Junious Brickhouse and Being a Steward of the House of Hip-Hop
Last summer I had the opportunity to sit down with Junious Brickhouse, now the director of the State Department's hip-hop diplomacy program, Next Level.
Junious—a dance educator, community leader, and award winning choreographer—talked about the power of hip-hop to create widespread change, whether on the level of hip-hop diplomacy internationally or within the Academy. Some of my favorite moments:
how hip-hop demands that you are heard in your own voice [0m]
why teaching hip-hop in the academy is important [10m-15m]
the whiteness of the term "folk" [20m]
why hip-hop requires collaboration to transform communities [25m]
does hip-hop require a set canon to teach it? [30m]
"What is anybody doing in the world that doesn’t require you to be a steward of it?" [b/t 35-40m]
why it's important to address hip-hop as a culture and not just a music [40m]
hip-hop performance resists literate understanding [45m]
the Academy as a site for synthesis [50m]
How to nurture your lane, in hip-hop or otherwise [1hr]
Hip-hop's different approaches to activism and empowerment [1:10]
Developing a healthy relationship to hip-hop's expressive diversity [1:15]
Note: All artist interviews are posted with explicit consent of the artist. None of this transcript has been edited for time and minimally for sensitive content, and I have added annotations when necessary to elaborate on the conversation. Edits, additions, or changes will always be made with the artist's request.
Interview with Junious Brickhouse
Kenan Music Building UNC-CH
Tyler: Okay, cool, we’re recording. You’re talking about hearing hip-hop—
Tyler: Or, hip-hop helps people be heard in their own voice.
Junious: Yeah. You know, it’s like, from the tradition of hip-hop as a tool to express yourself and to be seen and heard and appreciated, first as a human, but then as an artist, right?
Junious: You know, people in hip-hop culture who want to write about certain topics in hip-hop obviously want to talk about things in their voice. And I guarantee you, when I write something, if I use my own voice and I’m not using my “I’m speaking with an academic voice,” it would look completely different, and most publishers would be like, “What is that?”
Junious: You know? Like, “That’s not even a thing. What is this, a kids’ book?” You know? But Dr. Seuss gets to call things all kinds of weird names, gets to mess with the English language. These books, these series of books do a lot of creative things. But this is really culture, how people talk, you know? I was talking just yesterday with some of the students at the Carolina Hip Hop Institute class, and they were saying, “Hey, why aren’t you published? Why aren’t you doing these things?” It’s like, because I haven’t found a way to speak in my own voice and feel okay with it, because even when I look at something and I see that it’s different from what the institutions or the canon, so to speak, would appreciate, I’m like, do I want to go through that? The pushback on that is like, it’s something that, I guess, at my age is kind of hard to come back from, you know?
Junious: Like, to really be like… to know that I’m from a community of practice, I have all these years’ experience, and people still need me to sound like them, so that I could teach my culture.
Tyler: Absolutely, yeah.
Junious: It’s backwards.
Tyler: And that’s so salient. That’s exactly what I’m trying to get at, because this book is not for… I mean, I’m trying to write it to kind of create, I guess, a space in which hip-hop can speak for itself in an academic setting, so instead of using this European theory to try to describe hip-hop’s aesthetics, that rather, hip-hop is pretty conscious about theorizing itself. It’s always talking about what it is, right? Like, “This is hip-hop, this is not. This is what constitutes a good rhyme, this is what doesn’t. This is fresh, this isn’t.” And so, what you’re talking about there is exactly… I’m trying to shift, instead of bringing the academy to hip-hop, which I think has been done a lot and in really kind of limited ways, like I just don’t think that it resonates that well, because hip-hop doesn’t need the academy, you know? And that’s—
Junious: Yeah, the thing about it is, people just don’t understand that sometimes the academy is counterculture. It is opposite. Like, there is hip-hop because the academy did not say, “You belong here.”
Junious: You know? So people develop their own way of being, and this entire new culture, that is fused into many other cultures and many other communities globally, has come forward to say, “Hey, look, we have our own canon. We have our own way of being and talking and expressing.” And it’s a bit of a conundrum to be straddled between both worlds, you know, academia and being in communities of practice, trying to find ways. And sometimes I get confused. Sometimes I’m like, “Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to say that.” Sometimes I’m in class, I’m lecturing, and I don’t have English words for that, I got slang for saying a certain thing. And if people don’t get it in that context, I got to back it up, and then I got to explain it, and it’s like, wow. It’s tough.
The subject that you’re talking about is very, very important to me and a lot of other people who are working in academia with hip-hop culture. You know that hip-hop is always policing itself, right? [0:05:00] It’s always this thing about authenticity, keeping it real, and being about your shit, or whatever the case may be. I don’t think that… Hold on just a second, I want to see who this is.
Tyler: Yeah, no worries.
[Junious stepped out from 5:11 to 10:52 for a phone call]
Tyler: We were talking about bridging hip-hop and the academy and why that’s significant.
Junious: Yeah. So, from the perspective of dance, the problem that we’re facing is hip-hop, though it’s 40-plus years old, according to some, the movement ranges longer than that. So, the problem that we’re facing is that if you want to go to school and you want to get an MFA in dance, that was your goal, you would have to learn ballet, postmodern, contemporary, maybe, if you’re lucky, some West African movement, as, like, West Africa is a country, you know?
Junious: You would have to learn these things, and there’s seldom ever any hip-hop. So, for people who aspire to be scholarly, you have to go and learn everybody else’s culture before you can teach your own. And that is depressing. It’s depressing, it’s like, “Oh man.” So, how do we inspire these tradition-bearers in hip-hop culture who want to dance, who want to do this movement? How do you sell that to them? The truth is, you don’t. People are not stupid. Game recognize game. They’re like, “So let me get this straight. I got to do ballet before I can teach hip-hop? Why? Is ballet the root of hip-hop dance?” No, actually it’s the counterculture. It’s the counterculture, it’s the places that we couldn’t go. As a little black kid in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Virginia, finding a dance school that would let a little black boy come in and wear tights, not a thing, you know? And sometimes it was downright honest, and my mom would say, “Baby, they said no, because you’re a little black boy.” That’s what she would say, and I’d be like, “Why’s that?” Not really understanding what racism was, because I was just a kid, literally like six, seven years old.
