district health food store, to the KAOS Network, an arts center in Leimert Park. The local freestyle of articulate, rapid-fire, extemporaneous delivery, the juxtaposition of meaningful words and sounds, and the way that MCs followed one another without missing a beat, quickly became known throughout the LA underground. Leimert Park has long been a center of African American culture and arts in Los Angeles, and Project Blowed inspired youth throughout the city to consider the neighborhood the epicenter of their own cultural movement. The Real Hiphop is an in-depth account of the language and culture of Project Blowed, based on the seven years Marcyliena Morgan spent observing the workshop and the KAOS Network. Morgan is a leading scholar of hiphop, and throughout the volume her ethnographic analysis of the LA underground opens up into a broader examination of the artistic and cultural value of hiphop.

Morgan intersperses her observations with excerpts from interviews and transcripts of freestyle lyrics. Providing a thorough linguistic interpretation of the music, she teases out the cultural antecedents and ideologies embedded in the language, emphases, and wordplay. She discusses the artistic skills and cultural knowledge MCs must acquire to rock the mic, the socialization of hiphop culture’s core and long-term members, and the persistent focus on skills, competition, and evaluation. She brings attention to adults who provided material and moral support to sustain underground hiphop, identifies the ways that women choose to participate in Project Blowed, and vividly renders the dynamics of the workshop’s famous lyrical battles.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Executive director of The HipHop Archive and one of the leading scholars of hip-hop culture, Morgan has written a thorough, inspiring ethnographic study that looks at West Coast hip-hop culture through the lens of the underground venue known as Project Blowed. . . . The book’s strengths are the numerous fascinating primary sources, especially the excerpts of rhymes recited during battles at Project Blowed and its introductory chapter, in which Morgan offers the best concise scholarly history to date of hip-hop. Essential.” - A.-P. Durand, Choice

“Youth across the globe have been marginalized, abused, neglected, and incarcerated, but Marcyliena Morgan gives hope to current and future generations by providing background on the start of hip-hop and revealing its multifaceted layers. . . . The Real Hiphop is a testament to the versatile creativity of underground artists who use words to make change.” - Nicolette Westfall, Feminist Review blog

The Real Hiphop is a book written with the eyes of an ethnographer, the ears of a true hip hop head, and the love of a scholar whose commitment to her subject runs broad and deep. By chronicling the history of an unfairly neglected underground music scene and by championing the potentially transformative influence of a popular music genre more broadly upon the academy, it offers a significant contribution to popular music studies.” - Adam Bradley, Journal of Popular Music Studies

“Given the book’s layered treatment of underground hiphop and its practitioners, The Real Hiphop is a strong ethnographic and analytical treatment that is well positioned to be of use to students and scholars across a number of disciplines.” - Raymond Codrington, American Ethnologist

“Morgan’s musings on power, language, and mistrust feel no less pertinent now than they must have a dozen years ago in Leimart Park.” - Nate Chinen, Pennsylvania Gazette

“Marcyliena Morgan’s high-level analysis and incisive explication of how underground hiphop works centers on two brilliant, ethnographic chapters on Project Blowed, one focusing on a Thursday-night MC battle (chapter three) and one on young women’s negotioations of race and feminism in the social world of underground hiphop and in relation to the sexualization of women in commercial hiphop (chapter four).” - Michael Nevin Willard, Southern California Quarterly

The Real Hiphop is a powerful argument for hiphop’s continuing salience and centrality to any serious discussion about the state of contemporary Black life. Marcyliena Morgan unearths the socio-cultural particularities of hiphop as a dynamic musical genre and a complex way of life, and she links her analysis to the ethnographic particulars of Los Angeles, which crackles to life from the opening vignette.”—John L. Jackson Jr., author of Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America

“In The Real Hiphop, Marcyliena Morgan has written a brilliant account of the origins of hiphop and the process through which it is created and evolves, from its most elemental and raw forms into the highly processed and polished versions that have become the lingua franca of popular American culture over the past few decades. Using her considerable skills as an linguistic anthropologist, Morgan—the founder of the world’s only hiphop archive—raises the analysis of hiphop to an entirely new level of scholarship, explicating it as a linguistic, sociological, and political phenomenon. This book is full of astonishing insights and subtle analysis. It is a must read for any student or scholar seeking to understand what is arguably the most important popular cultural phenomenon in the past thirty years.”—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822343851
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Marcyliena Morgan, Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, is the founder and executive director of the Hiphop Archive and the author of Language, Discourse, and Power in African American Culture.

