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Becoming a scholar of hip hop

(Michael Buckner / Getty…)
May 22, 2014|By Stephen Markley | For RedEye

If you're any kind of hip hop fan and want to get seriously lost down a rabbit hole, I recommend Matt Daniels' interactive chart, "The Largest Vocabulary in Hip-Hop." Daniels compiled thousands of data sets on the unique words used by hip hop artists, Shakespeare and Herman Melville in "Moby Dick."

It turns out Shakespeare can't hold a candle to Outkast, and Melville can't quite compete with GZA or Aesop Rock. After taking a class on "Moby Dick" with Pulitzer-winning author Marilynne Robinson, my one regret is that I did not bring this up on the last day of class. ("Marilynne, while I respect Melville's introspection on the question of knowledge, I'd like to point out that Wu-Tang Clan still ain't nothing to [bleep] with.")

Surprisingly, some of hip-hop's biggest stars like Kanye, Jay Z, and Drake are in the bottom half of the cluster. In news nearly as shocking as "Rick Santorum has sex through a bedsheet," DMX ranked at the bottom of Daniels' chart.

So am I crazy, or don't we need more of this? Shouldn't academia be taking hip hop way, way more seriously? Shakespeare, a relatively privileged white man, reached what kind of audience during the Elizabethan era? A few million? No one outside of the English-speaking world? So no Asias, Americas, Africas? And then his work was jammed down the throats of ensuing generations by Britain's racist colonial expansion? Wow, cool, nifty!

Hip-hop came from the black underclass -- mostly from neighborhoods invisible and ignored by mainstream American media and politics -- to take over the world in a couple of decades. Now there are corners of the planet without running water or electricity where teenagers trade beats and verses.

While that comparison may be entirely unfair, there remains a lag in what we find worthy of conversation and study and what actually has changed the artistic conversation. I've spent some time tutoring and visiting middle and high schools in Chicago, and what always surprises me is how many books by dead white guys the kids have to read. Shouldn't there be at least one unit on Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet"?

I'm perfectly serious. If you go back to hip-hop in the early '90s (before that troll Puff Daddy took over for a while and made a thousand songs about watches), it's incredible to listen to the accurately focused rage that would presage the economic calamities of the coming decade. In other words, the trends 2Pac was rapping about in "Changes" or "White Manz World" have largely entered the white working class and continue to creep slowly but surely up the socioeconomic ladder. Stagnating wages, unemployment, the drug war, the media's attention on only that which glitters -- these are phenomena, that, over the past 15 years, have entered the American mainstream.

When scholars look for an expression of what was happening to America at the turn of the century in regard to demographic shifts, war, race, social mobility and economic opportunity, there will be no better art form to examine than hip hop.

Which is why I look forward to next semester when Marilynne Robinson, author of "Housekeeping" and the upcoming "Lila," teaches her class on N.W.A.

Stephen Markley is a RedEye special contributor.

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