Tyler: Right, yeah.
Junious: Not really understanding what that is. I remember, just a side story, I remember asking my grandmother about it. Sometimes on the weekends, my mom would drop us off at our grandmother’s, and I remember asking her, “What was racism?” Because I heard it, and I was like… I asked my grandmother. My grandmother was probably one of the straightest people I ever knew. She didn’t really have the skill of diplomacy. She was just like… like right at it. And she reached in her purse, and she pulled out a bunch of change. She took a quarter, a nickel, a dime, and a penny, and she lined them up like that, and she said, “What do you see?” And I was like, “Money?”
And I started counting, and I was like, “Okay, that’s a quarter, and then there’s a nickel, that’s thirty cents.” You know, I’m starting to do math, and she goes, “No, no. What do you really see right there?” I was like, “I don’t see anything, Grandma.” And she said, “You know this is Abraham Lincoln, right?” [0:15:00] And the way you see it, all the other coins were facing the other way. And my grandmother said, “All of these people turn their back on the white man who freed the slaves. That’s racism.” And I never forgot that; I thought it was really neat. It wasn’t like a conspiracy theory thing to me, but it was a great way to explain to somebody really young that sometimes people hate and are racist, and how it lives in our society.
So, for me, it’s kind of like that when we’re talking about dance and the academy. It’s like, how do we show this culture? How do we provide a place for it without asking it to assimilate? Which is basically what we’re asking people to do.
Tyler: And I think another reaction that the academy has that I’m also kind of writing against, and I’m trying to write against, is to, for lack of a better word, folklorize hip-hop, to make it like, “Oh, that’s the folk culture versus the high culture,” right? And “vernacular” is used in a way that it can be kind of coded for, like, “that’s pop,” or “that’s low culture,” or whatever.
There’s a group of literary critics called the New Critics who [to be a bit reductive] think that there’s nothing but the text, and they were writing in the ’30s and ’40s...they wrote a lot about the blues...because they were trying to work the blues into literature. And the way that they talked about it is as a secondary literature, so they call it… There’s primary literature, which is like Hemingway or whatever, and then the oral literature is the secondary literature, you know?
And so, I guess my question along that vein is, you know, we’re trying to avoid hip-hop assimilating into the academy, but we’re also trying to avoid it for, again, a lack of a better term, it being ghettoized to a certain degree, right?
Tyler: Being pushed over here, and we understand it as the folk low culture, but we don’t understand anything else that it is doing, you know?
Junious: I don’t see it as… I don’t think it helps anyone to separate it from the academy, right? Things in the academy still have their own identities, you know? Hip-hop doesn’t have to be unprofessional. It doesn’t have to be thought through. Theory works, you know? We have it. Now, I just am asking everyone that I have, all my friends that are working in universities right now, “How do we get this right? How do we do better?” And let’s not ignore these glaring contradictions in what we are asking for other art forms in other cultures.
I work a lot in the acoustic country blues community, and I often get invited to folk festivals. And sometimes, “folk” means white, you know?
Tyler: Yeah, no, totally, especially in a musical sense, yeah.
Junious: Yeah. Yeah, it means like, you know—
Tyler: Or like “roots” is another kind of thing that’s thrown around, yeah.
Junious: Oh yeah. You know, I was at a festival in West Virginia last summer, and I just asked the question, “What did they call old-time music in the 18th century?” What did they call that? I’m sure they didn’t say “old-time music.”
Tyler: Right, right, yeah.
Junious: Why are we calling it that? And what are those times that we are glorifying? What are these times that we’re trying to point attention to? It seems coded. And that’s because it is.
Junious: And you’re not going to tell me that these smart people, these educated people can’t find a way to identify their history in a way that isn’t offensive. You know?
Junious: That isn’t coded, that’s clear about what the purpose is, you know?
Tyler: Yeah, and that’s so interesting, too, because even if you look at the eras that a lot of people harken to as the good old days or whatever, [0:20:00] and you point to even artists during those days, the music industry also was like, “Okay, here’s black spiritual music and here’s hillbilly music,” which is like what we would call folk or roots music now. So it’s like even… Those divides, and it’s so deeply attached to the racial dynamics of poor whites versus black folks in general. Yeah, I mean, it’s fascinating.
Junious: You know it. And we even, even in African American communities, we have those conversations all the time. I live in DC, so not so much in DC, but here in North Carolina and in other parts of Virginia, especially where I’m from, there’s the other black folk. You know, that’s a thing, it’s like… And that’s the black folk of privilege. You know, like, “You’re rich, you don’t have the same problems.” And, you know, I see the contradiction, maybe the hypocrisy. Here we are, you know, in the Kenan Music Building at UNC at Chapel Hill, before I teach my Hip Hop Institute class.
You know, this is the marker being moved forward. This is the change. So, we have to be in these places where it’s kind of awkward, where we’re trying to find ways to communicate who we are, what we’re about, for the larger purpose. And that’s that one day, there is a course here, and people can get a terminal degree in some aspect of hip-hop culture.
Junious: And there’s different models that people are trying to do that. One of the ways that I’m interested in exploring is academics and people from communities of practice working together to find ways to pass on information.
Tyler: Why is that partnership to you so important, specifically in talking about hip-hop’s role in the academy and what hip-hop has to offer?
Junious: It’s a compromise. It’s a compromise, and sometimes compromising is uncomfortable for both sides, you know? Like, of course, in most hip-hop environments, we’d like to let people come in and wear what they want, and come as they are, and we talk about what we talk about, we do the thing that we do, and we grade on a scale of “Ah, that’s alright” or “You got some more work to do.”
Tyler: Right, right.
