Young and hot editors, Ytasha Womack and Kenji Jasper, expose the cultural issues and accomplishments of Hip-Hop by peeling back its layers in their book, Beats Rhymes & Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip-Hop. With interviews from some of the most influential rap artists in the Hip-Hop Industry, along with contributions from freelance writers, poets and filmmakers, Beat Rhymes & Life covers an extensive range of issues and gives wonderful insight into the intricate threads that make up Hip-Hop culture.
“Our generation made Hip-Hop. But Hip-Hop also made us. Why are suburban kids referring to their subdivision as “block”? Why has the pimp become a figure of male power? Why has dodging the feds become an act of honor long after one has made millions as a legitimate artist? What happens when fantasy does more harm than reality?” Beats, Rhymes & Life: What We Love & Hate About Hip-Hop
Clutch: How did you two meet?
Ytasha: Kenji and I were both students in the Atlanta University Center. Kenji attended Morehouse College and I attended Clark Atlanta University. He was an English major, I was a Journalism major, and we both found ourselves writing for the same school papers, magazines etc. We even read poetry at the same Morehouse Poetry events. In fact, I interviewed Kenji for a senior year documentary I shot on the underground art scene.
Clutch: What inspired the both of you to create the book Beats, Rhymes & Life: What We Love & Hate About Hip Hop?
Ytasha: Kenji was doing his book tour for Seeking Salamanica in Chicago. We caught up at a cafe somewhere and found ourselves talking about how crazy Hip-Hop had become. When we were in undergrad, Hip-Hop embodied so many political, economic, social and artistic issues and we really believed it would be a force for change within communities of color. In some ways it has, in others, it hasn’t. So we had a conversation, not unlike the conversations many Hip-Hop lovers are having. We questioned the direction of the music and questioned our ability as journalist to make a difference.
Clutch: How difficult was the editing process?
Ytasha:The editing process was fun, long and uniquely interesting. The beauty of it is that you get these golden nuggets of fine writing that fall into this vision you’ve created. You get to challenge the writers to dig deeper, and develop works that can stand the test of time. It’s exciting to create a vision and see it all come together, particularly, when you know the work is groundbreaking.
Clutch: Who are some of the writers/poets who have contributed to the project?
Ytasha:Dr. Michael Eric Dyson wrote the foreward, Faraji Whalen, Mark Allwood, Lisa Pegram, Michael A. Gonzalez, Suheir Hammad, Robert Johnson III, Gregory L. Johnson, Mariahdessa Ekere Tallie, Chino, Rob Marriot, Scoop Jackson, Bob Meadows and William Jelani Cobb.
Clutch: Who are some Hip-Hop celebrities that contributed to Beats, Rhymes & Life?
Ytasha: Common, Luther Campbell, Mos Def, Nelly, Ludacris, Ice-T, Too Short, Heather Hunter and Nelly.
Clutch: Who should read Beats, Rhymes & Life?
Ytasha: Anyone who loves, hates or is remotely curious about Hip-Hop and the phenomenon it has become.
Clutch: You break down your chapters by using the most prominent symbols of our genre: the fan, the turntable, the ice, the dance floor, the shell casing, the buzz, the tag, the whip, the ass, the stiletto, the (pimp’s) cane, the coffin, the cross and the corner. Explain your reasoning behind this?
Ytasha: The symbols we selected are closely linked to the culture either through video imagery, fashion or general reference in the songs. These symbols are powerful, pervasive and multidimensional. Hip-Hop is not a simple art form. The imagery is very convoluted and complex. By using these symbols as a springboard, we felt we could delve deeper into issues and assess both the Hip-Hop psyche and its ties to the mainstream psyche at large.
Clutch: Hip-hop used to be an outlet to reflect our culture and voice our struggles. Now it’s about commercial beats, overly sexualized images of women and the obnoxious flaunting of diamonds and money. In your opinion, how have we, as artists and consumers, blurred the lines between what is fantasy and what is reality?
Kenji: Well, first of all, that’s not all that it’s about. While those things are prominent in commercial Hip-Hop, there are many artists outside of the mainstream who aren’t trapped by those ideals. Hip-Hop is entertainment so of course it’s not going to be based in 100 percent fact. Like a book, it isn’t just the story, but how it’s told that makes it interesting, so blurring the line is a part of the execution.
Ytasha: Hip-Hop has been repackaged to sell America’s fantasy view of hood life to kids in the suburbs. But it’s packaged as reality. Hip-Hop has got to be the only musical art form that’s judged by how authenticity street it is, using some commercial litmus test that is largely irrelevant. Because people like fantasy, they find their place in its lyrics and images, and duplicate it in their own lives to make it their reality. So, if you’re the guy who can’t get the girl, you can listen to a hip hop song, pretend you’re the life of the party surrounded by jiggling girls willing to do whatever you ask while you pour champagne on them and call them hoes. If your life is dull, you listen to a Hip-Hop song, pretend you’re some gangsta wannabe and that the feds are after you, you made some big coke deal, and it gives you the rush you can’t find at the job. Or you want to be sexy, so you pretend you’re the stripper in the g-string swinging around the poll and getting stuffed with singles by thirsty men. Fantasy isn’t bad, but when so many people are fed to buy into the same fantasy, one that when acted out could land you in jail or requires the dehumanization of others, or questions your self respect, I think it can become dangerous.
Clutch: With the whole Imus scandal, do you agree with Russell Simmons on the censorship of rap music?
Ytasha: I see it as a chess move to prevent the press from painting Hip-Hop as this degenerate, unredeemable art form and to keep a firestorm of people from calling for Hip-Hop’s end. I am not a fan of the words b–, h–, or n—a and with all the controversy, artists and labels who continue to use them flagrantly will be under a watchdog’s eye. But looking at the bigger picture, use of these words plays into this so called authenticity quest or the street credibility record labels have created as this standard for Hip-Hop listeners, so it will be interesting to see what comes of it. I’m glad he did it. I’m not big on banning words, but I do think there needs to be more diversity and more content in what is marketed as Hip-Hop.
Kenji: No, because licensing the censorship of Hip-Hop is the beginning of licensing the censorship of everything, which I don’t believe in.
Clutch: Who are some of your favorite Hip-Hop artists?
Ytasha: Mos Def, Lupe Fiasco, Common, The X’cutioners, Supacell, Public Enemy, Nas, Lauren Hill and The Roots.
Kenji: Little Brother, Outkast, Jay-Z, The Roots, Danger Doom, Goodie Mob, Pharoahe Monch and many, many others.
Clutch: What is Hip-Hop to each of you?
Ytasha: Hip-Hop is street born youthful aggression and rebel energy channeled through poetic lyrics, dance, djing, loud fashion and brilliant art.
Kenji: Hip-Hop is the music of my youth and the soundtrack to generation X, for better or for worse.
Clutch: What are your predictions on the future of Hip-Hop?
Ytasha: I hope it will return to being an art form through which people can discover themselves and share insights about life and love.
Kenji: I think that ultimately Hip-Hop, like jazz and blues before it, will eventually be abandoned for something else. But until then, it is the voice of the streets, of young America and for all of those people of color who have no other force to express their existence.
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