Keep It Real. Authenticity in Hip-Hop and Rap Music

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013

24 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of Contents


1. Historical Background
1.1. Preconditions
1.2. The Evolution of Hip-Hop

2. Dimensions of Authenticity after McLeod 9
2.1. Social-psychological Dimension
2.2. Racial Dimension
2.3. Political-economic Dimension
2.4. Gender-sexual Dimension
2.5. Social-locational Dimension
2.6. Cultural Dimension

3. Analyses
3.1. N.W.A – Straight Outta Compton
3.2. N.W.A – Fuck Tha Police
3.3. N.W.A – Express Yourself
3.4. Ice Cube – When Will They Shoot?
3.5. Jay Z – Moment of Clarity


Works Cited


Hip-hop does only represent a mere music genre but also constitutes a movement that emerged out of profound economic and social changes in New York of the 1970s. It is a cul- tural expression of an Afrodiasporic community that faced social and racial inequity. Origi- nally, hip-hop constituted a shelter for ethnic minorities that have been socially marginalized by the dominant American culture. However, hip-hop also constitutes a commercial com- modity which is often reduced to its commercial purpose. This balancing act of representing a culture on the one hand, and a commodity on the other hand, evoked a discussion on au- thenticity.

The aim of this paper is to analyze how and to what extent authenticity is claimed in songs of hip-hop artists. In order to understand the discussion of authenticity in hip-hop it is crucial to provide an informational background of the preconditions that contributed to the develop- ment of hip-hop. Chapter 1.1 provides this basis and describes social and political circum- stances that America and especially New York experienced throughout the 1970s. The result- ing evolution of the hip-hop movement is subject to chapter 1.2., explaining the beginnings of the movement and outlining hip-hop’s elements. Chapter 2 is concerned with the concept of authenticity. In the course of this section I will deal with Kembrew McLeod’s six semantic dimensions of authenticity which serve as a basis for the subsequent analyses. The last chap- ter provides an analysis of five rap songs that will be analyzed according to McLeod’s dimen- sions of authenticity. The aim of this chapter is to find out, to what extent authenticity claims are used and how many dimensions can be identified in a song. Additionally, it is ana- lyzed, if certain dimensions a used more frequently, or more specifically, if it is possible to allocate priorities to McLeod’s dimensions.

As a basis for this research I chose scholars with years of experience in the field of hip-hop and authenticity. One of them constitutes Tricia Rose, who is an internationally respected scholar, especially in the field of culture, popular music, social issues, gender and sexuality. Her book Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America is considered as a “foundational text for the study of hip-hop, one that had defined what is now an entire field of study” ( Two other important scholars constitute Murray For- man and Mark Anthony Neal, who are also experts in the research of black popular culture, black masculinity, and the history of popular music. They published the comprehensive hip- hop studies reader That’s the Joint which encompasses most important and influential arti- cles of hip-hop scholarship. Other scholars in the field of hip-hop and authenticity constitute Mickey Hess, Kembrew McLeod and Jonathan D. Williams, who have contributed to the dis- cussion of authenticity within hip-hop.

1. Historical Background

As with other genres of music such as rock ‘n’ roll or jazz, hip-hop emerged out of special political, economic, social and technical circumstances. In order to grasp what hip-hop is all about, it is crucial to examine core factors that paved the way for the development of this new culture. This chapter provides a detailed insight of Americas and especially New York’s political, economic and social situation during the 1960s and 1970s and depicts economic and social effects of which especially New York’s ethnic minorities suffered from. Further- more, major technical developments that revolutionized the music industry are approached. Chapter 1.2 addresses the evolution of hip-hop and explains how hip-hop serves young Afri- can Americans as an outlet for expression and identification (cf. Rose 1994: 33). Additionally, this chapter comprises an overview of the four elements of hip-hop, and clarifies the im- portance of self-definition and identity formation.