Junious: Like, it can be anything, and in every community it’s different, right? The academy doesn’t call for that. It needs some order, and there has to be some ways of measuring and documenting and trying to find ways to completely push the culture forward and ensure that people are learning. Like, how do you do that? And it’s done differently.
Junious: We do it differently in our communities than they would do in universities. A compromise is like putting those two people together, having a class with someone who is open and sees hip-hop as something that belongs in universities, and having someone from communities of practice who thinks the same thing, and they’re open to find ways to document hip-hop culture and share it with people, and allow people to master it in some way.
Junious: It’s a compromise. I think trying to do it the other way keeps us seeing each other as counterculture, you know? It just perpetuates the separation, and it only hurts people in hip-hop culture because the only… the few ways that you can monetize your skillsets is through making music. Well, there’s a lot of people in colleges and universities all over the world that don’t actually do said skillset. They theorize about it.
Tyler: A hundred percent, yeah.
Junious: They teach, they educate about it, you know?
Tyler: So, with that, do you think that hip-hop has a… Hip-hop as a form, does that have a specific quality that calls for this type of compromise? And the reason I ask is because, for example, something… Even that, I guess, English degrees weren’t even, at least American literature degrees weren’t even conferred until the early 1900s, and so it’s still a relatively new field in the grand scheme of things, right? But with that, I can go… [0:25:00] If I wasn’t working on hip-hop, I would not be talking to you or talking to anyone else. I could literally sit in a room by myself, or sit in a library by myself, and not speak to anyone, and create whatever I’m creating.
So, with that sort of collaborative approach in moving the academy and moving towards the academy at the same time, is there something about hip-hop specifically that calls for that, or is it… would folk have to do essentially the same thing, if folk wanted to institutionalize itself in that sense?
Junious: Yeah, I mean, folk would have to define itself clearly first. But I think hip-hop… As a cultural preservationist, I’m kind of biased, because I kind of see every culture as needing to identify itself and plant roots and pass on itself. And tradition-bearers in these communities are the people who do that.
Junious: So, I see hip-hop needing to do that to exist as something more than an activity, as something that people do for fun. Or to remove the idea that it’s only for the youth or for people who aren’t serious, to excuse itself of the dogma and all the stereotypes that have been imposed on it, frankly, you know? And the academy, I feel like, is the best place to do that.
Tyler: Why is that?
Junious: Well, because when we’re doing it, we’re doing it. You’re talking about hip-hop; if it’s about being seen and being appreciated for who you are, if you’re just talking to the people in your community that are just like you, are you really accomplishing that goal? I would argue, not so much, until you can be honored and respected, and the people whose foundation you have built on can be honored and respected. In our institutions that teach people about things that are important about the United States and about the world, it’s a huge opportunity to accomplish what hip-hop has always been trying to do. And I think that if we can be monetized, and we can be sometimes exploited in this way for everyone else’s entertainment, or for some record company to make millions or billions of dollars, why is it not valuable enough to be a part of the academy? I just think it’s… It just makes sense, you know? It makes so much sense that it only seems messed up that it’s not already.
Junious: And you’re right, I get that, when you talk about English literature, yeah, because it wasn’t really English.
Tyler: Right, yeah.
Junious: You know? We’re talking about… Especially when you’re talking about things like how American speaking, you know…
Tyler: One hundred percent, yeah, yeah.
Junious: And what that looks like. It’s like, yeah, of course. So people are looking at that and being like, “Oh, that’s not really the thing.” Like people are looking at hip-hop dance and going, “Oh, that’s not really dance. It doesn’t have pedagogy. It’s just people rolling around on the floor.” You know? That’s a real thing, and I get it, and those things will remain true until people from communities of practice stand up and say, “That’s not true. Let me tell you my story. This is why it’s different. This is why you and I have so much in common, and this is why I could give a rat’s ass what you think about me.” Whatever it is, you know? It’s not always a peaceful thing, it’s not always, “Oh, I want to be accepted in your institution.” But my humanity should be respected, and I should have the choice to be hip-hop. But if there’s no way to master that and credentialize in academia, that’s a big statement about anything. What in the world do we take absolutely seriously that doesn’t also have a canon?
Tyler: Yeah, that’s true.
Junious: That’s available to people, publicly. What is it that we value that isn’t… that’s hard pressed?
Tyler: And that brings up some of the difficulties, some of the things that I’m interested in, but just in general, of talking about hip-hop on a campus like this, or any college campuses, that… Like, okay, what is hip-hop’s canon, right? Well, I mean, I could point to a couple of Tribe Called Quest albums, I could point to, of course, starting with “Rapper’s Delight,” if we’re talking about the music, right?
If we’re talking about breakdancing, you could talk about the different types of locking or whatever, right? But there’s not a book, right? It’s not like… Like, you can buy the anthology of English literature and assign that to a class, and you’re going to go through and read the anthology. But I guess part of my question is, when hip-hop becomes a canon, how is it disseminated and consumed in an academic setting? Like, if I’m teaching a hip-hop class, and let’s say that there… Would it be a website that would be like the house of the canon so that you could experience hip-hop in the way that it’s meant to be experienced? How does that look in somewhere that’s so textual? Because it’s like, where’s your textbook for the course, assign it and learn.
Junious: Yeah. I think that it needs that type of organization, and I think that’s due from all the communities that identify itself as a community of practice. So I think that people who identify as lockers should say, “Hey, this is what we do, and though people see us as a part of hip-hop culture today, these are our roots, and we actually come from funk culture, and this is where we’re at today, this is where we were then.” So that people are writing out choreographies, people are investigating and researching some of those early pioneers of the dance style, or those clubs that those people were at, the marching bands that played for those schools, that those kids on those marching bands were actually going to dance parties and competing against each other in Los Angeles, in Pomona, in Oakland. This information rests right now. It’s alive, it’s right now, people know them, but no one’s asking tradition-bearers to come together, and let’s tell our stories. And when they’re different, let them be different. There’s many different opinions in the academy.