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Read an Excerpt


Battling for Knowledge, Power, and Respect in the LA Underground
By Marcyliena Morgan

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4362-2

Chapter One

The Hippest Corner in LA

What's the code? Yo! I'd like to send a special shout-out to Ben Caldwell Much respect. Thank you for everything you've done. Richard-5th Street Dick, World Stage-Billy Higgins. Much respect due to the Watts Prophets The Last Poets and all the other poets out there Much love What's up, A. K. Tony? ACEYALONE, "Project Blowed"

Reality Check I

IN THE LATE 1990s, Ben Caldwell's deep mellifluous voice on the answering machine of kaos Network greeted the caller with the following message: "This is Video 3333, kaos Network, Digital Underground, and Project Blowed at 3333 Leimert Park, the hippest corner in LA!" The thousands of young people who eventually made their way to the underground hiphop workshop at Project Blowed on Thursday nights also delivered a message. Theirs was one of the most profound commentaries of the last quarter of the twenty-first century. First and foremost, those involved in building underground hiphop were completely aware that their commitment went far beyond artistic performance. An entire generation of young blacks and Latinas and Latinos had fought the Horatio Alger fight and won by redefining the terms of inclusion. They believed that their participation, presence, and enthusiasm were proof that they would be one of most powerful voices at the end of the century. They had reclaimed art and popular and political culture by bombing cities and urban landscapes with their unique images and sounds. They were determined to challenge how youth and people of color in general are represented and treated. They claimed it their duty to expose and confront the poverty, injustice, prejudice, and other ills that affect their communities and the world. Moreover, they considered it their responsibility to hold those in power responsible for what they considered the negative state in which they lived.

Reality Check II

On January 4, 1996, around 11 pm, I was in my kitchen putting away the dishes left from the dinner party I had just hosted at my home in Leimert Park. I was feeling rather satisfied about the success of the gathering. We had achieved the dream of living in a predominantly black community that had socioeconomic diversity. My dinner party included students, bankers, actors, professors, musicians, artists-good people, good music, and good food. In fact, it was "all good" until I looked out the window and saw against the night sky a moving beam of light directed at my block, searching my adopted community. Soon I heard the sound of ghetto birds (helicopters) circling around my home and neighborhood. Then the phone rang and a friend, who had been one of the last people to leave my party, yelled, "The riot squad is getting in formation at the end of your block! There are about a hundred of them in helmets, with batons and guns drawn! What's going on?!!" In unison we both cried, "They're at Ben's!" As we spoke, the police were rushing into Project Blowed. Wearing riot gear, with guns drawn and barking orders, they swarmed over the room and the main stage area. The fire department pulled up in front. The police ordered those in attendance to lie down on the floor and spread their legs. Project Blowed was under siege.

Los Angeles is wonderful. Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high.... Out here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities, your possibilities. W. E. B. DU BOIS, The Crisis

The existence of contrasting and competing views of Los Angeles is not a new phenomenon. To many, LA's diverse population and shifting boundaries and borderlands suggests a transient metropolis unable to sustain a viable identity. However, this misunderstanding results from focusing on the wrong side of town and ignoring LA's diverse population. The historian Mike Davis argues that Los Angeles has always had its share of detractors and admirers, and that "the city of angels" is not as much planned as it is envisioned. As he summarizes: "It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the paramount axis of cultural conflict in Los Angeles has always been about the construction/interpretation of the city myth, which enters the material landscape as a design for speculation and domination" (1992, 21).

Davis's critique is ironic if we consider that Los Angeles, the city of angels, began as a settlement of diverse people. In 1781 the Spanish government ordered eleven families (a total of forty-four people, with equal numbers of adults and children) to leave Alamos, Mexico, and establish a settlement. This group included native Mexicans (eight), blacks (fifteen), and people of mixed blood (twenty-one). Though Los Angeles began as a diverse settlement, this diversity did not ensure a city unbiased regarding race and ethnicity. In fact, Los Angeles has not only treated many of its citizens of color unfairly, it has criminalized many of their normal activities. Thus it is not surprising that for many followers of hiphop worldwide, Los Angeles means many things. It is both home and a facade community, much like a Hollywood film lot where buildings and faces look familiar and authentic until one gets a closer look. The city myth relies on cultural, economic, social, political, and artistic reference points that are real, imagined, and Hollywood (Hollyweird) created. Intense scrutiny reveals that much of Los Angeles is literally a front-life as we imagine it without substance and depth. It is thus not surprising that there are two perspectives of LA's black community, one of which is the spectral gaze in relation to the rest of the city.

