Underground Hip Hop:
Conflict Honored, Jewels Kicked and Hope Elevated
“It‟s a precious thing, this book. I‟ve never known another like it. It‟s a great encyclopedia of beauty that
could so easily have been lost if …the gunman had aimed a little to the left. Like some poems of Neruda‟s,
it is a treasure house of language, in service to life. But it wasn‟t written by a diplomat.” (Bly)
In this rich and evocative foreword to an equally rich and evocative book, Robert Bly is
speaking of the book‟s author, Martin Prechtel, who recounts his experience becoming a shaman in a Guatemalan village. But Bly might easily be speaking of the “encyclopedia
of beauty” and the “treasure house of language” that is underground hip hop. It is, like
Prechtel‟s memoir, in “service to life”. And it, like Prechtel‟s book, might easily have
been lost. And, just as Bly says of Prechtel, underground hip hop wasn‟t written by a
This description of hip hop music may seem puzzling, even hyperbolic, to any but its
most ardent fans. Yet by listening deeply to the “jewels” (Truths in hip-hop slang.) these
raps kick, the ancient connections between story and healing, between grief and praise,
between suffering and transcendence, emerge.
An academic paper about hip-hop is oxymoronic given its kinetic, vibrant, dynamic
aesthetic. Yet this art form deserves more serious and widespread attention. Jewels are
being kicked around here; we need to pick them up and treasure them since they offer us
valuable ways of healing—ways out of our divisions and racism and alienation.
We discuss five related themes that are important in understanding underground hip-hop:
Rich, Complex and Inventive Language
Commercial: Bad; Underground: Good.
Ancient Mythologies, Updated.
Jewels, Carbonized Coal.
Inverting, Naming and Knowing the Value System.
Rich, Complex and Inventive Language. Any analysis of Underground Hip-Hop must
exclaim about the language. Metaphors are drawn from an amazing variety of sources—
from the secular, the sacred and the profane. References, for example, come from
religions ranging from Buddhism to Christianity to Islam (as well as passing references to
such African religious beliefs as a “Mantis Rapture” (Praying Mantis is a God in mythic
stories from many primal cultures in Africa and Australia.) and to the common Voodoo
practice of pouring liquor on the ground in tribute to a god or to a fallen friend.
“True in the game, as long as blood is blue in my veins, I pour a Heineken brew to my deceased crew on memory lane.” (Nas, “Memory Lane”)
Just about every underground hip hop artist has remarkable word play in every song, but
just to chose one example from one noted master of the hip hop message, consider these
lines from Mos Def:
“Now the world is drinkin it
Your moms, wife, and baby girl is drinkin it
Up north and down south is drinkin it
You should just have to go to your sink for it
The cash registers is goin "cha-chink!" for it
Fluorocarbons and monoxide
Got the fish lookin cockeyed
Used to be free now it cost you a fee” (Mos Def, “New World Water”)
In this rap, Mos Def is satirizing the current fashion for bottled water, something we
should be able to drink from our faucet, but which now we blithely pay for. After three
lines that end with the repeated “drinkin it” the variation in sound of “sink for it”
underscores the important point that it should be free and readily available. Now, though,
it costs, as the next line rhymes, “‟cha-chink!‟ for it”. Then we consider the pollutants in
the next line, which begins a new rhyming sound: “Fluorocarbons and monoxide” which
rhymes in the next line with “fish lookin cockeyed. “ Then this section concludes with an
internal rhyme: “Used to be free now it cost you a fee.” Where the rhyme between “free”
and “fee” summarizes and underscores the point.
Listeners commonly observe that underground hip hop and even commercial hip hop
focus on the violent, murderous, poverty-stricken lives of the underground rappers and
their communities, but those listeners don‟t always note the powerful, inventive and fresh
language that the rappers use. As one example, there are frequent creative connections
between those themes of violence, murder and poverty and the roles that the rappers
assume on stage:
“My mic check is life or death,
Breathin‟ a sniper‟s breath.” (Nas, “It ain‟t hard to tell.”)
Of course an ongoing theme that calls out very creative wordplay concerns money.
Given the ambivalence that the underground hip-hop artists have about money and
success, these themes are particularly complicated:
For example in the conclusion of “C.R.E.A.M.” the line summarizes the array of violent
and illegal choices detailed in two previous verses:
“Niggas gots to do what they gotta do to get a bill, YaknowwhatI‟msayin?
Cuz we can‟t just get by no more.” (Wu-Tang Clan , “C.R.E.A.M.”)