Tyler: Oh yeah, of course.
Junious: People have different aspects. I don’t see it any differently. The only thing I see it as is delegitimized. I see it as not considered to be real or legitimate, because people who are credentialized by the academy right now haven’t said so.
Junious: And so we can tell people that are from hip-hop to credentialize in other things, and then come back to their communities, but when they come back to our communities, their communities don’t recognize them.
Tyler: Do you see that as a community problem, or the way that the academy changes somebody?
Junious: I think to do nothing makes both sides guilty.
Tyler: Okay, yeah.
Junious: Yeah. To do nothing, to not recognize that this is the case. This is the conundrum: If I have to leave my community to learn these things, and then be delegitimized by my own community, just so I can have a credential, so that I could start this path. What it does, it’s a reset, because when I have to do that, then that takes me some time to get back, get acclimated to my community again. But in my community, there are people who filled in that space when I left, you know? And they have different ideas and different types of research and different things that they’re working on.
Yeah, so it’s tough. It doesn’t… I don’t think there’s a primary solution that works—everything’s a little bit complicated—but it’s the process, you know? And the fact that people are showing up and trying to do things, like the Carolina Hip Hop Institute that Dr. Katz is trying to do, and the department’s trying to do, the Music Department’s trying to do, it’s how we further it the best that we can, you know? And, yeah.
Tyler: And I think also, part of the problem is the mode of canonization, or the way that you make something encoded or credentialized, right? Does hip-hop need…
Tyler: Like in a book, if I’m going to write a book about hip-hop, most presses will recognize that as something that’s fine to write about, that’s okay, you can write an academic book about it, right?
So, my question is, with that kind of environment now, 40 years into it, do you think that hip-hop needs to be writing more books to canonize, or does hip-hop challenge the way that canonization works? And if so, what is it… How? How does it challenge that?
Junious: I think it does. I think hip-hop challenges canonization in the way that it says, “Are you from here, or do you just got an opinion about it?” Hip-hop is very much like, “So, what’s your steez? You’re talking about MCing, you spit? Oh, but you don’t spit? All right.” You know? We’re not even having this conversation. And, to be honest, academia’s like that, you know? It’s doing the same thing.
Tyler: But the disembodied critic thing definitely… I think that’s more accepted in academia. Like, if I say I write about hip-hop, I mean, of course I get comments about being white all the time. But outside of that, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, you’re an academic writing about hip-hop.” That’s totally fine; you don’t need to practice it in order to make it a thing, right? Whereas hip-hop doesn’t necessarily… And that’s a thing that has been part of academia forever, right, that people, you know, critics who are not actually authors and that sort of thing. But hip-hop doesn’t seem to accept that in the same way. What are the stakes of that?
Junious: I don’t know, man. I personally think… I don’t think I’m a part of hip-hop culture because I’m black, you know? I’m a part of hip-hop culture because I choose to be a part of hip-hop culture. And there are a lot of black people that I know that ain’t about hip-hop culture at all.
Tyler: Oh, yeah.
Junious: I think what hip-hop asks you to do is to be about it, and to participate in it somehow. I don’t like the corny ways, like “knowledge is an element of hip-hop.” Come on, move out of here. What is anybody doing in the world that doesn’t require you to be a steward of it? You got to be knowledgeable at anything. You know, origami, I’m horrible at that crap, but people can do it, and it’s a thing, and people are knowledgeable about that, and they can make—
Tyler: What about knowledge of self, though?
Junious: Oh, man.
Junious: Dude, self-actualization?
Junious: That’s everything. That’s everything in hip-hop culture.
Tyler: Right, yeah.
Junious: Joining my first dance crew, I was eight years old. I joined a crew called City Limits. And I was living in Norfolk, Virginia, and I was the youngest guy in the crew. I thought I was self-actualizing then, you know? If you would’ve told me I’d be here now, doing this, I would’ve never believed it. So, people who are part of hip-hop culture, like people who are part of any culture, change, and there needs to be a place to share that knowledge and that information. So, that’s the way that I see it. And I don’t think the ignorance of, you know, “These people can be a part of hip-hop, these people cannot; this is where hip-hop can live, this is where it cannot,” I don’t think that’s helpful.
And I think if we take ourselves seriously, we have to look forty years forward and say, “Where is hip-hop?” You see that what people are… what’s attracting people’s attention in hip-hop is the music, so all of the other parts of the culture just kind of fall to the side, so music… And mostly because it makes the most money, and people understand the words of it. Dance is sometimes nonverbal communication, and you need context to understand that. Aerosol art, all of these things, you need context. Words are context, they are information, so people can process that, and that’s why the academy is like… Yeah, when you take a class, or when you talk to Mark Anthony Neal, he’s talking about hip-hop music.
Junious: And hip-hop culture, you know, that’s a larger calling. And it’s exciting to me, right? I think it’s exciting, because it’s like, man, there’s so much information. Where does this information live? And it lives in places with people who don’t have access to places like this.
Junious: And it lives in all of these different ways that people do not know how to explain it to people who aren’t a part of their communities. So, I struggle with the same thing that I was struggling with when I was eight years old. I’ve come up, I’ve done some things differently, and I’ve been able to write syllabi and package what I’m doing in a different way, so that I’m speaking to academic communities or scholarly communities, but I think that for the most part, the struggle is still real, because now… As a kid, I was just trying to get them to understand the moves that I’m doing. Now I’m trying to get them to understand why I move that way, and create a language for that, you know?
Tyler: That’s so fascinating, yeah, because… Well, if you think about… Even the less-identified elements of hip-hop culture, like I think fashion could be considered, like the hip-hop fashion culture, or hip-hop videography, I think that has its own kind of thing going on, right? And so, with those, people will kind of identify… When I’m talking to white people, if I show them a Flying Lotus video or something, they’re like, “Oh, it’s saying something about black culture, but…” You know? And so, with that… I think that people recognize, like, “Oh, that dance is part of hip-hop culture,” but that’s a full stop. There’s not an access point for a lot of people, I think, to get past that, which is what you’re talking about, like creating a language to try to create that access point.
