Hip-Hop is American Art: A Talk with a Critic, an Audio Engineer and a Rapper at Chicago Ideas Week

1019_hip_hop_img_133 Touré speaks to crowd at Chicago Ideas Week.

When names like Drake or Kanye West become household names, it marks a time in our culture when mainstream America widely embraces hip-hop as an original art form. Teachers and professors have been discussing Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in classrooms, if not outrightly teaching it. Our President parties with Jay Z. And the best-selling record of this year has been Drake’s Views.

But still, the art form has been around for nearly 40 years, so why has the music that has been long accused of glorifying violence only so recently appreciated as part of American culture?

The writer, critic and television personality Touré sought to find out. During Chicago Ideas Week 2016, he held an open dialogue with audio engineer Young Guru and then later the rapper Ghostface Killah about hip-hop as an essential American art form in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Edlis Neeson Theater.

People may know Ghostface Killah through his aggressive MC style in the gritty outfit Wu-Tang Clan, but Young Guru’s work has been much more behind-the-scenes. He’s best known as the audio technician who has worked with Jay Z for 16 years over 10 albums. And based on the reflections he shared with Touré, he made the role of engineer sound like part acoustic physicist, part psychologist and part philosopher.

Touré began the evening by asking Young Guru what an engineer does. Guru replied that while an engineer records and mixes a record, he really understands the role in these few parts: it’s to understand the “science of sound,” to “discover a record,” and to “be problem solvers” in the studio. As Young Guru started talking about his leisurely science readings, Touré teased him by pointing fingers and exclaiming to the audience, “physics is his hobby!”

Young Guru goes through his sample library. Young Guru goes through his sample library.

When he was young, Young Guru would go to the library because he recognized that knowledge was his currency among his peers. He also began learning how the world works with his nose deep in encyclopedias, and he’d often have a book in his bag even when he went to the neighborhood basketball court.

Touré used this moment to share an insight with the high school students near the front of the auditorium, “anything you learn can be used. It can turn into anything.”

Similarly, Ghostface that evening said RZA led Wu-Tang because he was the most knowledgeable.

Touré spent much more time talking with Young Guru, and Ghostface’s comments felt opaque as he summed up his life experiences with large statements. Still, the highlights that evening included Young Guru popping open his MacBook library to show us how he might look at a sample and when Ghostface Killah started rapping when the speakers started playing the Wu-Tang Clan classic “C.R.E.A.M.”

Both artists expressed that hip-hop is like collage art. Young Guru pointed out how samples are like instruments in the work of hip-hop music much like a piano relies on a musician to recognize that the middle C note is 261.6 hertz.

In other words, people before us decided that this frequency would serve as the standard when the names we use for these notes are arbitrary, he said. There are eight notes in a scale, Young Guru noted, but other cultures may use the notes that are in between the keys of our pianos.

A sample in hip-hop music splashes color and imbues texture onto a canvas, to extend the collage art metaphor, but it’s up to the artists to assemble and combine them with their own narrative to create an artistic statement. “It’s deconstructing something to construct something new,” Young Guru said.

But long after the early days of 1970s New York City hip-hop, with the likes of DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, the music has been ridiculed as unoriginal. Young Guru recounted the criticism he used to hear, that it’s “just stealing someone’s music.”

Ghostface sits with Touré. Ghostface sits with Touré.

And part of Young Guru’s inspiration to jump in on hip-hop was “to get the old rock guy out of my way in the studio.”

Besides, the turntables were all they had, he said. Young Guru and his friends would go to pawn shops or audio stores to talk down prices, they would save their money to buy equipment, and they would do it “Jamaican style,” he said, to teach themselves how to saw and solder to build big speakers.

Whereas Young Guru waxed philosophical with Touré about how we might define music or how we might consume it, Ghostface was often asked about his specific life experiences. Ghostface reflected on his sobriety from marijuana, recounting when Wu-Tang’s Ol’ Dirty Bastard started using hard drugs more frequently, and how being a father changes what he writes about.

Ghostface said that “music is always about a vibe” and when he writes he said he learned “to put myself in a place.”

At one point during the evening, Young Guru said, “you can only think with the words you know.” In another sense, our view of the world is only as much as the stories we know. And in the same way that a rock lyricist can be awarded a Nobel Prize in literature, rappers tell stories through music. It’s just that one of their songs is a patchwork of many other songs — and now America might be finally accepting it.

All photos by Ellie Lange.

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Colin Smith

Colin Smith thinks that Chicago right now is the place to be for music. He works for Illinois Humanities, is a freelance writer, and plays psychedelic-pop songs with his band.