UNDERSTANDING RAP MUSIC FROM
THE LISTENERS PERSPECTIVE
Christopher M. Ortivez
B.A., University of Northern Colorado, 1990
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Social Science
This thesis for the Master of Social Science
Christopher M. Ortivez
has been approved
Ortivez, Christopher M. (M.S.S.)
Understanding Rap Music from the Listeners Perspective
Thesis directed by Professor Jana Everett
This thesis developed out of my interest in rap music and the many political,
social, and cultural elements that are contained within this style of music. The
qualitative interpretive research study was designed to utilize the qualitative interview
process by interviewing seven individuals about their interest in rap music and how
they understand it from their perspective. I analyzed the interviews by identifying the
participants general thoughts about rap music. In addition, I identified common
themes that emerged in the interviews that all the participants shared after listening to
different styles of rap music. The common themes that emerged in the interviews
were investigated by using musicology theory based on the work of Steven Feld and
Charles Keil whose research on understanding music has added a wealth of
understanding to the field of musicology. The postmodern theories of Jean
Baudrillard and Jean-Francios Lyotard were helpful in identifying how rap music
listeners understand the many contradictions within the context of rap music and the
rap music listeners world.
The study supports the premise that the rap music listener uniquely
understands rap music from his/her own context and music listening history. This
study indicates that the social/historical context of a rap music listener has great
influence on the ability of a rap music listener to identify and understand the various
musical, social, and political elements contained within the musical genre.
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidates thesis. I recommend
To the seven rap music devotees who graciously participated in this project, I
send my heartfelt thanks and appreciation. This study would not have been possible
without your participation. Listening to your descriptions of the music and how you
understood it personally will help add to the understanding of the music. The
profiles developed in Chapter 3 were developed to provide for an accurate
representation of your understanding of rap music while providing for your
anonymity. My sincere apology for any failure on my part in this regard.
The exploration into the understanding of rap music that led to this thesis
began when I initiated my graduate degree in the fall of 1992. During the past five
years many people have offered support and encouragement throughout the way. In
this regard, I send special thanks to my parents, Raymond and Irene Ortivez and
To Jana Everett, my committee chair, I give my utmost gratitude and
appreciation for the patience, support, and academic advise you offered me
throughout my graduate years and during this thesis process.
To Myra Bookman, thanks and gratitude for serving on my committee and
for your patience, help, and academic advise in this thesis process. In addition, thank
you for bringing an understanding of postmodern theory to my awareness.
To Jeff King, my most sincere thank you for your willingness to serve on my
committee and in giving me your academic advise during this thesis process. In
addition, thank you for being able to be flexible and accommodate my schedule.
Why a Study on the Perspective of the Rap Music Listener?.......4
Arrangement of Thesis........................................ 12
2. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE AND
Review of the Literature.......................................13
Aesthetic Qualities and Appreciation of Rap Music...........14
Rap Music in Relation to the Larger Political Economy.......15
Rap Music and a Feminist perspective........................17
Rap Musics Authenticity and Nihilism.......................17
Books on Rap Music..........................................18
Perspectives of the Music Listener..........................20
3. INTERVIEWS AND VIEWS
ON DIFFERENT STYLES OF RAP MUSIC...................................32
Profiles and Interviews of Participants........................32
Views on Different Styles of Rap...............................44
Understanding and Meaning of Social/Political Rap Music.....45
Understanding and Meaning of Gangsta Rap....................51
Understanding and Meaning of Rap Music from Women...........59
4. THEMES AND FINDINGS.............................................66
Nostalgia and Identification with a Rap Song.................67
Difference and Difficulty with
Categorization of Rap Music Styles...........................69
The Rap Artists Point of View...............................71
The Beat and Flow of the Rap Song............................73
Violence and the Derogatory Treatment of
Women in Rap Music...........................................75
Recommendations for Future Research........................ 87
In this introduction, I would like to discuss how I became involved in rap
music and how my interest in rap music developed into this research project on the
subject. I will also discuss the central theme of trying to better understand rap music
from the listeners perspective and the motive behind formulating research on rap
music from the listeners perspective. This thesis focuses on listener perspectives of
rap music. This view is considered to be a substantial contributor to the
understanding of rap. However, very little attention has been given to the listener
when analyzing rap music.
This subject grew out of my interest in music (overall) and my interest in the
social/political nature of things. I like many other individuals have always had a
strong interest in and desire for music. Although I have never played an instrument, I
have always enjoyed listening to music whether alone or with a group of people since
I was a very young age. Through the years, I have gone through different phases in
my musical tastes which culminated in my very eclectic taste of musical styles. It is
from this context that my present desire and enthusiasm for rap music has developed.
I presently cannot seem to get enough of this unique musical style. This is not to say,
however, that I exclusively listen to rap music, because I do not. Rather, it is to say
that rap music has increasingly dominated my listening habits in recent years.
Looking back, I have had certain situations that have helped me to develop a
better understanding and desire for rap music. From a very young age, I can
remember growing up in a household with two older sisters who in the late 1970s
restricted our familys music listening opportunities and choices to their teenage
suburban musical tastes for disco, soul, and the initial offerings within the rap music
world. I can remember many Saturday mornings watching my sisters religiously
view the Soul Train and American Bandstand musical television programs to
catch the latest popular disco or soul hit record and then practice the dance moves
they had just witnessed on TV. Within this context, I was exposed to many styles of
music, and it was in 1979 with the release of the Sugarhill Gangs Rappers Delight
that rap music first entered my consciousness. I was in the sixth grade (around the
age of eleven or twelve). However, with the onset of my teenage years and with the
influence of peer pressure from neighborhood friends, I drifted away from rap music.
It was not until I was almost done with my undergraduate degree that I noticed
myself re-developing an interest in rap music again. And, specifically, it was not
until I was in graduate school that I avidly started to listen to and analyze the music.
Interest in analyzing rap music came from my interest in identifying and trying to
understand the social/political aspects of life. For me, rap music has become a way to
integrate and develop two increasing interests in my life. Rap music allows me to
listen to an exciting and ever developing form of music while at the same time giving
me the opportunity to analyze the many inherent social/political messages contained
within the music. This interest in analyzing rap music will help add to the awareness
of what rap music is now and can be in the future.
It is in this search for greater understanding and meaning within rap music that
has led to this research project. Rap music as a topic of research has already provided
a substantial amount of inherent social/political cultural material that lends itself to
social, political, and cultural analysis by the media and academics. This analysis has
helped to better understand this unique style of music. Studies have been done on the
interpretation of rap lyrics, the economics of the business, the political and social
issues that inform and contain it among others. However, what appears to be lacking
within these studies is an analysis of how rap music is interpreted and understood by
the rap music listener. Research of rap music that focuses on the rap music listener
perspective would help to bring an understanding of how the music listener is affected
by the music. Why does the listener like and listen to rap music? How does the
listener interpret the many political and social messages that are contained within the
genre? Is the listener able to relate rap music and its content to the larger society and
to their own context? Answers to these questions would require attention focused on
the rap music listeners unique perspective and understanding of the music. Research
in this area would also help to develop a more complete picture of rap music and its
importance within popular culture and society.
Why a Study on the Perspective of the Rap Music Listener?
The research on what the rap music listener understands is, for the most part,
non-existent. Studies typically focus on identifying behavioral aspects associated
with being exposed to various styles of rap music (see, Fried, 1996; Zillman, et al,
1995; and Johnson, et al, 1995). My comments are not meant to suggest that these
studies are not valuable. These studies add to the knowledge and understanding of
rap music that make it a unique musical form. However, there would be a better
sense of the understanding and effects of rap music if rap music listeners and devotees
were given a platform in which to describe what they get from the music, why they
like the music, and how they understand the messages with the music. According to
Tim Brennan (1995:61), the writing on rap music (particularly from within the
academic field) is not capturing what the music listener is hearing in rap music. As
Brennan (1995:61) states: What we need more of are testimonies of ordinary, non-
rapping, high school and college age kids who capture rap meaning better than
anyone and do so in words that older stylists cannot imagine or invent. We need
books simply filled with their words describing what rap means to them.
In addition, research focused on the perspective of the music listener can help
identify how the rap listener identifies and understands common themes in rap music
such as violence and the derogatory treatment of women. The understanding a rap
music listener may develop for the various themes in rap needs to be brought to light.
According to Hansen (1995:51), exploring the different understandings among
individuals pertaining to rap music can help identify what themes are relevant to rap
music listeners, and what themes the existing behavioral studies on rap music should
be concerned with. Therefore, understanding rap music from the perspective of the
listener will add to and inform the studies on the behavioral effects of listening to rap
music. They should not be taken as a threat or substitution for the more quantitative
studies trying to identify behavioral relationships. More studies on all aspects of rap
music need to be undertaken to develop better understanding of this unique musical
style. This study is a qualitative study. It does not explore the information presented
in this study empirically, but rather, it takes participant narratives. This study pulled
together various types of individuals and gathered their unique views, as listeners, in
an effort to identify the function of rap music.
This research project was developed as a qualitative and interpretive study that
seeks to describe the rap music listeners direct interpretation of rap music and its
content and what the music means to them personally. And, in so doing, it is hoped
that this study will add to the understanding and meaning of what the listener obtains
from this style of music in addition to showing the diversity of meaning that rap
The sample for this qualitative project is composed of seven individuals
contacted from responses to flyer advertisements of the study posted in various public
and private business locations, referrals from friends and family, and acquaintances,
some of whom I know personally. The sample consists of two African American
men, two White men, two White women, and one African American woman. The
participants range in age from sixteen to thirty-three years. All participants were
single and two of the individuals had children. Five participants had incomes ranging
between twenty and twenty-seven thousand dollars a year. One participant had an
income over sixty thousand dollars a year, and one participant was a full-time high
school student who was dependent on a parent. All participants described themselves
as a fan of rap music. All the participants demonstrated a genuine willingness to
express their views on what they thought about rap music, and they appeared to be
interested that I was interested in what they had to say about rap music and the issues
that surround it. Five of the participants lived in the city of Denver, one in the Denver
suburb of Englewood, and one in the city of Boulder. Each participant will be
described individually in greater detail in Chapter Three.
To gain awareness into the perspective of the rap music listener on what
he/she understands and what meaning is created about the music, I conducted
qualitative interviews with the study participants. Each participant was interviewed
once, and each interview lasted between one to one and one half hours.
After initial phone contact with the participant to introduce myself and
describe the research project, I arranged to meet the participant in whatever setting
they preferred. In six cases, this was the participants home. In one case, we met in
my apartment. I started each interview with a description of the research project and
outlined how the interview would proceed. To start the interview process, I asked
each participant to describe how he/she became interested in rap music and describe
his/her initial exposure to the musical form. In addition, to initiate the discussion
over rap music, I had a total of 112 different rap music tracks from 23 compact discs
by 19 different artists grouped in three separate unidentified style categories for the
participants to listen to. The unidentified style categories were labeled section one,
section two, and section three. Within the three sections, the rap artist, the CD title,
and the title of songs chosen from the particular CDs were listed within the section.
Each participant was informed that this sample of rap music was taken from my
personal collection and was in no way inclusive of all the styles of rap music within
the industry, and that they would be used as a starting point for the discussion.
The first section of grouped rap music tracks contained music from Public
Enemy (PE), Paris, Boogie Down Productions (BDP), De La Soul, and Arrested
Development. These particular music tracks have a predominant social/political
theme contained within the music, for example: Are you afraid of the mix of Black
and White/Were living in a land where/The law say the mixing of race/Makes the
blood impure -- Fear of a Black Planet (Public Enemy, 1990). The second group of
rap music tracks contained music from Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube, Ice T,
Coolio, Warren G, and Nas. These particular music tracks have a predominant
gangsta mentality theme contained within the music, for example: Hustler, word, I
pull the trigger long/Grit my teeth/Spray till every brothers gone/Got my block sewn,
armored dope spots/Last thing I sweats, a sucka punk cop New Jack Hustler (Ice-
T, 1991). The third group of rap music tracks had music only from women rap artist
and contained music from Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, Sister Souljah, Yo-Yo, MC
Lyte, and Monie Love. These particular music tracks had a predominant
social/political message from a womans perspective contained within the music, for
example: If I wanna to take a guy home with tonight/Its none of your business/And,
if she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekend/Its none of your business None
of Your Business (Salt-N-Pepa, 1993).