Take, for example, on of my favorite Flying Lotus videos to teach:
Tyler: So, pedagogically, what do you do to try to essentially take something that’s nonverbal and verbalize it to other people?
Junious: Yeah. Do it, and try to get people to understand the movement, right? Especially when we’re talking specifically about dance, I’m teaching people the movement, and I’m showing them the culture behind the movement, like, “This is why people move this way at this point in time, in this period.” So, that’s its own chapter. Like, “From ’82 to ’89, this is the music, this is the movement, these are things that are going on in society, and this is the movement that came out of it. What’s your feedback, what do you think, what does this inspire you to do?” Through passing on the tradition, we’re creating pedagogy that’s different, and that’s specific to each community.
But without a place to break it down like that and share that story? You think about the role of a griot to tell a story, to keep history. This is where the information sits, you know? If people are to hear and to remember, that’s one thing, but if people are to hear, remember, and do, that promotes education, that promotes… That moves what we’re doing out of our neighborhoods, out of our communities, into other places. And the goal, for me, is for people to just see hip-hop as culture. It is a culture, and many different cultures, and many different communities. I don’t know if that answers the question, but—
Tyler: No, yeah.
Junious: There’s many different ways that we can share our stories and create ways of learning and teaching and continuation. Because that’s how things live, right?
Tyler: That’s really interesting, because one of the major things that I’m getting at in my project is that the West has this boundary between orality and literacy, that when one thing… when people come from an oral culture, learn writing, they become part of that literate culture and leave all of that orality behind. And there’s, of course, residual streams of that, but for the most part, it’s like a complete shift in the way that you understand things, in the way that you learn things, in the way that you pass that information on to something else, right?
I’m arguing that hip-hop challenges that, that it’s kind of literacy and orality existing at the same time always. [0:45:00] And what you’re describing is such an oral phenomenon, right? That the way to understand dance is to be in the room, to do it, to engage with the culture, and then to continue to practice, right? Whereas, if I’m teaching my students writing, I mean, I teach them rules, and then they go and produce something, and then I critique it, and then they produce another thing, and then I critique it, so it’s much more… Like, you memorize the theory and then go out, and now you know that skill, as opposed to this continuous embodiment of that knowledge, that you have to participate in it. So that’s really interesting to think about the dance… Like, you can’t read a book about dance and then go out and be like, “Oh, no, I understand hip-hop dance culture now.”
Junious: Yeah. And, you know, it’s a lot of things, right? The first thing is that people who want to learn hip-hop dance remember what they hear about it, and they hear that it comes from struggle and from people who want to be seen. So, if I hear that, and I go into a hip-hop class, I expect it to be a place where people want to be seen and want to be heard and appreciated for what they do. If I’m not welcome into that, and no one can teach me how to be a part of that community, I’m going to be somewhere else, I’m not going to participate. So that’s why it’s important to teach people in a way that they feel accepted, that they feel like they’re a part of something. And if hip-hop doesn’t do that, it’s not worth its salt to most people who are not from that community. They’re like, “Oh, I come there and I feel completely awkward, and no one’s trying to teach me anything, and people are talking in code that I don’t understand. So, how can you want to be seen, but you don’t see me?”
So it’s a give and take, it’s being about what you say you’re about. If you’re about culture, then you got to respect other people’s cultures. If you’re about movement, then you got to be about sharing your movement. And finding ways to do that has been my goal, and a goal of a lot of people that I know. Not really like “making hip-hop accessible to everyone,” in that kind of corny way, but in a way like, “No, man, I want to be seen, and I get you want to be seen, so let’s try to find some way to teach each other about our cultures and about the things that we love to do, respectfully.” And that leads to us being here. For me, I’ve been able to do that. I’m always trying to find new ways and better ways to do it, but I can’t front—programs like Next Level, programs like Urban Artistry, have helped me hone how I do that on a global scale. Like, how do I do that outside of the context? Because how we see race here and culture here in the United States is nothing like the way they see it in Germany, or the way that they see it in India, or the way they see it in Nigeria. So, these are different models that could serve a hip-hop canon well. It can be all of this information of how we do this thing, just like any other topic, any other subject. I’m just saying, let’s level up. Let’s say what we do is worthy of this type of investigation, it’s worthy of these spaces, no different than anyone else.
Tyler: Yeah. I’ve heard some people also critique hip-hop in the academy along those same lines of what you’re saying, is that maybe hip-hop shouldn’t want a white academic kind of version of investigation, because that then is trying to put a set of standards on hip-hop that hip-hop doesn’t actually embody or want to embody. You know what I’m saying?
Junious: Yeah. Yeah, but I would say, and I’ll probably get in a lot of trouble for this, but I’m going to say it. You know, I think we know where hip-hop culture comes from, and origin stories are important, but can you look at hip-hop culture right now and say that it has no other cultural influence other than the South Bronx? [0:50:00] I don’t think anybody can say that now. It definitely has a lot of different faces.
The origin story is to be remembered, and that should have its place of respect, and it should be honored, and it should be grown, it should continue. I want that ’84 brand of hip-hop, you know? Sometimes I crave it in my life. So I think that we should continue that through the future. But to not recognize what South Korean b-boys have been able to do with the movement, or what French MCs have been able to do in their language, with these ideas, is almost the same as not recognizing that “Planet Rock” used a “Trans-Europe Express” from Kraftwerk sample, or all the things that came, that people use in hip-hop music that comes from James Brown.
This song by founding hip-hop DJ Afrika Bambaataa,
featured a prominent sample from German innovators of electronica and krautrock, Kraftwerk.
This sample is often pointed to as evidence of hip-hop's diversity of sound and influence.
To understand his reference to James Brown's influence, check out the break beat in Brown's "Funky Drummer, which according to WhoSampled.com has been sampled 1601 times in hip-hop history.