1.1. Preconditions

During the 1960s and 1970s America experienced a period of substantial transformation across all sectors. Factors such as the establishment of multinational telecommunication networks, global economic competition, major technological revolutions, introduction of new international divisions of labor, increasing power of finance relative to production, and new migration patterns from Third World industrializing nations (cf. 27), led to “the econom- ic and social restructuring of urban America” (27). For the American population, this entailed major social consequences, especially for those representing Americas lower class which generally consists of ethnic minorities such as African Americans, Hispanics and Puerto Ri- cans. A major change constitutes the large-scale restructuring of workplaces and job markets across the U.S. that took place during the 1970s (cf. 27). According to McLeod, this measure “[…] placed additional pressures on local community-based networks and whittled down already limited prospects for social mobility” (27). In other words, the chance of moving into a higher social class due to well paid jobs, became even harder, if not impossible. Matters were complicated further by the fact that federal funds for social services were cut down sharply (cf. 27). Industrial factories were closed down and replaced by luxury housing, the consequence being that affordable housing for working-class residents was scarce (cf. 27). In addition to that, many industrial workplaces in the manufacturing industry and a range of social services such as health care, public housing and social care diminished (cf. 27). Conse- quently, residents living at the poverty line suffered most from these drastic measures to that effect that “[…] they were the least protected and had the smallest safety nets” (27). During the 1980s, the wealthier part of the population geared towards converting former downtown housings into business offices and transformed parts of the city into tourist zones, exacerbating the lower-classes situation (cf. 27).

Since New York represents one of the most important financial metropolis in the U.S., large- scale restructuring measures and its entailing effects, such as unequal wealth distribution and the housing crisis, were especially felt there (cf. 27, 28). From 1978 to 1986 the gap be- tween classes and races in New York even more widened. Residents who already lived on the breadline, predominantly Blacks and Hispanics, experienced an “absolute decline in in- come” (28), whereas the better off top 20 percent benefited most from the economic growth (cf. 28). It is an alarming number of New York households that lived at or below the poverty line during this time (30 % Hispanic, 25 % black, 40 % Puerto Rican households), not to mention the homeless population which was unable to afford an accommodation (cf. 28). Those who could barely pay the rent had to deal with overcrowded, bedraggled, and under maintained flats (cf. 28).

Besides the housing crisis, New York underwent a massive shift with reference to its occupa- tional structure. The city’s initial high-wage, high-employment policy, which grounded in manufacturing, trucking, warehousing, and wholesale trade, changed towards a low-wage, low-employment policy now grounding in producer services, and consequently leading to more inequality (cf. 28, 29). Daniel Walkowitz, professor of Social and Cultural Analysis in New York, also addresses this inequality and observes:

“New York became sharply divided between an affluent, technocratic, professional, white- collar group managing the financial and commercial life of an international city and an unem- ployed and underemployed service sector which is substantially black and Hispanic” (29).

Wolfowitz’s observation underpins the rigorousness and the sharpness of this social division and highlights that there is nothing in-between. One either belongs to the privileged elite or to the unprivileged residents who can barely afford a living.

In their work Dual City: Restructuring New York (1991), John Mollenkopf and Manuel Cas- tells, describe how New York’s single largest social group in the 1950s, the blue-collar white ethnics, was replaced by three new groups, namely, white male professionals and managers, female and black or Latino clerical and service workers, and finally Latino and Asian manu- facturing workers (cf. 29). Mollenkopf concludes, “New York has been transformed from a relatively well-off white blue-collar city into a more economically divided, multi-racial white collar city” (29). This process led to an unequal distribution of power in favor of white-collar professional corporate managers (cf. 29).

Another crucial change constitutes the information shift caused by the media which led to a representation crisis of New York lower-class residents (cf. 29). Besides dispersing them to the suburbs, the market solely concentrated on the needs of wealthier suburban buyers and thus neglected the necessities of the lower-class. Although these people constitute a huge share of New York’s population, they were completely invisible in the media, with reference to advertisings and television broadcasts which solely designed their information according to potential investors (cf. 29). Simultaneously, a massive revolution in the telecommunica- tion sector took place and contributed to further discontent among the population. Due to internationalized communication companies which controlled the radio and television, local community networks decreased and the means of communication changed (cf. 30).