Hip Hop lyrics continually echo this assertion: “…We can‟t just get by no more.”
[emphasis added to reflect the emphasis in the delivered line.] There must be more. We
recall the famous line from Martin Luther King‟s “I have a dream” speech, where he
invokes the metaphor of a promissory note from the government that is returned, marked
“insufficient funds.” In the intervening years between that line by Dr. King and this line
by the Wu-Tang, impatience of the African American community has hardened to a firm
“…We can‟t just get by no more.” There must be more.
The rap then ends with the repeated acronym, itself a most creative metaphor:
Cash Rules Everything Around Me (Repeat three times)
This metaphor of “cream” (which is slang for money) works on many levels. Cream is
white; it rises to the top; it is rich; it separates itself from the rest of the beverage. At the
same time, the words the Wu-Tang attach to the acronym make clear that Cash Rules.
The Wu-Tang Clan acknowledges that fact and describes the limited choices each
member can make in light of that fact. We may hate the fact; it may make us furious, but
Cash Rules Everything Around Me.
Another theme that provokes creative wordplay is the rapper‟s own need to guide and to
educate. Whether the rapper is trying to teach an unappreciative younger crowd:
“To kick the truth to the young black youth While shorty‟s running wild, smokin sess, drinkin beer And ain‟t trying to hear what I‟m kickin in his ear. (Wu-Tang Clan , “C.R.E.A.M.”)
Or taking the more upbeat and inspirational approach of Black Star:
“I‟m dark like the side of the moon you don‟t see, when the moon shine newly.
You know who else is a Black Star?
You know who else is a Black Star?
Who? th Light)”) We.” (Mos Def and Talib Kweli, “Astronomy (8
Underground rappers continually display a hope that their messages, their jewels, will
educate, move, inspire, elevate their listeners, despite the violence and injustice and lack
of options they describe with such vividness and power.
Finally, there is a common, related theme that their personal destiny is a dead end. Given
the hopefulness of the messages above, this honest and sometimes depressing prediction
may be a way to keep the notes of hope real.
For example, Nas raps that “odds against Nas are slaughter” even in the song that repeats
the hopeful assertion that the “World is yours.” (Nas, “The World is Yours”)
Similarly, Inspectah Deck remembers when he was busted at the age of 15:
“The court played me short, now I face incarceration. Pacin—going up state‟s my destination.” (Wu-Tang Clan , “C.R.E.A.M.”)
Though hip hop will “…rock and shock the nation/Like the Emancipation Proclamation.”
(U-God, “Da Mystery of Chessboxin‟”) The individual rapper will not be freed. When
Nas raps that “…a nickel plate is my fate.” (Nas, “Memory Lane”) He could be referring
to either the fact that he has to pack a nickel-plated pistol or that one will end his life.
Either way, a common theme of hip-hop is that there is no escape for the individual
rapper—certainly commercial success is not a solution. There is hope for the community
but not for the individual. Part of the point of this distinction is that the problems are
larger and more complex than any one person can solve—larger and will take longer to solve than one individual‟s lifetime, especially when that lifetime can so quickly, easily
and commonly be cut short by random and pervasive violence.
And through all these and many other themes, the artists draw on an amazing variety of
metaphors, from elevated and literary references [Invisible Man in Mos Def‟s “Hip Hop”]
to rich references to their everyday lives, to scholarly cross referencing to other artists—
whom they may respect [Mos Def refers to the Wu-Tang‟s song “C.R.E.A.M” in his song, “New World Water”] or actively dis-respect [Many commercially successful rappers get
dissed by the underground hip-hop artists. A most biting example is the slam from Talib
Kweli comparing commercially successful rappers to slaves who brag about “who‟s got
the flyest chain.” This is discussed more fully in the next section.]. Since these
references are for their local community, and since they are delivered live in dazzling
rapid-fire “flow,” we must conclude that the community is both more attentive and more
erudite than the casual listener from the dominant culture.
Finally, considering the language, we must say a word about the slang, which is a dense
jargon that has developed and flourishes on the streets. Knowing this jargon is certainly
helpful in understanding the raps. At the same time, the metaphors and the rich array of
sources the artists draw from are accessible even if the listener does not fully understand
the jargon. There are two important points about the jargon: 1)it is for the community
that nurtures it; 2)its richness, inventiveness, and energy argues for the vitality and orality
of the culture it springs from. At the same time, we are convinced that insight and
rewards can come from considering underground Hip Hop even if the listener does not
get the slang. We also acknowledge that the slang itself is being adopted rapidly and
eagerly by the dominant culture.
