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A Quest To Understand Rap



Hip-hop is one of the most popular genres in the country. Matthew Policarpio, a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School, wanted to understand why so many of his friends are die-hard rap fans.

Rap. I used to like listening to it until I started paying attention to the lyrics. I was driven away after hearing nothing but songs with curse words that glorified drugs and violence, like “Rockstar” by Post Malone.

Beerbongs, Bentleys, Zack, And Codeine 

That song was nominated for record of the year at last year's Grammys. In the first eight lines, Post Malone degrades women, glorifies more than one drug, and threatens gun violence twice. His sophomore album “Beerbongs and Bentleys” broke global streaming records only one day after release. It includes songs like “Zack and Codeine” and “Takin’ Shots.”

I don’t think music should be a way to degrade other humans and promote violence. I prefer songs that uplift my mood or that I can connect with emotionally. So I wondered, “Why are most of my friends die-hard rap fans? And why does mainstream hip-hop promote so much negativity?”  

My friend Cole Pepper doesn't just love rap. He’s a music producer who works with a lot of young rappers in the San Francisco Bay Area. Like Xanubis, a 19-year-old who’s been rapidly gaining a following across multiple online platforms.

‘Drake Isn’t An Accurate Representation’ 

But when I ask him about the mainstream side of rap, he’s on my side.

“Mainstream hip-hop is not the greatest representation of hip-hop because most of it is ‘I have money, I have sex, I will kill you’” Cole tells me. “And that’s the fault of pushing the easiest-to-make music rather than the best.” 

But he also says I need to listen to more rap than just what's on mainstream radio.

“Drake isn’t an accurate depiction of hip-hop,” he says. 

This song is by Khafre Jay is the founder of Hip Hop for Change in Oakland. The group’s mission is to create solutions to socio-economic injustices through hip hop culture. They educate people with workshops and lectures and create a platform for conscious rap.

For Khafre, community comes first. They are constantly canvassing and getting involved with locals to fight against the negative stereotypes that mainstream hip-hop promotes.

‘It Happened In The Community’

“When hip-hop first came out it happened in the community,” Khafre says. “It happened in alleyways, parks, house parties where you had to engage with hip-hop.” 

In the 1970s, the Bronx was facing an intense surge of violence. A respected peace counselor was killed, and gangs around the borough agreed to a truce to stop the violence. Instead, people organized block and house parties where they breakdanced, MCed, DJed, and created connections through hip-hop. 

“Hip-hop is a culture rooted in the tenets of peace, love, unity and having fun,” Khafre says. “Hip-hop is the voice of a real community of disenfranchised urban people.” 

Khafre says that rap became an outlet for African American youth to express themselves. He says that the mainstream media either ignored or degraded black communities, but hip-hop was different. In fact, Public Enemy rapper Chuck D once called rap “CNN for black people.” 

Khafre tells me that in the mid-80s, hip-hop began to really blow up. Hip-hop began to infiltrate rock, and rock began to influence hip-hop. In 1986 hip-hop icons Run DMC did a cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk this way.” It was even more popular than the original. Even the hardcore punk rock band the Beastie Boys were bringing rap into their music. 

In 1987, the album License to Ill was the first rap album to hit Number 1. on the Billboard charts.

‘Straight Outta Compton’

What started out in black urban neighborhoods was now mainstream. 

NWA's “Straight Outta Compton” was released in 1988. NWA called itself the world’s most dangerous group. Songs like Gangsta Gangsta and Dope man are about violence in inner cities. And Khafre says: these kinds of songs were hits. 

“We had people realizing ‘Wow, these kids in the suburbs like this gangster stuff so much more. It’s that kind of hood narrative they eat up, and they have more money than hood kids,” Khafre says. “Then you see the industry moving toward promoting gangsta rap that these kids are eating up.”

Then, the 1996 Telecommunications Act passed under Bill Clinton and consolidated corporate control of the media. Now only three corporations own the majority of hip-hop record labels: Universal, Sony, and Warner. Khafre's worried these companies choose what messages they want rap to send.

“The problem is since we are so segregated that’s what people think we are,” Khafre says. “That’s where our kids get denied jobs and education, that’s where the prison line starts, the bias hip-hop industry creates.” 

Hip Hop For Change 

That's why Khafre created Hip Hop for Change: to fight back against the messages these corporations are perpetuating about African American communities. 

“What I think is important and what I see is communities again organizing around hip-hop, and hip-hop culture and hip-hop narratives, that’s what I see and that’s what I hope for,” he says. 

After talking to Khafre, I realized I had been searching for rap music in the wrong places. So I went to find a musician in my community who raps about what I want to hear. I found Julian Hall, better known as Jules Dorado. 

Credit KALW Radio
Jules Dorado

He’s a 28-year-old San Franciscan who started out freestyling with friends, then took hip-hop classes in high school. And honestly, he’s not what I imagined when I think of rap. He’s got a friendly voice and loves to talk about emotions. 

I don’t often hear people getting vulnerable. But Jules does, and that’s why I think I could get into it. He’s proud to be part of a local rap scene that he says is putting the power back in the people’s hands. He says that with the internet, rappers like him no longer need major record labels to make it in the industry.


‘I Don’t Hate Rap Anymore’

There's a lot of lyrics in songs people would consider to be woke or legends in the game who said kinda awful stuff,” Jules says.  “Now with the internet and connection to individual experiences that’s creating a level of empathy to kids younger than me. Being aware and trying to not hurt people with the things we say.” 

I don't hate rap anymore. I just hate what corporations have done to warp its original message. I’ve learned that before you hate a genre of music, you should ask yourself if you know the whole story behind the culture of it.