Teaching with UK hip hop
The burgeoning new movement UK #Hiphoped just done a twitter chat talking about the best UK hip hop tracks to use in education. Unfortunately, I was out that evening and missed the chat. Here, to make up for being too late on the twitter thing, is my contribution. A few different ways to use UK hip hop tunes in education.
Compare and Contrast
With certain crowds it helps to link up poems from across time to help with understanding. The poems on the GCSE English syllabus may be boringly restrictive but as a teacher you can choose what you compare them with. Here’s a couple of examples I’ve used.
1. Thomas Hardy’s The Ruined Maid (Poems of the Past and the Present, 1901) vs Roots Manuva’s Strange Behaviour (Brand New Second Hand, 1998)
Strange Behaviour is a narrative rap told with a frame narrator. Roots Manuva, skint, wants to scratch an itch for some Dragon stouts. Like the clichéd hip hop superstar that he is, “the piggybank got trashed” and he collects enough coppers together to buy himself some at the “PJ Patel’s”, who is, as anyone who’s paid for something with the change from their penny jar would expect, “far from happy with my method of paying”. He then meets a long-lost friend, Charmaigne, outside the shop and invites her back to his yard “to crack this four-pack”, where we hear about her story. I might suggest stopping the track there and asking the students want they think so far.
The Ruined Maid, by contrast, is written more straightforwardly as a dialogue between two old school friends. The naïve interrogator up in town for the day bumps into her old mate from the countryside, ‘Melia.
Like Charmaigne in Strange Behaviour, “she’s looking neat.” In fact, in an interesting linguistic return (and a sidetrack here about the return of archaic words like ‘vex’ and ‘garms’ due to the influence of the Kings James bible on London slang via its impact on Caribbean Christian communities might be of interest to those that way inclined). Charmaigne is dressed “head to toe in new garms, and two gold teeth” while ‘Melia also has “fair garments, [and] such prosperity”. But this outward bling hides a darker truth. Like Charmaigne, Melia is “trapped in the chains of the oldest trade”, and though Hardy’s innocent interrogator never really gets what the protagonist is saying, Roots Manuva describes his horror as he watches his modern ‘ruined maid’ freaking out big time as we learn where the money came from and to where it led her.
Hopefully, this comparison can help students get to grips with Hardy’s narrative and moral message while also allowing your crew to explore how the judgments we make based on outward appearance and how some of the dangers for working class women still remain the same across 100 years.
2. Will Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”, Sonnets 1609) vs Blak Twang’s Perfect Love Song (19 long time, 1998)
It can be hard for kids to get that, in this famous sonnet, Shakespeare is mocking the conventions of a contemporary genre of love poetry if they have no idea what standard Petrarchan love poetry looks like. However, they are aware of what standard R&B love songs are like, and so we bring in Blak Twang. Tony Rotten opens his second verse with this:
“I used to dream of drop dead gorgeous girls in bikinis
on the beach hot and steamy
like I seen on TV”
“I thought I had to write love letters
go for midnight strolls
shower her with gifts and roses”
But of course, that isn’t really him either.
“First, I hate writing letters
Two, I don’t like flowers
Third, around my way you walk with a bird after midnight
you get searched or devoured by the gabbers or the muggers.
There’s no lane for lovers
Only back streets with used rubbers.
The only gift you might receive
is what some shoplifters thieve:
a bottle of wine from the off-licence snuck up the sleeve”
But he still loves his girl in his own way, and in a brilliantly anti-romantic simile, wishes to “snuggle up close together like two balls in a sac, / you know the act, / when it’s just the two of uno in a council flat”. All of which parallels nicely with Shakespeare’s deliberate choice of flat, Anglo-Saxon non-‘poetic’ words such as ‘reeks’, ‘dun’, ‘wires’ etc.
So having established the way we can write a poem that is both a love song AND a rejection of the standard clichés of a genre, kids might then better understand what Shakespeare is up to when he declares,
“I grant I never saw a goddess go, –
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.”
