Behind the Lyrics

Every soundscape is comprised of its own explicit set of ambient sounds. These keynote sounds have helped shape various forms of music each with their own distinct qualities and messages. Hip-hop is no exception. Since its origin, hip-hop music has been used as a form of expression around the world, serving as a microphone to the voices of the marginalized masses. From the block parties in New York, to the streets of Bolivia, hip-hop has been used as a major form of expression. Now people are no longer just hearing a good bass and catchy tune, but are also listening to the lyrical stories behind the music. Artists of all subgenres in hip-hop are coming to the forefront and telling their unique stories of the hardships and struggles that accompany their race, class, and upbringing. These stories intricately intertwined with smooth lyrics and popular instrumentals make the hip-hop soundscape truly memorable.

Tupac’s song “Changes” hones in on his struggles with everyday life. He focuses on tribulations such as poverty, drug addiction, racism, and growing up as an African American. This is a prime example of how artists have used hip-hop as a method of expressing themselves through lyrics and music. Shakur’s song embodies the hardships of his everyday life and allows listeners to relate to his situation making this one of the most memorable songs of his time.

Tupac Changes

Wrapped In The Rhyme

From The Sugarhill Gang, to Tupac and Notorious, to 2 Chainz and Trinidad James, hip-hop has undergone some serious changes. What once was known for mellow lyrics thrown over a beat is now characterized by “at times several vocalists rhymed in angry unison (Kaylan 238).” There is no doubt that over time, the place and style of hip-hop has evolved in various regions. However, its effect stays the same: escape. Rap music has become popular in its ability to serve as an outlet for a type of musical urban revolt. What makes this specific sound so special? What is it that makes this genre of popular (now more mainstream) music so relatable to the general population? By analyzing various journals and authors, it is possible to glean more information as to what lies behind the flows, sixteens, and punch lines of an ever-growing musical movement.

Rap wasn’t always a massive movement. In fact, it had much more humble origins tracing back to the early 1970’s accompanying the popular sounds of disco in New York City and Philadelphia. “Many listened and danced to rappers and DJs playing on street corners, before trying hip-hop. As underground and oppositional, street-performed hip-hop grew increasingly popular, drawing large crowds for neighborhood ‘block parties’ (Warren and Evitt 142).” Block parties were very popular and DJs frequently played genres such as funk and soul. The percussive sounds of the music soon became very popular and DJs began focusing more on the percussions (similar to dub), using two turntables to achieve scratching sounds. These breaks and sharp rapping sounds became the foundation of beats that artist could then rap over. Since then rap music has taken flight as new artists, DJs, and engineers have taken the plunge and tried to create their own unique footprint in the hip-hop community.

Regardless of how flashy the artists dress, or how clever their wordplay, there is always an unwavering factor associated with the production of rap music: the story. What hip-hop has allowed artists to do is paint vivid pictures of situations in listeners’ minds, opening a window into their own world. This is what has ultimately changed hip-hop over the ages. What makes rap music so special is its ability to shed light on voices of those who ordinarily would not be heard from. This unseen, unheard struggle is what’s predominantly focused on in the music. Jenkins stresses in his article “the importance of allowing the marginalized to speak and for their voice to be raw, real, and authentic (1233).”  In hearing these stories, whether real or exquisitely fabricated, outsiders are given a look into the lives of society that is under wraps. The sounds and struggles that have become everyday routines for marginalized individuals are brought to the forefront on the music. Attali states that music “reflects the manufacture of society (30)” and that is exactly the aim of hip-hop. Rap music challenges social norms and the “Minority perspectives make explicit the need for fundamental change in the ways we think and construct knowledge (Jenkins 1233).”

Not only does rap music serve as  “a black cultural expression that prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America (Kaylan 241)” but also as a movement that has influence all over the globe. If rappers got one thing wrong it is that hip-hop is dead. If anything, hip-hop is livelier than ever before. It has taken forms not only throughout all of America, but overseas as well exposing corruption and issues within society. Even in places such as Bolivia hip-hop can be seen “reproducing elements of that haunted soundscape of cultural and economic dispossession that festered in La Paz. (Kaylan 238).” All across the globe hip-hop is evolving and finding new ways to bring social trials and tribulations of the suppressed into the spotlight. The reach and influence of rap music is alive and spreading as Brunson mentions in his article. “Hip-hop images reside within media the way organisms reside in a habitat. Like organisms, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ moved from one media environment to another, so that its message has been reborn in music video and rendered in the virtual reality environments of and (Brunson 7).” Digging deeper into these articles and stories of the evolution of hip-hop will allow us to find the meaning and message within each respective sub-genre of rap around the world.

Researching this topic is not only important because of its cultural relevance in our time period, but also in understanding a major part of the music we listen to. It is one thing to hear the beat and bob your head to the rhythm, it is entirely another to understand and see the stories and struggles that have helped shape the music. Understanding what’s behind the bars, the beats, and the lyrics, allows us to more fully appreciate and respect an ever progressing genre of music. Once you begin to see what you are hearing then you can feel the “linguistically powerful, at times arrogant platform where minority bodies and voices [are] thrust into hegemonic and vice-regal positions in the media landscape (Warren and Evitt 142-143).”


