While most books on rap are written from the perspective of listeners and the market, Blowin’ Up looks specifically at the creative side of rappers. As Lee shows, learning how to rap involves a great deal of discipline, and it takes practice to acquire the necessary skills to put on a good show. Along with Lee—who is himself a pop-locker—we watch as the rappers at Project Blowed learn the basics, from how to hold a microphone to how to control their breath amid all those words. And we meet rappers like E. Crimsin, Nocando, VerBS, and Flawliss as they freestyle and battle with each other. For the men at Project Blowed, hip hop offers a creative alternative to the gang lifestyle, substituting verbal competition for physical violence, and provides an outlet for setting goals and working toward them.
Engagingly descriptive and chock-full of entertaining personalities and real-life vignettes, Blowin’ Up not only delivers a behind-the-scenes view of the underground world of hip hop, but also makes a strong case for supporting the creative aspirations of young, urban, black men, who are often growing up in the shadow of gang violence and dead-end jobs.
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Rap Dreams in South Central
By Jooyoung Lee
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Growing Up in Gangland
It was a little after eight and the sun had set over Leimert Park. I was in the parking lot behind KAOS Network. On the weekends, the place was buzzing. It hosted a daytime farmers' market and music festivals. But at night it was dark, save a few patches of concrete lit by the yellow glow of street lamps.
"Choppa" said he'd be here, but I didn't see him. So I kept driving and parked near the recording studio in the back of KAOS Network. The studio wasn't anything fancy, but it got the job done. Rappers had access to a computer, recording software, a mixing board, spongy soundproofed walls, and a microphone. And Choppa basically lived here, recording or helping others do the same.
He emerged from the studio just as I parked my car. Choppa seemed less edgy than usual. The Choppa I knew was usually bursting with frenetic energy. His eyes would dart erratically as rhymes rattled out of his mouth. But tonight he seemed relaxed.
He yelled through the darkness, "Wassup, pimpin'? You still wanna do that interview?"
"Yeah, is that cool? I brought my recorder."
He nodded and motioned for me to begin. I thought we might go somewhere else, but his eyes grew wide. So I jumped right in, "Where did you grow up?" He pointed just beyond a row of Black-owned businesses on Degnan Boulevard. "I grew up right here, homie. In Leimert Park. That's why I'm Leimert's finest. Next question!"
I then asked about his experiences growing up around gangs. He had told me about them in the past. Once, while we were driving to a local liquor store, I murmured, "This area is nice." He looked at me sideways, "This is the 'hood. Don't get that shit twisted, homie. Shit goes down here. Don't be fooled by the palm trees." On other occasions, he told me about fights, drive-by shootings, and police raids. His childhood and youth were a far cry from my own experiences in the sleepy hippie town of Eureka, California.
Choppa got quiet while reflecting on his childhood. He took a drag from his cigarette, exhaled, and flicked the butt into the distance:
You know, I was a kid in LA at a time when gangbanging was very popular. It used to be like, "What set [neighborhood clique] you from?" Like it was already established that you was from a set. That's what I think people don't understand. Kids were more drawn to it than not. It wasn't like they were being forced.
For the next hour, Choppa told me stories about the Harlem Rollin' 30s, the Neighborhood Rollin' 40s, the Black P. Stones, and other Crip and Blood sets. He told me about the general anxiety he felt growing up around warring gangs. Everyday routines that I had taken for granted — like walking to school or the store — were wrought with tension in his neighborhood. He also told me about friends who had joined gangs; getting "jumped in" (initiated into a gang through violence) was a rite of passage. Some of these youth had been wounded in shootings and others had been incarcerated. A few had been killed.
But Choppa's life was different. He was never in a gang. He was drawn to hip hop. His older cousin, "M-16," was establishing a reputation in South Central as one of the emerging stars from the Good Life. Choppa took notice:
And when I saw my big cousin, you know, dressing hip hop, he'd be all LL Cool J'd out and shit, it was just the coolest thing I ever saw. And I knew that that was what I wanted to do.
M-16 had a big influence on Choppa. He was already one of the most recognized rappers at the Good Life, and Choppa wanted to be just like him. He wanted to rock Adidas suits and bolo chains. He wanted girls to notice him. But mostly he wanted to be known for his skills. Like M-16, he wanted to "chop," a rapid-fire rap style created at the Good Life and later developed at Project Blowed. He hoped to create his own signature style of chopping and get respect in the local scene.
Choppa explained it in simple terms: "What hip hop did for me was provide me an outlet where I could be the coolest motherfucker and didn't have nothing to do with that bullshit, being in a gang." Hip hop was a world where Choppa could make a name for himself, a "creative alternative" to gangs.
* * *
Elijah Anderson takes us deep into the lives of young Black men who grow up in working-class communities. He shows how some feel alienated from schools, the labor market, and other institutions through which people often gain status and respect. Looking elsewhere, these youth become attuned to the "code of the street," an informal set of rules governing public interactions and violence. Under this code, young men win and lose respect depending on how well they can fight, how willing they are to "ride" (mobilize in violence) when someone disrespects them, and how much courage they show when confrontations turn violent. By joining gangs, young men inherit the infamous reputation of their set — and by extension can make identity claims about their own toughness.
