Saint Paul panel discusses hip-hop, from the street to the university


“Hip-hop saved my life,” said Daniel Hodge at a panel discussion on “The Future of Hip-hop Studies” on October 20. Hamline University’s School of Education in Saint Paul hosted the discussion that focused on the roots of hip-hop, where it came from and where it is going. 

“I think if we are going to talk about the future of hip-hop studies, then we also have to talk about who can afford to go to college,” said Toki Wright of Rhymesayers. “All of this study and all of this energy is coming from the inner city and from poverty.” He said that it is a question of how people not coming from those areas and having that background can be reached. “We have to make sure that we are always going to have that conversation and that it will always be across economic lines, gender lines and racial lines.” It is important that it will not be forgotten that “hip-hop came from trying to make something out of nothing.”

“Hip-hop started in the streets but now I’m teaching it in class,” said Don Sawyers III, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University in New York. He noted, that, when studying hip-hop, it is also important that the language used remains clear and close to the culture itself. Scholarship is not about people with PhDs competing against each other in a match to determine “who knows the biggest words and to describe hip-hop in a way that nobody who practices the culture can understand. If my dissertation fell out of my pocket on 125th street somebody should be able to pick it up and get something out of it. … Hip-hop is from the street. We can’t pick it up at the university and try and make it this pure thing.”According to Sawyers, hip-hop is not about writing and publishing articles in magazines. It is about helping people in bad social and economical situations, even without resources or capital.

The Hamline conference featured live performances by a rapper and a breakdancer, followed by the thoughts and comments of six panelists, three of whom joined in via internet video conferencing. All six of the panelists are scholars of hip-hop and some are performers as well.

Daniel Hodge

Daniel Hodge, a hip-hop scholar with a focus on race relations and a former music producer, first came into contact with hip-hop in the 80s when he heard songs by the Sugarhill Gang and Run DMC on the radio. “Up until that point all I heard was rock,” he said. Hearing artists like Run DMC saying the word “goddamn” on the radio was something totally new for him. He was so impressed by this new type of music that it inspired him to start making beats in his room. “I would wake up in the middle of the night and put something together,” Hodge said. He explained hip-hop saved his life since it kept him from doing potentially bad things as he really didn’t care what was going on in the streets.

Back then, hip-hop was not as widespread as it is today and you had to really look for rap albums if you wanted to buy a record. “You couldn’t find it anywhere,” Hodge said. “People didn’t understand this type of music.” It wasn’t until 1989, when Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff won a Grammy, that hip-hop music was seen as a “real” form of music by most people.

“There was this argument that hip-hop and rap was just noise,” said Hodge. They were not regarded as real music, because it was widely believed that simply sampling other songs could not really be considered doing anything. In his point of view, 1989 marked a turning point in this perception. It allowed the art to grow and today there are several different categories that all evolved out of the original rap music.

Now in his late 30s, Hodge said he asks himself what is going on with rap music these days. Working with 17 year old inner-city kids, he said, “It always amazes me how many times kids actually think that those cars, those diamond and the bling is the artist’s, whereas so much of it is actually rented.” He believes that corporate control is a problem with rap these days. “The music industry is essentially controlled by the big three: Warner Music, Columbia and Viacom. So at the end of the day why would you want to bite the hand that feeds you?”

Hodge is interested in the socio-theological area of hip-hop and notes that the American Academy of Religion in fact recently even gave hip-hop a group.

Antonio Rice

Antonio Rice, who is 32 years old and has lived through the changes in the culture, said that hip-hop in the 80s was “a strategy and a movement” by people to maintain a positive attitude despite of all the negativity in their everyday lives. “The neighborhood of Selby-Dale was still pretty crack infested,” he said. “There was a lot of crack cocaine over there, a lot of houses boarded up, a lot of violence.” Hip-hop helped the people get through these times, no matter how bad the situation my have been. It also helped him he said. It kept him “grounded, alive and positive” and also made him who he is today.

The songs of East Coast-based artists had the greatest influence on him and most of his friends at that time. However, when the first successful West Coast artists caught people’s ears the entire thing changed. “Right around the time NWA, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre and all of them started coming around, the consciousness kind of had shifted,” Rice said. Living on the east side of Saint Paul, he witnessed people doing a 180-degree turn in terms of attitude. “A lot of brothers went from wearing African medallions, … having knowledge of self and even being vegetarian, the whole nine yards, to ‘rolling down the street smoking Endo and sipping on gin and juice’ less than a year later. … That changed everything … It went from people being positive … to people just instantly busting you upside the head.”

Rice said that he believes that this shows just how powerful Rap and Hip-hop actually was or still is as a culture and that it really is a question of how the media portrays it.

Rice admitted that, when he was around 16 years old, he became a part of this new interpretation of the culture, which actually wasn’t the original idea of hip-hop at all. “It had grabbed me … I had this attachment to what I would consider to be negative energy,” he said. “It got to a point where he did not want to have anything to do with it anymore. … I walked away.”