We begin this essay with this analysis of language because it is the first thing casual
listeners discover when they dip beneath the dense texture of rhythms and listen for the
first time to the words. But, though it is the first thing we dig, it is merely the opening of
a catacomb of riches…
Commercial: Bad; Underground: Good. There are so many reasons to distrust and condemn the commercial culture, but consider this one first—what else can you do with
the force that has enslaved you? Even to state it that baldly is to do a disservice to hip-
hop. We grant that the image of slavery is a common one in underground hip hop:
“Early natives related to thrones of David/captured by some patriots, and thrown on slave
ships/they stripped us naked, while they wives picked they favorite…” (Killah Priest ,
Still, these references to slavery are subtle, powerful, specific, complex. Consider, for
example Talib Kweli on his album, Reflection Eternal, “These cats drink champagne and
toast death and pain like slaves on ship talking bout who got the flyest chain.” [“African Dream”] Kweli is referring to rappers and the poor blacks who follow them and their
obsession with gold and platinum, diamond-encrusted necklaces. The brilliance of the
metaphor, of course, is that this obsession is slammed by connecting those bejeweled
chains with the chains of slavery. Thus, the obsession with who‟s got the “flyest”
[coolest] chain is totally, shockingly ludicrous. From Kweli‟s perspective, chains equal
slavery. Fly‟s not an option.
In the underground hip hop culture, commercial equals bad, dishonest, sold out, un-
genuine, tasteless—everything undesirable. In contrast, non-commercial is every way the
opposite—true, righteous, gritty, and delicious. From the point of view of the
underground hip-hop artist, commercial success is therefore worse than unreliable and
offers no true hope of salvation or progress. The hatred they show of commercialism, is
deeper, though. It goes to the desire to speak truth from the heart. You can‟t buy that,
can‟t pay for it. It must come from deep within. From the “deep flow” of our deepest
souls. A place where commerce can‟t go.
Ancient Mythologies, Updated. The world of hip-hop has a mythic dimension. Whether it is the myth of ancient wisdoms or newly invented or newly layered riches, the
themes of myth are common. From the rich Biblical references of Killah Priest to the
complex over layering of Eastern martial and mystical traditions of the Wu Tang (which
arose from playful reinterpretations of the ever-present martial arts films that showed up
so frequently on free TV in ghetto homes), mythical themes command a central place in
underground hip hop.
Ancient. References abound to the Bible and to the Koran and to general knowledge of
threligious systems. For example, in “Astronomy (8 Light) Mos Def and Talib Kweli create an interactive definition of love:
[Talib Kweli] I love rockin tracks like John Coltrane love Naema
[Mos Def] Like the student love their teacher
[Talib Kweli] Like the Prophet love Khadeja
[Mos Def] Like I love my baby features
[Talib Kweli] Like the creator love all creatures
This definition of “love” is put in the context of “rockin‟ tracks” or rapping (which we‟ll
discuss more later) but we note here that the Prophet‟s love for Khadeja (the Prophet Mohammed‟s first wife) is connected to the more general love of a student for a teacher
and Mos Def‟s love of his baby‟s features. And it has an ecumenical note in the last line
which nods to the “creator [not specified as to the particular religious sect] loves all creatures.”
This particular rap opens with a creative definition of blackness. And again, a reference
to the Chadour [the black veil worn my Muslim women] underscores the familiarity of
Black like my baby girl‟s stare
Black like the veil that the muslimina wear.
Nas in “The World is Yours” sets up an identification between himself and Jesus:
“While all the old folks pray to Jesus, soakin they sins in trays Of holy water, odds against Nas are slaughter.”
Then in the next line, he extends the religious metaphor. Nas asserts a hope of
resurrection through the lives of his children:
“Thinkin a word best describing my life, to name my daughter My strength. My son won‟t starve; he‟ll be my resurrection.”
Thus the Christian metaphor of crucifixion and resurrection is applied by Nas to his own
Updated. But although these references are common, they generally are put in an
updated, contemporary context. Thus, When Killah Priest mentions in “From Then “Till Now” the good old (Biblical) days when we were wealthy (“We use to have a thousand
flagons of wine…a hundred measures of oil, eighty measures of wheat and barley, we
lived Godly…” the time frame is twisted with the rhyming underscore, “…listening to Bob Marley.” This idea is underscored again with the quick rhyme of “…before the devils robbed me.” Thus, Biblical times were good (We were wealthy); godly (listening to righteous, uplifting music—Bob Marley; and free. Putting the third rhyme, “before the
devils robbed me” adds punch. In addition, casting the robbers as devils underscores the assertion that this is mythic stuff. The white slavers are, in the common parlance of African American revolutionary rhetoric, devils.