UK hip hop has produced plenty of interesting political tracks and whether you’re a form tutor, or are teaching PSHE, citizenship, geography, history, English or indeed anything else really, they’ll be options to choose from to get the kids talking.
1. Two from Braintax – Controversial of course. Braintax is not exactly popular in UK hip hop circles for doing what he had always promised he was going to do in his lyrics, i.e. escape to his island. The problem being that it seems he escaped with all the money he had earned from or owed to the Lowlife artists. As Chester P explains in The Greatest Story Never Told: “He took the money, now his memory is hard to jog. He talks politics, he talks like his heart is gosh [God’s?] but at the same time he’s ripping all his artists off.” (Survive or Die Trying: New Mic Order The Mixtape Part 1, 2008)
However, with his 2002 album Birofunk in particular, he wrote some great lyrics. I recommend, ‘The Grip’ for a straightforward analysis of neo-liberal globalised politics in which he describes the complex mechanisms that mean that “junkies in Brazil feel the effects of mass debt”. His metaphor of the ‘grip’ is great and the track points out that even though “the culprits change, still control rarely shifts / only China comes close to even fucking with this”.
Or take Future Ghost for a dystopian sci-fi track. Painting a vision in which the continuation of today’s inequality and pollution leads to a future London where:
“Shanty towns fly by likes spot of colour,
Corrugated iron makes a comeback this summer.
Heathrow looks grim: fields of tents,
Families who can’t remember if they came or went”.
How do you imagine London when you’re old, kids? How about a city as described by Braintax: torn by guerrilla gang violence and packed with economic and environmental refugees? Who else done that? He may have indeed gone off “on the last flight to die in peace” but he did at least warn us first.
2. Two from Rodney P. Often, wearing the tagline of the ‘godfather of UK hip hop’, Rodney P’s great skill is in his voice and that invention, with London Posse at a time when UK rap was still generally delivered in American accents, of the dancehall reggae hip hop Caribbean London flow. However, as he says somewhere, his lyrics are “more than just pussy and weed”. Take the track Never from the Skitz’s 2010 album (Sticksman, 2010. Though the album version I’m quoting from is different from this video on the youtube link). It deals with the music industry, with politics, with the kind of questions young people should be asking:
“How we s’posed to unify and ever gonna make it,
when communities are gated,
poor people hated
Muslims are degraded
and Christians get berated
and if you’re getting money it don’t matter how you make it?
And the people’s disrespected,
pickney dem neglected
kids underachieveing is expected and accepted,
power to the people is a notion that’s rejected
cos politics has never loved the people; I’m a sceptic,
please believe it, I don’t trust them I trust us,
till I seen it, there’s nothing they say that’s worth dust.”
And he offers his personal story as a model of a solution in these not too optimistic times:
“I done lost my religion
I done tuned into my spirit to navigate my position,
now my soul’s intact,
though know that
I recognise that
it holds some cracks,
I’m trying to fix that back”
Or if you are working with cats that recognise what it is to be “an average kid who never knew his dad … young black male living out the stereotype”, you could try the positive messages of the title track off his 2004 album ‘The Future’. It’s a character study of “a yoot from out the ghetto, whose trying to make some grands / trying to make plans for some money to hold, / could either end up run the world or run the road”. It might confuse them a bit when he says “Coulda end up running IBM / but then again probably end up running crack on the ends”(Do kids know IBM anymore?) but, the message is both to the adults (“we have to boost them yoot ya”) and to the youth: “Read a book, read Malcolm or Martin Luther, read Marcus don’t let them boy come confuse ya, / I don’t want fi hear the story how the police come shoot ya.”
Dizraeli and the Small Gods We had a Song (Moving in the Dark, 2013). The key to a good writing model is a simple structure which to copy and adapt. This track is a nostalgic look-back at a time of innocent young adventure before the inevitable crash of reality when his mate Nick dies. There’s a verse, which I, perhaps taking it out of context, often use as a starting place for young people to try exploring themselves or their area through writing:
Can’t you see it, bruv?