I determined the message content of all these selected tracks by listening to
the lyrics of these tracks and selecting songs that contained lyrical references to
gender preference, social/political, economic, violent, misogynistic, or oppressive
situations as was demonstrated with the above examples. Once again, these tracks
were used as reference points and to help initiate discussion over different styles of
rap music. They were not used in any way to direct a particular identification of the
categories or styles of rap music or to promote certain feelings from the listeners
about social/political, gangsta, or women oriented rap music.
Out of this sample of rap music, each participant was asked to select one song
out of each unidentified section, to listen to it, and discuss the song. The track
selected by the participant was listened to and discussed individually before moving
on to the next section of rap music. After listening to one song by one rap group out
of each section of music, the participant was then asked to identify their favorite rap
song or artist and then to discuss the song or rap artist. The interview was then closed
with a general discussion over where the participants thought rap music was headed
in the future and included any additional comments that the participants had about the
music in general.
A qualitative interview approach allows for the participant to define what rap
music means in their own words and what they get out of it. According to Adri
Smaling (1996:23), important to the qualitative approach to interviewing is that the
meaning of the questions and answers is something that is collaboratively negotiated
and produced between the conversation and non-verbal interaction between the
interviewer and the interviewee. It is this interaction which can then help define the
contextual situation of the subject matter involved in the interview, so that, both the
interviewer and interviewee are operating within the same context when asking and
answering questions over the subject matter in question. In the case of this study
covering rap music, the interactive nature of the interview allows for the study
participant to help define, re-direct, and add to the initial understanding of the context
of rap music that this interviewer started with at the beginning of each interview. In
addition, the qualitative interview allows for using natural presuppositions within
questions asked which will allow for the questions to be asked in a real everyday life
context rather than from the unnatural sterile world of objectivity. This is a
presupposition of context where the researcher can assume the research participant
has some knowledge about rap music. However, this is not to say every question
should contain presuppositions (they can be over used), but they can enhance the
qualitative responses given by the interviewee by acknowledging that indeed this
person has something relevant and meaningful to say about the subject in question
(Smaling, 1996: 25).
In addition to helping better contextualize the research participants
(interviewer and interviewee) and the subject matter, the qualitative interview allows
for the empowerment of the interviewee. By being part of a participatory interactive
qualitative interview, the interviewee is able to gain feedback and knowledge of the
subject matter that they can bring back and use in their own contexts (Smaling, 26-
27:1996). The qualitative interview approach is used for this study on rap music
because it demonstrates that subjectivity is helpful in adding to the understanding and
meaning of subjects like rap music where an individuals subjectivity is greatly used
in understanding, defining, and creating meaning about this form of music. Also, it
helps to demonstrate that rap music and its listeners are not operating within a sterile
vacuum of objectivity, but that they are contextualized subjective individuals for
whom rap music can mean different things to different people.
Using an qualitative research approach, I needed to be aware of my own
values in terms of the emphasis on the music listener position and how much that
position informs and contributes to the rap music debate. In addition, I had to be
aware of the many issues that are contained within rap music such as poverty, race,
gender, and class and how I related to those issues. Although there may be limitations
to using a qualitative research approach, it is a method best fitted to gain information
for how the rap music listener personally understands rap, as well as, how they create
personal meaning for and define rap music within popular culture and society as a
I am in no way advocating that research on rap music should only be
conducted using qualitative methods. Research on rap using a quantitative method is
helpful and can be used to identify relationships and correlations between rap music
and larger social/political issues in society at large (see Fried, 1996; Zillmann, et al.,
Arrangement of the Thesis
The body of this thesis will be arranged in the following manner: Chapter Two
will cover the review of the literature and theoretical framework. Chapter Three will
focus on the interviews and the participants views on the different styles of rap
music. Chapter Four will discuss the themes that were reflected by the participants
during the interview, and the findings of this study. Chapter Five will present my
conclusions and recommendations for future research.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
AND THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
Review of Literature
With the commercialization of rap music within the music industry, rap music
has become a popular and diverse style of music. Rap music speaks about many
issues that are social, political, Afro-centric, violent, sexist, racist, and many times
about nothing in particular. It is rap musics ability to give voice to so many diverse
issues that makes it an exciting and controversial medium of entertainment and
expression. It is this ability to express different views that has helped to politicize the
music and its use as a form of expression and information for different marginalized
communities. This is not to dismiss charges that some forms of rap promote violence,
sexism, racism, and misogyny. However, rap can also help make different
populations and communities aware of issues that might otherwise not be
communicated through other media forms.
Rap music as the context for the expression of complex social issues has been
the source of much critical and interpretive analysis. Within this dialogue about rap
music and the textual analysis of its lyrical content, much of the interpretation has
focused on trying to understand the many rap artists and the meaning they are trying
to convey to the music listener. Much of the analysis of rap music in the literature
can be grouped into four distinct areas:
1) ' Analysis of the aesthetic qualities and appreciation of rap.
2) Analysis of rap music and its relation to the political economy of the larger
3) Analysis of rap from a feminist perspective.
4) Analysis of the authenticity and nihilism in rap music (specifically, in analysis
and interpretation of gangsta rap).
These areas are reviewed for their contribution to our understanding of rap music.
Aesthetic Qualities and Appreciation of Rap Music
The analysis of the aesthetic qualities and appreciation of rap music deals
mainly with descriptive qualities of rap as an art form (Salaam, 1995; Gladney, 1995).
These studies define what rap music is; its styles, its form, its history, etc. For
example, according to Salaam, (1995:306): rap music, unlike disco and funk, is a
new genre unto itself. Disco and funk were variations of an already existing, and
therefore familiar, form rhythm and blues. Rap in its purest form presents an
entirely new sound. Gladney, (1995:291), also reiterates this style and focus with
statements like: It is important that observers understand hip-hop in a context that
reflects its aesthetic goals and the tradition from which hip-hop has emerged....hip-
hop culture has remained true to many of the convictions and aesthetic criteria that
evolved out of the Black Arts Movement of the 60s....
In addition, these interpretations that help to understand the many elements
that make up rap music also help to identify the many social issues that are related to
the music (Brennan, 1994; Shusterman, 1995). The aesthetics of rap are affected by
the larger socio-political environment from which they develop and grow. The
incorporation of these larger social factors in the artistic criticism of rap music,
though difficult, makes it richer and more powerful (Shusterman, 1995:153).
Brennan, (1994), identifies the link between the aesthetic and social commentary
within the rap music debate. ....[W]hen we demand that rap be given the aura of,
say, abstract expressionist painting, we leam, or expose, a great deal about arts
functionalities, about internal colonialism, about class anxieties of black intellectuals,
about the intransability of working class value (Brennan, 1994: 671). Above all, this
type of interpretive analysis of the elements that make up rap help to define what rap
music is, where it came from, and the possibilities of where it could lead for further
Rap Music in Relation to the Larger Political Economy
Analyses of rap music in relation to the larger political economy deal
primarily with exposing the relationship rap music has with the larger culture. These
studies go beyond analyzing rap music as an expressive art form to rap music being a
vehicle of resistance. Rap music is shown to be both a form of resistance to the many
contradictions in the larger society, and as, a part and product of those same
contradictions that it exposes (Sloop, 1994; Fenster, 1995; Lusane, 1993; Bemard-
Donals, 1994). The larger political economics of rap music commercialize images of
marginalized rap stars to the larger mainstream audience and makes it possible for rap
to be more accepted as part of the mainstream while at the same time opening more
room on the margins for more new and subversive styles of rap to develop (Bemard-
Donals, 1994:135). In this type of analysis, the culture and background from which
rap music develops and grows is shown to be as important as the music itself in both
understanding and interpreting the information that is expressed within rap music.
So, these types of interpretations are not only an analysis of rap music: they are an
analysis of the larger social issues in which rap music is related and embedded.
The last two areas of analysis of rap music, as pointed out earlier, are the
feminist interpretation and the authentic/nihilistic interpretation of rap. While these
two areas of analysis are distinct from each other in their interpretation of the music,
they are similar in the way they rely and incorporate all areas of analysis to help
deconstruct and understand rap music from their viewpoint.
Rap Music and a Feminist Perspective
Feminist analysis of rap music (Forman, 1994; Irving, 1993) incorporates and
exposes the history, qualities, economy, politics, etc., of rap within its interpretation
in addition to framing all these issues within the context of gender. According to
Irving, (1993:107), rap music like much of earlier black music deliberately constructs
a space for the black male subject but has excluded spaces for the construction of
alternative female subject positions other than the ones offered and put forth by black
male subjects. However, rap music, in its ability to give voice, provides a start for a
feminist position to gain power at the margins of rap music by providing its own
definition, meaning, and understanding of the female subject in opposition to the one
provided by the mainstream of society (Forman, 1994: 38-39). These interpretations
are able to not only question the gender issues and conflicts that are in rap music, but
they also question the larger issues of gender conflict in the larger society and how
they inter-relate with rap.
Rap Musics Authenticity and Nihilism
The authentic/nihilistic interpretation of rap incorporates and relies on other
areas of analysis as well. This authentic/nihilistic interpretation of rap music
deconstructs the larger issues of commodification and power that are both a part of
rap music and the larger society to better explain the resistance that is inherent in the
music (DeGenova, 1995; Judy, 1994). It is the nihilistic resistance in the rap music
which makes it an authentic original form of expression especially in the form of rap
known as gangsta rap. DeGenova (1995: 110) argues: ....gangster rap must be
located along a continuum which includes many of the patriarchal ideologies and
male dominated structures of African American community, as well as racist terror
itself (which is never gender neutral), and finally, the oppression and exploitation of
women, which is a constitutive feature of capitalism more generally. This form of
analysis helps expose and explain the larger forces that define and contain rap music
by using the inherent aspects of those forces (i.e., sexism or violence as used in some
rap) as a means of identity and resistance.
Books on Rap Music
In addition to studies that focus on specific areas, there are also some books
on rap that do a good job of bringing further insight and understanding to this radical
form of musical expression, and they are necessary reading for anyone interested in
rap music. David Toops (1991) Rap Attack 2 is an up-dated edition of Toops
previous excellent classic Rap Attack (1984). Toop provides one of the most in-depth
historical accounts of the individual rap artists and industry insiders who created,
formed, and developed rap music from its humble beginnings into its current form in
Tricia Rosess (1994) Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in
Contemporary America and S. H. Fernando Jrs. (1994) The New Beats: Exploring
the Music, Culture, and Attitudes of Hip-Hop both provide a complete in-depth
analysis and discussion of the many contexts of society and the forces of mass
production/consumption that contain and define the creation and interpretation of rap.
These books are able to take the reader from raps humble start in the inner-city to the
politics and institutions that control and surround it within very concise and enjoyable
Droppin Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture edited
by William Eric Perkins (1996) helps to situate rap music within the larger framework
of media and culture and discusses what cultural implications rap has beyond music
in relation to the rest of society. It contains selected essays from different scholars
who investigate several different areas of this harmonious and conflicting relationship
between rap music, the media, and culture.
Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism by
Russell A. Potter (1995) is an excellent analysis of identification of the many inherent
contradictions contained within the music and the reality of the societal structures
from which it is constructed, produced, and ultimately consumed. Potter is very
much an advocate of rap music and Hip-Hop culture being a manifestation of
Postmodernism in practice.
Although these works are very good at bringing understanding to rap musics
historical beginnings and the many contexts of society that surround and contain rap
music, they too lack a music listener perspective to help to define the music. This
study brings a listener perspective in order to add to the meaning and understanding
Perspectives of the Music Listener
Of the handful of research studies that try to bring insight into the
understanding of the interpretation process of the music listener, two deal directly
with rap music and its effects on listeners (Fried, 1996; Zillmann, et al., 1995,
Johnson, et al., 1995). The other studies focus on popular music and listener
preferences of which rap music may or may not be included (Killian, 1990; McCrary,
1993). While these quantitative studies attempt to incorporate the position and
perspective of the music listener within their understanding, they end up defining
causal relationships without bringing meaningful insight into the understanding and
interpretation of the music (whether it is rap or another form of popular music) by the
music listener in observance of the listeners appreciation for a particular type of
music like rap.
