From hip-hop fan to hip-hop scholar — Charis Kubrin shares what rap music means to her
Hip-hop and rap music provided the soundtrack to Charis Kubrin’s LA adolescence. An early memory involves cashing out her piggy bank to buy a cassette tap by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. She was captivated by the song’s amazing beat and raps ability to paint a picture through words:
“Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from going under”
Kubrin’s life in a comfortable LA suburb was a world removed from the challenges of life in the projects. Still, the music resonated with her and eventually found its way into her research. A UCI professor of criminology, law & society, she studies rap music in the context of social and economic forces that have influenced hip-hop artists.
She has written multiple papers on the subject and has testified as an expert witness in criminal cases involving aspiring rappers whose lyrics are being used against them in court — a practice she calls “Rap on Trial.”
A recent study found that people are more likely to rate lyrics as threatening if told they’re rap, vs country. The “threatening” lyrics in fact were from older country songs.
Her 2005 paper, “Gangstas, Thugs & Hustlas: Identity & the Code of the Street in Rap Music” is among the University of California’s most frequently downloaded articles.
We recently asked Kubrin to reflect on the music of her youth that continues to influence her scholarship. Although still a fan of rap today, she favors music from the 90s and the early 2000s. Here are some of her favorite old school jams and a related playlist.
Fly Girl/Queen Latifah (1991)
Fly Girl came out in 1991 when I was in college. I would blast it in my dorm room and sing along at the top of my lungs. The song talks about being an independent woman, at a time when most rap was dripping with misogyny:
“Tell me why is it when I walk past the guys
I always hear, yo, baby?
I mean like what’s the big idea?
I’m a queen, nuff respect
Treat me like a lady
And, no, my name ain’t yo and I ain’t got your baby
I’m looking for a guy who’s sincere
One with class and savoir faire
I’m looking for someone who has to be
Perfect for the Queen Latifah me”
“Fly Girl” became a sort of anthem at the small, all-women’s college I was attending. Over 10 years later, when I was researching and writing about misogyny in rap music as a newly minted Ph.D, listening to this song all over again was like a breath of fresh air. All hail the Queen!
It was a Good Day/Ice Cube (1992)
Rappers are great story tellers and Ice Cube is no exception, especially in “It Was a Good Day.” Cube takes listeners through what a (rare) good day looks like from his perspective- from dominating on the basketball court, to winning at bones (dominoes), to finally getting the girl he’s been after, to a day without witnessing violence — against his homies or by the police:
“Today was like one of those fly dreams
Didn’t even see a berry [police] flashing those high beams
No helicopter looking for a murder
Two in the morning got the Fat Burger
Even saw the lights of the Goodyear Blimp
And it read Ice Cube’s a pimp”
Of course, Cube wakes up and realizes his idea of a good day was, in fact, just a dream.
It’s Real/Paris (1994)
A pioneer of the conscious hip-hop movement, Paris addressed various social and political issues in his raps in a way that resonated with me as a young, idealistic college student. As is evident in this song, Paris knows how to lay down a good beat. In “It’s Real” he reminds us that “There is a movement going on in here.” This was the promise of hip hop.
Things Done Changed/Notorious BIG (1994)
Any good sociologist will tell you that significant changes in American society since late 1960s — in the form of economic restructuring and a renewed “get tough on crime” approach — have significantly altered the landscape of black America for decades, a point not lost on rappers. Rappers may not use phrases like “deindustrialization” and “mass incarceration” in their lyrics but that does not mean they are unaware of how broader social forces have impacted their communities and their lives, something I’ve written about extensively in my research. Case in point is one of my favorite songs by Notorious BIG, “Things Done Changed.” In this song, Biggie describes the blows absorbed by black communities, highlighting the limited opportunities available while also underscoring how dangerous the streets have become.
5 o’clock/Nonchalant (1996)
Like Biggie before her, Nonchalant keeps it real in this song and issues a warning call to all her brothers who are caught up in the game — drugs, gangs, and violence. The song’s hook raises a simple question and calls for change:
“5 o’clock in the morning. Where you gonna be? (Outside on the corner)
You better get yourself together
While you’re wasting all your time
Right along with your mind”
Renee/Lost Boyz (1996)
More amazing storytelling, this time by Mr. Cheeks of the Lost Boyz in what I consider to be a great love song — but one with a tragic ending. The hook pretty much sums it up:
“A ghetto love is the law that we live by
Day by day I wonder why my shorty had to die
I reminisce over my ghetto princess everyday
Give it up for my shorty”
This song reflects the sense of nihilism that was common to much rap during this time period, a topic I explored in great detail in “I See Death around the Corner: Nihilism in Rap Music”. Yet “Renee” also goes pretty hard for a love song.
I Gave You Power/NAS (1996)
Social commentary at its best. “I Gave You Power” is a riveting story in which Nas takes the point of view of an illegal handgun. After describing scenarios of violence from the gun’s perspective, the crescendo of the song takes listeners to the shelf that the derelict gun has been resting on for weeks, until a young man walks in to pick it up. He has just been “stomped out” during a confrontation, and with both his skull and ego bruised, he wants revenge. Tucking the gun into his waistband, the young man heads out looking for his antagonist. Once the target is in sight, he pulls out his weapon to shoot — but the gun deliberately won’t fire when its trigger is pressed. In a frantic twist, the antagonist then pulls out HIS gun — which is newer and sleeker — and kills the young man in cold blood. Amid the chaos of running bystanders and police sirens, the gun is finally relieved that its killing days are over. That is…until it feels another hand grab it. Alas, the way of the gun is a never-ending cycle. Nas is a master storyteller. I dare you to listen to this song and not be moved by it.
One Mic/NAS (2001)
And while we’re on Nas, I have to add “One Mic” to my list. This song is straight poetry. It slowly builds in intensity until it erupts and then goes quiet as Nas raps, “All I need is one mic.”
I still get chills every time I listen to this song.
Which songs would you add to your summer hip-hop playlist? Message us or share on social media by tagging #ucirvine