Notes from the Rap Underground
Over the past four decades Rap music has evolved into one of the most compelling musical forms across the globe. This course charts the incredible rise to prominence of the music by closely examining the aesthetic choices that creative artists have made throughout these formative decades. Our listening sessions and readings will focus specifically on how the idea of the underground has remained a pivotal element of rap, even in the shadows of its corporate, globalized mass production. The idea of the underground has taken shape within the music as a marker of stylistic tendencies that resist the lure of a more smoothed out and corporately palatable sound, and as a rubric that often defines more politically conscious rap music. We will consider the musical and cultural roots that have shaped the music, from blues lyricism and jazz improvisation, to Jamaican toasting and dub production. We will spend significant portions of our class meetings listening to the music and discussing its aesthetic features in order to develop a conceptual framework for thinking about what elements help to define an "underground sound"--both in terms of its sonic production and lyricism. We will read both academic and popular journalistic accounts of the music from the 1980s to the present. We will focus on artists including Freestyle Fellowship, Above the Law, Pharoahe Monch, MF Doom, Madlib, Jean Grae, Princess Nokia, Jungle Borthers, De La Soul, Geto Boys, and others.