Those of you who have been here for even a few posts should know that I love rap and hip hop, and have for a long time. Along with listening to and enjoying this music, though, comes an entire culture that can be difficult and confusing to navigate for those of us who may be looking in as outsiders. Luckily I was able to talk to game designer and hip hop enthusiast Quinn Murphy about his experiences and advice for navigating the world of hip hop and the culture surrounding it, and I’m super thankful that I’m able to share that interview with you today. So let’s get to it!
Manda: Hi, Quinn! Thanks so much for chatting with me. Would you mind introducing yourself for my readers?
Quinn: By day, I am a linux system administrator. By night I design tabletop games. I used to freelance and do blogging (the 4e site At-Will and my current site “Double Plus Fun“), but now I just make my own games? experiences? I’m not sure what to call them but they are my own things built to be fun. I have a Patreon and also a little site to sell the games on.
My big project that I’m working on and plan to finish this year is a hiphop love-letter, Five Fires. In it you play a memeber of a group of artists in the golden era of 80s hip hop. You try to solve the problems of your everyday life while simultaneously created art to relieve stress and to reach out to your community. It’s in playable beta now at http://www.five-fires.com. I am looking to make it even more accessible and even quicker to play.
I’m on Twitter and I tweet too much on @qh_murphy.
M: For me personally, my love of hip hop and rap goes way back to listening to music my brother would play and eventually I developed my own tastes and found artists I loved, especially while attending an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) for a brief period of time. Do you have any events that led to your appreciation for hip hop? What were some of the artists that introduced you to the genre?
Q: I spent my first 7 years in NYC in the 80s, so you just couldn’t escape it. Hip hop was in the air; you couldn’t avoid breathing it. My first formative experience with rap was listening to Roxanne, Roxane by UTFO and the even awesome-er rebuttal Roxanne’s Revenge by Roxanne Shante. It left me with the impression from a young age that rap is not only conversational, it is a literal conversation with audience other artists. You can see this with diss tracks and remixes and cyphers. The concept of dialogue is embedded deep in the bones of hip hop, and is one of the many things I love about it.
Two songs that really made an impact on me growing up was BDP’s “Love’s Gonna Getcha” (Material Love) and the classic “Children’s Story” from Slick Rick. The stories were so engrossing, you can play the “movie” right along with the soundtrack of the rap.
In the 90s and 2000s, I went full backpack and indy, but these days I listen to anything that’s dope, whether it’s popular or obscure.
M: As a self-identified basic white girl, I occasionally find some discomfort in listening to some rap songs as they address issues that I personally cannot relate to or that I might find uncomfortable—in particular Kanye West’s “New Slaves” and Kendrick Lamar’s “m.A.A.d. city” come to mind. Do you feel that we have any responsibility to act on the things that we learn about through these songs? Are there ways to be proactive without falling in to the “white savior” trope?
Q: I am not sure there is a commitment to do anything upon hearing a song, but I think it’s good to use songs as a base for raising conciousness and learning. When I was young and listening to N.W.A, I was living in the country of western upstate New York and could not really relate to that reality. But it *exposed* me to that reality, it kept me aware and connected to things.
I think our main responsibilities as listeners is to listen and take people at their word. Some one like Kendrick doesn’t need saving, but he’s talking about a situation that’s very real — what can we learn about that? Do we want to do something after we learn? Music is the start, and anything else is up to what we can do.
M: In recent years we’ve seen a re-emergence of white rap artists who seem to carry a double-edged sword in how they both bring attention to the genre as a movement for change, such as in Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” with Mary Lambert, but also how they sometimes overshadow the achievement of rap artists of color who originated the genre. Do you believe that these artists are hurting more than they are helping? Should we be celebrating white artists who “get it” and use the opportunity to introduce more people to artists of color, or is there another solution to enjoying this music while recognizing that it is problematic?
Q: The problematic thing is that white artists are able to claim as innovation things that black artists have already done. A far more powerful commentary on homophobia is the tragic love story “Animal Style” by MURS. MURS even commits in the video and plays one of the lead, kissing a man and taking quite a bit of heat for it.
To me, everything is better –it’s not preachy, it tells a powerful story, MURS is just a better rapper. But Macklemore gets all the fame and credit for something that, in my mind, is inferior to something that’s already done.
I don’t really dislike Macklemore, but it’s clear that he is pushed because he is a white rapper. He is just “pretty good” while there are greats who can’t get any airplay.
There are many white rappers who are amazing. I am huge fans of El-P and Aesop Rock and anybody who will at least honor what came before them.
The media is going to be the media but I think our main activity to fight it is to give people other contexts. If people tell me about “Same Love” I don’t insult it but I do tell them about “Animal Style”. It’s not about tearing down media darlings but endorsing the culture that exists out of the spotlight.
M: Piggybacking on the previous question, do you see a hard line between understanding a genre as an artist and appropriating a culture that is not your own? I especially wonder about this while listening to tracks from white female artists such as k.Flay and various European rappers who are exploring their own oppression through verse, even though it is not necessarily the same struggles that American artists of color might be experiencing.
Q: Appropriation is so weird. There are people who become embedded in a culture without question, but there are others who just become skilled imitators.
My basic barometer is: Do you interact with people who actually invented the thing you do? Do you interact with the culture in which the artform was born? It’s likely that if you are putting on the costume and avoiding people from the originating culture that you are appropriating. If you are ignoring history and tradition and claiming invention, you are likely appropriating.
At this point rapping is a style that’s independent from hip hop culture. People can rap without really being hip hop. People rap all over the world. Rap isn’t always hip hop. Rap can be dope, hip hop can be great…mostly I just focus on those I feel rap and honor the traditions of hip hop while paving their own path.
The problem with the current language that discusses appropriation is that is a form of policing and gate-keeping for authenticity. Rather than celebrating progression, we are watching the boundaries. That’s not my style really. I haven’t heard these other rappers, but it’s very possibly that they can be dope and from somewhere completely different!
The real question is: are you being authentic to your own life or are you being authentic to some impression you have of some group of people? Are you trying to be yourself or someone else?
M: In general, do you have any advice for myself and my fellow white girls and guys who want to review and discuss hip hop while still respecting cultures that are not our own?
Q: I think white people should listen to hip hop and respect the cultures that it comes from. Don’t put your overlays on it. Listen and take other people’s words as truth.
No need to feel guilt — it clouds understanding and centers yourself. If you want to really appreciate the music, just listen to it and research the things you don’t know. Study lyrics and learn rap history.
M: Last but not least, what have you been listening to lately? Any artists or songs that we should check out, either because they’re awesome in general or because of the message they are sending to listeners?
Q: Black Violin I just tuned into –it’s a mashup of classical violin and hip hop and is great.
Kendrick’s latest “To Pimp a Butterfly” is just magic. So good!
Run the Jewels is raunchy, sociopolitical badassery.
Though Run the Jewels I learned how incredible Killer Mike is — listen to “Reagan” from RAP Music for a sample.
Lecrae’s Anomaly is inspiring and spiritual. It’s religious but not preachy. “Outsiders” is my favorite song on the album.
My favorite rap song ever is “Respiration” by Black Star. It’s just amazing.
Additionally, if you have your own experiences or thoughts on hip hop and rap culture, I would love to hear them in the comments below!