Saturday, May 26, 2007

hip-hop as dance music

A few ideas I've been kicking around as I study for an exam on the relationship between IP and creativity ..

My program has a field exam that you design yourself, so I built a little reading list and worked on some questions, and here I am writing about it which is part of studying. no it is, actually, because the exam is me explaining the key ideas on these issues, and I found myself wanting to practice explaining. But I will give more backstory here than I would in an exam.

I was invited to join the Writers Block, with hip-hop academic luminaries (I feel quite the satellite, or comet maybe).

I'm honored to have been invited to participate, and after reading and talking a bit with people in the scene, I've started to wonder: who is talking about hip-hop as dance music?

Being mostly an instrumentals-focused dj myself, and a dj who focusing on dancing, I'm interested in this.. where is meaning, when people are dancing? because it seems like most of the attention on hip-hop is on the MCs, and on sort of professionalized dancing like b-boying/b-girling.. but what about the fact that hip-hop is the default party music in the US? is that not considered what hip-hop is about?

why is that?

It's important. Most of the hip-hop scholarship I've read focuses on authors - on vocalists and producers. And on trying to define almost anything valuable in hip-hop as "legitimate" authorship. This (authorship/originality) is is the way you need to frame yourself if you want to claim copyright ownership - but how much does it really describe what's important about the experience of the music?

I think we need to look at the whole social environment of music, which includes the people sometimes called the "audience." Again, I'll put forward: the difference between "audience" and "artist" or between "reception" and "production" is a difference that's drawn partly in order to gain status, to parcel out rights. I don't think it's a coincidence that that is how copyright works - by assigning rights mostly based on which category you fit into.

fans, dancers, audiences - these folks make the music as much as the folks called "artists." I don't just mean that someone we see in a club dancing madly may go home and make music inspired by that experience later. Although that is certainly true and important. While artists obviously love other people's music and draw on it. Again, true and important.

But beyond that, the experience of dancing madly to hip-hop (or whatever) is part of what creates the music as it is experienced, and what gives it value and meaning. If fostering musical creativity is important (what (c) law people often care about), or if understanding what hip-hop is about is important, then fans, audiences, the so-called "receivers" need to get their due attention here.

The distinction between "author" and "consumer" is only interesting in terms of what it can get you in our current system. Culture is socially produced and all the elements are necessary. So the "audience" for hiphop, including dancers, and the way hip-hop works on, in and for the body, should not be left out of our story or our analysis.


  1. You might want to read some of the west african music books on drumming and dance. i read one way back, the title of which I'm forgetting, but I remember thinking how much information on black music in America really is done from a white perspective, that is, performer performing for audience. the concept of music in many west african cultures is not as Music (sound-based), but incorporates a lot more cultural stuff, more like "Hip Hop" does.

    The most interesting part for me was that the book I read actually spoke to the aesthetic principals in making a crowd dance. Not just in vague terms, but in fairly specific ways. I'll see if I can find it in my library....

  2. that sounds really interesting! I'd love to read more on that stuf in relation to non

    Part of what I'm also getting at, though, is that there is something political about avoiding talking about hip-hop as dance music. Something that is done (the not-talking) by black music writers and black (or not white) hip-hop scholars.

    the focus on the *message* (particularly people who want to claim hip-hop for good only), or the intent of hip-hop makers including producers, relies, I think, on validating the process and product in fairly traditional ways. Claiming traditional definitions of authorship.

    My point is partly those traditions are not free of their own power dynamics...

  3. Bingo. Tracing hiphop to its common root in early '80s AfroFuturist music -- think Afrika Bambaata's classic Planet Rock -- reveals the dance beneath the flow. One needn't go back this far but Planet Rock is neither hiphop nor electro nor techno nor house; it's all of these and more (more as it samples Kraftwerk). Kodwo Eshun made this point in More Brilliant Than The Sun but he also tried to elevate AfroFuturist hiphop beyond "representational" hiphop (I'm from the ghetto, the street etc. vs. 'space is the place'). This was something of a strategy of the time but now it seems that the kind of scholarship built up around techno (say with Graham St John and Eshun and Reynolds) needs to come in to the land of hiphop -- as you say focusing on the environmental reactions or rather the phenomenology of hiphop as bodyrockmusic and as catalyst of sampling and dissemination. Thus not focusing on the lyric/icist, producer or author but rather on the flow itself, which is the ephemeral aesthetic of hiphop that cannot be contained within prevalent academic discourses (especially those of contemporary identity politics). best, tobias

  4. hi larisa
    sorry i didn't read this article but actually i wanted to get in touch with you and don't know how else to do so. i met you in berkeley when you were part of the panel discussion DIY=>DIT in May.
    i gave you a music CD project that i have been doing called "me2u".
    i just wanted to ask you if you maybe wanted to submit to the next one i am organizing?
    can you maybe send me your regular email address and i will send you the guidelines?
    also can you send me matt's email as well cause i would like to ask him to submit too.

    thanks larisa,


  5. this is deej, currently in taiwan (again)

    get what you're saying about hip hop; you sound pretty much the anthropologist rather than cultural studies person here. in that regard, have you seen ian condry's relatively new book on japanese hip hop? he has an entire section on genba (roughly, the "scene"), which although misinformed by obsession with globalization, might be useful conceptually

  6. Hey DJ!

    I'm really interested in what the difference is between cultural studies and anthropology. Where would you put someone like Henry Jenkins?

    It's interesting because cultural studies folks (I think) were the folks that first talked about fans, audiences, the way style and other things like that were part of creativity and part of what went into music scenes..

    I have read Condry's other stuff, I'll check that out, it sounds interesting!