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  April 4, 2000

Hip-Hop History: Learning
from the Rhyme of the Time

The mood in the classroom had been light, the rap music from the boombox on Jeffrey Ogbonna Ogbar's desk alternating with brief discussions of each piece. Occasionally, the two dozen students would laugh or moan as an artist they disliked boomed out of the speakers.

But now, Ogbar turned serious, and the class quieted down, attentive to the soft-spoken, fast-talking history professor's words. Suddenly, time spun backward to the early 1980s, and Ogbar was 13 years old again, living in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles.

"It's not a world that should be glamorized," Ogbar says. "But hip-hop goes beyond that. It talks to the streets, to the people who live there. It talks about life."

And about history - which is where Ogbar is heading, as he leads the students enrolled in his new course, "Hip-Hop: Politics and Popular Culture in Late 20th-Century United States," through the Los Angeles battle zones of the 1980s, punctuated by the emergence of crack cocaine, gunfire, and gang wars. It all peaked in the early 1990s, he tells the class, when there were more than 100,000 gang members in Los Angeles alone.

Puns & Poetry
Today, the music goes well beyond that world, regularly journeying into politics and the need for change in America, all the while piling rhyme on top of rhyme, pun onto pun, and using creative word play that lets listeners discover new meanings to old songs long after they've memorized the words, like well scripted movies that develop cult followings because, each time they're viewed, something new leaps out of the background.

Hip-hop, and the culture that surrounds it - colorful, sweeping walls of grafitti art; break dancing; and DeeJaying, making the sounds, scratches, and background vocals that accompany hip-hop - is far more than gang wars and a flirtation with gangsta rap, says Ogbar. It's poetry, filled with metaphors and similes. It's creative and layered, with virtually every line laden with two or three separate messages. It's music, certainly, with a resonant chest-thumping beat that occasionally seems likely to burst the windows of enthusiasts' cars. And it's oral history, with song after song walking listeners through life in the urban centers of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans and even the agricultural centers of the midwest.

There is much to be learned from hip-hop, Ogbar says. He's not alone. Across the nation, in high school and college history, English and sociology classes, teachers and professors are finding the genre an excellent way to bring their students through the late 20th century, or through the rigors of rhyme and other tricks of the writing trade.

It could also be taught in business classes: hip-hop and rap music are far and away the best selling, highest grossing styles of music to burst upon the American - and global - scene in decades, racking up billions of dollars in sales year after year, both for the music produced by the industry and the magazines that cover it.

One reason for the music's popularity is that it crosses cultural boundaries, as evidenced by the make-up of Ogbar's class: eight or nine African-Americans, a couple of Asian-Americans, a few Latinos and maybe a dozen white students. A slight majority of the students are male. All seem keenly aware of the music, and most appear to know the lyrics of the tunes Ogbar dissects. Clearly, they have listened to the raps before. But few of them understand the background.

"I was surprised by all the history," says Craig Ings, a sophomore from Bloomfield. "I grew up with it, I know all the lyrics, I know what they're saying, but I never thought that much about the history behind what they're rappin'."

But it's there: Raps about growing up in the city, of breaking free of urban shackles to succeed, in music or business. Songs about religion and racial profiling. And, since the demise of "gangsta rap" in the early 1990s, raps that are anti-gang, that speak of the virtues of self awareness and responsibility, about feminism, and even vegetarianism.

A Mirror of Society
"All artists create a form that reflects society," Ogbar says. "Artists entertain, they excite, they explore certain tropes - what society sees at large, experiences at large. You do have hip-hop artists that glorify violence, that glorify anti-social behavior. It's a very diverse form.

"It takes a sociological view of what's going on in the cities, and sometimes it's a very pessimistic view," he says, adding that rapper Chuck D once referred to hip-hop as "the CNN of black America."

Ogbar compares today's hip-hop to early jazz and rock and roll, both forms of music that raised the ire of adults, partly because the music worked to break down barriers. "Black artistic expression often creates a fear of cultural invasion, and moral decline," he says. Hip-hop has, at times, added the element of rage against oppression.

Much of the music that challenged oppression was voiced by rappers from New York, who railed against discrimination in articulate, multi-layered lyrics. Meanwhile, Los Angeles area rappers, who watched their friends and ethnic minorities deal almost daily with a police department that was facing pervasive problems with brutality, became the first groups to use their music to express outrage regarding excessive use of force by police.

But, says Ogbar, when some of the music became prophetic - with rap stars Tupac Shakur and, six months later, The Notorius B.I.G. gunned down shortly after producing songs discussing their deaths - the short-lived period of gangsta rap began receding.

"People were sick of it, sick of the violence. And these two spoke their fates. I think these events moved people away from the violence" in the music, he says.

Now, Ogbar says, the music has become more "real," while staying true to its roots. The rapper Common says it well in one of his songs:

"I just want to innovate and stimulate minds

Travel the world and penetrate the times

Escape through rhythms in search of peace and wisdom

Raps are smoke signals letting the streets know I'm with 'em."

Ogbar, who also offered the course as a First Year Experience class, says he will weigh his experiences with the class before deciding whether the course should be offered again next year. Demand has certainly been strong enough to call him back for an encore.

"I was pleased to see a lot of students wanted to take the course, even after word got out that it wasn't an easy class," says Ogbar who, last year, was tagged with the title "Dr. Death" by some students who found his assignments daunting. His syllabus lists substantial required reading, and papers are due regularly.

"There's a lot of reading," says Allison Frank, one of Ogbar's students, as she waits in line to talk to him after class, "and the papers we have to write can be challenging."

It also can be challenging for a musical genre to break into the realm of academics. For hip-hop, the challenge has been met.

Richard Veilleux