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 diplomat!

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,


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 assertion.

“…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?


We.” (Mos Def and Talib Kweli, “Astronomy (8th Light)”)

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 , “One Step”)

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 religious systems. For example, in “Astronomy (8th 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 these connections:

[Mos Def]

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 difficult existence.

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 (8th 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 nothing.

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 Tell”)

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 his hope.

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 another time.)

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 “Hip Hop”:

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.
Larger Implications

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)

Deeper and Better Informed Respect (Sound Foundation for True Multiculturalism)

Guidelines for Justice (Reparations Paid Here)

Cure in the Pain (Speculations about Healing)

In his powerful documentary, The Color of Fear, Lee Mun Wah brings nine men (representing African, Hispanic, Asian and European ancestries) together to discuss their experiences of racism. In the conclusion of that film, which shows the intense and honest exchange that can result when people speak openly about these very loaded topics, Roberto, a Mexican American, comments, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.” This is not intuitive. Our conditioned responses choose pleasure and avoid pain. Underground hip-hop, though, has a mastery of holding our attention on the pain. Perhaps this is the single biggest difference between underground hip-hop and the commercial rap—our attention is on the pain, not on the money or the prurience or the power.

There is no quick cure for these difficult and deep-seeded problems of racism, poverty, and injustice. But there is no cure at all unless we understand and look without flinching at the truth. One statement of that truth is in the lyrics of these underground raps. Precisely because they were not written for the dominant culture, they give an honest and clear-eyed assessment of the problems from the point of view of the citizens of that culture.

The metaphor of “healing” the wounds of racism and poverty is commonplace. But if the cure for the pain is in the pain, we must be prepared that this cure will be neither painless nor quick. And we must acknowledge our strong impulse to avoid pain. It is very human—a response even the underground hip hop artists themselves acknowledge. Nevertheless, these statements of painful truth so plentiful in underground hip hop are a great hope, perhaps our best hope of finding the cure, the cure for the pain that is in the pain, the rapt, rapped contemplation of the pain itself.

Cultural Leaven (Even from Attack )

In the words of Muriel Spark’s Jean Brodie, “There must be a leaven in the lump.” One undeniable source of leavening for the American culture has been the African-American community. A history of jazz, blues, gospel, rock and roll and now hip hop makes clear the contributions of African-Americans to this culture have been huge. Indeed the study of African American culture is one of continuing innovation—with the constant absorption of that innovation by the dominant culture.

And yet the dominant culture is generally blind to these contributions by African Americans or the ways the dominant culture has made these contributions invisible by exploiting and stealing this leavening.

Mos Def in “Rock N Roll” analyzes the history of this exploitation and outright theft by compressing all the genres in which Blues People have innovated into one genre—Rock N Roll. Clearly, African Americans “rock n roll”; they elevate the musical scene.

“I said, Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul (hell naw)

Little Richard is rock and roll (damn right)

You may dig on the Rolling Stones

But they ain’t come up with that shit on they own (nah-ah)”

This rollicking, humorous chorus comes after the themes of slavery and theft by the dominant culture:

“I am…yes I am…the descendant (yes yes)

Of those folks whose backs got broke

Who fell down inside the gunsmoke

(Black people!) Chains on they ankles and feet

I am descendants of the builders of your street

(Black people!) Tenders of your cotton money

I am …hip-hop

…I am rock n roll (rock n roll…rock n roll)

Been here forever!

They just ain’t let you know…(Ha!)”

Thus, the legacy of slavery and theft and the heritage of innovation, of musical expression, of leavening is compressed into the image of rock n roll.

Mos Def’s analysis is clear, however:

“Guess that’s just the way shit goes

You steal my clothes and try to say they yo’s (yes they do)

Cause it’s a show filled with pimps and hoes

Tryin to take everything that you made and control (there they go)”

The dominant culture may steal this leaven, still the source of the leaven remains. Mos Def convincingly asserts that the only true rock n roll remains in the African American community.

“Elvis Presley ain’t got no Soul

Bo Diddley is rock n roll (damn right)

You may dig on the Rolling Stones

But they ain’t the first place the credit belongs. (Mos Def, “Rock N Roll”)

But as damning as Mos Def’s analysis may be of the history of theft on these innovations by the dominant culture, other raps continue to give uplifting gifts even now. Inspectah Deck’s “Elevation,” explores this metaphor of elevation fully. This metaphor also speaks directly and powerfully about the ways that African Americans must lift themselves—lightening, enlightening and raising their perspectives.

He opens with a powerful contrast between the Hell he is living in and the Dreams that lift him from there:

“Tired of trials and tribulations

It seems like life is Hell, dreams the only way of escapin

to worlds that's beyond imagination

I know a place, I could take it in through elevation”

From here, Inspectah Deck evokes the violent life on the streets, returning at the end to the jewel, elevation:

“In this ghetto Heaven, God bless the children

Whose shattered dreams are offered in the hearts of men

We don't believe in Heaven, we livin in Hell

Tryin to escape the fate sealed in the bomb shell

So I drop jewels, use the music to educate

Can't celebrate 'til we elevate” (Inspectah Deck, “Elevation”)

The leavening, then, is for the culture that nurtures it. Jewels are dropped, a verb that implies that the recipients of the jewels aren’t chosen. In the concluding line, “Can’t celebrate till we elevate,” elevation evokes everything from a lifting of our perspective to an improvement of our lot and a brightening of our future. And all this responsibility is carried by the elevated rhetoric of the rap. As hardened, as hellish as this world is, there is no hint of cynicism in this hope for elevation. How can any listener who is truly attending not be lifted?

