Hip Hop Talk

by Emily Birnbaum ’18

It took me a long time to learn what it meant to love music.

Until junior year of high school, I had this idea of what music I was supposed to listen to and what listening to it would feel like. When I looked around at the people that I emulated—the upperclassmen with mismatched outfits, the girls on Tumblr who took unsmiling selfies, my sister with X’s on her hands—I saw that they loved indie music. I thought that because they loved it, I could choose to love it too. I filled my iPod with bands whose names I found in Nylon magazine—The New Pornographers, Death Cab, Neutral Milk Hotel, Dr. Dog and many more.

But I was young and extremely lost. When I listened to that music, I felt vaguely dissatisfied. The music was beautiful—some of my favorite songs are still the ones that I learned during that time—but I didn’t feel a connection to it. I didn’t feel like those singers, with their beards and sticky voices, had anything to teach me.

I was fifteen when I heard Atmosphere, the underground rap duo from Minnesota consisting of rapper Slug and producer/DJ Ant, for the first time.

I was going through a serious, determined slam poetry phase when I first heard “Sunshine.” I remember watching Brave New Voices and Def Poetry on YouTube and thinking, “Why can’t I ever find music that makes me feel this way?” It made me feel powerful. Those rhythms and insights and steady rhyme schemes got inside of my head. To me, slam poetry felt smarter and more genuine than any other kind of music I’d heard.

When I heard Atmosphere, something clicked in my brain. It was what I’d been looking for. The dipping piano melody aligned with the light, dancey beat underneath Slug’s halfway-tough halfway-sweet voice, and I felt the connection I’d been looking for.

Hip hop didn’t indulge my angsty, sensitive ego. It scolded me; it demanded that I think about what mattered to me. It told me to listen up, open my eyes, learn my self-worth and learn the value of a world outside of my head.

I started mainly with underground hip-hop—Atmosphere, Sage Francis, Brother Ali, Eyedea & Abilities, Living Legends. For a while, I stuck close to my comfort zone and didn’t try to get outside of the box.

As I fell deeper and deeper in love with hip-hop, I started meeting people who shared my interest. Inevitably, this meant that I met people who loved it and knew more about it than I felt like I ever would. At first, I reacted to these people by feeling inadequate. Did I even like hip-hop at all? Compared to those people, who seemed like encyclopedias of rap knowledge, I was just an uneducated, silly little girl trying to get into a world that would never accept me.

Last year, I made the decision to not feel that way anymore. I decided that if I wanted to fully respect and understand hip-hop, I was going to have to educate myself about the musical culture, from its roots to its most modern forms.

I want to write this column because I’m still learning about it every day, and to me, nothing sounds more fun than sharing what I have learned and am learning with any readers who might care.

I understand that, as a white girl from the suburbs of Maryland, hip-hop is never going to be mine. I try to love it in as pure a way as possible. I try to never cross any lines in terms of disrespecting its culture. If I ever write something in this blog that could be taken issue with, I encourage people to comment or talk to me about it directly. I’m still learning and sometimes we all have to learn from our mistakes.

This is a column about my personal experiences with hip-hop, but I also want to get other peoples’ perspectives. I plan to interview teachers, students and administrators who love hip-hop, too. Some weeks, I want to talk about certain artists and other weeks, I want to talk about hip-hop’s history and culture.

No matter what, I feel very lucky that I have the opportunity to write this and share this with the Internet—even if I only get a reader or two.

This music is what I truly love.

Sage Francis says it better than I ever could:

“Head over heels in love with the electric drums

And spoken vocals which was the joke of locals

And laughing stock of my rock and roll ass town…

But the rhythmic acupuncture pierced my skin

Pinning the butterflies to my stomach

Which would flutter every time I heard the boom-b-ch-boom-b-ch…”

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