The South Bronx depicts the neighborhood in New York where deindustrialization and eco- nomic restructuring measures were especially visible and caused an “unexpected side ef- fect” (30). In the beginning of the 1970s, the government of New York initiated massive relo- cations of black residents from the lower-class into the South Bronx which led to the de- struction of communities (cf. 30). Furthermore, New York planned a Cross-Bronx Expressway that was built straight across the South Bronx. Several hundred buildings had to be demol- ished and 170,000 people from the Bronx had to be relocated (cf. 31). Thirty-seven percent of the 170,000 displaced residents were non-white. Again, important community network were destroyed and people were dispersed. Rose concludes, “the newly ‘relocated’ black and Hispanic residents in the South Bronx were left with few city resources, fragmented leadership, and limited political power” (33). This underpins how difficult the life for this part of the population was and shows the carelessness of the government, setting priorities ac- cording to profit.

The final straw before the younger generation of the South Bronx answered back, consti- tutes an extensive black out in 1977 which led to an outrage where several shops were “looted and vandalized” (33). The media depicted the South Bronx as “lawless zones where crime is sanctioned and chaos bubbles just below the surface” (33). Residents were sur- rounded by poverty, unemployment, violence and isolation. Due to lacking youth centers, New York’s juveniles created alternative ways of making their voice heard and began to form their own cultural networks.

These socio-economic and political circumstances depict one essential factor for the evolu- tion of the hip-hop movement. The other factor constitutes the enormous technical devel- opments in the music industry during the 1960s and 1970s. The technical progress of intro- ducing records was path breaking for the emergence of new ways of producing music. The possibility of processing music records technically enabled an optimization of sound patterns and led to a new technique of recording, the so called „overdubbing“. This method enables to record individual voices or instruments on individual sound tracks. Subsequently, each sound track can be layered on top of another. This technique does not only facilitate record processes but also contributes to quality improvements of recording. Furthermore, this mu- sical development also induced a change in the artistic field in the sense that sounds where realized artificially with the help of synthesizers (cf. Bock 2007: 200). Artificially produced sounds led to a complete new type of music such as the in 1967 released Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. This album constitutes one of the first releases experi- menting with synthetically produced music. With reference to the development of Hip Hop, one should note that Disco music too developed upon the possibility of artificial sound pro- duction (200).

After the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans were officially declared equal, to have equal rights and to be protected by law. Racial discrimination such as separation in busses or public institutions were abolished. The growing black middle class constituted a new class of customers for the economy. With the help of the crossover marketing strategy, the music industry also tried to sell music of black artists to white customers. Consequently, record companies frequently signed contracts to black artists. However, black artists were often underpaid and black employees were unable to gain higher positons. This fact reflects the prevailing social inequity after the movement. In 1975, Disco music was considered main- stream and musicians were forced to adjust to this development. Apart from a few artists such as Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye, who did not follow the advice of the record labels, all other black artists aimed quick commercial success. Music that the mainstream would listen to. Based on this development, the expression “Disco sucks” became very popular, indicating the ending heyday in 1979. One of the last commercial songs of that time constitutes “Good Times” from Chics (cf. George 2006: 16 – 26).

What has become clear in this chapter, is that during the 1960s and 1970 various postindus- trial changes such as deindustrialization, technical revolution, and economic restructuring took place across the U.S. It was the interaction of many factors that paved the way for the evolution of the hip-hop movement. With the information provided in this section, it is now possible to grasp the spirit of hip-hop which is subject to the subsequent chapter.

1.2. The Evolution of Hip-Hop

Given the fact that residents of the South Bronx felt that they were treated unjustly, being excluded from society like outcasts, they formed their own alternative community that they identified with. Rose notes that:

“Hip hop culture emerged as a source for youth of alternative identity formation and social status in a community […]. Identity in hip hop is deeply rooted in the specific, the local expe-rience, and one’s attachment to and status in a local group or alternative family” (Rose 1994:34).


Excerpt out of 24 pages


Keep It Real. Authenticity in Hip-Hop and Rap Music
University of Kassel
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
keep, real, authenticity, hip-hop, music
Quote paper
Julia Trede (Author), 2013, Keep It Real. Authenticity in Hip-Hop and Rap Music, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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