But not everyone is drawn to the street. There are other identities to which young Black men gravitate outside of gangs. Some are drawn to academic pursuits and what Anderson calls "decent" values and worldviews. They try hard in school, steer clear of gangs, and imagine themselves working to succeed in mainstream society. They believe in the possibility of the American dream and work hard to achieve their goals at schools and in the labor market.
Others are drawn to skills they imagine as springboards to upward mobility. In working-class neighborhoods, some young men are drawn to what historian Robin Kelley calls "play labor." Feeling shut out of the American dream, they invest in leisure skills that might lead to upward mobility and fame. In addition to basketball, football, and other popular sports, young Black men are also drawn to hip hop culture. Like the baller whose on-court talents are recognized in the neighborhood, talented rappers enjoy elevated status among their neighborhood peers. These youth are locally respected for their skills and shielded by gangs from the street life.
This chapter shows how hip hop provides young Black men with a creative alternative to gangs. While many people have written about why young people are drawn to gangs, we know considerably less about the experiences that repel and divert them from gangs. And because of popular culture, we assume that hip hop is a gateway to gangs, violence, and the street life. We assume that young people mimic the lifestyles and actions they hear in gangsta rap. I look at the opposite trajectory: how hip hop shields youth from gangs.
There are three broad ways that hip hop shields youth from the gang life. Some young men are drawn to the alternative kinds of masculinity modeled in hip hop. There they find mentors and friends who endorse political and creative identities that are different from the "thug" identities of gang members. Becoming a rapper, known for your creativity, is another way to become known and respected in the 'hood.
Second, some young men receive a "pass," or exemption from joining the gang. As they do for youth with athletic and academic talents, gang members recognize the creative interests of rappers, producers, and others in hip hop, and they encourage them to steer clear of gangs. The gang nurtures their talents and encourages these young people to pursue their talents and get out of the 'hood.
Third, there are young men who join gangs but later experience the dead ends of that path: incarceration and violence make them question their commitments to gangbanging. These experiences are reflexive moments in the life course of these men. They have had a taste of the bleak consequences awaiting them in the gang life and they jump ship. For these men, hip hop represented a world of new possibilities outside their former gang lives, a space in which they could turn their lived experiences into an art form and gain respect for it.
All these examples show how hip hop represents a creative alternative to gangs. But the stories here also reveal the existential toll of gangs and violence on young men. The men I met were still exposed to the tragedies of the gang life simply by virtue of growing up in South Central and other neighborhoods with long histories of gang violence. Incarceration, injury, and murder became omens of their precarious futures and sources of existential urgency as they tried to move out of the world they grew up in.
Public Enemy and Political Masculinity
E.M.S. was never in a gang. When I met him, he was the manager at an Italian restaurant and taking courses at a local junior college. He had grown up playing football and could talk for hours about the San Francisco 49ers and "golden age" hip hop (the early to mid-1990s, when artists like Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Nas, and A Tribe Called Quest were, arguably, at their creative primes). When we met, E.M.S. made up one half of the Middlemen, a duo he created with his friend and fellow Project Blowed emcee N.A., which stands for "No Alias."
Like many of the rappers I met at Project Blowed, E.M.S. was initially drawn to "conscious" hip hop. Conscious hip hop often contains a political message. Even when not overtly, artists in this genre rhyme about racism, police brutality, and other structural inequalities of urban Black communities. Public Enemy was E.M.S.'s first taste of conscious hip hop. The New York group was known as one of the first explicitly political hip hop groups, having put out songs like "Fight the Power," an anthem about institutionalized racism that was featured in Spike Lee's movie Do the Right Thing. They were also known for satirical commentaries on police neglect in Black communities with songs like "9-1-1 Is a Joke." In the 1980s and 1990s, they helped turn hip hop music into an arena for political critique and awareness around the constraints of persistent racial inequality.
E.M.S. and his friends memorized Public Enemy's lyrics and recited their songs, sometimes even performing as if they were Public Enemy. It was part of a political awakening for E.M.S., who became inspired to think critically about race and racism. More than anything, Public Enemy gave him a different perspective on what it meant to be a young Black man in America:
Ya know, Public Enemy was out. And at that time, I was hanging with people who were into being Black! And that was cool, because a lot of us are not into being Black. But these cats was down! These were my boys! That's how I kinda got into hip hop. It wasn't just a part of my life. It was something bigger. After that, I could say, "This is why I listen to hip hop music!" Public Enemy created music that let us know that it's OK to be proud of who we are!
E.M.S. and his friends really looked up to Chuck D, Public Enemy's articulate front man. Chuck D made it cool to be smart, critical, and politically engaged. This identity was very different from the "thug" identity celebrated in gangs. According to E.M.S.: "Chuck D was just deep. Like real deep. Like he would say something that got you thinking. He just flipped the whole script on what it meant to be a man. Like cats were into being smart instead of thuggin'."