In recent years, he met Daniel Hodge who brought him “back into the game.” The two are now in the process of starting a publication to inform the youth and to let them “take back some of the control over the media,” Rice said. “You turn on the six o’clock news and all you see is murder, rape and killings; all negative things because negative sells.” Their goal is to bring it all back to a more positive attitude.

The first issue will focus on the concept of “I am,” meaning that one can become self-conscious without needing someone else’s validation. It is the embodiment of self, the concept of not having to justify yourself for your background, the idea of being accepted just the way you are at any particular moment in your life. “That’s the beauty of hip-hop for me,” Rice said, “it is a strategy to empower yourself.”

Rice also said that today’s rap music on the radio or on television is “probably the 9th degree dumbed-down version” of what the genre used to be in the beginning. “It isn’t hip-hop. It isn’t an embodiment of peace, love, unity and having fun, but that is the foundation of what hip-hop is …the entire culture these days is extremely commercialized by the industry.” For example, wearing pantyhose as a do rag “was nothing” 20 years ago, Rice said. “Nowadays you’ve got people selling Gucci Pantyhose for 30 or 40 dollars. It just shows how much of a trillion-dollar industry it has become.”

Toki Wright

Toki Wright, a Twin Cities based emcee signed to the Rhymesayers music label, is the program coordinator for the first hip-hop diploma in the United States at McNally Smith College of Music in Saint Paul. Wright stated that when he first moved to the north side of Minneapolis in 1991, he noticed that there were “different pockets of hip-hop” as there were different people associating themselves with different types of hip-hop music and having certain tastes. Whether it is “underground backpack music, hardcore gangster rap or crunk music,” all these groups were “not really talking to each other.

Wright started an organization in the early 2000s called the “Yo! the Movement,” which aimed to be “a bridge between all of the hip-hop artists from different parts of the city.” The organization ran several community hip-hop festivals to try to overcome the “segregation within the hip-hop scene. … There are definitely some lines that need to be crossed in order to mix things up.” Wright says, that it has got “a lot better” ever since he and his colleagues started the initiative.

As a musician, Wright says he has joined artists like Talib Kwali, Dilated Peoples or Athmosphere and has been able to travel all over the world. While performing in “little bars and big festivals,” he has noticed qualitative as well as quantitative difference between the crowds. “The energy that you have at a gig for 10,000 people might not be the same as the energy you have with ten people in the room that are really engaged in what you’re doing.”

He notes that it is all about who is in the room, and that this is the reason why “hip-hop can flourish in small-town America — even if it’s only you and a few of your friends who really love this ability to speak your own mind.” It is rap’s “ability to be straight orward, say what you want and say how you want to say it, was what really attracted me to the hip-hop culture.”

Don Sawyer III

Don Sawyer III, a doctoral candidate at Syracuse University in New York said: “Growing up in Harlem, hip-hop saved my life. For some people this may seen to be a bit exaggerated, but for those of us who grew up in Harlem or in other inner cities, in the projects, on welfare, during the height of the crack epidemic, you’ll probably understand that hip-hop saved many lives.” He said that, while he could have got involved in drugs, crime or gangs, hip-hop kept him ”focused and driven to see beyond my current circumstances.” Hip-hop has been referred to as a “black radical imagination”, meaning that it allows people to live “through their third eye and see to life as a possibility.”

Sawyer has written several books on the topic, has worked together with artists like Snoop Dogg, Jadakiss, Rakim or Big Daddy Cane and travelled to Brazil and South Africa in the process.

Martha Diaz

Martha Diaz moved to the United States while still in school and is currently a community organizer, media producer and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Gallatin School. Diaz said she never had the feeling of being able to articulate herself at the beginning, since did not speak English very well. Hip-hop therefore allowed her to express herself. She said that she was “one of those shy students in class who didn’t want to get called on.” Hip-hop made her realize that she could “break out” of this, that she could “contribute to society” and that she didn’t have to “hold in” by embracing the art form. Also, as she had no family members or relatives living in the United States, hip-hop gave her a sense of community.

Hasan Stephens

Hasan Stephens, also known as DJ Maestro, is a hip-hop studies teacher at Hillbrook Youth Detention Facility and SUNY Cortland. He educates his students about the culture behind hip-hop, since he realized that “a lot of the youths that listen to hip-hop have no clue that it is a culture, that it has elements, and that there is a rich history.” Many of his students come from rural and suburban areas and therefore only know of the music on the radio and have never come across hip-hop as an actual culture. His aim is to explain to them that there is a sociological connection between the music they listen to and every day life. Understanding hip-hop, he believes, will help them develop their individual skills, life skills and even business skills. “We teach them ways to survive, rather than being in the streets and committing crime.” They learn ways to negotiate several cultural issues that “need to be discussed and talked about.” He hopes for his students to be “agents for change” and that they will promote social justice.

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.

Correction: The movement founded by Toki Wright was called Yo! the Movement, not “the Yoga Movement” as this article originally stated.