Fried (1996) studied the effect that race has on individual reactions to music
lyrics. Her study focused more on reactions to race than on an understanding of how
the music listener creates meaning and understanding from the song. This is not
meant to devalue the correlation that Fried was able to identify in her study, since her
study and findings are very convincing. While her study focused on the effects that
race plays in an individuals music perception, it lacks a more in-depth analysis that
would attempt to capture more specifically how the music listener extracts and
interprets meaning and understanding from the song. Frieds study needs to be taken
further to try and bring understanding to how individuals process and create
understanding and meaning from the music in question.
Zillmann, et. al. (1995) attempts to bring some additional insight into the
effect of rap music on the attitudes of its listeners. However, in their study, the
researchers do not let the music listeners define the music for themselves using their
own terms. In trying to measure how familiar listeners were with a particular rap
music selection, they were limited to three options: I hate it, Its OK, or I love it.
The authors then analyzed this data quantitatively and determined the results in
relation to their hypothesises. This type of study does not leave room for a more
personal account of the appreciation and understanding that the music listener has for
the music in question.
Quantitative analytical perspectives have identified some interesting
relationships between music and the listener. Fried (1996:2141) maintains, even
when asked to specifically judge only lyrics, other factors such as the genre of the
music or the race of the singer play a significant role in reactions to musical lyrics.
For Zillmann, et. al. (1995:23), rap music can have a tolerating effect on the racial
attitudes of white adolescents: White adolescents appear to extract the plight and
despair of African-Americans from radical rap and respond with compassion. While
findings like this are important in identifying the existence of a relationship between
the music and the listener, the quantitative perspective is limiting in its inability to
provide an in-depth understanding of the relationship found.
Other quantitative studies that focus on the relationship between the music and
the music listener are more general and do not identify rap music in particular. These
studies focus broadly on popular music of which rap may or may not be included.
Social issues such as race and gender are identified as having a relationship with
music preference. Once again, these studies are limited in their findings of this
relationship because of study design. McCrary (1993) identified white adolescents as
having more flexibility in music preferences for both black and white performers,
while black adolescents tended to have a more rigid music preference for black
performers. While this study is helpful in identifying the existence of an additional
relationship between race and music preference, it does not provide understanding
into how the black or white music listener personally understands this relationship.
Killian (1990) identifies the existence of a relationship between race, gender,
and music preference: a listeners music preference is affected by the performers race
and gender. Music listeners are more likely to choose to listen to performers who are
the same race and gender that they are; this relationship was found to be stronger
among adolescent boys than adolescent girls (Killian, 1990: 121). Killian (1990) like
Fried (1996) Zillmann, et. al. (1995) and McCrary (1993) limited herself to the
identification of the existence of a relationship between race, gender, and music
preference. There is no elaboration from the music listeners perspective about why
they like what they do and how they understand it. This would help shed more
insight into the relationships identified by the author. It appears that a discussion of
rap music and its understanding and interpretation by its listeners is non-existent at
this time and needs to by developed. This is also evidenced in much of the critical
and interpretive analysis done on rap music in general.
While the existing literature on rap music appears to be quite extensive in the
interpretive and critical analysis of the music and its meaning in relation to the larger
social issues of concern, it does not identity the relationship between rap music and
the meaning and understanding that the rap music listener helps to create. It is clear
from this review of the literature that while more studies need to be done on rap music
in general, specific studies of rap music and how it is received and understood from
the position of the listener must be undertaken.
Rap music is so diverse and made up of an amalgamation of different and
conflicting cultural elements that no one area of theory is able to fully grasp and
explain its content. However, for the purpose of gaining more understanding of rap
music from the listeners perspective, certain aspects of musicology and
postmodernism are helpful and relevant in gaining a fuller understanding and
meaning of the music.
Theory within musicology is helpful in its ability to help define the
relationship between the music composer and the listener. Standard musicology
theory is best exemplified by the seminal work of Leonard Meyers (1956) Emotion
and Meaning in Music which focuses on formalist and expressionist interpretations on
how music creates meaning for the listener. Musical meaning for the formalist lies in
perception and understanding musical relationships of the piece of music in question
(i.e., musical meaning is understanding musics mechanics and structure and how
they relate to each other) while meaning for the expressionist lies in focusing on how
understanding these musical relationships invite feelings and emotion in the listener
(i.e., understanding how musics mechanics and structure brings emotion to the
listener) (Meyer, 1956: 3). This type of standard musicology theory is too focused
musics mechanics and structure to be helpful in understanding how an average rap
music listener understands and creates meaning from rap music. This may be
especially true with listeners who have never played an instrument or had any formal
However, contemporary researchers and music lovers Steven Feld (1994) and
Charles Keil (1994) are redefining standard musicology theory and developing new
interpretations on how music is interpreted and understood by the music listener.
Their developing theories are on the cutting edge within the field of musicology and
they seek to find a new direction in the way that research in this field can be focused
now and in the future. While Feld and Keil both agree that there is more to
understanding and defining music through its mechanics and structure, they differ in
their emphasis on what else contributes to understanding and creating meaning in
music. It is a differentiation that is complementary and not conflicting.
Keil (1994) focuses on the participation between the music artist/performer
and the listener. For Keil, there is a participatory consciousness between the
individual creating music and the individual listening to the music where the
participation is a social activity that both are engaged in and from which the meaning
of the music is created. Thus, musics meaning and understanding is derived from the
interaction between the musician and listener. Keil is closer to the standard
theoretical position within musicology, because his theory of musical participation
and meaning relies closely on the formal mechanics and structure of the music. In
Keils framework, there is also what he calls a participatory discrepancy (i.e.,
inflection, articulation, creative tension, relaxed dynamism, etc.) in music that is
created by the music performers that sets the music up with a groove (the beat or
drive of the music) that invites the listener to participate. It is in reacting to this
groove caused by the participatory discrepancies among the musicians that helps
produce a participatory consciousness between the musicians and the listener from
which musical meaning is created and derived. In other words, when we listen to
music, we (as listeners) pick up on the vibe or groove (the non-spoken
communication between the musicians playing the music that effects how they react
and play with each other) and we identify with this groove and become a part of the
experience. It is an active experience where we (as listeners) are able to help define
the understanding and meaning of the music.
Steven Feld (1994) complements Keils analysis because he provides
additional understanding of the position of the music listener that helps with the
understanding of how the listener is able to participate in the musical groove. For
Feld, it is not only the mechanical/structure of the music or the participatory
discrepancies or consciousness between the performers and the listener that defines
the meaning of music. It is also the social experience of all involved that contributes
and helps shape the perceptual sensations of the music into conceptual realities (Feld,
1994: 84). The music listener like the music performer and like the music itself is
socially and historically situated. Musical meaning and interpretation is explicitly
conceived as social activity. According to Feld (1994:85), all musical sound
structures are socially structured in two senses: they exist through social construction,
and they acquire meaning through social interpretation. Therefore sounds are
contextual and contextualizing. So, when music listeners listen to the changes,
developments, repetitions in the music, they pay attention to the different sounds in
terms of familiarity or strangeness in accordance to their own listening histories.
These histories are situated within their own social contexts. Out of this back and
forth interplay between the musics context and the listeners context, the music
develops meaning and understanding for that particular listener which may or may not
be like another individuals interpretation of the same piece of music.
Keils and Felds musicology theories provides a good theoretical framework
from which to analyze how a rap music listener understands and develops meaning
from rap music (a music that is very socially/historically situated). Furthermore, it
can help take into account how the different context of the music and the listener
interact to both situate and define the music.
In addition, postmodern theory is also helpful in guiding this research, because
it complements Keils and Felds musicology in its ability to question meaning and
interpretation from different perspectives. Aspects of postmodern theory would help
to identify the underlying contradictions within the contexts that surround, and from
which, the music and listener are both embedded. Within postmodern theory, there
are two philosophers perspectives that will help to demonstrate how rap music is an
active form of postmodern practice. The theories of Jean Baudrillard and Jean-
Francois Lyotard are helpful in this regard. Aspects of Baudrillards and Lyotards
theories will only help understand the many contexts from which the listener and rap
music are both embedded within everyday which is the context from which the
meaning and understanding of the music is derived.
Baudrillards (1981) thoughts on simulation and hyperreality are especially
helpful in analyzing rap music as a sign and simulation of the real. This theory will
be very useful in addressing the understanding and meaning that a rap music listener
derives from the music. According to Steven Best and Douglas Kellner (1991),
Baudrillards simulations are models of reality that are more real than real. It is a
hyperreality where the lines between the simulation and the real are blurred or erased
so much so that the simulations or models become the basis from which the real is
defined (Best, 1991: 118-120). This perspective is relevant for understanding rap
music as the simulacra and simulation of entertainment and information of reality.
Rap music in its many manifestations is imploding the boundaries between the
simulation and reality itself. It is an artform where rapper Chuck D of Public Enemy
can perpetuate this implosion between the simulation and the real by proclaiming rap
music to be the Black CNN (Fernando Jr, 1994: 136). While at the same time,
Chuck D is also telling the listener Dont Believe the Hype (Public Enemy,
1988:Def Jam Recordings). Which Hype are we not to believe? The real CNN
where information and entertainment are so tightly knitted together that we now have
a term called infotainment, or are we to believe the simulation of rap music as a
Black CNN? It is this aspect of Baudrillards theory on simulations and
hyperreality that help to identify part of the context from which rap music and its
listeners are embedded and from which meaning and understanding of the music is
Lyotards (1971) thoughts on focusing on experience and desire as opposed to
focusing on the literal meaning of the text is helpful in understanding more about the
context that surrounds rap music and its listeners. Lyotard emphasizes the ability of
the experience and desire in art where desire is manifested in the figure (i.e., image or
simulation) of art and is able to attack the existing hegemony of the present system
(Best, 1991: 150). For Lyotard (1984:9-10), what is important in a text is not what it
means, but what it does and incites to do. This perspective has the ability to show
the variability in how a rap music listener might understand and derive meaning from
a rap music text, because meaning and understanding will mean different things to
different listeners. For Lyotard, meaning and understanding is the action that an art
In addition, Lyotards (1989:15-16) idea of a patchwork of minority
discourses is useful, because it provides a context of multiplicities where it becomes
impossible to establish and validly determine any major order. A non-order context
from which a plurality of consciousness can develop where rap music can be many
different things to many different people. According to Best and Kellner (1991),
Lyotard not only emphasizes a patchwork of minority discourses, he emphasizes a
justice of multiplicities where these multiple discourses can be used for dissent in
questioning existing paradigms and helping to invent new ones.
Thus, Baudrillard and Lyotard help to identify, situate, and support a context
of ambiguity and a multiplicity of reality, and in so doing, they complement the
perspectives of Keil and Feld in their new musicological perspective where
understanding and meaning in music can no longer be derived without the taking into
account the context of the music, the music performer, and the music listener. Russell
Potter (1995:19), in Spectacular Vernaculars, helps to explain this multiplicity of
context and consciousness as: the awareness that white is no less a construction
than Black and that cultural differences emanate not from hermetically-sealed
universes, but from an insistent and ongoing mix. While Potter may be using the
example of the construct of race, the analogy can be made that rap music or any other
construct is no different in that we must first be aware that the construct exists
before we can really fully understand it. These theoretical perspectives provide
unique vantage points from which to view and interpret the many contexts of meaning
of rap music and its listeners and how that context effects the listeners understanding
and interpretation of the music. Furthermore, research originating from the
perspective of the music listener and developed within the context of these theories
would help to define the rap music listeners contribution to the development of
meaning and understanding of rap music.
VIEWS ON DIFFERENT STYLES OF RAP MUSIC
Profiles and Interviews of Participants
In this Chapter, the names and some identifying characteristics of the
participants have been changed to provide for anonymity. The profiles have been
arranged in the order in which I met and interviewed the participants. I included
information on the race of the participants, age, and education level within the profile.
Although this study was not designed to interview a large sample', I felt that having
some level of racial and educational diversity was necessary for my study.