E.M.S. was inspired by music and by his friends to think about race, racism, and social inequalities in the United States. At the same time, E.M.S. was growing up around gang violence. Hip hop provided a soundtrack to help him make sense of gangs, but the violence still weighed heavily on him. One night when we were at his apartment, he started reminiscing about his youth. He got really quiet. His eyes went glassy, and he spoke in whispers. At first, he didn't want to tell me what was on his mind. I waited. After some quiet reflection, E.M.S. opened up about a friend's murder and how it changed his outlook on life:
There was a time in high school where ... there were crews that were killing each other. I lost a lot of friends. So I left, I moved to Texas, 'cause I thought I was next. I was playing basketball with this guy on Friday and he was dead on Monday. Like, what?!
The violent death of a close friend in E.M.S.'s formative years became a moment for reflection. In the aftermath, he became more keenly aware of his mortality. He realized how his own life intersected with people who were getting shot and killed. These were not random news stories of strangers murdered in his community or city. These were close friends with whom he had grown up.
Murder is a disruptive event in a person's life course. After losing someone to violence, people can suffer from acute post-traumatic stress, depression, and other mental health challenges. But murder can have longer-lasting consequences, particularly for young people, who glimpse their own mortality and learn that their future isn't guaranteed. This is an unsettling vision. But instead of inspiring despair, exposure to violence can also inspire investments in meaningful pursuits and exit strategies. Exposure to violence becomes a source of existential urgency.
Creative Masculinity in Hip Hop
Like E.M.S., N.A. was never in a gang. Within moments of meeting him, it becomes hard to imagine him being upset — much less involved with gangs. About six feet tall and 250 pounds, N.A. was soft spoken and always seemed to be smiling. A longtime producer and rapper, he loved old jazz and soul. He didn't have a car but would ride public buses to go "digging" for used records. On a typical Saturday, N.A. would hit up record shops, Salvation Army stores, and swap meets. Sometimes, he would spend an entire day sifting through dusty stacks just to find one rare gem to sample.
When most kids his age were getting into pop music or mainstream rap, N.A. was listening to jazz with his mom. He had a deep appreciation for artists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Stan Getz. Interestingly, this love smoothed his transition into underground hip hop. Many East Coast artists like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were rhyming over jazz- and soul-sampled beats. Underground hip hop was a natural outgrowth of his musical tastes.
N.A. first discovered underground hip hop on KDAY, a hip hop and R&B radio station in LA. He liked conscious hip hop groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A., but he gravitated toward the lyricism and rich storytelling of other underground hip hop groups. He loved old-school New York rappers like Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick. Although they rhymed about social problems in urban Black communities, their politics were less overt. And instead of using a militant political angle, these artists used humor to tell stories about poverty, violence, and everyday life in the 'hood. "They were just regular dudes talking about life," N.A. told me once at his apartment. This appealed to N.A., who appreciated but did not immediately identify with the militancy of groups like Public Enemy.
While station hopping late one night, N.A. stumbled upon Friday Night Flavors, a weekly show on Power 106. The show blew his mind. He stayed up all night long, in what he says was like a religious experience: "Actually, that experience changed the course of my life! Because if it wasn't for that, then who knows what I would have been inspired to do. That was it! I had found it! I was like, 'This is what I love!'"
The more he listened, the more he became enamored. N.A. loved the lyrics, extensive vocabulary, and humor in underground hip hop. He could relate to it and was hooked:
With the underground, what I've noticed back then is that a lot of these emcees were rhyming like they were on some level that you didn't quite hear on your typical Kris Kross song. ... [T]heir vocabulary was extensive!
N.A.'s growing love for hip hop inspired him to start writing. A middle school teacher noticed his budding interest and encouraged him to share his creative work with the class. N.A. was nervous but accepted the opportunity. Years later, he smiled widely, recalling the anxiety-ridden time when he rapped in front of his classmates:
My teacher, she encouraged me to spit the rhyme in front of the class, and I did, only two people liked it — the teacher and like this other guy, he wasn't really into hip hop like that, but he was like, "Yeah, it was cool!" And like the rest of the class was like, "Man, this guy sucks." I called myself 2 Tuff. The first song I ever wrote was "2 Tuff for You."
Excerpted from Blowin' Up by Jooyoung Lee. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface: Down Crenshaw Boulevard
Introduction: Rap Dreams and Existential Urgency
Part I. Becoming Rappers
Chapter 1. Growing Up in Gangland
Chapter 2. Masters of Ceremony
Chapter 3. Freestyle
Chapter 4. Battle
Part II. Trying to Blow Up
Chapter 5. Cautionary Tales
Chapter 6. Almost Famous
Chapter 7. Ditching the Day Job
Chapter 8. Gang Violence and Dreams Derailed
Conclusion: Nurturing the Creative Lives of Young Black Men
Methods Appendix: Videos in Ethnography