A Response to Virgil Griffiths’ "Music That Makes You Dumb": Part 2

By | May 8, 2009

Ok, I apologize for not finishing this sooner. This is Part 2 of my defense of Hip-Hop in response of Virgil Griffith’s well-publicized “Music That Makes You Dumb” study. I know I said I would have this “tomorrow”, but if you slept for two weeks, then today actually is closer to tomorrow. But I digress …

(In case you forgot what this is all about, see Part 1 here.)

Before I go defending hip-hop and attacking Mr. Griffith’s study yet again, I figured I should give a little background pertaining to my music tastes and my education level: I’ve been listening to hip-hop since 1990 or so and I have a Master’s Degree in International Affairs. The first hip-hop song I remember really liking was admittedly M.C. Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”. Through the years, I’ve credited hip-hop for instilling a hustle-like drive in me. Although I didn’t grow up anywhere near the ghetto, songs like Biggie Small’s “Juicy” and much of Nas’s “Illmatic” album influenced me to make more of myself and to leave the safe suburbs of Central Florida for more adventurous grounds.

Now I can’t say whether or not hip-hop affected my SAT scores, as Virgil Griffith’s well-publicized study would infer. I wasn’t that great of student back in the day. To be honest, it probably was more due to my laziness than my musical tastes. And I sincerely doubt either of the two (my laziness and my music taste) were related in any sort of way. Looking back on my own academic history, I wonder if Mr. Griffith had performed his research 15 years ago, when I took my SATs and ACTs, would he have found Snoop Doggy Dogg and other chart-toppers of yesteryear as the music favorited by students with low test scores?

Today’s hip-hop, like that of the mid-90s, is unfortunately too easily dismissed as music for the ignorant. To quote Michael Eric Dyson, “Hip-hop’s critics make a valid point that the genre is full of problematic expressions. It reeks of materialism; it feeds on stereotypes and offensive language; it spoils with retrogressive views; it is rife with hedonism; and it surely doesn’t side with humanistic values”. (Dyson, 2007)

Dyson defends hip-hop, however, claiming it is “fundamentally an art form that traffics in hyperbole, parody, kitsch, poetic license, double entendre, signification, and other literary and artistic conventions to get its point across”. (Dyson, 2007)

Although I am far from the hip-hop scholar that Dyson is, my view on hip-hop definitely mirrors his. More specifically, I believe there are four elements of hip-hop that, when studied and analyzed, have the opposite effect on listeners that what Griffith claims and actually make people smarter.

Hip-hop as History

Hip-hop is the latest derivative of African-American music. The music that started with the old slave chants and drum rhythms morphed into the call and response of gospel and blues. From blues came early rock and roll and rhythm and blues. From there came soul and funk and from there disco and the earliest roots of rap. There is no doubt hip-hop is a window into the history of music.

Although none have, to my knowledge, reached out to perform with the music performers of yesteryear (as early British rockers did with the old Mississippi blues men in the late 1960s), there is at least a growing appreciation among veteran rappers for those who blazed the trail. Many rappers have in the last few years raised the profile of the history and the roots of hip-hop. Two examples of rappers exhibiting their musical roots include Chuck D’s presence and essays in Martin Scorese’s “Blues” and Nas’s song “Bridging The Gap” which while played with his father, blues singer Olu Dara, contained a sample of Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy”.

Personally, hip-hop taught me my musical background as well. Starting with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and the gangsta rap of the early ‘90s, I discovered George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. From George Clinton came James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. From Hendrix came Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and dozens of other blues legends. Rap and hip-hop spawned in me a great appreciation for American music. I think this has made me a smarter and more culturally appreciative music fan.

Hip-hop as Globalism

As well as being the next step in American music, hip-hop is also the most inclusive and racially tolerant of all American musical art forms. At its most basic, creators of hip-hop music have “dug through the crates” to find beats and sounds from all sorts of various musical pieces. Hip-hop DJs have sampled jazz, blues, rock, classical, cartoons, country, and even world music to create the melting pot that has become hip-hop music.

Hip-hop’s inclusiveness stretches beyond the barrier of beats, however. Hip-hop is celebrated around the world in a way that no other music has ever been. What originated in New York City is now popular in Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Aspiring rappers worldwide are drawing influence from over 20 years of American hip-hop and creating their own sounds and trends. And these sounds, in turn, are making their way back to America to influence domestic artists. Hip-hop is creating a global musical community.

Although there was, and probably still remains, some geographical “beef” between east and west coast rappers, global appreciation for hip-hop has resulted in a more open-minded, accepting population. A population that is both smarter and more global connected.

Hip-hop as Verbal Expression

Granted, according to a Hip Hop Word Count, some (ok, most) rappers rate poorly in their use of complex, multi-syllabic word use and express themselves at basically an eighth grade or lower reading level. (Here is where we can get into socio-economic plight and its effect on education.) Despite the perception of an uneducated majority, hip-hop features many rappers who use the beat and their songs to express complex ideas on the world around them.

The most famous hip-hop group to educate the masses is probably Public Enemy. Front man Chuck D has made a living, as Bob Dylan put it, “talkin’ ‘bout the government” and rapping about what is going on in the African-American community. There is no way listening to Public Enemy makes someone dumb. Same with other “social conscious” rappers like Paris, The Coup, KRS-1, Dead Prez, Nas, or even to an extent 2Pac. Although many performers and listeners are using hip-hop as a celebration the “gangsta” lifestyle, there are those who use it as a method of communication or teaching. Those are the ones we should be listening to. The ones who are actually making us more aware of the world around us.

Hip-hop as brain music

I’ll admit these responses are a bit longwinded. I think I have probably written more in defense of hip-hop than Mr. Griffith wrote portraying it as the music for the uneducated. There is one thing to remember however, mainstream music will always be dumbed down to the lowest denominator. Corporate music will be sold to the person with an average IQ. Expecting to sell something the masses won’t understand is a poor marketing plan.

My guess would be if Mr. Griffith had done this same study 20 years ago, he would have found Motley Crue, RATT, Poison, Bon Jovi, and maybe even Winger as the music listened to by those with the lowest test scores. Of course, had he done that and attacked the more traditional rock’n’roll, it is doubtful his study would have garnered the worldwide attention it did.

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