Tom is a single white male with no children. He is thirty years of age and is
employed as a Sales Manager for a home improvement manufacturer in Denver. He
received a BA in Business Administration and is currently enrolled in a MBA
graduate program at a local university.
Tom spoke of becoming aquatinted with rap music back when groups like
Niggas With Attitude (NWA) and 2 Live Crew were popular and rap music was
experiencing a wave of controversy within the media. Although Tom had heard and
listened to rap music before this time, it was in the early 1990s when he started
noticing that it was beginning to dominate his taste in music styles. In addition, Tom
was a dance club d-jay in college which also contributed to his appreciation and
knowledge of some of the technical aspects of the music in terms of mixing, cutting
samples, and always trying to find the right groove. Rap music is not the only music
Tom listens to exclusively, however, it is the type of music he enjoys most if given
the choice and opportunity.
Within rap music, the styles of rap music that Tom indicated that he listened
to most are party rap and gangsta rap. He considers rap music to be a very
creative form of musical entertainment. I like the music a lot, how creative it can be
with the sampling and all that. From a technical standpoint, I really get off on that.
In addition to the musical and technical aspects of the music, Tom likes and enjoys
rap music for the entertainment value of its humor. For Tom, the music has the
ability to convey humor and a good musical groove. According to Tom, he does not
really pay too much attention to any inherent social or political message within the
music. In regards to message oriented rap, for Tom, ...sometimes it gets a little
taxing to listen to. This is not to say that Tom did not acknowledge that rap music
can contain and present serious ideas or content that can lead to controversies.
...[Tjhere is a lot of controversy over it. Particularly, on how crude some of the
lyrics are... Tom continued, I think controversy will be around as long as rap is
around. He did not seem to believe that there was any validity to the controversy
surrounding rap by adding, in my opinion, people dont act on what they hear.
For Tom, the meaning and understanding of rap music lies in the musics
ability to make fun or parody situations. This is evident in his identification of the
Beastie Boys as his favorite rap group. In describing what he likes about the Beastie
Boys, Tom states, lyrically, theyre really light. They dont...Its I think a lot of the
early rap. Sayin, Im a great rapper, just talkin themselves up. None of the
violence...I cant say none of it but not very often do they talk in terms of violence.
Its just fun. They kinda seem to make a joke of things, themselves, and its mostly,
its pretty light stuff. In the end, rap music provides Tom with all the right
ingredients with music, technical ability (skills), and humor, that for now, he can
state: I would suspect that I will continue to listen to rap forever. Because for Tom,
its entertainment...and thats all it is to me. Thats all its intended to be.
Rick is a single Black male with no children. He has a high school education
and is currently enrolled at a local community college taking some general math
courses and contemplating whether he wants to enter into a degreed program. Rick is
thirty-three years of age and he currently works for a local food manufacturer.
Rick had a little trouble with identifying exactly when he started listening to
rap music, because he has listened to it since a very young age. What he remembered
instead was his recollection of rap music first coming into its own with a definite
distinction from other types of music in the early 1980s. For Rick, it was not really
considered rap until 1983...Run DMC. When Run DMC came out that was probably
the first group that came out that was that I can think of that I thought of as being
called a Rap group. In addition, he noted that in the beginning before the early
1980s, rap music was packaged and sold differently. It was about singles. Twelve-
inch singles. I remember buying Rapper Delight, and that wasnt Rapper Delight
the album. It was just a single. A twelve inch single which you could get with like
four or five different versions.
Like other participants, Rick does not exclusively listen only to rap music. He
listens to all kinds of different types of music. For Rick, music is either good or bad
no matter what style it may be from within the music industry. I mean if its good,
its good. If its bad, its bad. If I like it, I buy it. However, he did note that rap
music is inherently Black. Rap music has something that is directly connected to
being Black. Its like, you know, I mean the topic the artist is talking about is just
cultural. It is directly related to who you are. So, for Rick, rap music also has a
cultural characteristic that he can identify with and understand when listening to the
One of the main reasons Rick is drawn to and listens to rap music is because
of the combination of the music and lyrics that can draw you in and help you imagine
or understand what the rap artist is trying to convey. In describing his favorite rap
artists, Eric B. and Rakiem, Rick explains that: it was the pictures he painted. I think
thats probably the best thing about Rakiem, is that, he painted pictures with words.
In addition, Rick went on to describe why he appreciated Rakiems ability to paint
pictures with words especially since they did not rely on gimmicks in their lyrics. As
Rick states: ...[T]hey werent using profanity. They werent talking about killing
people, maybe there was the sucker MC aspect of it. But, all they were using were
words. It seemed that he was pretty confident in his ability to write. He was a
writer. In the end, rap music is entertainment for Rick. Its just entertainment...just
release. Its release.
Rich is a single Black man and has a daughter. He is twenty-seven years of
age. He has a high school education, and he is contemplating entering a local college
in the near future to earn a degree. Rich currently works for the United States Postal
Service and works in a large local mail distribution facility.
Rich first recalled being exposed to what you call, now, mainstream rap
back in the first grade in primary school. It was an early period for rap music at that
time. He remembered rap artists like Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash, and Africa
Bambata were around and they were just starting to expose the public to what rap
music was all about. However, Rich really did not start to get into it until he was in
the seventh or eighth grade in middle school. At that time, rap music was all he
listened to in music if given the choice. Currently, he listens to a variety of musical
styles. But, he mainly listens to rap, r and b, and jazz music.
When talking about a favorite rap song of his, Rich identified that one of the
main things that attracts him to the music is its ability to help you visualize a story or
idea that the rap song is about. He felt rap music can be very profound, because
Rich once witnessed a situation in real life that was similar to a theme or idea that was
presented in one of his favorite rap songs. In recalling the rap song, Rich related:
Just, the way you could visualize it. You know what Im saying? Just, everything
that he talks about. In addition to rap musics ability to help a listener visualize the
ideas presented in the song, Rich likes the variety in rap music. According to Rich,
the variety is expressed by: ...using different voices, different people, different
colors of people.. .you got a.. .you know what Im saying? You got hardcore gangsta
rappers, you know, people with a...you know, college background, doctors, you
know, masters degrees, baccalaureate of science, you know what Im saying? Theres
It is rap musics variety of perspectives and ability to help the listener
visualize the issues and themes in the rap song that helps Rich understand and derive
meaning from the music. In addition, Rich appreciates the different people who make
up and contribute to rap musics various points of view. Rich also adds: Sometimes,
you know, this is the type of person I am.. .if the message they have going with the
music.. .and, the music might not be that great.. .Sometimes, if you listen to rap, it
might.. .the music might carry the message or the message might carry the music, or
they [sic] intermeld and its perfect. You know what Im saying? Therefore, in
many situations, the meaning and understanding within rap music depends on each
individual rap song in question. As Rich states: It just varies.
Allison is a single Black woman with no children. She is twenty-five years of
age and is working for a temporary employment agency while seeking full-time
employment. She received a BA in Liberal Arts from a state university.
Allison recalled becoming aquatinted with rap music in middle school around
the time she was twelve or thirteen when groups like Run DMC and LL Cool J first
came out. This was around the mid-1980s. Allison also identified that rap is not
the only music to which she listens. She listens to other styles of music as well as
rap. And, she has not always liked rap music continuously throughout the years. For
her, the music has came in and out of her life depending on where she was at during a
particular time. She mentioned that for a time in High School she did not listen to rap
music at a point when she was heavily into the alternative music scene and groups
like The Cure were very popular. However, through the years Allison has come to
find that she identifies with rap music. And, I think as I got older and got more in
touch with my heritage and who I was and stuff. I started to understand...I started to
enjoy rap a lot more and understand and...its just that I identify with a lot...with a lot
more in rap than I do with other music.
For Allison, the identity or common ground she finds in rap music comes
from the combination of elements contained in rap music. It is the wholeness of the
music with which she has come to identify and fine common ground. As she states,
I think its a lot of stuff. Its the issues they convey (the rap artists), its their
life...their life stories that they convey. But, its also I believe...it also has a lot to do
with an instinctual reaction to the beat and to the music, and you know... In
addition, she added: its also the only music I feel deeply. And, it moves me. It is
Allisons ability to identify with the many different elements within rap music and the
deep feeling she gets out of the music that helps her to understand and create meaning
from the music. In describing why she likes and identifies with rap music, Allison
states: not only does it reflect more of my life culturally, but it also teaches me a lot
about my culture that I dont know about. So, in addition to being able to identify
with rap music, Allison is able to take and learn from what is contained and presented
within the music. Rap music adds to her understanding and identity as a Black
woman. It is rap musics diversity of identities from which Allison reaffirms and
gains knowledge of her heritage, people, and identity that she sees rap music being
able to expand further in the future. Rap music, for Allison, is here to stay. It has
come too far and infiltrated certain aspects of society too much to turn back. You
know, when you have commercials that are rap oriented, I think thats a sign its not
going to go away.
Christine is a single young White woman with no children. She is sixteen
years of age and lives with her mother. She is presently a student at a local high
Christine recalled becoming interested in rap music at the beginning of her
middle school years when she was in the seventh grade. She became involved with
rap music gradually from the age of thirteen. Her interest in the style of music grew
out of listening to popular music as she described it. She identified this popular
music as r and b that was being played at the time on local radio stations. Her taste in
music has not changed that much since that time. Christine stated that, currently, she
listens to both r and b and rap music with rap music occupying most of her music
At the time that she became really interested in rap, she recalled that it was
Snoop Doggy Doggs release of Doggystyle that started the whole thing.
Christine emphasized that: I liked that one a lot. In terms of what she likes about
rap music, Christine is attracted to the beat of the music and the way the rap artists
voice flows with the music. She really appreciates a rap song that flows nicely.
Christine does not like the rough or scratchiness of some rap artists sounds in the
industry. Her identification of liking rap music that flows well together is further
supported by her identification of liking West Coast rap more than East Coast rap
music, because according to Christine: West Coast to me flows better. Thats what
Rap musics ability to flow is what helps bring meaning and understanding to
the music for Christine. Christine is searching for a good beat and a rap artist whose
voice complements the music. If the rap song does not flow well, Christine will not
like or pay much attention to it musically or lyrically.
Casey is a single White woman with two adolescent daughters. She is thirty-
three years of age and works for a local county school district. She has a high school
education and is active in taking dance classes several nights a week.
Casey became aquatinted with rap music through participation in her weekly
Hip-Hop dance classes that she has been taking for about a year at the time of her
interview. This is not to say that Casey had not heard of rap music before this time in
her life. She was aware of the style of music and had heard some rap by being
exposed to it through her kids and through various friends. However, before her Hip-
Hop dance classes, Casey really did not actively listen to rap music on her own.
According to Casey, participation in weekly Hip-Hop dance classes has help her to
become familiar with some of the musical styles that rap music has to offer. Casey
likes rap music for the dancability of the music and the beat. Even songs that she
may not agree with in terms of lyrical content (whether the lyrics are offensive or just
plain bad), she will still dance to if the music and beat are good overall within the
song. Casey reiterates this in describing an old Salt-N-Pepa dance song that she likes
to dance to called Push-It. I mean that was the dumbest song ever. But, its got a
killer beat you hear that...you hear that come on and your just like...okay, I gotta
dance. I gotta dance.
In addition to the dancability of the beat of rap music, Casey also finds that
music and dance in general can have the ability to unify people in her experience. In
relation to rap music, Casey thinks: that medium has the ability to sort of expose
people to all different spectrums of whats going on and give them a sense of unity
and give them a sense of...of...common ground somehow. And...and...and, to
therefore...make things better. It is this ability to bring people together that Casey
believes will keep rap music around for the future even if it may upset some people
along the way.
Doug is a single White male with no children. He is twenty-two years of age,
and he is employed as a framing contractor within the construction field. Doug has a
high school education and enjoys working with his hands, and he likes to build
Doug recalled getting into rap music in middle school about the time he was
thirteen. He remembered the song, No Sleep til Brooklyn by the Beastie Boys, as
being one of the first songs that got him excited about rap music. Since his early
teens, rap music has come in and out of flavor with his musical tastes. It came back
into Dougs listening habits roughly about two years ago when he was living in
When asked about his interest in rap and about what lead him to this style of
music, Doug responded: the bass.. .the bass, probably. Listening to the bass and
rapping. I like the fast rapping. In addition, Doug also likes the combination of
elements that are contained within the rap music sound. As Doug stated: Just
everything they use. The spinning and the.. .of the records, and all that stuff. The
little samples they put in there from other music and stuff Just how they put their
music together, its pretty cool.
