New American Songbook

"In 20 years of listening to hip hop, its music and stories have never left me unchallenged or unchanged. Throughout its history—from Kool Herc to KRS and beyond—hip hop has told the story of America through the styles of noir, memoir, jazz and rhythm and blues, comic books and blockbuster action movies. It is everything we say we are, and those things we maintain we are not. This is the new American Songbook." - KMUW commentator, Zack Gingrich-Gaylord  

New American Songbook can be heard on alternate Mondays, or through iTunes.

In 1992, the rap-metal group Body Count released one of the more infamous songs that you’ve probably never heard. The song, "Cop Killer," generated a ton of controversy--even then-President Bush chimed in--and it was eventually removed from the album, but not necessarily for the reason you might think. When asked about it, Ice-T explained that he removed the song because “it got out of hand...let’s get back to real issues, not a record, but the cops that are out there killing people.”

Mindy Tucker

Hip hop has always been fascinated with itself--one of the music’s unique and endearing qualities is its constant self-reflection and self-assessment. This is great for true fans--there’s nothing an enthusiast loves more than to constantly talk about their enthusiasm--but it’s often difficult for casual or first-time listeners to get into it. 

In 1989, the first year that rap music was included as a category in the Grammy Awards, half of the winning duo boycotted the show altogether. The winning act, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, felt slighted by the exclusion of the category from the television broadcast. The emcee, Will Smith, along with several other nominees, declined to participate. The rap group Salt N Pepa put it succinctly, saying “if they don’t want us, we don’t want them.”

A term that is gaining more popularity over the past few years is the Anthropocene. 

Bad Boy Records, founded by Sean “Puffy” Combs in 1993, was a cultural force in the mid-90’s.

Hip hop is a vast territory, and it’s often difficult to make declarative statements about it because a counterexample is usually just around the corner. However, there are clear facts, and one of them is that 1996 was one of the greatest years in hip hop history. Here’s just five of the incredible releases from that year:

Outkast, ATLiens

A Tribe Called Quest, “Beats, Rhymes and Life”

The Roots, “Iladelph Halflife”

Busta Rhymes, “The Coming”

Mobb Deep, “Hell on Earth”

The phrase “can’t see me” is a well-worn trope in hip hop music. A search on the website—an encyclopedia of hip hop lyrics and annotations—for the phrase brings up thousands of hits spanning the entire history of hip hop. But what does it mean, beyond the obvious, and how are we to interpret it?

We don’t often associate the Romantic period of literature and art with the sounds of factories or machines, but there’s a good case to be made that despite our insistence on realism and modernism, we’ve never really left Romanticism behind. Liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin complained that Romanticism led to the "melting away of the very notion of objective truth," which could conversely be a point in its favor.

Where the old Romantics left off, much of hip hop has picked up, returning to the quest to discover the self within the world that it inhabits.

Brian Tamborello

Among the many critical perspectives that are useful in listening to and thinking about hip hop, two in particular are relevant to a lot of the music being produced recently: Afro-pessimism and Afrofuturism.

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "Letter From Birmingham Jail."