About ‘rapmatrix’

Waddup, party  people?!

Welcome to rapmatrix, a virtual space where I engage rap music as social theory.

Riffing on African-American literary theorist Houston Baker’s (1984) conception of the “blues matrix,” a framework for thinking about the world through the lens of the blues, this blog offers an interpretation of the world through the lens of rap music.

It is a space to put public intellectuals in dialogue with the street-level philosophers of hip-hop and there see what new insights emerge regarding issues of gender, sex, sexuality, politics, spirituality and race. A virtual “red pill,” rapmatrix is an invitation to reorient ourselves in relation to society, challenging us to ask critical questions about the way we function as social beings.

A history in rhyme.

A history in rhyme.

It does so by reflecting on how the now global, pop-cultural phenomenon of hip-hop–particularly as it manifests in rap music–awakens us to an understanding of history from the perspective of the dispossessed, of those who have been systematically denied the political right to self-determine by a market-driven social system still deeply entrenched in practices of white supremacy.

By the same token, it offers critical commentary on the limits of rap music in particular and hip-hop culture(s) more broadly in accomplishing this deconstructive task.

So why rap?

Because, when it comes down to it, rap music is message music.

It is music with a history. It stands at the edge of a long lineage of musical practices that originate in the earthy rhythm of tribal drums and the sing-song of ring shouts, and which have evolved through field hollers, the blues, jazz, bebop, soul, funk, disco, and R & B. A kind of rhymed storytelling in syncopation to electronically-based rhythmic music, rap finds its roots in the moral tales of the West African “griot”–the person responsible for keeping an historical record of the local village through entertaining stories, poems, songs and dances. Rap takes this tradition and updates it for a 21st century audience.

In this way, it is music with a purpose. As indicated by early rap classics such as Gradmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s, “The Message,” as well as Kurtis Blow’s, “The Breaks,” it began as a creative response to truncated educational opportunities, poor housing standards, unemployment and other aspects of social dislocation that are part and parcel of the postindustrial urban predicament in America.

As rap classics such as Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed good kid, M.A.A.D. city attest, it remains such a response. In the way of urban “storying,”[1] the rap artist—as postmodern embodiment of the traditional West African griot—maps, manages and navigates a social terrain pock-marked by violence, relying on figurative language to speak truth to power.[2] In so doing, the rap artist remaps reality, exhibiting what hip-hop scholar Tricia Rose (1993) terms a “post literate” orality in which an oral tradition is revised through technological means.

A student of literature who has really just started to nourish a nascent love for rap–the first inklings of which stirred within me at 9 years-old, when I heard the likes of A Tribe Called Quest bumping on Baltimore’s 92 Q–I listen to it with an ear to its lyrics and embodied performance. I engage rap with a deeply held concern for the matters of social justice it communicates through the power of the word, or Nommo, to put it in West African terms.

Album Cover for Tribe's critically acclaimed

Album cover for Tribe’s critically acclaimed The Low End Theory (1991)

Moreover, I love what it has to teach me about my white self in relation to a society in great need of prophets. Of people willing to voice unpopular truths and make a funky dance out of doing so.

That said, I treat the rap artist as what African-American cultural theorist Cornel West (1993) dubs a “critical organic catalyst”–an intellectual of sorts who engages their art as a means to critique society through the dual lens of individuality and democracy. Such is rap music at its core, a style of music geared specifically toward self-determination in the context of community. It is music for the people, by the people.

And, sonically, it don’t get no bigger than rap music in the way it grooves, knocks, shakes, bumps, slaps, and pounds with the power of life-force beyond compare.

rapmatrix, then, is a space to “break it down” and get in step to the rhythm, the rhyme, and the reason of those professors of freedom who have much to teach us about the (white) ways of the world. I welcome critical feedback and invite you to be a part of this if you feel you have something to share. Just send an e-mail to rpeach@ses.gtu.edu and tell me what you’d like to write about. Then we’ll go from there.

So join the party and let’s get free, ‘cuz this is bigger than hip-hop.

One love,

Rob Peach

[1] A term I borrow from literary theorist Kevin Young. See The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2012).

[2] As Rose has it, this is achieved through a process of “flow, layering and ruptures in line”—terms she borrows from African-American cultural critic and cinematographer Arthur Jafa—which refer to the motion of lyrical and musical lines sustained by patterns of speech and rhythm that are punctuated by “sharp angular breaks” through the DJ techniques of “cutting” and “scratching” (see Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America [Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press), 38). She argues that these “effects at the level of style and aesthetics suggest affirmative ways in which profound social dislocation and rupture can be managed and perhaps contested in the cultural arena” (Ibid., 39).

  1. E mora says:

    Just stumbled upon your blog read gkmc pt 2 great observations / analysis looking forward to reading more
    P.s. this blog is great books would also be!
    Thank you

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