AUSTIN, Texas—Dr. Craig Watkins, associate professor of radio-TV-film, sociology and African American studies at The University of Texas at Austin, traces the charged history of hip hop in his latest book, “Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement,” due out on Aug. 29.
“Hip hop’s evolution launched a revolution in youth culture,” explains Watkins. “All the things that traditionally matter to young people—style, music, fashion and a sense of generational purpose—have all come under the spell of hip hop.”
In “Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement,” Watkins traces the charged history of hip hop through its artists, producers and politicians, as well as the subculture the music unleashed. Ranging from rap’s early and innocent days to its absorption into the mainstream, hip hop’s story is told through revealing profiles and a penetrating analysis of the genre’s shifting phenomenon.
Hip hop’s introduction to the pop charts began during the summer of 1979, when producer Sylvia Robinson and her son, Joey, auditioned local rappers Big Bank Hank, Master Gee and Wonder Mike, who composed the Sugar Hill Gang, in a New Jersey pizzeria. Their first single, “Rapper’s Delight,” was a 15-minute-long track and the first recorded rap song to gain mainstream attention, signifying the arrival of hip hop. The buzz was on and America’s youth couldn’t get enough of it. More than 25 years later, they still can’t.
“Changes were fast and fierce,” Watkins says. “The arrival of hip hop questioned for the first time in roughly four decades who and what kinds of sensibilities would define the most important cultural industry in Black America: pop music.”
“Hip Hop Matters” follows the lasting effects of SoundScan, which measured record sales based on actual numbers, completely transforming the Billboard charts into a barometer where hip hop rose to the top. It offers profiles focusing on the rise of hip hop moguls like Chuck D of Public Enemy, N.W.A.’s Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, Eminem and KRS-ONE; and exposes the clashing forces that identify hip hop’s message.
Watkins pins down the influence that hip hop has had on numerous levels—the pop music industry, global media, political landscape and academe—and scrutinizes its impact on the young people who are not just fans, yet, through their efforts and ideas, make hip hop matter outside of pop culture.
“Hip Hop Matters” delves into the battles that are fought over the spirit of hip hop. Watkins contrasts commercialism with downloading music from the digital underground and pegs the misogyny and alienation of women in gangsta and reality rap against the socially conscious, political dogma hip hop has come to adopt.
The unifying thread that links these elements is at the heart of hip hop, the music’s ability to stir something inside of dispossessed youth, regardless of race, and empower them.
“It is the spectacular convergence of these and other issues in the movement that makes hip hop so fresh and formidable,” Watkins says. “For all the problems and passions it arouses, hip hop connects with its young constituency like nothing else can or will.”
Through the portraits in “Hip Hop Matters,” Watkins establishes hip hop as more than a subculture or a state of mind, but a way of life.
“There is considerable and even widespread recognition that hip hop has changed the very nature and disposition of the world we all inhabit,” he writes. “Hip hop is still moving the crowd.”
About the author
S. Craig Watkins is an associate professor of radio-TV-film, sociology and African American studies at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of “Representing: Hip Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema.” A contributor to The Austin American-Statesman, Watkins has been interviewed by The New York Times, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Business Week, NPR and Fox News about the politics, cultural impact and commercial appeal of hip hop culture.