For Doug, it is the musical content of rap music that excites him about the
music more than the lyrics or the message content of the song. Several times
throughout the interview, Doug expressed his attraction for the bass and the beat of
the music. When discussing his attraction to the loudness of the music and the bass,
Doug responded: Oh yeah, it makes me a little happier... makes me feel kind of cool
(laughter).. .just cause, I like to run around.. .1 dont know.. .1 like to jump around in
my apartment with the bass and stuff So, Dougs understanding and meaning of
rap music comes from the music mainly. He does not seem that interested in the
lyrical content of the music.
Views on Different Styles of Rap
The following section will describe what the participants understood and
thought about rap music that contained a social/political, gangsta, or woman oriented
theme within the song. Responses and support will be taken from all interview
participants and will be combined and intermingled randomly to get a general feel for
the overall response to how these individuals understood and to identify what they got
out of the particular style of music in question.
Understanding and Meaning of Social/Political Rap Music
The songs picked by the study participants to listen to within this style of rap
music were: My Philosophy by BDP, Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa Claus by De
La Soul, Fear of a Black Planet by PE, Fishin for Religion by Arrested
Development, Mamas Always on Stage by Arrested Development, and Black
Steel in the Hour of Chaos by PE. There are only five songs listed because two
participants picked the same song. The song chosen was picked by the individual
being interviewed based on whatever reason that particular person had for wanting to
hear that song. Reasons for picking a song varied with the individual: they liked it,
they had not heard it before, it reminded them of a particular time, and they were
curious about the artist. In addition, it is apparent in the interviews that the
participants also had their own interpretations on what type/style of rap music that
they were listening to.
Tom picked My Philosophy by BDP, because he thought it was a song he
knew, however, it turned out that he did not recognize the song. He thought the song
was positive. However, he did not really get into the message which is not surprising
considering that he thinks the messages can be taxing after a while. When asked
what the song made him think of most, Tom stated: Well, I was wondering where
some of the samples came from...some of the loops and voice samples. I dont know.
I guess I really didnt get involved with the message in that song. He went on to talk
about the music in the song and what he liked about it. It was a horn that was a cool
sample...I mean, through the whole song, it had a beat that made you kinda wanna tap
your foot along with it. It is interesting that a song that had an overtly political
message was only heard and understood on a certain level for Tom. However, this
follows closely with Toms context of reference that social/political messages can be
taxing. It would appear that he tunes out the messages if he does not care or have
an interest in the beliefs what they are trying to convey in the song. However, the
problem with the message-oriented rap could be with the situation or context of the
message. As Tom states, I guess I have difficulty identifying with some of the
messages or some of the themes in the songs. So, for Tom, its a combination of
identity with the lyrical and musical content within the song. With this particular rap
music track chosen, the music won out over the message.
Allison also listened to BDPs My Philosophy. And, she really did not
focus on the lyrics. For her, the song was very reminiscent of the time when she first
heard the song. She spoke of agreeing with the views of BDP and KRS-One as:
Theres a few other things in there that I think, yeah, thats true, you know.. .in terms
of.. .about.. .the way he thinks...and, like what he says... However, she also
identified that initially: it was mostly the musical value. And now, a lot of it is
because...is because...is reminiscence, you know. In addition, Allison also
identified that she liked the song for its music, the beat, and the tone quality of KRS-
Ones voice. So, she did not identify the music as having a very social/political slant
and found the song interesting mostly for its musical quality.
For Doug, the music of Arrested Developments Fishin for Religion was up
beat, and he was able to understand the message content within the song. Doug
interpreted the rap song to be about trying to decide on an actual religion. He liked
the ideas in the song, as he reiterated in stating: cause Im pretty confused on
religion myself. Doug not only identified with the subject matter and ideas
presented in the song, but it also had him reflecting on his relationship with his father.
Basically, it made me think of my Dad the most, because hes real religious
and.. .trying to push it on me. However, even though Doug identified the subject
matter of the song, he had a difficult time categorizing the song. When pressed to
define the style or genre of rap music this song would fit into, he reluctantly described
it as being Hip-Hopish which for him meant more up beat, instrumental, and faster.
Dougs categorization of the rap song did not reflect back on the social/political
content contained within the song.
Rich identified PEs Fear of a Black Planet as an informational rap song. It
is a type of rap song where the rap artist is trying to present the listener with
information or facts. Through presenting the facts, the rap artist is giving his/her
opinion or view on them. Or as Rich states: its true information, and then, it gives
you... They give you their opinion, and then, you get your opinion from what you
hear in the song. Rich identified the song as being about the dominance of Black
genes. He felt the song was presenting this topic in way so that it was promoting and
conveying a tolerance for both Blacks and Whites to be together mixing it up.
Rich felt the song had a positive message. The positive that I see in it was just lettin
you know that, you know... What theyre saying is it is alright to.. .you know.. .to
mix races. Rich feels the song is stating that there should not be a Fear of a Black
Planet. In terms of understanding the informational rap song, it varies from song to
song for Rich. Sometimes he gets into the message and sometimes he does not.
Christine picked Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa Claus, because she likes De
La Soul and she had heard the song before. Christine did not think they were trying
to convey a message in the song, and mainly, liked the song for the musical qualities.
Basically, she liked how De La Soul sounded which she identified by stating: It
doesnt sound so rough to me. It just flows nicely. In addition, Christine enjoys
how the rap artists voice sounds, and she thought they complimented the music
nicely. However, liking the rap song did not help Christine in being able to
categorize it. She defined rap songs as being about: killing people and all that
stuff.. .then, theres some that are in the middle, and then, theres some about
changing the way things are and stuff like that. Christine felt that Millie Pulled a
Pistol on Santa Claus was a song that was in the middle. However, her
categorization of the song may not be based on the lyrical content of the song,
because she found it hard to understand or hear the lyrics in the song. In talking about
De La Soul, Christine stated: some of their lyrics kind of dont make much sense to
me. Most of the time, she thought: they were just trying to find something that
goes with the music. For Christine, the rememberable attraction and characteristic of
this song was the beat and the music.
Casey picked Mamas Always on Stage, because Arrested Development is
one of her favorite rap groups. She likes that they are very women supportive and
that they show a lot of respect for Black women. Casey also finds that their songs are
more about people, family, and conectedness, and she finds the group very positive.
In addition, she finds Mamas Always on Stage in her words: to be a very jamming
song. Casey liked this song both lyrically and musically. She likes it lyrically,
because: this whole song is about the strength of women. And, she finds that: its
really positive and up-lifting. However, Casey still had difficulty categorizing this
song. She finally described the song as worldbeat. For Casey, Arrested
Development does sort of an encompassing thing. And, she finds that she is
classifying the song as worldbeat because of the lyrics. In addition, Casey
identified with the song, because she felt it was about the situations of single mothers
and she stated: thats my own situation.
Rick chose Blue Steel in the Hour of Chaos by PE, because it he felt it was
the most familiar and the best off the list provided to him. He stated several times
that he liked the song a lot. In addition, he added: I like it for the reason I like most
Public Enemy stuff. Not so much for the message, the message is great, you know, it
comes through loud and clear. But, the sample and the thing that Public Enemy
did.. .the thing, I guess, Terminator X did was the noise.. .the piano over and over
again. For Rick, it is PEs ability to take a sample like the sound of a whistle, car
hom, etc. and turn it into a continuous loop throughout the entire length of a song. In
addition to the musical aspect of the song, Rick liked the lyrics and identified the
song as social/political and described the message as being about a prison break.
However, he identified that he only likes messages in rap songs up to a point. Rick
does not like when a song starts to become a method of advocacy for the rap group.
He feels there is a fine line between artistic expression and advocacy, and some
rappers can go to far. Rick brought up the example of the rapper Paris doing the
song, Bushkilla. Although, Rick does not care for George Bush (then or now), he
felt Paris rap song advocated killing George Bush, and he could not support that type
of rap song. However, in the end, Blue Steel in the Hour of Chaos was mainly
nostalgia. It brought Rick back to a time when he first heard the song and to what
was going on in his life at that time.
Understanding and gaining meaning from the social/political rap songs chosen
by each participant varied from individual to individual. Some individuals focused
and understood the lyrics while others focused on the musical aspects of the songs
selected. All the participants appeared to have some difficulty in categorizing the
song they heard, and only one individual felt the song he listened to had a
social/political message. This did not mean that the other participants did not
categorize the rap song, they did. However, they categorized the song for various
reasons other than the lyrical content or what this researcher defined as the lyrical
content of the rap songs within this group.
Understanding and Meaning of Gangsta Rap
The songs chosen by the study participants to listen to within this style of rap
music were: Prepare to Die by Ice-T, Bitches 2 by Ice-T, If I Ruled the World
by Nas, Lil Ghetto Boy by Dr. Dre, Gin and Juice by Snoop Doggy Dogg, The
Nigga You Love to Hate by Ice Cube, and Gangstas Fairytale by Ice Cube. As
within the last style category of selected rap songs, the songs chosen by the study
participants were picked for various reasons and varied from individual to individual.
Once again, the study participants had their own interpretation on what type or style
of rap to which they thought they were listening.
Tom chose Gangstas Fairytale by Ice Cube. He picked the rap song,
because he had heard it a couple of times and it was familiar. In addition, Tom stated:
its a funny song. He liked the song and thought that: its a funny play on the
Mother Goose and Sesame Street and all that. When asked to categorize the rap
song, Tom identified this style of rap music as: a hardcore gangsta rap. He
categorized it in this way because of the way that Ice Cube chose to present the lyrical
content in the song. For Tom, Ice Cube was: talking about prostitutes and colors,
gangs.. .gang violence, and he wasnt really offering a solution, just talking about it.
Tom felt Ice Cube was glorifying the gangster lifestyle.
Gangsta rap for Tom is so glorified that he thinks it is funny, or the stories are
funny. Tom admits that: its kind of messed up to think thats funny.. .1 guess its
just hard to imagine living that way. Tom went on to say: And, I dont believe
that.. .thats how they live. But, its the stories they are making up a lot of the
time.. .taking little things that are possible and blowing them up a lot. Its
entertaining. So, for Tom, the content of the rap song is too unrealistic from his
understanding and his context of reality that he understands and gets meaning of
gangsta rap from its glorified and amplified stories that it becomes funny and he
understands the song as entertainment.
Allison chose to listen to Gin and Juice by Snoop Doggy Dogg. She picked
Gin and Juice because she feels it is very easy for her to talk about Snoop Doggy
Dogg. In Allisons words, [I]n a lot of ways Im kind of tom with Snoop Doggy
Dogg, because I really like the music. I will never buy it, because I cant stand the
way he was raised.. .or the way he portrays a view of women. Allison feels Snoop
Doggy Dogg is a talented rapper, but she does not support or condone his street thug
values and the negativity of the music. She identified Gin and Juice as gangsta
oriented and as being from the West Coast. Allison identified that there are gangsta
rappers from both the East and West Coast, but they are distinct from each other.
According to Allison, they are distinct, because they are two very different styles of
Gin and Juice and the gangsta mentality bother Allison for several reasons:
1) it might be Snoops actual view of women, 2) Snoop is exploiting and glorifying a
misogynistic view of women to sell records, 3) White people buying this music can
use it as ammunition, because Snoop is giving these views authenticity to solidify
any racist beliefs they have that they can use to project on to her as a Black women.
These possibilities scare her. As Allison states: I think thats indicative of a lot.. .of
the view of a lot of.. .and.. .a lot of men especially.. .Black men have in this society.
In addition, she added: Im just scared this is our culture, you know.
Even with all the problems that Allison had with the lyrical content within this
rap song, it made her very nostalgic. She remembered her college days and what she
was doing at the time. Allison admitted, you can go round and round with all the,
you know, philosophical stuff and political whatever and social stuff, but it makes me
think of going to Step shows, and you know, dancing and being with my
friends.. .umm, it depends. It depends on what kind of mood Im in. For Allison,
understanding a gangsta rap song depends on the mood she is in. However, even if
she is not in a particular mood to analyze a song, Allison reiterated that the derogatory
remarks made about women: always twist me a little bit.