When people drive down Crenshaw toward their destination or home on the other side of town, with their car doors locked and windows closed, they see the poverty, the variety of religious institutions, and the endless liquor and specialty stores. Rolling through Crenshaw means that a person is home. Home is a familiar place that conjures memories of people, places, events, and daily life. On Crenshaw, home includes stores selling synthetic and human hair and hair supplies, music, fried chicken, pork, Jamaican food, African cloth, and Afrocentric books. One seeks Black Muslims and their bean pies, and "real" Louisiana hot links, shrimp, and gumbo, and "real" Mississippi ribs and fried catfish. Those residing in multi-ethnic LA worship in mosques, hotels, outdoors, strip malls, churches, and mega-churches that tie up traffic on Sundays and during prayer meetings. The community residents of Crenshaw in the late 1990s knew about the bowling alley and restaurant frequented by older Japanese Americans who were interned in camps during World War II. African Americans along with Chicanos and Mexicans from Ciudad Mexico and Vera Cruz, who look black and act black but speak Mexican Spanish and Chicano English, also met there. The mix of people and cultures is not overwhelming to those who see themselves as part of the landscape. Everything is familiar-not because they are in the same place, but in LA they realize they are at times (but not always) people dealing with the same things.

The current ethnic population of LA began to take shape in the 1960s with increases in the Asian American and Latin American populations after the amendment of the National Origins Act in 1965. In 1990 Los Angeles County had a population of 8,863,164 people spread out among numerous cities, incorporated and unincorporated, connected by a complex system of freeways and encompassing a heterogeneous mixture of ethnic groups, social and economic classes, and community identities. By 2000 the population had increased to 13,214,158. According to the City of Los Angeles Consolidated Plan (2003-2008), the communities of the City of Los Angeles that had populations of African Americans exceeding 25 percent included Adams-La Brea (47.7 percent), Crenshaw (72.5 percent), Exposition Park (28.5 percent), and Green Meadows (42.3 percent). Leimert Park reported that 55 percent of its residents were African Americans and South Vermont reported that 50 percent of its residents were African Americans.

In 1990 African Americans accounted for over one million, or 11.2 percent, of the population of LA County. Although the overall county population increased in 2000, the African American population had decreased to 9.8 percent to around 931,000 people. Within a decade, not only had LA's black population shifted, but also large swaths of the city had become associated with black and Latino gangs, poverty, crime, and overall social deterioration. The media reveled in depicting the diverse areas of the region as a monolithic pool of bad news and bad people. It was during this period that South Central was born.

Although "South Central" is a regional reference, to those living outside of its boundaries it remains synonymous with the African American population. This is true even though in 2003 the city of Los Angeles, in an attempt to contest the depiction of South Central in hiphop lyrics, videos, and movies, changed the area's official name to South Los Angeles. It is also true in spite of the fact that South Central is now mainly Latino and includes other ethnic populations, such as Asians and Pacific Islanders. Further, within its boundaries are Koreatown and Chinatown as well as parts of West Hollywood. However, because Central Avenue represented the heart of the African American cultural, artistic, and residential community in the early 1900s, South Central remains a signifier of race. The name at times includes the city of Compton as well as several other towns or neighborhoods such as Inglewood, Watts, the Crenshaw district, Lennox, Hawthorne, Lawndale, and Ladera Heights to name a few. In fact, after the public reaction to the Rodney King verdict, the curfew imposed by LA County on April 30, 1992, defined South Central as virtually any area where people of color live and regularly travel: "The area bounded by the Long Beach Freeway (710) on the East, the Santa Ana (5) and Santa Monica Freeways (10) on the North, the San Diego Freeway (405/5) to Crenshaw Boulevard and then Crenshaw Boulevard South to Lomita Boulevard on the West, and Lomita Boulevard on the South" (Gold and Braxton 2003).

