Between working on a book about underground rap battles in Los Angeles, founding the Hiphop Archive, and playing out her
Between working on a book about underground rap battles in Los Angeles, founding the Hiphop Archive, and playing out her own East Coast/West Coast rivalry, Stanford professor Marcyliena Morgan may just be too legit to quit. After ditching Harvard for California when then-President Lawrence H. Summers denied her tenure, Professor Morgan is due back in Cambridge this January as a tenured professor. FM chatted with Morgan by phone about Ebonics, sexual innuendo, and the future of Hiphop.
Fifteen Minutes: You’ve been called the “hip-hop” professor. Harvard isn’t exactly the heart of hip-hop. Why study hip-hop here?
Marcyliena Morgan: What happens with hip-hop is that someone will think about it from their own personal involvement instead of as a topic of study with many different disciplinary areas. Someone might think about their childhood experiences or their experiences in clubs, but of course that’s not what happens in class. That’s not what we study. In many respects Harvard is the perfect place for it because it’s an institution where we can explore this in many profound ways.
FM: You say that you started studying hip-hop academically while working at UCLA during the fallout after Ice Cube left NWA. How did this turn you to hip-hop?
MM: I was teaching a course on urban speech communities, it was a classical anthropology course, and I kept getting all these essays about Ice Cube and so my first reaction was, “Hip-hop in the classroom? Stop it.” But they basically argued that this is an anthropological course, it’s about urban centers, et cetera, we absolutely need to write about this, and that’s when I became much more involved in it.
FM: You say on the Hiphop Archive Web site that the way you spell hip-hop is one word, capitalized. Why is this important?
MM: I think that part of what I’m arguing is that it’s one thing—it’s not a word that’s hip, and then a word that’s word that’s hip, and then a word that’s hop. It’s only ever said together. I think that the argument of separating it out is one that doesn’t recognize it as a thing that’s called “Hiphop.” It’s not a hyphenated thing, it’s not two different things, it’s one thing. I often use capital letters because on the site itself we’re looking at it as a culture. I think it’s important to capitalize it because that’s what you tend to do when you’re arguing about something that’s not an adjective or concept, it’s actually a culture of people who describe themselves as “Hiphop.”
FM: While we’re on the subject of definitions, we have to ask about the Cadillac song “Peanut Butter and Jelly.” Can you translate the following lines:
Inside peanut butter, outside jelly
Seven days of the week, seven different Chevys?
MM: One of the things I say on the site, and talk about in all my writings, is that what makes the Word in hip-hop so interesting is that it’s easy to not know exactly what someone is talking about. You have to have multiple readings for it to be intriguing. What does peanut butter stand for? What does jelly stand for? It’s like [the concept of] Superman—what does this really mean?
5. FM: Fair enough. But Harvard students have been known to riot when “Knuck If You Buck” comes on. What does that mean?
MM: Um, well, what do you think it means?
FM: Probably something inappropriate?
MM: I think you’re probably right.
FM: When 50 Cent and Kanye both dropped albums in the same week, which did you buy?
MM: I really enjoy Kanye’s CD, but if I were in a mood to do mindless hip movement it’d be 50 Cent.
FM: Who’s the greatest rapper of all time?
MM: I will always appreciate Tupac, because I thought that he wasn’t a one-note kind of artist. He was interesting, and he was entertaining.
FM: You seem to have taken part in your own East Coast/West Coast beef. Does coming back to Harvard mean you agree that East Coast rap wins?
MM: No...not coming back to Harvard, no. If you said coming back to New York, maybe. The Hiphop Archive is really at a point where it has served an important role in developing Stanford’s hip-hop scholarship and really facilitating the areas of hip-hop and organizing resources and activities and work that’s been going on in universities and organizations in this country and in the world—and now its time to use the hip-hop expression to the next level.
FM: Word. Who’s the most overrated rapper right now?
MM: Part of my reluctance to be severe in the critique is that some of these people are teenagers. I hope they get a chance to peak many more times in their lives. There are a number of songs this year that are so popular and are just so irritating, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t for that summer or that moment the number one song.
FM: Sounds like you’re calling out Soulja Boy, but we won’t make you name names. In your book “Language, Discourse and Power in African American Culture,” you wrote, “People who don’t respect African American English (AAE) scare me, especially if they’re black.” Explain.
MM: When I say it scares me, it’s more like, “Wait a minute.” If you grew up in this kind of community, it wasn’t a community where people disrespected you because of the variety of language you spoke, it wasn’t a community that put you down because of the variety of language you spoke. It’s only when you come out of the community that you realize there are many different varieties [of English]. In that particular context, if they’re in that position, they have a much greater responsibility. To just say that it’s not standard English—that’s not really helpful.
FM: Your husband, Lawrence D. Bobo, is also an esteemed race sociologist. Do you consider yourselves the power couple of Af-Am studies?
MM: We’re a couple, we’re a very happy couple but—we’re a couple, you know what I mean? I don’t know what people actually think when they say “power couple,” but they obviously don’t think about, when the football game is on, who’s watching football and who’s cooking dinner.
FM: When you and your husband left Harvard under President Larry Summers, followed by Af-Am Professor Michael C. Dawson, it seemed like a terrible time for Harvard’s Af-Am department. What was going on?
MM: It was complicated. There were so many issues that were in play. I think in terms of African American studies, what we saw was there was a need for the University to be clear on whether or not it supported African American studies and whether or not it valued the scholars who were there.
FM: You’re returning to Harvard with your husband as a tenured professor under President Faust. With Faust running the show, do you think Af-Am studies will become a priority?
MM: I think it’s absolutely wonderful that Harvard has a president who’s respected and competent—and a woman. I just love being part of that. I think that as president she has many priorities. I think that African American studies will be among them, but it will not be the priority.
FM: Finally, Nas said recently, “Hip Hop Is Dead.” True or false? Could hip-hop become something entirely different?
MM: I hope that hip-hop evolves and continues to evolve. I think that it can shift to something that is different, but I can’t imagine that it’s going to be something that’s not about the Word, that’s not about rhyming, that’s not about visual representation, sound, and DJs or turntablism, and movement and dance. While I absolutely look forward to the continued evolution of hip-hop as it moves in many directions, we’re always going to understand it as coming apart.