Rap and hip-hop have been around for decades and have become one of America's most successful cultural exports.
But when the Library of Congress added new recordings to its national registry this year, none of them were hip-hop.
Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee discusses that with William Boone, professor in the English and African-American studies department at Winston-Salem State University. He says that hip-hop artists are used to being overlooked by the powers that be.
On hip-hop pushing back against power
So in the 1980s hip-hop was viewed — actually all the way up to the '90s — as sort of this disposable, ephemeral art form. "It won't last; these are just kids; this is not important." And so hip-hop has, since its inception, been pushing back on these dominant narratives. "We're here to stay," essentially. So you fast-forward 40 years later and it's still here, it doesn't seem to be fading away. I think there's maybe a generational bias there, a bit out of touch as it relates to the pulse of American culture.
On whether Jay Z deserves a spot
I would say that I think the music should be representative of a given era or region. For example, Nas' Illmatic ... had such a profound impact on not only New York sound, and hip-hop sound, but in terms of the topics that were covered within hip-hop. So I think at the very least these songs, these albums, should be representative of a certain era or certain cultural moment. ... I'm not sure if we can include Jay Z, but clearly he's made an impact. I would answer that yes, but before we talk about Jay Z I think we have to talk about the precursors to Jay Z. Someone like A Tribe Called Quest. I think that's the significance of hip-hop in that it's bricolage. It brings a lot of different elements together to create a narrative.
On viewing America through a hip-hop lens
I think we have to come to grips with the fact that America is still struggling with certain things. Whether it be race, whether it be poverty, whether it be violence. And so I think hip-hop offers an exciting opportunity to look back on these moments — and not only chronicle history and culture in America, and the tension between generations and communities — I think it's also a great American story in regards to the way young black folk, young poor folk, folk of color in America are grappling with these things: commercialism, hyperconsumption. These are things that are not only central to young people, but central to the American experience.
CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
Rap and hip-hop have been around for decades. Of course, they've now become one of America's most successful cultural exports. But you might be surprised to learn that only five songs and albums from those genres are represented in the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIGHT THE POWER")
PUBLIC ENEMY: (Singing) 1989 the number - Another summer - get down -
sound of the funky drummer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MESSAGE")
GRANDMASTER FLASH: (Singing) A child is born with no state of mind - blind to the ways of mankind - God is smiling on you but he's frowning too.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAPPER'S DELIGHT")
SUGAR HILL GANG: (Singing) I said a hip hop, hippie to the hippie, the hip, hip a hop, and you don't stop, a rock it to the bang bang boogie, say, up jump the boogie, to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEAR MAMA")
TUPAC SHAKUR: (Singing) Pour out some liquor and I reminisce - 'cause through the drama - I can always depend on my mama.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME, MYSELF AND I")
DE LA SOUL: (Singing) But when it comes to being De La - it's just me myself and I.
HEADLEE: Every year the Library of Congress adds recordings to the registry that they say are important to America's culture and history. This year, 25 new recordings were added. None of them were hip-hop, though. Joining us to talk about it is William Boone. He's a professor in the English and African-American studies department at Winston-Salem State University and founder of Afro Blue Media. Welcome.
WILLIAM BOONE: Hey. How's it going, Celeste?
HEADLEE: Good. You know, I wonder first of all before we started on hip-hop not be included this year - we just heard "The Message" from Grandmaster Flash, "Rapper's Delight" with the Sugar Hill Gang, of course, "Fear of a Black Planet" Public Enemy, "Dear Mama" from Tupac Shakur, and "Three Feet High and Rising" De La Soul. Any problem with those?
BOONE: No, no, no, no. Actually, I think these are very, very, very good selections in that they represent a broad sort of scope of hip-hop music. So I don't have a problem with what the registry has included. I guess my problem is what they've excluded.
HEADLEE: So I should say that the Library of Congress responded when we reached out to them and said, quote, the National Recording Registry really does represent all facets of America's soundscape and its rich diversity.