These ancient mythologies are also constantly being updated by references to technology and to violence.
In underground hip-hop language, these ancient mythologies are continually updated by placing them in the current culture--including the complex world of Kung-Fu movies set in Shaolin where the Wu-Tang Clan of ancient China trained and fought. This, of course was the source for the name of the famous hip hop crew, Wu-Tang Clan. Shaolin, then, was the name they gave to Staten Island, where they mainly were from. This is part of a mid-90s underground movement to raise awareness among minorities of their pre-American ancestry by renaming places after ancient Eastern civilizations. Thus, Queens is re-named Kuwait and New Jersey, the modern incarnation of New Jerusalem, with the added social commentary of these being places long ravaged by war to remind us of the wars going on in our own 2nd class communities here in America.
In this newly invented mythology, we identify at once with ancient Chinese priests (who are also Kung-fu masters) and ancient western traditions in the Middle East, where contemporaries suffer the consequences of unresolved evils and ongoing, ancient conflicts.
Jewels, Carbonized Coal. The genius of Hip Hop is making art from nothing. The
music itself, made from “scratching” old LPs, sound effects made from bodies and the mastery of imaginative, percussive explorations, “beat boxing” made from the mouth; break dancing made from daring and athletic experiments honed to perfect moves like “windmills,” headspins, “popping” and “locking”; and the lyrics made from the brilliant and creative insights of artists with their eyes at street level. Like Superman, they make jewels from the carbon lying everywhere around them.
To return to the “Astronomy (8
th Light)” mentioned above, the epitome of love emerges
when Talib Kweli begins their interactive contemplation of how much they love “rockin tracks.” This hip hop beat and rhyming creation is his connection to supreme beings and universal love. Something (in this case a great something—Universal Love) from
These jewels are palpable:
“Nas‟ll analyze, dop a jew-el
Inhale from the L, school a fool well, you feel it like Braille.” (Nas, “It Ain‟t Hard to
As palpable as Braille, though it is made from nothing but breath—“Inhale from the L”
[“L” being a slang term for marijana.]
But though artists assert that their creations are jewels, they have no illusions about their
value on the street.
“Leave it up to me while I be living proof
To kick the truth to the young black youth
While shorty‟s running wild, smokin‟ sess, drinkin‟ beer And ain‟t trying to hear what I‟m kickin in his ear.” (Wu-Tang Clan , “C.R.E.A.M.”)
In contrast to Superman‟s jewels, diamonds, which have universal value, the hip hop artists jewels are not so compelling. This acknowledgement by hip hop artists of the
inattention of the younger generation is a long standing theme in black revolutionary art,
drama and rhetoric. It acknowledges both the power of the dominant culture which
distracts the African American community and the extreme difficulty of establishing
clearly valued alternatives to the pervasive values of the dominant culture.
Inverting, Naming and Knowing the Value System. For generations, the popular culture and especially that of the African American community has inverted language to
express itself: bad = good; cool = hot; ill=well. How else can we name the world around
us, given how much the dominant culture misunderstands and/or is blind to? How can
we name that culture freshly and with the visceral punch that is needed to give that
naming the power and the magic it demands?
Since the second Harlem Renaissance in the 1970s, black playwrights and authors have
been attacking the dominant culture by holding a mirror—which of course, shows an exact reflection though in reverse. The inverted language, then, is that mirror image.
To return to Nas‟ “The World is Yours,” the power of that rap is the assertion that the
world belongs to the powerless members of the ghetto culture that he is rapping to and
about. As another example from the same piece are the humorous lines:
“I‟m out for Presidents to represent me. (Say What?) I‟m out for Presidents to represent me. (Say What?) I‟m out for dead Presidents to represent me.”
The first key to the meaning of these lines is the repeated verb, “represent,” which is a
rich and complex word in hip hop terms—encompassing doing good in any capacity. The humor comes from the fact that Nas‟s assertion in the first line, “I‟m out for
Presidents to represent me.” Is greeted with confusion and incredulity. “(Say What?)
