Explaining Hip Hop to White People

I came to enjoy hip hop rather late. Before I did, I admit I had all the typical complaints I tend to hear from white people about it. So I can certainly understand why many people can’t get into it. As with any art form, it all comes down to a matter of taste. I certainly would never suggest that everyone should enjoy hip hop.

But I do expect people to give it a fair chance.

There is too often a condescending dismissiveness about hip hop that other musical forms are not subjected to. This can be hard to take because the criticism often goes beyond the all-too-common personality malfunction of expressing differences in matters of taste in pejorative terms. With hip hop, there is often an unspoken or coded racial component to the criticism of it.

When encountering encoded racism in so-called argument and debate, I tend to ignore it and focus purely on the substance of argument. I do this not just as a rhetorical strategy, but also because it pisses off the people employing it. I’m white, they’re white, everyone around is white, and, as Jimmy Dore put it: racists tend to assume everyone else is also racist and simply lack the courage to be open about it. Thus all the buzzwords and coded language to get around the “fascist” plague of political correctness.

Doophus doesn’t like hip hop because he doesn’t like black people, but he can’t say that these days. So he constructs what he thinks is an argument out of tired, racist tropes he’s picked up over the years. Whatever his actual tack (usually involving the form’s common use of the n-word, which serves the double purpose of allowing him to say it out loud himself), the intention is always the same. He’s essentially saying: “I have no means or ability to critique the art form on its own merits, so I would rather make this about race.”

Well, fuck that. By feigning ignorance and ignoring the loaded language, you force them to either abandon their position, or get a lot more clear about what they are saying. This really pisses them off. There are few things a racist hates more than being “on the record” with what they really think. You’re supposed to either agree with them with a nudge and a wink, or else “put words in their mouth” and fly off the handle on them, proving that you are the unreasonable, crusading libtard.

Sorry, Doophus, I’m smarter than you, better educated, and, unlike you, don’t give a shit what you or anyone like you thinks about me. So, fuck you, lets talk about rap as a musical form now. Even if you want to get right out in the open on your race hobbyhorse, I can still outmaneuver you thanks to the quality work of the Beastie Boys or Eminem.

So, with young Doophus put to bed, the adults can have a substantive conversation about hip hop. Again, I understand the complaints well because I used to have them myself.

The most common of these is that rap is “just talking” and “I can’t understand what they’re saying.” This is totally understandable, but stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the vocal form.

It is certainly fair to say you can’t get into a form of music because you can’t understand the lyrics. That’s completely understandable and an acceptable position. We are, after all, discussing matters of taste. However, I don’t need to understand lyrics to enjoy music.

You might enjoy an Italian opera without understanding any of what is sung. I can listen to Black Sabbath and not catch more than a word or two from Ozzy. It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment in the slightest.

With hip hop, I think people fixate on understanding the lyrics because to their ear the vocalist is just talking. To them, if he’s just talking, then, of course, one should be able to understand what he’s saying.

In this, they are missing the point of the vocal form.

Traditionally, vocals fit into a song’s arrangement as though they were another musical instrument. The vocalist’s voice is as a horn, or flute, or (in Robert Plant’s case) another electric guitar. So while we don’t understand the opera singer’s Italian, or Celine Dion’s French, there is enjoyment to be had (for some) in listening to the quality of the voice and the notes sung. There is melody to follow.

Not so with hip hop.

In hip hop, the vocal performance is not one of melody; it is one of percussion. The rapper’s instrument is percussive. The lyrics drop in a rhythm. With a simple snare and a heavy bass beat, the performer fills out the percussion section with just their voice. Listen for that, realize there is a very skilled artist at work (possibly), and understanding everything they are saying becomes secondary. Just as with “traditional” musical forms.

Then, if it’s a question of understanding dialect, may I suggest urbandictionary.com as a resource? Check that shit out. These cats are funny, clever, and very often have more to say than anyone else in popular music. It is well worth anyone’s time to make an effort to understand what rappers are saying. But, as I’ve stated, it is not necessary for enjoyment of the art form.