Nominations are gathered through online submissions from the public and the National Recording Preservation Board, which is comprised of leaders in the fields of music, recorded sound and preservation, unquote. So William Boone, your response - I assume if you had been on this recording preservation board - you have ideas on what you would've added. What would - what would you have included this year?
BOONE: Oh, wow, that's a great question. There's a couple of albums that I think would really better represent not only American musical culture, but the hip-hop generation. I don't see how they could omit Run-DMC.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN YOU ROCK IT LIKE THIS")
RUN-DMC: (Singing) I'm straining not complaining for a casual life - something normal nuttin' formal three kids and a wife - I'm dying from the spying that you're putting me through -I perspire I'm on fire when I'm thinking of you - But can you rock it like this? - I can rock it like that.
BOONE: I feel as though Run-DMC is not only a seminal group, but they are archetypal in their approach to hip-hop music, particularly their 1985 album "King of Rock," where they merge hip-hop and rock sensibilities.
HEADLEE: So if they're collecting things that are historically relevant - in a way it's almost like they're creating a time capsule for people - I kind of think of it. What are the qualities that a song or an album needs to have to make it onto that? I mean, obviously, the things that you study may not be the things that somebody in the National Registry might consider important, right? They're not hip-hop scholars. They're trying to create a large picture.
BOONE: Right, right, right. Well, I would say that I think that music should be representative of a given era or a given region. So for example, Nas' "Illmatic."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "N.Y. STATE OF MIND")
NAS: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, aiyyo black it's time.
BOONE: "Illmatic" had such a profound impact on not only New York sound and hip-hop sound, but in terms of the topics that were covered within hip-hop. So, you know, I think at the very least these songs, these albums should be representative of a certain era, a certain moment or certain cultural moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "N.Y. STATE OF MIND")
NAS: (Singing) Rappers, I monkey flip 'em with the funky rhythm I be kickin' - musician, inflictin' composition - of pain; I'm like Scarface sniffin' cocaine - holding an M-16, see with the pen I'm extreme, now - bullet holes left in my peepholes - I'm suited up in street clothes - hand me a nine and I'll defeat foes.
HEADLEE: I wonder to what extent should a song that's included also be popular? Does something that's really important have to be popular? Does it have to reach a certain number of people before it becomes a historical artifact?
BOONE: Not necessarily. Not necessarily because I think we have to be careful there as we walk the tightrope between say popular music and art, if you will. So I wouldn't necessarily say it had to be popular, but I would say that I would judge it more by impact. So another album that I hope makes it onto the registry is 50 Cent's "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." And so there's popular success there. But not only do 50 Cent's narratives impact the way hip-hop artists dealt with realism, 50 Cent has had a profound impact on the business landscape. So in that regard, I think it should perhaps be - the impact should be multi-dimensional, multi-layered.
HEADLEE: Let me put it to you this way. Let's say that I'm on the board and I'm helping to choose what the 25 archival recordings will be, right? And we have to include great political statements, right? Maybe we're going to include something from the Mandela memorial.
Maybe we're going to include something else that marks a moment in time. And say that there's a few spots left. You kind of have to include all of music. And yes hip-hop is ubiquitous, but an argument could be made that you have to put in "Let It Go" from "Frozen." That's pretty ubiquitous also. And you're laughing, but it's everywhere.
BOONE: Right. Two points. One, I think hip-hop emerges in an era of skepticism. So I think that's important to note.
HEADLEE: Wait, could you explain a little further what you mean? It emerges in an era of skepticism.
BOONE: Yes. Yes, so.
HEADLEE: What does that mean?
BOONE: So in the 1980s, you know, hip-hop was viewed - and actually all the way up into the '90s - as sort of this disposable, ephemeral art form. OK. It won't last. These are just kids, you know. This is not important. And so, you know, hip-hop has since its inception been kind of pushing back on these dominant narratives, you know.
We're here to stay, essentially, you know. So you fast-forward some 40 years later and it's still here. And it doesn't seem to be fading away. So I think there's a bit of a maybe generational bias there - a bit out of touch as it relates to the pulse of American culture.