Deeper and Better Informed Respect (Sound Foundation for True Multiculturalism)

We begin by calling for deeper and better-informed self-respect. The African-American community and specifically the Hip Hop culture deserve praise and admiration. The creation of this literature and the literature itself deserve deep appreciation and understanding.

Somehow this respect and appreciation must be shown by the dominant culture as well; but this will admittedly be very difficult. According to the rules of Physics, it is impossible to even observe something without changing it. If this is so, how can we praise it or even quietly appreciate this genius without duplicating the pressures of commercialism that we deplore?

Robert Bly, in his Foreword to Martin Prechtel’s Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, expresses a cautious hope on this theme. Prechtel’s book tells of his own initiation into the shamanic life of an indigenous tribe in Guatemala. Bly says the book gives him a cautious hope. “If the reader can avoid idealizing Martin Prechtel or Santiago Atitlan, if the reader can resist rushing down to find what is left of Nicholas Chiviliu’s house, if we can fight off our greed … then this book will do us no harm.” Better than that, Bly goes on to say, this book can put us in touch with our deepest, truest selves: “If we can be quiet,…if we can turn and meet it.”

In the same way, we have a cautious hope for the effects of underground hip hop on the dominant culture. It, too, has many gifts to give, if we can avoid idealizing the artists, fight our greed, be quiet and turn to meet it.

Guidelines for Justice (Reparations Paid Here)

Reparations are becoming a common theme in discussions about race relations in this country. How can we as a nation put the issues of slavery, racism and poverty behind us? One possible step that many people are finding compelling is the payment of reparations. On what basis can we explore this topic? We submit that the honest and painful analysis by underground hip-hop artists is a vital starting point of that exploration. The exploration of reparations, though, is a huge issue, well outside the scope of this article. We note it and hope these deeper understandings of underground hip hop might encourage and support that exploration.

Conclusion: Grief and Praise.

This speculation about the community of the Hip Hop generation leads us to a surprising connection with Martin Prechtel, who is the author mentioned above, initiated into the Shamanic practices of a Guatemalan village. In a lecture he gave on “Grief and Praise,” Prechtel comments that it takes a thousand people to grieve properly, and a similar number to praise. (Prechtel) (Though, in a humorous aside he jokes that you can get away with praise from a smaller number.) This reinforces the point about such Hip Hop songs as “Tearz;” an entire generation has memorized this and many, many other such powerful and rich songs. As Prechtel observes, there are specialists, professionals, in indigenous villages who are experts on emotional matters. When there is an event, these experts, who are sensitive to life, are invited in. Their articulation of what is going on helps all the participants to get in touch with their emotions and to let those emotions flow. In the same way, the Hip Hop artists keep the emotions flowing not only for themselves but also for their entire generation. By memorizing these raps, the underground hip hop community keeps the emotions flowing.

In the dominant culture, will and alienation are dominant paradigms. The hip hop generation is kicking a jewel of an alternative. If the dominant culture will let go of its death grip on domination and its insistence that it is different from and superior to the hip hop generation, the Hip Hop artist has a lesson for it as well.

Prechtel comments in his lecture that if we have enough conflict, we will have less violence. And we recall that the birth of the Hip Hop movement was about finding channels for conflict that would lessen the amounts of violence in the ghetto. Rap, which in its earliest days was “battle” rap, was a non-violent way to test one’s “flow” against another MC. Conflict was there for sure but not violence. But at the same time, the dominant culture is afraid of conflict. Prechtel cautions us that that fear and our desire to suppress conflict brings on more violence. Ironically, the act of listening to Hip Hop with an open and understanding heart may do a great deal to change the dominant culture. One of those changes will be to allow the dominant culture the chance to hear, see and feel the benefits of conflict.

Grieving and praising, according to Prechtel, are necessary, essential parts of everyday life. Hip Hop artists understand and embody this necessity. They generously drop these lessons, these jewels, for any who will treasure them. We have only to listen with the same passion, the same grief and praise as artists who forged them and kicked them to our ears.

Works Cited

Bly, Robert. “Forward” to Secrets of the Talking Jaguar by Martin Prechtel. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1999.

Inspectah Deck. “Uncontrolled Substance,” from Elevation.

Killah Priest, “One Step” from Heavy Mental. Los Angeles: Geffen Records, 1998.

Killah Priest, “From Then ‘Till Now” from Heavy Mental. Los Angeles: Geffen Records, 1998.

Mos Def. “Hip Hop” from Black on Both Sides. New York: Rawkus Entertainment, 1999.

Mos Def. “New World Water” from Black on Both Sides. New York: Rawkus Entertainment, 1999.

Mos Def. “Rock N Roll” from Black on Both Sides. New York: Rawkus Entertainment, 1999.

Mos Def and Talib Kweli. “Astronomy (8th Light)” from Black Star. New York: Rawkus Entertainment, 1998.

Nas. “It Ain’t Hard to Tell” from Illmatic. Sony,1994.

Nas. “Memory Lane” from Illmatic. Sony,1994.

Nas. “The World is Yours” from Illmatic. Sony,1994.

Prechtel, Martin. “Grief and Praise; an Evening with Martin Prechtel.” Audiotape. Hidden Wine Productions. More information at: www.floweringmountain.com.

Talib Kweli. “African Dream” from Reflection Eternal. New York: Rawkus Entertainment, 2000.

Wah, Lee Munh. “The Color of Fear.” Oakland, Calif. : Stir-Fry Productions, c1994.

Wu Tang Clan. “C.R.E.A.M.” from Enter the Wu Tang. RCA,1993.

Wu Tang Clan. “Da Mystery of Chessboxin’” from Enter the Wu Tang. RCA,1993.

Wu Tang Clan. “Tearz” from Enter the Wu Tang. RCA,1993.