We’ve always been using a different part of American culture to create something different, to evolve, and we have to recognize what other communities are doing, and they aren’t all black. That’s what I think, and that’s my experience because I’ve lived in other countries, I travel in other countries, and I see myself in other people. I see those eight-year-old boys and girls with those dreams, and with their head all ready to be as great as they can be in the hip-hop that they understand. And I think all of that deserves to be recognized.
Tyler: So then you see the academy as a great site for those things to synthesize, though.
Tyler: Like, there’s not really another institution where French hip-hop innovations and South Korean hip-hop innovations can come together, and the academy is like a space that potentially could fulfill that?
Junious: Absolutely. Isn’t that what the academy does?
Tyler: I guess. I mean—
Junious: It does for everything else.
Tyler: Well, it depends, right? Because different people have different views of what the academy does, because a lot of people…
Junious: What about what it should do?
Tyler: Or what it should do, yeah. And there are a lot of people who say that it’s not necessarily a site of synthesis, that instead, it’s like a site of prescriptiveness, that I’m here, this is what this art form is, and this is how we’re going to think of it. That it determines the future by this prescription instead of being a site where things are melding together.
Junious: Yeah. No, when you’re talking about arts and culture, that’s dangerous. That’s very dangerous, and I think that would be problematic. I think that’s problematic for any institution that does that in that purist way.
Junious: Yeah, I think the academy could be a place for synthesis, and not… And it shouldn’t be just for prescribing what is what right now, and hip-hop has proven that it will prove you wrong. It’ll prove you wrong when you do that, because hip-hop continues to grow and change. And if you just look at music and MCing itself, you’ve seen how MCing has kind of dumbed itself down, you know?
Tyler: Can you speak more on that? Because, I mean, that’s really interesting. And you’re talking about just the state of contemporary hip-hop, like in a commodified sense, like what you hear on the top 40.
Junious: Yeah. I mean, when I heard “Rapper’s Delight” for the first time, I thought it was just, like, a wack song.
Junious: You know? I didn’t use that language, but—
Tyler: Had you heard hip-hop before hearing “Rapper’s Delight,” or was that your introduction to it?
Junious: Uh-uh, that was my introduction. So, there wasn’t… Back then, people didn’t… It wasn’t called hip-hop. Back then, it was called rap. I was born in ’74, so the music I grew up on was R&B, funk, and soul, and I also… my family listened to classic rock and stuff like that. Hearing that music was something that my mom was trying to introduce me to. She understood it. I didn’t understand it. But I was a kid, you know? I didn’t know anything about that. So, my mom liked it, so I was trying to listen to it too, but I didn’t know any black people that talked like that, you know? [0:55:00] And the only rap that I knew… So, it was introduced to me as rap music, and rapping was like when somebody talked to you, like, “Let me rap you for a second.” So that felt like, “Okay, why do they need to play music and talk to me, and why are they talking like news broadcasters?” I didn’t know anybody who talked like that. “Have you ever went over a friend’s house to eat and the food just ain’t no good?” You know? I was like, “What?” I only knew people on the radio and on the news that talked like that.
But when music, when rap music became something I could dance to, by the time “Planet Rock” came out, and they were using those Kraftwerk samples, I was like… You know, popping was very popular throughout the ’70s, and that was one of the first dance styles I knew, so now I could respond. I wasn’t even trying to b-boy, and b-boying wasn’t something that we knew, and there weren’t people teaching it. So we responded to this sample music the way that we knew it.
Junious: When you think about hip-hop and that journey, and where it came from… And, you know, there became a time that “Planet Rock” was even wack, and we just wanted to hear some boom bap stuff. So it just kept changing.
So, if we’re looking at rap, and we’re watching it turn into hip-hop, and we’re watching it continuously evolving and changing in a way, and we’re still saying that this is our culture, why don’t we do the things that keep that thing growing? So, I think in MCing, it got better.
Tyler: Yeah, certainly.
Junious: The way that people put words together to tell a story got better. And now, literally, it’s at a point where people are saying, “We’re going to say some things, but it’s not important. Pay attention to the beat. What I’m saying is not the whole point.” Is it music? Yeah. Is it great music? But is it in a rap tradition? Is it in a hip-hop tradition? I would like to hear what you’re saying. I would like to hear the message. The message can be “panda.” It can be “panda,” you know? It can be “ass.” It can be “ass”; like, that’s a message. I understand asses, I got one. I like looking at them sometimes. Regardless of what you want to say, it’s the wordplay.
Junious is referencing the following two songs:
Junious: It’s the wordplay. The wordplay is the tradition, you know?
Tyler: But what about… Wouldn’t you say that in MCing… Okay, so, I don’t want to come across as defending contemporary [hip-hop] music, because, I mean, I don’t like to listen to it.
Junious: No, no—
Tyler: But I’m also… This is a thing that, like, people beat up on contemporary hip-hop a lot, and I don’t think it’s… I think it’s mostly merited, but I don’t think it’s always merited, so sometimes I just kind of want to push back a little bit.
Junious: Yeah, no problem.
Tyler: So with that, I just don’t want you to… I’m not a “Gucci Gang” guy, so that’s…
Junious: It’s okay.
Tyler: So, with that, also throwing your voice, and the way that you say things, and even saying things that don’t necessarily make sense, or that aren’t accessible in that literary way or whatever, like in a non-wordplay way, or like pushing words beyond meaning or past meaning, is also… I’m thinking Busta’s, of course, within that for me, but Missy Elliott, who just got the Songwriters Hall of Fame, if you read her lyrics, I mean, reading them, you’re not blown away by the complexity of the internal rhymes. She’s not like Mos Def with quadruple rhymes or anything, right?
Check out Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) in this track, in which he drops those quadruple rhymes I referenced:
Tyler: But the way that she bends words and says them is so important and so powerful.
