The Message

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Rap in ClassroomPart 2 of The Hip-Hop in the Classroom Series:

The mainstream rap of today continues to perpetuate the same themes of sex, drugs, and violence we’ve heard almost ad nauseam since the ealy ’90s. Yet, the gems that often redeem and exalt rap into the hood’s champion comes from the oft-ignored B-sides of the most popular rappers in the hip-hop culture. Just like looking for an alternative curriculum to what the school or district supplies a teacher with, it takes a little research and some word-of-mouth to find some of these gems.

It’s stereotypical to just use math raps in the class or try and analyze the similarities and differences between rap and poetry, but I’m using them anyways as an ice breaker. We can kick up the creativity a bit. My first example comes from the prolific Slick Rick, arguably the greatest storyteller of all time. In the excerpt I’m providing next, Slick Rick demonstrates a descriptive narrative (for the rest of “Children’s Story” off the album The Adventures of Slick Rick, click here):

“He said ‘I need bullets, hurry up, run!’
The dope fiend brought back a spanking shotgun,
He went outside but there was cops all over,
then he dipped into a car, a stolen Nova,
Raced up the block doing 83,
crashed into a tree near university,
Escaped alive though the car was battered,
rat-a-tat-tatted and all the cops scattered,
Ran out of bullets and still had static,
grabbed a pregnant lady and out the automatic,
Pointed at her head and he said the gun was full o’ lead,
he told the cops “Back off or honey here’s dead”
Deep in his heart he knew he was wrong,
so he let the lady go and he starts to run on … “

The rest of the song probably set the precedence for rappers like Ghostface Killah, whose “The Forest” and “Shakey Dog” all borrow elements of heavy chronicling from that rapper.

The next verse comes from Jay-Z (as if you didn’t know that was coming). This was buried deep within Blueprint 2, panned by many critics as a waste of an album. However, this song stood out for its dual metaphor of the street dealer and the soldier in Afghanistan / Iraq. Check the verse.

“You lost him mama, the war’s callin him
Feel it’s his duty to fall in line with all of them
He’s a soldier
Rose through the ranks as the head of your household
Now its time to provide bank, like he’s supposed ta’
Now just remember while he’s going to November
There’s part of him growing up
His shirts soaks up your tears as he holds ya
Your heart beatin’ so fast speeding his pulse up
Yeah I know it sucks,
Life ain’t a rosebud
A couple of speed bumps, you gotta take your lumps
Off to boot camp, the world’s facing terror
bin Laden been happenin’ in Manhattan
Crack was anthrax back then, back when
Police was Al Qaeda to Black men
While I was out there hustling sinning with no religion
He was off the wall killing for a living …”

Because of this and many other verses, Jay-Z has been put on a celebrity watch list by the FBI, and it catered especially towards those who speak out against the government. So not only is this good for English / Language Arts, it’s also good for Social Studies / Civics class.

Moving on, Rakim, who whenever there’s any rap conversation I’ll namedrop a plethora of times, once said that he raps in sync with jazz’s tempo. In the verses, he’ll rap, but even within the lines, there are secret rhymes, alliterations, and assonances you’d miss if you weren’t grooving so hard so the song (for the rest of “Follow the Leader” off the album Follow the Leader, click here):

“Follow me into a solo
Get in the flow – and you can picture like a photo
Music mixed mellow maintains to make
Melodies for MC’s motivates the breaks
I’m everlastin, I can go on for days and days
With rhyme displays that engrave deep as X-rays
I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard, FLIP IT
Now it’s a daily word
I can get iller than ‘Nam, a killin bomb
But no alarm – Rakim will remain calm
Self-esteem make me super superb and supreme
But for a microphone still I fiend …”

Even more new school rappers not known for their math have moments of weird brilliance that we can use. The next verse comes from Cam’ron, whose zany rhymes have usually taken me aback, but this time, he might have gotten it right (for the rest of “The R.O.C.”, click here):

“Dude think doublin’ is turnin’ 5 to 8
I turn 8 to 20, 20 to 100, 100 to 1000
That to 100,000, in front-a housin’ …”

We can plot these numbers on an x-y plot, or compare the rate in which his competitor that doubled from 5 to 8 did versus Cam’ron, who had a much higher rate of productivity. Then, we can look at the consequences of drug trafficking and if the long-term benefits work in favor of drug pushers. It’s a long-term project, but it’s also cross-disciplinary.

Yet, with lyrics like this, and a deluge of other rappers’ lyrical dexterity, it poses the question of the literary legitimacy of hip-hop’s music and takes a proverbial dump on it. Granted, we can’t depend on Soulja Boy, Plies, or Akinyele to give us lessons on anything besides sexual degradation with half-written-on-napkin raps, but the list of popular rappers whose lyrics we can use in the classroom (depending on grade level) grows just as much.

Just like any genre of music, rap has a diverse pool of rappers from which to start your lessons. But the most important part of using rap in your lessons is that the discussions and lessons stay authentic and honest. What I mean is that the teacher conveys that they want the student to think critically and use rap as a vehicle of communication rather than to disparage it because it’s the “black kid’s” music.

And to think, I didn’t even get into Immortal Technique, Common, Eminem, or Queen Latifah.

Your thoughts?

jose, who knows someone’s gotta bring up Nas, Lupe Fiasco, David Banner, Trick Daddy, or KRS-One …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 5

  1. e

    but you know it takes someone who really gets hip hop (or at least listens to the words) to use it successfully in the classroom. you can’t take some hip-hop-wanna-be-i-only-listen-to-g-uint knucklehead and have him use hip hop in a way that actually challenge students to think and show that it takes more than rhyming nigga with nigga with nigga to make a valid point (at best) or simply a good song. blah, but what do i know, i’m only a social worker. ;-)

  2. Tom

    What always amazed me was the fact that many of my students memorized the sounds without ever knowing what was actually being said. That led to some humor for me (people come up with crazy ideas that sound pretty close but are waaaay off) and gave me some credibility when I could correct their lyrics or ask them a question about what a specific line meant. Maybe I got them to think about what they were parroting.

    It also probably saved me a time or two. I remember playing Outkast’s “The Way You Move” when it was popular and forgetting the “Drip drip drop there goes an eargasm
    Now you cumin out the side of your face” line but I don’t think any of them really got that reference- and although it’s very Shakespearian the powers that be would NOT have approved.

    It’s odd to think back now on how many things I did could have gotten me fired (and how minor and stupid those things were in the scheme of things). Luckily supervision was lax.

  3. Shelly

    Great post, Jose.

    “Because of this and many other verses, Jay-Z has been put on a celebrity watch list by the FBI, and it catered especially towards those who speak out against the government.”

    I didn’t know this. Not surprised of course, but always intrigued but how so very deeply the rabbit hole goes…

    Some wonderful examples of how beautiful the writing in hip hop often is here. So many artists are such incredibly gifted wordsmiths and thinkers… Very inspirational.

  4. Post
    Author
    Jose

    @ e: I totally agree, which is why I don’t get why I’m teaching math. Maybe I need to act like the literati that I am.

    @ Tom: We spoke on this already, but it’s nice to see someone who really seems to care. Really it does.

    @ Shelly: There’s a lot of politics we’re not quite aware of behind the scene. The industry really does a number on artists’ creativity.

    @ Hugh: I understand that much. I’m good with most music, but I’m still catching up to those rock and roll bands like Led Zeppelin, The Clash, etc. Someday …

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