Casey chose to listen to Bitches 2 by Ice-T, because the song sounded
controversial and she wanted to see what it was about. Like Allison, Casey was tom
with the song. According to Casey, I understand what hes saying. I just dont
necessarily agree with the way hes saying it. Casey identified Ice-Ts message as:
people dont always stand up for you, you know, people will fuck you over. But,
Casey does not agree or understand why Ice-T has to compare this behavior which is
negative to women. Then, he further degrades women by constantly referring to
women as bitches. And, as Casey states: To me, thats really anti-women...I dont
understand where thats coming from.. .1 mean it offends me as a women to listen to
stuff like that. Casey categorized the song as sort of gangsta rap. Casey went on
to define gangsta rap as: sort of in your face, sort of, I dont care what you think
about this shit. This is how Im going to say it. She also identified that: they call
each other names. Theres violence. However, she noted that the message being
conveyed through this style of rap music is not always negative.
This particular song reminded Casey of a movie in which she had seen Ice-T.
The movie was about the same type of situation that Ice-T was rapping about in the
song Bitches 2. It was about being double-crossed by someone. Casey felt this
style of rap music can be violent, but she does not like to judge the music. She goes
on to state: I would say its representing a slice of reality that Im not exposed to,
you know. And, Im not going to.. .going to say thats good or bad. Its just very
different from my reality. Casey is able to distance herself from the violence in the
rap song to a certain extent. However, at the same time, she does think that
derogatory statements about women can promote violence. She feels more strongly
about violence aimed at women, because as Casey states: I cant distance myself
from that as much, because, I guess, I am a woman no matter what.
Christine chose If I Ruled the World by Nas, because she really liked the
song. As she states: I like the words.. .1 havent gotten sick of it.. .1 like the way Nas
raps. Although she liked the song a lot and was familiar with it, she had a difficulty
categorizing the song. She was able to refer to the song as positive. In Christines
words, It goes in the positive section...hes not talking about, you know, killing lots
of people and stuff like that. She went on to identify what the song was about: I
mean what hes talking about is how a lot of people with the world was today.
Christine likes the message and the harmony of the chorus in the song. As she puts it,
Everything flows together nicely. It doesnt sound rough. In addition, she felt the
song made her think about change and reflection about how the world is at times.
Christine stated: .that makes me think of how you wish that.. .umm.. .people could
get along, and like, second chances... instead of all the violence, just have...I dont
know.. .people getting along. Christine feels that rap music does not always promote
violence, but instead, it makes people think more about it and that can be good and
Rich listened to Lil Ghetto Boy by Dr. Dre. He chose the song, because it
brought him back to a certain point in his life when the song first came out. He felt
the song was a situational rap song. For Rich, a situational rap song is: an
environmental type thing, whereas, the song is talking a certain thing like coming out
of the ghetto... thats all you know. He also added: thats their situation, their life.
Rich enjoyed both the music and the message in this song, and felt: it creates a visual
story-line in your head. In addition, Rich felt the song could be taken as being either
positive or negative depending on what the listener picked-up on when listening to the
song. On whether the song was positive or negative, Rich felt this varied from song
to song depending on the artist and his views on the subject matter involved.
Doug chose to listen to Prepare to Die by Ice-T. He chose the song because
he was familiar with Ice-T, but he had not heard this song. In addition, according to
Doug, the name just kind of caught my attention, Prepare to Die. He liked the
song, because it was Ice-T just rapping with no music behind his vocals. And Doug
felt, it was different. He compared it to poetry and defined it as: poetry type stuff
Id guess youd say.. .in a rap style. However, he also thought the song was gangsta
rap because of the issues contained within the song. He identified the issues as: he
was talking about his buddy being in prison and how all the Black people are
enslaved. Doug does not agree with the violence or the treatment of women in
gangsta rap, however he feels some rappers just rap about their everyday life. In the
end, Doug does listen to a lot of gangsta rap, because this style of rap music tends to
have louder bass and more of it.
Rick chose to listen to The Nigga You Love to Hate by Ice Cube. He chose
the song because he used to have the tape, and it was the most familiar song to him
out of the list provided. He liked the song and described Ice Cube as: definitely
angrier. Rick feels Ice Cube is just venting and saying things. Rick admitted that he
liked the song, however, as he stated: I liked it a lot more when I was twenty-five. I
dont think Id but it now. This is because, Rick felt Ice Cube was much more
poignant when the rap artist was with Niggas With Attitude (NWA). According to
Rick, when Ice Cube went solo: a lot of it just seemed inflammatory, just angry,
which isnt bad, just angry. Musically, Rick really enjoyed the Parliament sample in
the song. And, he liked Ice Cubes ability to mix and arrange certain effects in the
song really well. In terms of categorizing the song and Ice Cube, Rick had a little
difficulty. Rick felt Ice Cube was a political gangster that dealt with situations.
Rick felt that Ice Cube crossed back and forth between the two areas in his music and
raps. In Ricks words, because, you know, he was situations. He talked about
situations. If youre this, if youre a gangster, you deal with it this way. He talked
about hittin women, you know, misogyny goes along with gangsta rap. So, I would
put him as a little of each, social political. Not a responsible social political, but you
know. In addition, he felt gangsta rap perpetuates violence and uses peoples
violent natures to sell music. However, the gangsta rap artist is not the only one
accountable according to Rick. The record companies know what theyre selling and
the rap artists they are signing to record. In commenting on violence in the music,
Rick adds: Thats not just a rap thing. That goes across the board, movies and
everything else. Rick brought up that its the critics of rap and people who want to
attack rap that point out the violence in rap. However, as for gangsta rappers: they
dont put it out there anymore that Arnold Schwartzeneger does when he puts out
As for the misogynistic views of gangsta rappers, Rick thinks the view of
women held by gangsta rappers are created by the women hanging around them.
Rick goes on to state, Hence, theyre legitimate. Rick believes that the derogatory
portrayal of women is reflective of the women that these rappers have contact with
everyday. He also feels the issue of sexism and misogyny are part of a larger male
contradiction. Rick feels sexism is part of society and rap gets singled out because
the rappers are blatant in their examples, so you cant miss it.
While most of the participants agreed and categorized these songs as being
gangsta rap, they each had their own unique view as to what gangsta rap meant to
them. In addition, the participants also dealt with and understood the issues of
violence and misogyny differently.
Understanding and Meaning of Rap Music from Women
The songs chosen by the participants to listen to within this section were:
None of Your Business by Salt-N-Pepa, Macktress by Yo-Yo, Ladies First by
Queen Latifah, Heaven and Hell by Salt-N-Pepa, and I Cram to Understand U by
MC Lyte. There are only five songs listed because three participants chose the same
song. The participants were unfamiliar with women rappers and their music. The
women rap group, Salt-N-Pepa, was the group most often chosen by a study
participant. In addition, the male participants all had little exposure to rap music from
Tom chose None of Your Business by Salt-N-Pepa. He chose this song,
because the song used to get a lot of air play on M-TV and he was familiar with it.
He liked the music and thought it was fun to listen to, and it had a good positive
message. Tom felt the message was directed more towards women. He stated: I
think the message was against the traditional; the womans place is in the home or
whatever. Basically, it says its up to you. Its nobody elses business. He felt the
group was mainly talking about sex roles for women, but he thought the song could
be generalized to other areas of traditional female roles. In categorizing the song,
Tom was not sure how to categorize the music other than to refer to it as: a message
for women specifically. Tom did not really get too much out of the song. When
asked what it made him think of most, he stated: It made me visualize them, the
singers, theyre pretty. He liked that women rappers were contributing to the rap
music scene, because he felt they portray a more realistic message. But at the same
time, the biggest thing in the song that gave him understanding and meaning was
visualizing the women rap artists in the group.
Rich chose None of Your Business by Salt-N-Pepa. He chose the song
because he liked the message. Rich described the message as being about: Like,
everybody should just stay out of everybody elses business. Rich felt the song was
letting people know that they have to be true to themselves. Even though he felt
there was a positive message in the song, Rich categorized the song as party rap.
And, he identified the song as having a nice little beat to it. He does like women
rappers, but thought they have to catch up to level of male rappers. In his
understanding and meaning of rap music from women, Rick feels that women
contribute a different perspective to their songs, a womans point of view.
Christine chose Macktress by Yo-Yo. She picked the song because she
wanted to listen to something she was not familiar. Christine did not like the song.
According to Christine, the beat was bad. She continued, she cant rap...I dont
like female rappers that much. Christine was so turned off by this rap song that she
stated: it just sucked, and added: It shouldnt even be in rap. When asked why
she did not like the song or women rap artists in general, Christine felt women rap
artists make women look bad most of the time. In talking further, it appears Christine
did not care for the method some women rap artists use to convey a message. In
talking about Macktress, Christine felt: I like the message shes trying to convey,
but I dont think she does it well enough. And, it just makes women look bad. The
song was about not falling into a guys trap. Christine would like to see women
convey their messages and rap songs differently. She would like to see women
rappers be more creative and more positive than they are. It is good that women are
in the rap industry and that they are becoming successful. However, Christine would
like them to have a pro women image instead of going out and imitating male rap
artists. She does feel women rap artists are getting better, but for now, she likes male
rap artists better.
Allison chose Ladies First by Queen Latifah. Allison chose this song
because it was one of the first songs she heard by Queen Latifah. Allison felt that: it
brings back memories, but I think its still pretty timely. In addition, she added:
that song is one of the things that kind of gave me my first idea of what a true Black
feminist is. Allison felt Queen Latifah was one of the first women in rap to be truly
Allison was drawn to the song because she identified with it. In describing
her identification with the rap song, Allison stated: it echoed a lot of what I
believed. In addition, Allison was pleasantly surprised that there was a place in rap
music for those kinds of ideas, womens ideas. Allison could not stop expressing
her enthusiasm for this particular rap song. She also liked the beat, the music, and felt
the song flowed very nicely. In describing Queen Latifah, Allison added, shes a
really well-rounded musician. Allison thought that it was good that Queen Latifah
was able to balance her musical abilities with her beliefs and ideas. Allison felt
empowered by listening to the rap song, and felt women rappers have just as much to
add to the genre as male rappers, however, their music is from a different perspective.
A womans perspective and Allison liked the fact that it could be heard in rap music.
Casey chose to listen to None of Your Business by Salt-N-Pepa. For Casey,
the reason she chose the song is: they are these sexy women with attitude, and they
just dont care.. .1 absolutely admire that. Casey admires Salt-N-Pepa because these
women rappers are able to express and define their sexuality and assertiveness in their
own way and not in the way that men may want them to define it. As Casey states:
Theyre not trying to be what anyone else wants them to be. Theyre just being
straight-up about it. Casey likes everything about the song: the beat, the lyrics, and
the ideas. In addition, she really appreciated the humor in the song. She feels the
song has a very positive message for women and society in general. In comparing
women rap artists to male rap artists, Casey described women rappers as having a
different perspective on things. In describing this difference of perspective that
women rappers have, she stated: they seem to be talking about relationships and
love, and family, and friends, and social situations, and...umm...sometimes,
sometimes political sort of unity, or lets all get along kinds of things. Basically,
Casey feels that women rappers are generally missing the element of violence in
their rap songs at least according to the rap songs to which she has been exposed and
heard. There is a difference in rap music from women and men, because each gender
views things from their own unique perspective.
Doug chose Heaven and Hell by Salt-N-Pepa. He chose the song because
he likes Salt-N-Pepa and he wanted to hear what the song had to say. In addition,
Doug added: I like their voices. A few of them are good looking too.. .Ive always
liked women who sing. Doug liked and understood the song for musical and
aesthetic reasons and he really did not identify or get anything from the lyrics or
message within the song. He found it difficult to categorize the song, and he had not
heard that much music from women rappers. However, from what Doug had heard,
he felt women rappers were more down to earth in their lyrics and music. He felt
Heaven and Hell was both positive and negative at the same time. He felt the rap
song was dealing with violence but that it was not promoting it. And, in the end the
song was mainly nostalgic in Dougs understanding of it. He stated: It makes me
think of LA, because thats the way most of LA is.. Jve been down there once, and I
saw a lot of gang activity around there, you know.