The assertion and the response are repeated. At this point, the audience does not
understand what Nas is suggesting. It is inconceivable that Nas could expect Presidents
(or the political process they “represent”) to do good for him in any capacity. The
repeated exclamations of “Say what?” make that reaction clear.
It‟s only on the third repetition, when the rhythm of the line is changed by the newly
inserted and heavily emphasized word “dead” that we begin to see what he means. The
first reading of the line is that he‟s looking for money to “represent” him. (Given that
there is no response of “Say what” we see that Nas has finally made this meaning clear
and “We” have gotten the message.)
But beyond this primary reading, there is also the assertion that he can‟t look for living
Presidents to represent him. In this world that the song asserts is “mine” the measure of
his ownership is in the money he can accumulate. This, not political enfranchisement, is
Thus, Nas presents in an inverted way a number of basic American ideals: ownership,
altruism and community.
How could it be?
How could it be that this music is so poorly understood? In terms of popularity and
airtime, there is no other genre of music that comes close to rap. It has permeated all the
genres of popular music. Even the Blind Boys of Alabama on their latest gospel album
have a hip-hop influenced delivery on “Let me tell you the News.” The Neville Brothers, pre-eminent R&B professionals, use a rap delivery in their recent album “Mitakuye
Oyasin” [which translates “All my Relations.”] And of course white acts from Eminem
to Brittany Spears depend on rap for their delivery.
And yet, despite that popularity and despite the rich content that we have pointed out here,
hip-hop is a genre that is misunderstood and ignored at least as much as it is appreciated
and adored. How can this be?
Part of the explanation is the very theme of commercialism that underground hip-hop
deplores. The pressures of commercialism have changed hip-hop from the visceral and
rich analysis of our current culture to a crude commentary that lusts and leers in the same
exaggerated ways as the dominant culture. An example is the hit song by Nelly, “It‟s
getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes.” Gone is subtle word play, mythic themes,
honest speaking from the heart. Gone with the wind, leaving only the heat of the leering,
lascivious shadow of our dominant culture. In fact, we suspect that the commercially
successful rappers have more to say about the shadow side of the dominant culture than
they do about their “own” culture. (But that is a theme we‟ll need to explore further at
Part of the explanation, too, goes to the same phenomenon that lead Ralph Ellison to
name his great novel of the African American experience Invisible Man. However
compelling the human drama may be when we see it sympathetically, we know that this
drama is invisible to the unsympathetic, dominant culture.
At the same time, hip hop‟s rich language includes even this literary work in Mos Def‟s
We went from picking cotton, to chain gang line chopping, to B-Bopping,
to Hip Hopping/
Blues people got the blue-chip stock option.
Invisible Man, got the whole world watching.
Mos Def, in these succinct few lines, shows the sympathy between picking cotton, line
chopping, B-Bopping and Hip Hopping, compressing the history of African-American‟s
experiences of alienation, poverty, innovation and invisibility. Then the ironic
conclusion of these ideas, that this history has given “Blues people” a blue-chip stock
option as hip hop music has got the whole world watching. The reference to the Invisible
Man, then, underscores the irony—the world may be watching, but what are we seeing? If the Invisible Man is still invisible, what do we see? And if the world is watching, is it
also listening? What does it hear?
And finally, part of the explanation for the lack of understanding the “world” shows to
hip hop‟s message is the audience that the underground hip-hop artist targets. This is not
protest music; the audience is the friends and colleagues on the street who speak the same
language and who have the same values as the artists themselves. The dominant culture
may not understand because the message wasn‟t written for it.
If the artist shifts his focus to mainstream culture, everything shifts with it. Where the
underground hip hop artist observes a life filled with ambivalence and the equal measures
of grief and praise, the commercial rapper celebrates the commercial values he and the
dominant culture crave. His writing then begins to make visible the shadow values of the
dominant culture. The only remaining subtlety in commercial rap is how the rapper can
communicate the dominant culture‟s messages of sexuality and excess in ways that still
have enough of an edge aesthetically to excite and move the listener.
Truth (in the sense of the striving for honest and accurate description of the complicated
life in the ghetto) is given over to a mirror—a mirror image being something that we generally take for granted—an image that rarely teaches or reassures—a mirror image of
the dominant culture—its opposite. It‟s shadow.
So why should we care? Whether we are the “We” of the dominant culture or the “We”
of the culture that created and sustains hip hop, why should we care about these issues?
There are a number of reasons why this message is important. Let‟s conclude by
focusing on four:
Cure in the Pain (Speculations about Healing)
Cultural Leaven (Even from Attack)