This segues nicely into another common complaint about hip hop: the lyrical content. Sometimes it is all too easy to understand what they are saying, and people freak out about it. There is no doubt a lot of hip hop material that is problematic (to say the least) in terms of violence, misogyny, and homophobia. Fair enough.

However, the specific material of individual performers does not represent an art form entire. If you don’t like what a rapper is saying, I’m not suggesting that you have to accept it. But to pillory the entire form based on its extreme elements is completely unfair. It is not just hip hop that has this problematic material.

Check this shit out:

Knoxville Girl, recorded in 1956 by the Louvin Brothers.


Here we have lily-white country musicians singing graphically about the brutal murder of a woman; a song with deep roots in the culture, no less. These are performers who generally plied their trade singing Baptist gospel songs. So I guess they, and the genre, get a pass. Nice for them.

I could also delve into the toxic sump that is the intellectual content of the rock genre, as well as the personal lives of its performers, but I think you can see the argument I’m making here. I’ll suffice to point out that when Ted Nugent goes off on an anti-Semitic, racist, or otherwise repugnant rant, no one thinks that this somehow means that Rock and Roll is the problem.

The hypocritical bias shown to hip hop by most of its social critics is clear. Eminem, in his song, White America, takes this on directly as only he can, and I can’t put it any better than he did, so do check it out if you don’t know it.

Eminem, White America.

I approach music as I do any other form of entertainment. It’s entertainment. Gangster rap for me is scratching the same itch as a Quentin Tarantino movie. I like that it goes to extremes. I like that it makes people uncomfortable. And I like that even in its worst extremes it often has very important things to say about society and human life.

If you don’t like it, or can’t accept it, that’s just fine too. I certainly can understand why. But if you take to attacking the entire genre because of its worst elements, be prepared to throw a bunch of white dominated genres on that same pyre. Or, you can also just show yourself to be a complete hypocrite. That option tends to work well for most people, so you can stick with what you know best. You do you, and I’ll go on avoiding you and your type.

With the troublesome aspects of vocal performance and lyrical content out of the way, we can finally delve into the criticism of hip hop as a musical form. There are good arguments to be made against it, musically speaking, and I disagree with them.

Musical criticism of hip hop tends to be the same as criticism against electronic music in general. These aren’t real instruments. This takes no talent to produce. It’s simple and repetitive. This isn’t music!

Well, fine then. You go enjoy your classical music and jazz LPs on your headphones, and I’m sure your relatives and coworkers are all very interested in being endlessly told all about what is or isn’t proper or correct about any number of other topics. You do you (over there, thank you very much), and I’ll be over here enjoying myself.

I’m not interested in arguing with people over their finely parsed categorizations of all things. You don’t like what I like? It’s not for you? Fine. We can agree to disagree.

I tend to prefer music that is simpler, rawer, and that has more balls than sophistication. That’s me.

To illustrate what I’m talking about here, let’s look again to the genre of rock. Specifically, AC/DC’s Back in Black album. I don’t listen to it much anymore, but I would still rank it in my top five favorite rock albums. The music is incredibly simplistic (seriously, check out the guitar tablature sometime; there’s really not much going on there), the lyrics are bordering on cretinous, and Brian Johnson’s vocals are the tortured scream of a train derailment. And in its entirety it’s balls to the wall awesome that forever changed me when I first heard it.

When it comes to rock, I’ll listen to AC/DC before Stevie Ray Vaughan (who is by every measure a vastly superior musician). There is an accessibility there. It’s not just that it is easier to consume (although it is). It is that it is easier to perform. As a longhaired headbanger with a Korean made Squire Stratocaster, I could pick up a guitar magazine and start banging out power chords. I could make sounds like that too. This created an emotional connection between myself, the consumer, and the artist.

With hip hop, it is that much more direct. Lay in a beat and say what you’re going to say. That’s as fuckin pure and as raw as a performance can get. Perhaps that’s the problem, right?

If black performers’ content is fundamentally frightening or upsetting to you, the white listener, that really only says something about you and your assumptions.

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