Rick chose I cram to understand U by MC Lyte. He chose the song because
he liked it and he was familiar with it. In his words, I like it. I like MC Lyte. I like
several cuts that she produced... This cut was a re-mix from her first album. He
identified this as a re-mixed rap song, because the liked the original better. The
original was just more scratchy with more breaks. Rick felt the original version was
more raw. This version he felt was over produced in his view. In identifying this
rap song and MC Lyte, Rick referred to this style of music as East Coast.. .Late
Eighties...Just, B-girl. He understood the song to be about a relationship between a
man and a woman and how difficult it can be to understand someone in a relationship.
Rick felt the song was exactly like the title and main chorus in the rap song: Just like
a test, I cram to understand you. Rick felt the song was communicated so well that it
might have a basis in reality. However, even though Rick liked the song and was able
to understand the message within the song, it made him feel nostalgic once again. In
terms of differences between male and female rappers, Rick doesnt think it makes a
difference as he stated: Its not a matter of gender. As far as Im concerned, if its
good, I like it.
The participants derived different understanding and meaning from woman
rap artists and their rap songs. It varied again from individual to individual on how
they understood the song. Some understood a message while others basically only
liked the music or superficially commented on the women rap artists themselves.
Some of the women participants identified with the women rap artists while one
woman participant did not really care for rap music from women.
THEMES AND FINDINGS
In this section, I will identify the common themes that emerged in the
interviews and discussions with the study participants. Not all rap music listeners are
alike. However, central to my research is identifying common thoughts or ideas
about rap music that can help expose how the rap listener understands and makes the
music meaningful. For the purpose of this study, I have focused on themes that were
the most common among the study participants I interviewed. The themes identified
within this chapter are: 1.) Nostalgia and identification with a rap song, 2.) Difference
and difficulty in categorization of rap music styles, 3.) The point of view of the rap
song, 4.) The beat in a rap song, and 5.) Views of violence and the treatment of
women in rap music.
These five themes will be analyzed within the framework of musicology
theory and postmodern theory in an attempt to identify how the rap music listener
understands and develops meaning from this unique style of music.
Nostalgia and Identification with a Rap Song
All the study participants expressed a feeling of nostalgia or identification
with at least one song they heard. Some individuals felt familiarity for the particular
song they heard and it brought them back to the specific time in their life when they
first heard the song. The a rap song would remind them of what music they were
listening to at a specific time in the past or it would remind them about what was
going on in their lives in the past. Allison spoke of listening to BDPs My
philosophy and how it brings back memories of a certain time. Allison recalled
how naive she was about peer pressure situations and told of how My Philosophy
was the first rap song she admitted to liking. Back when the song first come out,
she was heavily into alternative music along with most of her friends, and she did
not know that she could like more than one style of music. For Rich, PEs Fear of a
Black Planet was identified as: ...just something that I wanted to listen to...to hear
from my past and what I was thinking at the time. Nostalgia was also identified by
some participants in their understanding and reflection of the lyrics in the particular
rap song they heard. While listening to Gangstas Fairytale, Tom felt that the song
was reminding him of the original Mother Goose fairytales and he was trying to
remember how the original fairytales were told. Doug felt that Arrested
Developments Fishin for Religion was reminding him about his father, because
his father is very religious.
In addition to being nostalgic and bringing back memories, many study
participants were able to identify with the message or lyrical content within a rap
song. Casey spoke of identifying with Arrested Developments Mamas Always on
Stage, because the song is about single mothers and that is her situation. Rick
spoke of feeling pride in his heritage and identity with PE when the rap group first
came out onto the rap music scene. For Christine, If I Ruled the World by Nas
reminded her of this past summer and she identified with the positive message in the
Although all the study participants felt reminiscent or identified with the
lyrical content within a particular rap song, the reasons the participants gave for the
experience varied for each individual. According to Feld (1994: 86-87), this diversity
of interpretation is due to the interpretive moves that emerge between the
engagement of the music listener and the sound object or event. Interpretive moves
are locational, categorical, associational, reflective, and evaluative moves or contexts
of interpretation that a listener will use to help situate a musical sound object in
relation to their own context of understanding. In short, each hearing, like human
social interaction generally has, as Erving Goffman (1983) insisted, a biography and a
history, and these may be more or less important to the particular hearing in question
at a specific time (Feld, 1994:89). So, the nostalgia or identity one individual had
for a song is very contextual and different for each individual.
Difference and Difficulty with Categorization of Rap Music Styles
This theme was constant throughout all the interviews that were completed.
All the participants categorized the rap music they listened to differently regardless of
the predominant theme contained in the lyrics of the song as defined by this
researcher. In addition, all the participants experienced difficulty with categorizing a
rap song they listened to at some point in the interview.
For the purpose of the study, I divided the rap songs I had available into three
different rap style categories: social/political, gangsta, and rap songs preformed by
women rap artists. I chose these particular style categories because of similar lyrical
content contained within the rap songs. In the case of women rap artists, they were all
grouped together on the basis of gender. Throughout the study, it was apparent that
the study participants chose to categorize the rap songs they listened to by other
means. Doug did not know if he could categorize Fishin for Religion by Arrested
Development. When asked what style or category he thought the rap song was from,
he hesitated to identify it and reluctantly defined it as more Hip-Hopish than rap.
By this description, Doug meant that the music was more up-beat and
instrumental than what he felt should be in a rap song. For Christine, rap music is
divided into three areas: songs about killing and stuff, songs that are middle of the
road, and songs about changing things. Under this perspective, the song If I
Ruled the World by Nas (that I identified as being a gangsta rap song) was identified
by Christine as a positive song about changing things in the world. Allison identified
BDPs My philosophy as East Coast rap while she identified Snoop Doggy
Doggs Gin and Juice as West Coast Gangsta rap. Some study participants found
it difficult to categorize the rap song they listened to all together. Rich did not know
how to categorize or define Salt-N-Pepas None of Your Business. In addition,
Christines feelings about the song Macktress were so strong in dislike that she
could not define the style of the song and stated: it shouldnt even be in rap.
The difference and difficulty with categorizing and defining a style for a
particular song is very contextual for each individual. Again, it is the interpretive
moves between the listener and the sound object that bring meaning and
understanding to the song in question which enables the listener to categorize the rap
song in relation to how they understand the context of the song and their own reality.
In addition to the interpretive moves used by the listener to help understand the
music, Feld (1994: 90-91) suggests that there are frames and boundaries that the
listener will also use to help situate the music in terms of expressive ideology,
identity, and coherence. The expressive ideology, identity, and coherence frames and
boundaries of a musical composition help the listener identify and locate the
characteristics in one piece of music with the same characteristics of other pieces of
music from the listeners musical history. Using this comparative frame of historical
musical reference the listener is able to set boundaries on the music or song in
question and categorize it.
The Rap Artists Point of View
All the study participants talked about either the rap artist expressing his/her
point of view on a particular subject within a rap song, or they discussed how rap
music in general has the ability to express many different points of view.
Rich acknowledged that one of the reasons he likes informational rap (as he
described it) is the ability it has to express and contain many different points of view
on a topic or subject within one rap song. For Allison, rap music is able to express
different points of view because the music is very regional or locational much of the
time. Allison feels that rap music is able to express different styles of living which
naturally produce different points of view. In identifying the difference in points of
view, Allison pointed out the difference and distinction between East and West Coast
rap. Some participants felt that a rap artists point of view would always be in a rap
song because the rap song is often about the rap artists life. Christine felt Nas If I
Ruled the World was about Nas wanting to have people understand him as him.
In addition to finding that rap music can express the individual rap artists
point of view, some of the study participants noticed the distinction in points of view
between male and female rappers. Casey spoke of how women rap artists have a
different perspective on things. She felt that women rappers (from the ones to
which she has been exposed) deal with different issues in their rap songs. For Casey,
they seem to be talking about relationships, and love, and family, and friends, and
social situations.. .but, they seem to be missing that element of violence. Casey
thought this had to do with a general difference in the female perspective or point of
view. As she states: females tend to look more for connection and relationships and
the people oriented aspects of what goes on. In the end, Casey was very adamant
that in rap music: you can see the flavor of maleness/femaleness represented in their
music just by the things they talk about and the way they talk about it. Tom also
expressed that he felt there was a difference in the point of view between male and
female rap artists. When listening to Salt-N-Pepas None of Your Business, Tom
pointed out that the song portrays a more realistic view of women than that offered
by many male rappers. And, Tom added: its hard to identify with a lot of the
messages because they are so women oriented.
Once again, the differences in point of view that the rap music listener is able
to discern within certain rap songs falls back on Felds (1994) interpretive moves.
This is specifically referring to associational interpretive moves where the listener
is able to relate the ideas/views in a particular rap song with particular ideas and
imagery that the listener has about those same ideas/views presented in the song. In
addition, the listener also associates his/her view of who is supposed to hold views on
certain ideas presented within a rap song (i.e., whether a view in a rap song belongs to
a man or womans point of view).
The Beat and Flow of the Rap Song
Another theme that emerged from all the interviews at some point was the
discussion about the beat and flow of the rap music. In terms of being attracted to a
rap song, it varied from participant to participant on whether they liked the rap song
because of the music or lyrics/ideas in a rap song. When it was identified that the
music was the main attraction to the song, the beat and flow were the favorite objects
of focus within the music of the rap song.
The beat in rap music is what the music is all about for Doug. According to
Doug, his like for rap music is very simple: I just like the beats. And the best way
to get those beats for Doug is through the bass in rap music. It is the beat of the bass
that drives Doug to the music more than any other element. Doug summed up his like
for the beat and bass in rap music by stating: I like to jump around in my apartment
with the bass and stuff. Like Doug, Christine appreciates rap music for the beat of
the music. However, Christines distinction is that rap music should have a smooth
bass feel and it must flow well in combination with the lyrics. If the rap song does
not have a good beat, it can turn her off to a song. One of the main reasons she did
not like Macktress by Yo-Yo was because she did not like the beat. In Christines
words, the beat was bad. In support of how important the beat is in rap music, Rick
identified that the beat in rap can carry the music. In describing the beat in Blue
Steel in the Hour of Chaos, he stated: its just almost like a chant.. .or a mind
thing... you just get into it, you know, all the way through.
The appreciation for the beat in rap music can be understood through Keifs
(1994) ideas about musics participatory discrepancies. According to Keil (1994:
96), the beat is a processual kind of participatory discrepancy that is out of sync and
out of time. By this, Keil is referring to the relationship of all the various beats
competing within a song that work together to develop the groove of the music of that
song. There is the beat between the drummer and the bass player, the beat between
the drummer and the hom player, the beat between the hom and bass player, etc. that
combine to make up the overall beat and groove within a particular song. According
to Keil (1994: 153-156), this combination of beats within a song creates tension and
invites the listener into the song to help participate in defining the beat and groove of
the music. In addition Keil (1994: 59-60), notes that the beat and groove are
subjective for the musician depending on how often he/she wants to repeat that
certain rhythm or beat. So, a listeners ability to navigate these beats and grooves is
also a very subjective experience. If the listener can navigate through all the various
beats and grooves going on within a song to help participate with the song, they will
tend to understand and like the beat and groove in a song. If the listener can not
identify all the different beats and grooves in a song, they will tend to not appreciate
the song as much whether it is rap or another form of music.
Violence and the Derogatory Treatment of Women in Rap Music
The symbolic violence in rap music can be a site of conflict or apathy for
listeners. According to John Fiske (1993), it is in analyzing and following this
tension and conflict that we can learn more about the different forms of symbolic
violence that are popular and the interests at work in the desire to control or repress
them. The violence in popular cultural forms such as rap music is a comment on
unequal social relations. Symbolic violence in rap music can show how the social
order of society is ordered. Depending on where the rap music listener is located in
context to this symbolic violence within the music and the larger social order of
society (where real social violence is located), each listener will have a different
understanding of this symbolic violence presented within the music. All the interview
participants had varying opinions on the violence and the derogatory treatment of
women in some rap music styles.