Tyler: So, could you see… There’s this Travis Scott line that I remember hearing on a podcast once, he said, “All of this is music, and I’m the glue,” like “my voice is the glue that’s synthesizing everything.” What do you think about that claim, that maybe it’s just pushing hip-hop in a different direction towards that beyond-words kind of vibe?
Junious: I think that there’s room for that, and I think that that’s okay. What I’m saying is, people who are doing music in the music industry who look at what came before them and say, “That shit’s wack, this is something new,” then you have to prescribe to that. You don’t get to ride that hip-hop money and say you’re not doing hip-hop. So, for me, it’s not a question of what’s good and what’s not; it’s a question of what tradition are you following? [1:00:00] So I’m not saying that music is bad. What I’m saying is, if you as an artist are saying one hundred percent that you aren’t trying to do what came before you, then you need to state what that is, and you need to get out of our paradigm. You understand what I’m saying?
Junious: Nobody does that. Well, people do that. I’m just saying, to me, it doesn’t make sense to be like, “Fuck Big Daddy Kane, you know? I don’t want to do that. That’s wack. I’m doing something different.” Okay. At that point, you need to let go of all these other things that are in that tradition and create your own, and see how lonely it is up there. Because hip-hop starting all over, going all the way back to the Rappin’ Duke, if you want to go back to hip-hop when it got really wack…
Because hip-hop came out, it didn’t come out, like, wack-wack, you know? Rap just came out different, and then it got kind of serious, and it talked about things that most of America didn’t know about, and then it just became funny and goofy, and then it got sexually explicit, and then it became something that you can dance to, and then it became something that you could change communities with, you know? Dude, when Chuck D said, “What you got to say, power to the people, make no delay,” when he said that, dude, we listened.
We felt empowered, you know? That was important. So, for me, when people are saying, “The words are not important, just listen to the beat,” which a lot of contemporary hip-hop people are saying, it strikes something with me.
Tyler: And listeners, too. Like, my students are always like, “Oh, I don’t really know what he’s saying,” or “I don’t really know what’s going on, I just like the vibe.”
Junious: Yeah, but I think the responsibility is on the people who say, “Buy my music,” or “Listen to my music,” to be honest about where it comes from and what they’re trying to do. And if they’re saying, “I’m not trying to do anything that comes before me, I’m just trying to make dope beats and say some stuff on it in my own tradition,” then nurture that. Nurture that, and make that something beautiful and wonderful that everybody gets on and wants to fucking carry out into the world. I think it’s perfect. I want the same thing for the contemporary quote-unquote “hip-hop scene” that I wanted for hip-hop in the beginning. Like, I’m just saying, don’t try to dumb down people’s culture for your own personal gain. I have an issue with that. And that might be… Like, I’m sure if I was sitting with some of those MCs, they’d be like, “Huh?” It’d be really over their head what I just dropped. They wouldn’t get the gravity of what I’m saying, they’d just be like, “Man, you hatin’.” No, no, no, no, no. I’m not, I’m actually saying what you’re doing is good; I just don’t understand why you don’t want to be a part of this tradition, but so much of it is this tradition.
Tyler: Yeah. Because you cited Chuck D, which, I was actually just in a conversation with Professor Neal last night about politics and hip-hop, and the transformation over the years, whatever. Chuck D and Public Enemy represent such a very viscerally obvious and important political message, that this is a transformative consciousness that, when you get, can help you to understand the world around you better. After you listen to Public Enemy, you understand your environment better than you do before.
Junious: That’s right.
Tyler: And we were talking about, like, okay, well, you’ve got something like “Fight the Power.” I mean, even you could understand Jadakiss’s “Why” as kind of like something that’s pushing against that, or towards that political consciousness, right?
The closest that we have now is maybe “Alright,” with the way that it was coalesced in Black Lives Matter, but outside of that, why do you think that the space of politics is so…
And a political critique and hip-hop’s political presence in a mainstream sense, right? I mean, we’ve got artists, and Next Level artists who are generally activists in their own communities and working in their own communities. There’s that space, but on a mainstream level, in the way that there was Public Enemy or Jadakiss or whatever… Which, I mean, Jadakiss is a bad example, because “Why” was very different than everything else he did. But why is there not that space now, when there was ten, fifteen, and twenty years ago?
Junious: Because it’s dangerous. If you ask people personally, and I’m going to prompt you here, when you talk to Kerwin, ask him about the things that happened when PE started to get really popular. Kerwin Young was a producer for them.
Tyler: Oh, really? Okay.
Junious: Yeah, and he produced a lot of their tracks on that album.
Tyler: Oh, shit.
Junious: Yeah. And also Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. So Kerwin is… He’s from the time where music producers were always background, and they never told you. So you never knew who produced the tracks, and when he did it, he was hella young. Like, he was still in his teens. And the pressure the government put on them, like following them around, like spying on them, tapping their phones, they were… People saw Public Enemy and the people around them as the new Black Panthers, and that was hella scary to the government.
And it’s not some conspiracy theory shit; you saw what was happening, what was going on. I was at the Greekfest riots in Virginia Beach, which wasn’t a riot at all, it was a bunch of black college kids and local people getting together for the weekend for Greek Week, you know? And the cops didn’t want us out there, and they caused enough problems to have a National Guard come out. And we were just kids. So, the fact that people like Public Enemy spoke about that, and said that, “There’s nothing wrong with you, there’s something wrong with them. You deserve to go and hang out at the beach, and you deserve to have opinions. We see you,” was something that we appreciated, people who felt oppressed and felt silenced.
Public Enemy addressed the riots in the 1990 track "Brothers Gonna Work it Out":
So, what they went through because of that, you know? And there was all these people. Do you remember how Queen Latifah, all of her early stuff, she was, like, pro-black queen, and… I’m not saying she’s still not that, but I’m saying her public persona is not that anymore. And you look at all of those artists, they all became actors and actresses, you know?
Tyler: Yeah. All of them, yeah.
