Updated: Jul 12, 2023
"Anticon ain’t hip-hop, yo. They try too hard to be weird. They’re only popular on the internet. It’s just stupid nerd rap. They ain’t knowin’ nothin’ about the culture that created hip-hop, yo, you know what I’m saying?” — tongue-in-cheek sample from “Am I Cool Now?” on Muted (2003) by deceased rapper and producer Alias
If you follow conversations around hip-hop culture and politics on Twitter like I do then you’re sure to have come across a bevy of lists from artists and fans alike defining “8 Hip Hop Albums to Know Me By.”
A very partial capture of a very long list of 8-album rundowns trending on Twitter as of the time of this writing. (Screenshot)I started creating a lineup myself in no particular order beginning with Blazing Arrow, the 2002 underground standout by Sacramento duo Blackalicious (featuring the deceased Gift of Gab on the mic and Chief Excel on the cuts) and moving through some others including another early aught cult hit from a duo comprised of deceased British-American virtuoso MF Doom and his counterpart Madlib: 2004’s Madvillainy; Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012); The Score (1996) by East Coast trio The Fugees, which introduced me to my first “Explicit Content” rap album at 12 years old; Selling Live Water, a 2002 underground staple from Portland, ME-bred MC Sole; Endtroducing (1996), the incomparable instrumental album from the Bay Area’s DJ Shadow … and then there’s …
… I stop myself short of finishing.
Suddenly, I am hit with a writer-blocking barrage of questions marked by insecurities tied to race, specifically my racial identity as a white boy influenced not only by Black music but by white people performing Black music.
If I am to finish this list, how many white practitioners of this Black cultural product will end up on it? Will that matter? To whom will it matter? To what degree is my “authenticity” as a self-professed hip-hop head called into question when the list turns gradually whiter in racial shade?
Bracketing those questions for a moment, why don’t I go ahead and finish the list, keeping in mind the invitation is to demarcate albums by which to know me — that is, albums which say something about the listener.
So, without shame, allow me to complete the rundown with an added ninth for honorable mention:
Labor Days (2001) — Aesop Rock;
The Other Side of the Looking Glass (2002) — Alias;
The Taste of Rain … Why Kneel? (2002) — Deep Puddle Dynamics.
I grew up listening to a lot of other hip-hop — music crafted on the street corners where the white boys listed above sourced all their parts (to steal a line from a later Aes Rock track).
Yet it is in all truth these artists who shaped my self-definition as a “head” and got me to really pay attention to the racialized scripts at play in hip-hop music — sometimes directly, often indirectly. This is in large part because of their whiteness, a fact of which I only became more aware with years of formal academic study in the field of hip-hop.
In my early consumption of the culture, like most white adolescents, I was relatively unaware of race as a factor in the performance of this particular avenue of Black cultural production. Indeed, my consumptive habits were color blind. Only gradually did I come to realize the degree to which my whiteness was being filtered through a peculiar key of Black performativity, namely African American Vernacular English (AAVE, a.k.a. “ebonyx”), as embodied by emcees and deejays whose phenotype matched my own: mostly a bunch of misfits from Maine and the Midwest who, not without some deluded bravado characteristics of their age, dubbed themselves cultural nonconformists in their burgeoning at the turn of the century.
But once I caught on to the fact of their whiteness, of my whiteness, through cross-racial conversation and coalition building with non-white classmates and peers as well as in-depth study of these artists’ Black influences, it was hard to escape questions about cultural appropriation and what counts as “real” in a culture bound, for very good reason, by strict racial policing.
Keeping in mind the insights of critical race theory, I understand well that race is a construct. Also in line with CRT, it is a bodily reality with serious political consequences that privilege some and disadvantage others. In my estimation, there are white artists who have leveraged the performance of Blackness as a means by which to “figure” (Hartigan Jr., 2005) on their white identities and thus create bridges for racial solidarity that would otherwise go unbuilt, thus straddling the color-line in a way that negotiates race as both abstract concept and enfleshed political reality.
Of course, their privilege has afforded them license to slip across the color-line but the ubiquity of Black cultural production in the lives of everyday people of all shades renders influence by some kind of osmosis nearly impossible. What matters is how you incorporate this absorption into your own politics of being and becoming as a white person.
Or, put another way — echoing sociologist Nitasha Tamar Sharma (2010) in her explication of “global race consciousness” in hip-hop — what matters is the degree to which non-Black practitioners of Black culture identify with the people and the culture from whom and which they are borrowing; the degree to which they acknowledge the fact of their borrowing; and, finally, the degree to which they capitalize on this act of borrowing as contribution rather than counterfeit. The point is not to pretend to be Black but to be consciously white.
The above-listed white artists are just a few examples of those individuals who have fumbled through the messiness of the hip-hop color-line only to come out more fully self-aware of their place in the canon of Black soul(s) — not with the kind of misguided, if sincere, grandstanding we witnessed in Macklemore’s 2014 Grammy faux pas with Kendrick Lamar, but with straight lyrical skill and finesse that lets the music speak for itself.
Judging by the depth of their identification with hip-hop culture, as evidenced by their artist output and the dap they’ve as hip-hop progresses in years, I’d say they’ve navigated the “politics of authenticity,” to borrow a phrase from Black cultural theorist E. Patrick Johnson (2003), with the kind of aplomb and, ultimately humility, which speaks “legit” in hip-hop ciphers.
So what does this list say about me? Or, perhaps the underlying question: What do I want it to say about me?
I’m a white boy attempting to make sense of his whiteness through a Black register and these cats have provided models for how that might look, sound and feel for other white kids like me who are awkwardly aware of their own race in their consumption and practice of Black culture.
Hip-hop keeps me accountable to these delicate politics of identity and identification. Not in terms of what is considered objectively authentic or “real” by hidebound cultural gatekeepers but, rather, in terms of what is expressed as sincere — something more intangible and intersubjectively experienced as “true” (Jackson Jr., 2005) — in my own practices of and preferences in hip-hop (i.e. Black) culture.
For at its core, hip-hop functions as a cultural methodology in-built with tests concerning the ethics and integrity of my association with Black music and the integrity of those bodies who perform it, wherever they fall on the spectrum of color (Harrison, 2009). Thus the challenge here is to uphold the truth of my experience while sustaining the tensions of expressing it vis-a-vis the rules of “realness” in the game (Morgan, 2009).
In this way, the challenge to create a list of eight hip-hop albums by which to know me is an exercise in getting to know myself as white. Thanks for letting me vulnerable in this way, hip-hop. And thank you, also, for prompting these questions of identity in the first place.