For Allison, rap artists can glamorize violence by making entertainment out of
it, and it scares her to a certain extent. She cannot tell all the time whether the
violence the rap artist conveys in a song is real or not. Because of this ambiguity,
Allison feels some people may take these violent views to be real and base their
assumption of Black culture on a narrow style of rap music. However, she does not
feel that they advocate or promote violence to such an extreme that rap music would
cause someone to act on what they heard in a rap song. However, at the same time,
Allison does feel that the derogatory treatment of women can effect the view the
listener has about women. As she states: it perpetuates a hatred for women, and it
perpetuates a certain kind of violence towards women.
Like Allison, Casey felt that general violence in rap was just a matter of the
rap artists point of view. For Casey, violence can be contained and promoted within
some rap music, but she did not want to put a judgement on the issue or artist. Casey
describes her view about violence in rap music by stating: I would say its
representing a slice of reality that Im not exposed to, you know. And, Im not going
to say thats good or bad. Its just very different from my reality. However, like
Allison, Casey also had mixed feelings on these issues. At one point, Casey felt
she could distance herself from the violence to a certain extent, because like she said,
its not my reality. But, she was having trouble with this position, because it varied
for her. She can distance herself from the general violence in rap music, but she did
not feel she could distance herself from the violence and derogatory treatment of
women portrayed in some rap music. Because, as Casey put it in describing her view
on the derogatory treatment of women in rap music: I guess.. .1 am a woman no
matter what.. .no matter what you do. And in any circumstance, I find that
The conflict in the attitudes that Allison and Casey have can be analyzed to
show the inherent unequal social relations at work in their understanding and in the
larger context of society to which they both belong. Allison and Casey do not like or
support the symbolic violence. However, they are not calling for censorship or
repression of this music. As women in an unequal social structure where the feminine
self is devalued and presented as less than the masculine self, these two women are
able to identify with and recognize how the symbolic violence against women in rap
music is a reflection of the real social violence in society. However, their conflict
arises over the view of symbolic violence against women and its hypothetical effects
and the real social violence against women and its concrete effects. Thus, they are not
calling for censorship or repression of the derogatory view of women within some rap
music. Allison and Casey understand, as Fiske (1993:133) points out that: censoring
speech or images has rarely helped the subordinate, whose problems are social rather
than symbolic. Censoring or repression of speech is a tool used by the existing
unequal social system to preserve the dominant and negate challenge from below at
the level of the oppressed or subordinate people in the system. Thus, the importance
of what was listened to was not attributed to the symbolic but was attributed to terms
of relevance and real social importance.
Tom differed in his understanding about violence and the derogatory treatment
of women in rap music. Tom, like Casey, is able to distance himself from the violent
content of some rap. Tom can do this so much so that he finds violence and the
derogatory treatment of women tunny. For Tom, it is all entertainment. As Tom
states: its funny when they are talking about gang shit and all that. He goes on to
add: I guess it is kind of messed up to think thats funny.. .1 guess it is just hard to
imagine living that way. For Tom, the violence and derogatory treatment of women
in some rap music is so glorified and so far removed from his reality that he cannot
and does not take them seriously. As Tom states: I think it is an attention thing to
shock you. And, Im no different. It is just the shock of... I cant believe they said
that. It makes it entertaining.
At the same time that Allison and Casey experienced some conflict over the
symbolic violence in rap music, Tom was able to listen to the symbolic violence in
rap with little conflict in his understanding of it. For Tom, it was entertainment. The
symbolic violence does not disrupt his position within the larger social structure in
society. He is a White male within a graduate business program (a dominant
position) where symbolic violence in general and against women reaffirms his
position in the social order. Thus, there is no conflict in his understanding of the
music, and he understands the music as funny entertainment that is fantasy that has
little effect on the real social violence in reality.
Rick felt that violence and the derogatory treatment of women contained in
some rap music was no different than any other form of entertainment in society. He
felt the rap artists (and according to Rick, you hesitate to use the word artist with
some of them) and the record companies perpetuate the image of violence to sell
records. However, as Rick points out: its just one part of rap. He feels that the
issue of violence and the derogatory treatment of women have gotten blown out of
proportion in relation to the whole of rap music. Rick feels that it is the critics of rap
who want to attack rap music and exploit this violent part of rap music. Rick felt the
issues of violence in rap music are no different than the way Arnold
Schwartzeneger puts it out there in society. Its all fantasy.
However, Rick also varied his view of violence when it came to the
derogatory treatment of women in rap music. The derogatory treatment of women he
felt was legitimate. Rick felt that what some rappers have to say about women is
probably taken from the women surrounding the rap artists life. Rick was referring
to rap groupies that some rap artist may have to deal with daily. However, it was
interesting that he felt violence in general was fantasy and that violence against
women was legitimate. Although, in the end, Rick identified that the derogatory
view of women was not only a problem in rap music, but it was a male
contradiction and it had to do with the larger issue of sexism in society as a whole.
Rick had a little conflict with the symbolic violence in rap music, and he
recognized its relationship with real social violence. He did identify the dominant
social structures at work with the symbolic violence presented within the music such
as record companies and Arnold Schwartzeneger. However, Rick like Tom was
able to reduce this conflict with the symbolic violence directed towards women in rap
music. This type of violence he though could be legitimate at times. Thus, he was
reaffirming his dominant male position. Unlike Tom, Rick did recognize that this
male contradiction was a part of the larger social structure of dominance and
subordination although it was in a limited way. He was able to do this because as a
Black male he occupies two positions in the larger unequal social order; a position
that is both dominant and subordinate.
Postmodern theory can also help understand the different views of the study
participants have on violence and the derogatory treatment of women in rap.
Baudrillards (1981) theory on simulacra and simulation and hyperreality can help
understand how the participants confusion in dealing with the issues of violence can
be understood. It is no wonder that the study participants are somewhat confused
about the violence and the derogatory treatment of women in some rap music,
because rap music violence is the simulacra and simulation of violence in reality.
Violence is so glamorized in some rap music like that of gangsta rap that it is
hyperreal. In Baudrillards perspective, when a simulacra of reality becomes
hyperreal (i.e., a more real copy than the real original), the line separating the copy
from the original is lost or blurred and the distinction between the two becomes
nonexistent. So, the violence contained within rap music is realer than real at times,
and this blurs the listeners ability to distinguish the real violence from that of the
simulation in rap music. In addition, the simulation of violence in rap is then able to
inform and define real violence that may appear in reality.
In trying to better understand how Baudrillards (1981) thoughts on simulacra
and simulation help understand how a rap music listener understands the issues of
violence contained in rap music, it will be helpful to look at examples from the
interviews collected. Allison and Casey feel that some of the violence in rap may be
real, and they have a hard time making the distinction between what is real and what
is not within the music. As identified, Allison and Casey felt most of the general
violence in rap music was glamorized in rap music and probably did not have basis
in reality. However, when the violence was directed towards women, they felt the
violence was real, and it could have further consequences in a real life situation. On
the other hand for Tom, the violence was so hyperreal that he could not imagine
living that way. The hyperreal violence is so glorified that the real violence does not
exist within a certain extent within Toms reality. The violence is so hyperreal in rap
music that there is little distinction between the real and the simulacrum of violence,
so violence starts to lose all meaning and Tom can refer to it as funny
entertainment. Baudrillard calls this the implosion of meaning where it is possible
for the simulacra and simulation to inform and define the real instead of the real
defining what the copy or simulacra should be. This implosion of meaning and
blurring of the simulation of violence with real violence in rap music is what makes
the study participants understand violence in rap music differently where some
individuals identify with it and some do not.
Lyotard (1989: 15-16) would feel that this confusion and the resulting
different understandings that the different music listeners have about the violence
within rap music are both useful. The different understandings would help provide
for a context of multiplicities where rap music violence can mean different things
for different listeners. This difference in understanding is helpful, because it prevents
hegemonic ideas on a subject or social issue like the meaning of violence.
In addition to the help of postmodern theory in explaining the difference and
difficulty that the study participants had with understanding violence in rap music,
Felds (1994: 86-87) interpretive moves can also help identify how the study
participants understood the issue of violence contained within some rap music. With
respect to the theme of violence, the study participants would have used their
evaluative moves to help them understand the violence present in a rap song. The
evaluative move would help the rap music listener define how appropriate the use of
violence was within a song depending how the listener defines and understands
violence within his/her own context.
Within the discussion of the common themes that were found to be a part of
the study participants understanding of rap music, I presented models of
understanding music from the field of musicology and postmodern theory. The use of
musicology is very useful in identifying how important the participants
social/historical context is in understanding and deriving meaning from a rap music
song in addition to any other form of music. The social historical experience of each
participant was influential in how they personally understood, related, and reacted to
the particular rap song they were listening to at a particular time.
The social historical experience of the rap music listener is important to the
understanding of rap music, because it can help inform us about why some
individuals view issues contained within rap music one way while others have a
totally different interpretation or reaction to the music. In addition, identifying the
importance of an individuals social historical context and their understanding of how
their particular context relates to the larger social forces in society can help to explain
how the listener understands the music.
Understanding the rap music listeners perspective within the framework of
postmodernism is helpful in identifying the many contradictions that individuals have
to deal with in society to try and understand different experiences like that of listening
to rap music. While Baudrillards (1981) theory of simulacra and hyperreality may
not be a theory that can be scientifically proven, it is useful for understanding the
many hyperreal items and contexts a contemporary rap music listener must navigate
to gain understanding and meaning of rap music.
The main themes that emerged in the qualitative interviews conducted with
the seven participants in this study suggest that all the rap music listeners have a lot of
experience to contribute to the understanding and meaning of rap music. In addition,
this analysis demonstrated that rap music listeners are not just blindly taking in and
acting on the messages they hear in rap music. Rap music listeners actively listen and
participate in understanding and defining what this creative, information packed, and
controversial music medium is all about especially to themselves. And, this is
important, since they are the consumers and audience of this style of music.
In addition, it was interesting to note that the participants responses to
listening to the different styles of rap music did not always correspond to what some
writers and critics of rap tell us the music is about and what it is trying to convey. For
the most part, the participants did not get a lot of the messages presented within a
song or at least could not express their understanding of the messages in an interview.
Ones reaction to rap music was very situational and nostalgic. It usually depended
on what type of mood the participants were in to discuss or contemplate the issues
contained within a song. What this study demonstrated is that most rap music writers
and academics need to put down their pens and just listen. Because, for the
participants in this study, rap music was understood for many other reasons than what
the lyrics in the song were conveying.
However, I am not saying that nobody hears messages from within rap music,
because messages are heard in rap music to a certain extent. This is especially true
about the messages dealing with the derogatory treatment of women and messages
offered from women rappers. These issues were understood within the context of
gender, and it was interesting that understanding gender messages within rap music
for the study participants was divided along gender lines.
The women participants generally understood and identified with messages
from the women rappers. In addition, the female participants also better understood
and took offense to the derogatory treatment of women in rap music. The male
participants generally did not fully understand or identify with many of the messages
from women rappers. If they did understand female oriented messages, it was a
superficial understanding. For example, both Rich and Tom identified that None of
Your Business by Salt-N-Pepa was about women wanting to take control of their
own sexuality. Tom felt that the song had a more realistic view of women in terms of
being assertive and defining their own situation. However, the main thing Tom and
Rich both thought about after the song was how the female rappers are pretty easy
on the eyes.
This qualitative study on the rap music listeners perspective is helpful in
bringing a fuller understanding of rap music and how people understand the music
and messages within it. This study can suggest certain themes that rap music listeners
have in common in trying to navigate the many elements that surround and that are
contained within the music.
Recommendations for Future Research
Future studies in the area of understanding rap music need to give a platform
to the music listener to explain in their own words what the music means to them. In
addition, future studies need to make sure they have a diverse sample population in
regards to race, education, age, and economic background. The participants within
this study represented an age difference of seventeen years with the youngest age
being sixteen and the oldest age being thirty-three. In future studies, it would be
useful to focus on a younger population that is completely immersed in the style and
culture of rap music and hip-hop.
In addition, future research on the perspective of the rap music listener should
be done in combination with quantitative studies, so that any identification of
behavioral effects from listening to rap music can be better understood and explained
by the rap music listener. And lastly, further research into all aspects of
understanding rap music need to take place in all areas of this musical style.
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