Junious: And they all came out like, “No,” you know? Damn, that’s why Cube left N.W.A, you know? So, the music has always been at the forefront, and if you are those people asking for change, and you make social music that the government considers political, then you become a part of the next version of COINTELPRO. And that’s what people in hip-hop music have to reflect on, because they saw what happened to PE. And there’s a lot of stories that I’m sure Kerwin won’t talk to you about at all, but ask him. Ask him. Say, “What was it like making this type of music and having that much attention?” I think he’ll tell you some things. But it’s still hush-hush, because people don’t talk about it.
There’s a couple things that I cannot confirm, but people say that it was because of their involvement. You know, people losing property, their lives, all caught up in these scenes. And people don’t know why those people are gone, or what happened to them. Being socially active and successful is a dangerous thing, you know?
Junious: And that’s why Kendrick had to take a step back. People will give you… You know, you’re allowed to do a little bit of something, but if that’s your thing… And who was this gentleman who died not too long ago in Cali? I think it was—
Tyler: Oh, Nipsey?
Junious: Yeah, Nipsey Hussle. But people talked about, a lot of the MCs that I know that knew him talked about all the things that he was doing in his community. [1:10:00] And so it was like, “Who would want to kill that guy?” When you know that J. Edgar Hoover at one time said the biggest threat to American security was the Black Panthers feed the children breakfast program, you know? You know that… And I’m somebody, I’m a veteran, I’ve worked with the military, I’ve worked with DOJ. Look, I get it, I know what our government does, and we live in a great country, but there are some people that see some of this activism as scary shit. And when those people who don’t understand your culture, because there’s nowhere to learn about you—and we’re going full circle—think that you’re the enemy because you wear a black beret and sunglasses and leather, like that’s the signature of an evil, dangerous person? Come on.
Tyler: What about with someone like Jay-Z, who is not… I mean, I think you could make the argument he has political music, but I don’t think his music is in any way overtly political.
Tyler: But at least in the last… Since Obama, really, since he started to get involved with his campaigns, you’ve got the Kalief Browder documentary that he did, you’ve got the incarceration campaigns he’s doing with Meek Mill, and all of these different kind of projects that he’s working on in terms of criminal justice and that sort of thing. But it’s a very, like, “I’m rich and subsidizing this for other people,” not “I’m making art for people to consume that’s going to change their political consciousness.”
I mean, they might be… I would argue that maybe they’re different kinds of dangerous, or at least they’re different kinds of political activism, but what do you see as the difference between the Public Enemy approach and the Jay-Z approach, or even the Kendrick approach, who is pretty explicitly political in his music, and the Jay-Z approach?
Junious: Well, the difference between the PE approach and the Jay-Z approach is money. Public Enemy had none. They weren’t wealthy. Their message was powerful. And Jay-Z is very, very wealthy. You’re not going to mess with this guy too much and not have some pushback. Too many people are connected to his money, and he’s reached, for lack or use of a better term, Rockefeller status. Now everybody is connected to his money, and doing this work and these projects about these different topics is allowing him to bring awareness to what’s happening in other people’s lives without saying, “Power to the people, make no delay.”
Junious: That’s a different message, you know?
Junious: And it’s done in a different way, by people with different resources. You know, Flavor Flav gets shot, who misses him, at that time? Because a lot of people were getting shot. But now, something happens to Jay-Z, yeah, people notice. This isn’t someone anymore that’s not powerful, that’s a kid from the street mobilizing other people. So there’s different ways to do it, but money is power, and having access to that, and to have your own media forms… You know, Jay-Z, he owns his own media forms and sports teams. He has so many different ways. Look at how many people lose out. You kill a guy like that? He snuck through. He got through. Something happens mysterious to this guy, it impacts so many different people, you have a movement. And then some people become untouchable, like… I don’t know, that’s my personal opinion, but I think that people like Kendrick, who come out and say a rallying cry, everybody’s been singing “We Shall Overcome” for years, so “we gonna be alright” is just an homage to that thing, and people are okay with that.
Junious: People are okay with that. Like, people in positions of power aren’t going to open an FBI file on you because you said “we gon’ be alright.” You know? But there are things that you can say, and there’s power that you can have, that’ll make people say, “You’re somebody we have to watch.” And when people start watching you, and I don’t mean just a… I don’t mean the government, I mean in general. [1:15:00] When you become counterculture to people, or you become somebody that they fear, or they think you will hurt what it is that they’re trying to do, it’s only a matter of time. So, the conscious rap and that type of hip-hop with a purpose, it may be a thing of yesterday. Who knows? I don’t expect hip-hop to do that again.
Junious: That’s why I don’t get mad at it. These days, I truly treat hip-hop like a healthy relationship. You got to love them enough to change, you know? And if you love them, you appreciate them, you just got to figure that at certain points in their lives, they’re going to want to do something different, and they’re going to want to change some things up to make themselves happy. And that’s how I see hip-hop culture.
My goal is these Public Enemies and these Erick Sermons, and all of these hip-hop people that are part of my history that I acknowledge, and I speak with my voice, through my lens, about my experience with this music and the culture. If people want to come and do some stuff about the Geto Boys, they want to put that out there, or even like Uncle Luke, they want to come out and do that, go ahead and do that. I will come, I will watch, I will support. But my expertise is in this, and this is my brand of hip-hop culture, and I want to help that canon. You know, what have you got? I can’t act like I know everything, just like I don’t step in behind some turntables and be like, “Yeah, I’m hip-hop.” No, no, no, no. But if we all do our part and recognize the possibilities in hip-hop, and each places, and where they’re at, and where they could be, I think we have as much power as we were meant to have, once we support these smaller institutions towards the larger institutions. But if we keep chopping each other up and saying that this part of the culture isn’t important, this part shouldn’t be shared, this part isn’t keeping it real, then we just create this mess that just really turns on us, because in a world that really doesn’t understand hip-hop culture unless they’re in it, we’re missing opportunities to teach people about who we are. Full circle, in my book.
Tyler: That’s a great place to at least end recording.