Music’s finest minds debate the hip-hop question

Jay-Z joined by Rihanna and Kanye West in the video for Run This Town.

This weekend, ecstatic crowds flocked to Hackney to see rap star Jay-Z – proving hip-hop is a powerful force. Now, leading thinkers are asking if it is a power that helps, or hurts.

This weekend, thousands of people flocked to Hackney to watch the biggest hip-hop artist in the world. Jay-Z has sold 50 million albums worldwide, earning an estimated fortune of $450 million. From humble beginnings, he has become a shining example of success.

But tonight, Jay-Z’s brand of hip-hop is going on trial. In a live debate broadcast online, leading thinkers and artists from the industry will try to decide whether hip-hop is a force for good – or ill.

The charges against it are serious. Critics say rap music glorifies violence and drug use; that it promotes greed, materialism and hatred of women. Hip-hop artists, on the other hand say their music reflects the reality of the tough, crime-ridden neighborhoods they come from. For them, rap is part of an empowering alternative culture – one that people who don’t have a voice in mainstream society can relate and aspire to.

Hip-hop’s roots can be traced back to one of America’s most impoverished communities: the Bronx of the 1970s. There, DJs began sampling tracks at semi-legal block parties – and soon, people started rapping over their beats.

In 1979, the New York trio Sugarhill Gang created hip-hop’s first big hit: Rapper’s Delight. The track’s MCs make friendly boasts of being ‘six foot one’ and ‘tons of fun’, and promise that ‘me, the groove and all my friends are going to try to move your feet.’

As time passed, however, hip-hop began to explore more important issues: injustice and poverty. The dissatisfaction became clear in The Message, by Grandmaster Flash: ‘you grow up in the ghetto, living second rate’ it says, ‘and your eyes will sing a deep song of hate.’

From there, it was just a small step to anger. For hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, aggressive lyrics were a direct challenge to the the ‘non-threatening’ image of the black musicians that came before rap. His record label Def Jam was a springboard for Public Enemy – who used hip-hop to protest against police and politicians.

At the same time, artists like Tupac and NWA were creating a new genre – gangsta rap, packed with gritty stories of urban crime. Today, mainstream rappers have followed their lead – selling millions with tales of violence, sex and drugs.

Taking the rap

Some think that is no bad thing. Like all forms of art, hip-hop’s job is to explore life in creative ways. It should be vibrant, gritty and entertaining – not a dull sermon about making sensible choices.

That would be fine, others say, if hip-hop did not have such a damaging effect. Glamorising greed and violence has a direct impact on the streets, where gun crime and gang culture destroy lives. Rappers must wake up to the fact that their words have consequences.

You Decide

  1. Is hip-hop a force for good?
  2. Should hip-hop take the blame for problems like gangland violence or drug misuse?


  1. Write your own rap explaining whether you think hip-hop is a positive or negative force.
  2. Look up the lyrics to Rapper’s Delight– thought to be the first really popular hip-hop track. In groups, discuss whether the track would be as successful today – and why.

Some People Say...

“The world would be a better place without hip-hop.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What exactlyis hip-hop?
Tricky question. Some rappers speak proudly of violence, drugs and misogyny; other artists use rap for political ends. Many people think others, like Das Racist and Lil B, satirise common hip-hop themes.
How do I get involved in the debate?
Tickets to the debate, which takes place at London’s Barbican Centre, are available from Intelligence Squared. But everyone can watch the event online, live – and take part by tweeting thoughts and responses at #VsHipHop.
Who is there?
Guests include Q-Tip, from rap group A Tribe Called Quest; Egyptian rapper Daab, who believes hip-hop was a powerful force in the Arab Spring; Shaun Bailey, who advises the Prime Minister on youth and crime; and Victorian literary professor John Sutherland.

Word Watch

Raised in a Brooklyn housing project, Shawn Carter was abandoned by his father at a young age – and went on to become one of the most successful rappers of all time. His albums Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt are regarded as definitive; and his most recent, Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne, debuted at number one in the US Billboard charts. He is married to R&B singer Beyoncé, and they have one daughter.
The Bronx
The Bronx is a borough in New York City. With large immigrant communities and areas of notable poverty, it has a reputation for deprivation and violence. But it is also the home of thriving subcultures – such as the block parties that gave birth to hip-hop.
Public Enemy
Formed in the mid 1980s, Public Enemy are one of the best known political hip-hop groups, and enjoy a cult status today. Their music explores themes of black disenfranchisement and oppression, police brutality and criticism of the media – titles include Fight the Power, Fear of a Black Planet and 911 is a Joke.

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