Though most of the participants in this study live within the "riot" boundaries of South Central, they refer to their area as Leimert or Crenshaw. Since the 1950s, the demographic history of the Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills area has been an important part of the history of black LA. The area is a part of the eighth council district, which includes such large and distinct communities as Culver City and Inglewood. In the years before the Second World War African Americans began moving into parts of the area, and it developed through the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the combined number of merchants and professional residents of the area make Baldwin Hills, Ladera, and View Park/Windsor Hills (hereafter Baldwin Hills) the most affluent black community both in Los Angeles and in the United States overall. The area boasts of stunning views of the Pacific Ocean and downtown, and it is near the beach, Los Angeles International Airport, and Leimert Park. In response to the area's high concentration of wealth, this block of communities is also called "Pill Hill," the "Golden Ghetto," or the "Black Beverly Hills" by the black residents of LA.

With its six-figure median family income and a very low poverty rate, Baldwin Hills stands in stark contrast to most of the historically black areas of South Los Angeles. Residents who reside below the affluent hills or in what some black communities refer to as "the bottom" in places such as Hyde Park, with barred windows, chain-link fences and rows of bungalows. They also reside in the stucco two-story apartments of Baldwin Village, locally known as "the Jungle." These buildings are crammed together and are relentlessly indistinguishable, and as such they suggest that "the absentee developers ran out of imagination-and paint" (Easton 1992, 1). In the 1990s, the median family income in the neighborhoods surrounding Baldwin Hills ranged between $16,000 and $17,000 and had an unemployment rate of 30-40 percent. After the Rodney King verdict in 1992, the commercial district of the Crenshaw area saw some of the worst of the violence and looting of that event. It was many more years before the streets recovered from the burned-out remains of gas stations, markets, swap meets, and fast-food stands-some of them former landmarks of the community.

Chaos Theory Gone Wild Betrayed in LA

The urban community of Los Angeles does not resemble the urban northeastern communities where hiphop began. However, in spite of the differences in architecture and climate and vegetation, the problems and issues are the same. Moreover, the city is characterized by a long history of both discriminating against the black community and promising changes that never occur. Though the African American population of Los Angeles is in decline today, it experienced tremendous growth decades earlier. Between 1940 and 1965 the black population of Los Angeles County increased eightfold, from 75,000 to 600,000 (U.S. Census 1979). During this period there were numerous complaints that social planning agencies were not addressing the needs of the black community in adjusting to urban living and the problems of segregation, and aggressive policing practices and hiring discrimination persisted. In the early 1960s the desperation and frustration with the situation began to surface in sporadic outbreaks of rage. For example, Mike Davis (2001) reports that black teenagers and young adults rioted in Compton, near Watts, in 1961 and on Memorial Day of that year. Another group of youngsters battled police in Griffith Park, taking over the merry-go-round with the cry that they were "freedom fighters" and "this is not Alabama" (Davis 2001, 3). At the time of the Watts disturbance in 1965, unemployment in the area was more than double the national average. While the Watts "riots" may have been a shock to those outside of the African American areas, it was not surprising to those within LA's black and brown enclaves. The Watts rebellion was a collective articulation of the sense of futility experienced by those who had been consistently denied any other form of expression or control over their social destiny. The six "days of rage" that exploded on August 14, 1965, left over 30 dead, 1,000 wounded, and an estimated $200 million in damages (Horne 1995, 3).

In 1973 Tom Bradley was elected the first black mayor of Los Angeles on a wave of optimism as well as the campaign funds of a handful of powerful downtown businessmen who felt it was time for a change in leadership. There were many in South Central who campaigned vigorously for Bradley's election with the expectation that he would continue the commitment to the development of the African American community. But Bradley's own commissioned report, "McCone Revisited," noted that "critical problems" in employment and social services had not improved since Watts, while other "critical problems" of education and housing had become worse (1994, 14).


Excerpted from THE REAL HIPHOP by Marcyliena Morgan Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press. 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


INTRODUCTION I Am Hiphop....................1
ONE The Hippest Corner in LA....................21
TWO Welcome to the Underground Building Hiphop Culture and Language....................47
THREE Thursday Night at Project Blowed....................85
FOUR (Ph)eminists of the New School Real Women, Tough Politics, and Female Science....................131
FIVE Politics, Discourse, and Drama "Respect Due"....................161
SIX It's Hiphop Nation Time Enter the KAOS....................185
APPENDIX Transcription Conventions....................195
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