HEADLEE: We should also point out that if you're going to go on to the Library of Congress list, the song or selection has to be at least 10 years old. That would bring us right now - obviously it's 2014, so that would bring us up to 2004. So what did we miss from the early 2000s that you think is most important for us to get in there? You mentioned Run-DMC. You mentioned Nas. What else are we missing? Do we need to get Jay-Z in there?
BOONE: I'm not sure if we can include Jay-Z, but clearly he's made an impact. I would answer that yes. But before we talk about Jay-Z, I think we have to talk about the precursors to Jay-Z, somebody like a group like A Tribe Called Quest.
And again, I think that's the significance of hip-hop in that it's free-collide (PH). It brings a lot of different elements together to create a sort of a narrative. So A Tribe Called Quest's first album "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BONITA APPLEBUM")
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Singing) Bonita Applebum, you gotta put me on - Bonita Applebum, you gotta put me on.
BOONE: They come together to create essentially a new sound and a new American sound because jazz, as we know, is an American art form.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BONITA APPLEBUM")
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Singing) Bonita, Bonita, Bonita.
BOONE: And then also I would maybe include OutKast, you know, because there's always a sort of New York-centric bias in hip-hop. And so the South is usually excluded. So I would definitely have to include OutKast's "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik" 1994 album. 'Cause again, it made a national impact within the genre, but then also outside of the genre as Andre 3000 has moved on into film and various other avenues and arenas.
HEADLEE: OK. Even animated cartoon shows for kids.
BOONE: Yes, yes, yes.
HEADLEE: What do you think hip-hop will tell future generations? Eventually the genre will either evolve into something completely different or disappear in one way or another. So, you know, 100 years from now looking back, the same way that we look back at Scott Joplin's rags, what do we learn about our culture by listening to these hip-hop songs?
BOONE: Well, I mean, I think the first thing that we'll remember looking back as we look back at a historical memory, I think, we have to come to grips with the fact that America is still struggling with certain things, whether it be race, whether it be poverty, whether it be violence.
And so I think hip-hop offers an exciting opportunity to look back on these moments and not only chronicle history and culture in America and the tension between generations and communities, I think it's also a great American story in regards to the way young black folk, young poor folk, folk of color in America are grappling with these things - commercialism, hyper-consumption. You know, these are things that are not only essential to young people, but essential to the American experience.
HEADLEE: And what - having hip-hop included and rap included at all in the Library of Congress - does that make a difference to what you were talking about earlier in terms of the skepticism surrounding the genre?
BOONE: Yes, yes.
HEADLEE: Does it matter?
BOONE: Yes. And I don't want to paint the Library of Congress as a villain because I think they've done a good job. I just think they're a bit out of touch. I mean, these things can happen when we're talking about institutions that go back 200 or 300 years. I think it is commendable, but there's more work to do, if you will.
HEADLEE: Message from William Boone to the Library of Congress - get with the times. William Boone is professor in the English and African-American studies department at Winston-Salem State University and he joined us from that campus. Thank you so much.
BOONE: Thank you so much, Celeste. Have a good one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHECK THE RHIME")
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Singing) Okay, if knowledge is the key then just show me the lock - got the scrawny legs but I move just like Lou Brock - with speed. I'm agile plus I'm worth your while. One hundred percent intelligent black child. My optic presentation sizzles the retina. How far must I go to gain respect? Um. Well, it's kind of simple, just remain your own...
HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Tune in for more talk tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHECK THE RHIME")
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Singing) ...or you'll be crazy sad and alone. Industry rule number four thousand and eighty, - record company people are shady. So kids watch your back 'cause I think they smoke crack. I don't doubt it. Look at how they act.
Off to better things like a hip-hop forum. Pass me the rock and I'll storm with the crew and... Proper. What you say Hammer? Proper. Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop.
NC, y'all check the rhyme y'all. SC, y'all check it out y'all. Virginia, check the rhyme y'all. Check it out. Out. In London, check the rhyme, y'all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.