Works Cited

Brunson, James E., III. “Showing, Seeing: Hip-Hop, Visual Culture, and the Show-and-Tell Performance.” Black History Bulletin 74.1 (2011): 6-12. Print. This article focuses on hip-hop as an “extension of Black American culture” and how hip-hop has impacted the culture among urban youth through music, fashion, dance, and even commercial gain. This article also dives into how hip-hop addresses racial stereotypes and reflects certain aspects of culture. W. J. T. Mitchell will also be analyzed and his opinions used to help understand the social constructs around culture.

Jenkins, Toby S. “A Beautiful Mind: Black Male Intellectual Identity and Hip-Hop Culture.” Journal of Black Studies 42.8 (2011): 1231-51. Print. Jenkins states that the minds of Hip-hop artists are the least valued trait compared to other writing-intensive fields. He claims that hip-hop artists nowadays have much more to offer the community. This article allows us to take a closer look into the intellectual side of rap music and assess its ultimate value.

Kalyan, Rohan. “Hip-Hop Imaginaries: A Genealogy of the Present.” Journal for Cultural Research 10.3 (2006): 238-57. Print. Using different areas of prominent hip-hop including New York and Hawaii, Kaylan shows how rap uses expression to resist the movements in dominant society. He uses his article to show a relationship between cultural resistance using hip-hop and political change. The new trends in hip-hop in New York, Hawaii, and Bolivia are used to demonstrate the movements created in the cultural and political fields all from the use of this catalyst: rap.

Sterne, Jonathan, ed. The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print. This book takes works from different authors and combines them to illustrate soundscapes and the changes in sounds (both how they are made and their influence on society) and pieces tem together. The articles in this book provide a look at how soundscapes have evolved over time and what brings about the changes (both positive and negative) in the sounds we hear everyday. This will be used along with the other works to help tie together the differences in the music and areas in which hip-hop evolved.

Warren, Andrew, and Rob Evitt. “Indigenous Hip-Hop: Overcoming Marginality, Encountering Constraints.” Australian Geographer 41.1 (2010): 141-58. Print. This article compares and contrasts indigenous “hip-hoppers” in different regions of the globe. This article also draws on interviews, and observations to help bring insight into how festivities, programs and emerging technology have helped pave the way for new, innovative, unique forms of music making. The geographically mobile environment and sound are examined to show how hip-hop is forever changing and is becoming popular in many places. The indigenous style of hip-hop is also put under the microscope to show how older, more experienced, artist blend with newer artists to create a whole new sound.


Dan Batista

A Day in the Life of Music

Living in a world constantly bombarded by visual stimuli begins to numb ones ability to hear. Our lives have become so focused on what things look like and how we visually perceive objects that we have forgotten how to truly listen to the atmosphere around us. Horowitz states “We tend to think of the world as a place we see, interacting with things and people based on how they look,” supporting the claim that by neglecting the audible world that is constantly surrounding us, we miss out on pivotal points in our lives. College students (myself included) are under constant pressures and are forced adapt to this ever-increasingly visual based society. However, it’s when we are able to slow down and actively listen that we can completely alter our perspectives of our day-to-day lives.

A typical day in the life of a college student would seem fairly simple. Keep your head down to read the new Facebook notifications that pop up into your slightly cracked iPhone, walk from class to class listening to the monotonous conversations between other students, sit down for dinner with your friends and talk about how you all cannot wait until the weekend. This has become our routine. The constant chatter of campus life, the cutting wind, the sounds of generators and fans in classrooms, have all become part of our mosaic soundscape. It would seem that nowadays the average student is more likely to spend his/her time in silence, than sharing experiences with their friends. Who’s to blame? What is the thief that has been crippling our abilities to foster new friendships and create memorable moments with groups of friends? It is because we have become accustomed listeners. We are so used to hearing the same music, sounds, and tones, that we lose interest in finding anything new. However, if you add new sounds to a daily routine you can drastically change your outlook on your “typical day,” just as Horowitz stated saying “The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention [1].”

My collection of sounds is a testament to what adding and sharing new audible experiences can do for a daily routine. Even starting the day off with a slight change in the normal tones you hear can give you a colorful perspective on your daily activities. My first and second clips are connected. Normally the shower only exposes me to the sounds of the water coming out of the showerhead and the constant light drumming of the droplets hitting the floor. Adding music helped me to pay greater attention and think more about the keynote sounds I would normally overlook on a daily basis. This allowed me to pick up on the leaky faucet and create a unique sound using what would be simple background noise. Yet another example of how “listening tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the nonvisual parts of our world feeds into everything [1].”