I’m made of deeper stuff,
I’m made of skateboards, rap songs and sega beat-em-ups,
I’m made of binbags stacked high for ollying,
I’m made of vert and the gut-rush from dropping in.
Maybe vodka from the Hot Wells Road Spa,
can of pops, curly-wurlies and soap-bar.
I’m made of grip tape and pisstakes and broken arms
I’m made of concrete, donner meat and open hearts.
And all the lost tapes and all the lost mates
I made in the days when I could barely cut the cross-fade.
Man, we could have kept on it, but it went past,
some of us fell off and some fell apart
none of us forgot and Nick never died
because as long as we are remembered we are kept alive.
You can get the young people to brainstorm things about themselves and then borrow the easy-to-follow list-rap model, starting each line with “I’m made of”.
2. Writing political lyrics with Asian Dub Foundation. With older students or heads who are deep into their writing, I have used a couple of tracks from ADF’s Community Music to give an example of how one might embed political meanings with puns and wordplay, stitching political messages into familiar lines or phrases. For example from Real Great Britain: “It’s a Blair-full of Thatcher stuck on the ‘45” (which probably doesn’t work anymore with people younger than 25) or
Union Jack and union Jill
Back up and down, back up and down the same old hill
Sell the flag to the youths
But who swallows the bill?
“Murdoch she wrote”
Him have his hand in the till
Or from the track they wrote in response to the Stephen Lawrence enquiry, Officer XX:
MI5, them building up Combat 18?
Nazi turnouts and the BNP in between?
Running drugs for money for the loyalists?
McPherson, how come you missed the whole a this?
Defective constable, what you gonna say?
Suspending our belief and still on full pay
[former Met] Chief [Paul] Condon is safe, what did you expect?
Who’s up next? Calling Officer XX
I’m also a big fan of this line from Memory Wars: “Cos the history they teach is the voice of the victor / you need to look again, you need to have a proper gander.”
I noticed that the UK hiphoded list included GCSE (Ghetto Children Sex Education) by Blak Twang. As far as sex ed goes, it’s not hip hop as such but after certain incidents in the school I was working in, I needed to talk with my KS4 form class about facts of life and levels of respect and I used dub-poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze’s Zim Zimmer (The Arrival of Brighteye, 2000) as a starting point for a difficult discussion:
For your after-school or lunchtime hip hop group, who want depth and the really conscious shit, you could definitely do worse than Roots Manuva’s Motion 5000 off Brand New Second Hand: “I disagree I never saw just a skin war / I see oppressed against oppression / But this mode’s oppression is dressed in many guise / I side-step their sights, I see with inner-eye”. Foucault’s analysis with a rasta-spiritual solution. Or dig out some early MCD. later stuff good too
A Final Footnote
I am aware that selections are mainly from a particular period in UK hip hop – broadly artists who were big in the late 90s, early 2000s. The fact that I was 16 in 1998 and 20 in 2002 no doubt explains this narrow focus – these are tracks that originate from a time when I would listen obsessively to certain albums, learn all the lyrics, seek out new music and live shows. There is of course UK hip hop from before then and from after then. But you got to work with what you know and love and not just try to show off your ‘more hip hop than you’ credentials or try to get down with the kids. Also – Roots Manuva, Blak Twang, Rodney P, Braintax, Chester P, ADF, MCD – I still back em!
 a class
 my clean edit! Sorry Diz.
 I find that this line doesn’t need any editing. Kids think it’s a kind of sweet.
 In its reappearance in the media following the successful retrial of some of his murderers, once again the part about the police working with the drug-dealing father of one of the killers as an informer, or even the part about the lack of help the police provided Stephen Lawrence’s friend Duane Brooks when he was shouting for help or the subsequent harassment they gave him, was brushed over. It became a story solely about how in the past there were racist thug-types who killed an innocent boy (which is sadly only part of the story). Leading us to ask again, How come you missed the whole a this?