U of T sociologist Jooyoung Lee (right) with his mentor Tick-a-Lott (photo supplied by Jooyoung Lee)

Rap dreams in South Central: U of T's Jooyoung Lee explores Project Blowed

Urban sociologist examines Hip Hop culture through the legendary open mic workshop

Jooyoung Lee is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, a senior fellow with the Yale University Urban Ethnography Project – and the author of: Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central.

The just-published book details his research into a South Central Hip Hop workshop called Project Blowed. Lee examines how aspiring rappers and b-boys in the heart of Los Angeles’s South Central neighbourhood learn the basics of the craft and hone their skills in search of Hip Hop glory.

U of T News writer Dominic Ali spoke with Lee about his research and about how his insights into South Central’s Project Blowed could be applied to other cities with a vibrant music scene.

What was the genesis of “Blowin’ Up”?

I was walking around UCLA’s campus during my first year of graduate school and bumped into an old friend from Berkeley. He was an MC/graduate student and told me about Project Blowed, a legendary Hip Hop open mic workshop in South Central LA. He made it sound like a mystical training ground for underground MCs, so I went to check it out the following week and was immediately hooked! I had never seen or heard about this side of South Central LA, which was so different from everything that I had ever seen or heard about the area. Tucked into gangland LA, there was this incredible open mic workshop where rappers came each week to sharpen their craft.

This project is also an outgrowth of my personal journey into Hip Hop culture. I grew up in Southern California listening to N.W.A. and other gangsta rappers from South Central and Compton. Even though I didn’t have any personal experiences growing up around gang violence or police brutality, the music still resonated. It helped me make sense of my own experiences with racism and got me thinking about many of the core issues – poverty, structural violence, racism – that animate my research.

What makes the music scene you document in your book so unique?

Project Blowed sets an incredibly high bar for MCs who are trying to elevate the art of rhyming. The rappers would freestyle together for hours, refining their ability to string together words on the fly and create new styles of rhyming. It wasn’t enough to just freestyle or write clever rhymes. MCs evaluated each other based on their abilities to create new and interesting ways to deliver their rhymes. It was a scene that placed a lot of emphasis on creativity.

Also, my book challenges a longstanding notion that Hip Hop encourages young people toward oppositional values and violence. I saw the opposite process unfolding in the lives of young Black men from South Central. Many of the men who I write about grew up in the shadows of the Crips and Bloods and gang injunctions. Hip Hop provided them with a creative alternative to gang life.

What have you learned about Hip Hop and South Central that might be applicable to other cities with unique music scenes?

I think music scenes provide a window into the worldviews of young people in different cities. The young men that I write about were making music shaped by their experiences around gangs and police violence. Music is very ethnographic in this way. And we can see the same types of representations appearing in Seattle grunge, punk rock from London, reggae music coming out of Kingston, and so forth. Most popular music is youth-driven, so it provides the world with a historical lens into young people’s lived experiences.

What conditions are needed for a city to successfully tap into its musical legacy?

I think cities gain widespread musical recognition when a local artist blows up. Sometimes it can look like this happens overnight. But, as I learned, there is always a long backstory. Artists are typically working tirelessly behind-the-scenes and receiving support from lots of different people. Cities can help support this process by investing in music programs in public schools. They can also support the creative aspirations of musicians by providing funds for local artists and aspiring musicians.

What do you think readers will take away from reading your book?

I hope readers will realize that there’s a lot more to places like South Central than just gangs and violence. Although gangs and violence are definitely part of South Central, they only represent part of the youth experience. Inner city communities are often unfairly stigmatized as dangerous, even lawless, places. These images are really caricatures that gloss over the range of experiences that people have in these communities. So, I hope that people will read my book and think critically about the taken-for-granted ideas they might have about “ghettoes” across the U.S. and Canada.

What did your research reveal about North American culture?

Hip Hop is still widely stigmatized, as evidenced by recent efforts by the criminal justice system to use Hip Hop lyrics as evidence in violent crime cases. People still assume that it’s an art form that socializes young people toward violence. But the stories in Blowin’ Up challenge that. The men that I write about were doing exactly what society celebrates in stories of young, industrious and entrepreneurial people. They were using their talents and resources to pursue their passions in the hopes that they would realize their rap dreams. We often celebrate young people (think Bill Gates for instance) for doing this in other businesses and personal pursuits, but it takes on a very different tone when young Black men from stigmatized areas take an unconventional path and invest their energies into it.

What do you hope this book will lead to?

I hope that the book will shine a light on why it’s important to support the arts, especially in underserved communities. Hopefully, policymakers will realize that music and creative activities provide another way of responding to the “youth problem”. Instead of only thinking about ramping up police efforts and punishing youth, it makes sense to invest in an infrastructure that will deter young people from going down those paths in the first place. 

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