Music and sound serves not only as a portal to emotions and feelings that one could deem inconceivable, but also as a catalyst in social interactions.  The rest of the sounds are not what a typical day in a college student’s life sound like normally. They are, however, possibilities of what it could become through the addition of different sounds and music. All of the clips such as walking to the concert at Radiobean, the concert itself, and clips of friends making their own music for fun bring a powerful message. All of the people heard in the crowd are there to listen to music together. Not only is the collective experiencing the same sound, but also everyone has his or her own interpretations and individual thoughts. It’s this colossus of ideas and different interpretations that ultimately brings people together and that can change ones “typical” into something much more meaningful – especially in a setting such as the one presented in my audiography. When one is immersed so fully by sounds (i.e. the roar of the crowd, voices of the performers) two things occur: the overpowering awareness of the presence of resonance, and the need to use all three types of listening. In a crowd you are constantly hearing the buzz of conversation mixed with the music and the softer keynote sounds, which “entails adjacency, sympathy, and the collapse of the boundary between perceiver and perceived” – the embodiment of resonance [2]. You are also forced to listen to the music and tones on a variety of levels including “a specific person’s voice, the sound produced by a particular unique object,” the “code of a language to interpret a message,” and “the listening mode that focuses on the traits of the sound itself [3].”

The use of all three modes of listening as well as the aural resonance that is constantly heard is what brings people together. It is not the phone screens, or the numerous text messages to set up plans, but the ability to share in this moment of hearing music and truly listening to it that brings people together and can ultimately change the outlook of one’s typical day at college. The average sounds one would hear during a typical day at school would be much different than these, however, with the addition of different sounds and new music, a typical day could be easily altered to change one’s entire outlook on college.



[1] Seth Horowitz, The Science and Art of Listening (New York: The New York Times, 2012)

[2] Veit Erlmann, Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality (New York: Zone Books, 2010)

[3] Michel Chion, “The Three Listening Modes.” The Sound Studies Reader. Comp. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012

The Soundtrack of Slavery

Soundtrack Proposal for the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass has had an extraordinary journey from entering the world as a slave, to ending his life as an abolitionist. Throughout his time as a slave, he experienced many sounds that some would deem horrific. However, it was the constant repetition of these sounds that made them jaded. Eventually these became the “quiet” southern lives that the north believed southerners led. Douglass became so acclimated to these sounds that they became the Keynote sounds in his atmosphere. What once was new to him, and the rest of the slaves on the plantation, became a form of ambient noise that managed to blend into the soundscape around them. Building a soundtrack for a film based on the narrative of Frederick Douglass would have to accentuate the sounds that have faded into their background. The constant sounds of the whips, screams, and torment that have become normal in the lives of the slaves, would need to be brought out in order to illuminate their hardships. Any songs that would be added to the soundtrack would have a somber tone that brings the viewer into the slaves’ dreary lives.

The Sounds of Slavery:

The south was thought to be much quieter than the buzz of northern industrious expansion, so it is only fitting that the film begins with silence. Nothing is seen but the moon over Douglass’ plantation, still, under the night sky. Slowly Douglass’ low melodic voice would begin: “I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an aunt of mine” (3). Light starts to settle over the plantation as the silence is promptly disrupted by a woman’s shriek for mercy immediately followed by the sound of the whip tearing into her soft flesh. Each blood-curdling scream is accompanied by the whip’s sharp crack and the low murmur of Douglass crying in the near distance forced to watch and listen to the warm drops of blood hit the floor like soft taps on a wooden table. The lashing sounds followed by shrill cries slowly get louder and louder as an orchestra of strings builds intensity. As the orchestra reaches a climax, one last crack of the whip and one final scream are heard. Silence follows as the sun rises over the plantation. Silence continues as the sun rises and is then disrupted by shrill blast of the horn signaling the beginning of the day’s work. Almost instantaneously the plantation bursts to life. A drum line can be heard keeping a steady beat every two measures.  Among the drum line can be heard the sounds of the plantation. Feet shuffling. The groans of an overworked slave collapsing from the heat. The sound of the whip against the backs of slaves, though audible, is overlooked since it has become so engrained in their daily routine. Fragments of vulgarity can be heard loudly from Mr. Severe on his rounds with his whip. One voice begins a wild song from the field soon to be joined by others as they sing “pathetic sentiments in the most rapturous tone” (8) symbolizing their unhappiness. The “O, yeah! O, yeah! O!” chorus from the song of the Great House Farm (8) can vaguely be heard over the other exultations. The rhythm of the drum line does not stop nor does the work of the slaves. Only when the day’s work is over does the drum line begin to fade back into silence. These are the sounds associated with the soundtrack of this Southern life that the slaves have grown accustomed

Music Selection:

The song I have decided would best fit the film is “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash. This song presents a somber tone that would add to the daunting lives of the slaves. Johnny Cash’s voice would echo over the crippled bodies of the working slaves as they toiled in the fields. Cash’s lyrics also attribute to the film with lines such as “My head’s been whipped with the midnight dues,” and “Working in the dark against your fellow man” to help illustrate the violence and toil that Douglass and his fellow slaves on the plantation had to endure. The chorus and repetition of “sooner or later God will cut you down” provides what could have been the mindset of many slaves wishing for death or mercy as a way out of the hellish life that was dealt to them.


Here is a link for Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”