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Keeping It ‘Real’?


The notion of ‘Keeping it real,’ or authentic, has long been a fascination of hip hop [1]. The genre itself emerged as a way for urban youth to comment on reality from their own perspective. During the 1970s in New York, urban renewal projects led to the relocation of many black and hispanic communities to the outskirts of cities. The media depicted these displaced communities as “drained of life, energy and vitality” [2]. But hip hop became a way for black youth to “reveal another dimension of the inner cities, namely, a human dimension” [3]. While projecting ‘realness’ has become a valued characteristic of the genre, some hip hop artists invoke a world outside of reality. In my discussion, I will focus on how N.W.A., Ice Cube, and Kendrick Lamar — all from Los Angeles, California — have created sensational, fictional, and futuristic worlds in certain music videos. But first, it is important to understand the context of the reality that these artists comment on.


In the 1960s, while some parts of Los Angeles were booming due to growth of high technology and military sectors sparked by the Reagan-era defense buildup, others were in decline. South Central Los Angeles  — populated by thousands of African Americans who had migrated there after WWII due to systematic segregation efforts — experienced industrialization, as factories began to close and unemployment rose. Poor economic conditions led to informal underground economies controlled predominantly by gang members. The infamous highway system in Los Angeles further contributed to the separation and isolation of neighborhoods like Compton. The post-industrial conditions, as Loren Kajikawa puts it, “were hidden behind the freeway’s walls.” Members of these communities were not only socially and economically cut off from their peers, but also physically [4].

Problems escalated when the emergence of ‘crack’ cocaine led to a public panic that culminated in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986. The act, which punished the possession of ‘crack’ cocaine at a rate one hundred times higher than that of powder cocaine and mandated harsh minimum sentencing for drug crimes disproportionately affected African Americans. Police brutality was common as the Los Angeles Police Department infamously engaged in aggressive and often illegal search and seizures [5]. These early events contributed to the continuation of systemic issues that still plague inner city black populations. With this in mind, I will now explore how N.W.A., Ice Cube, and Kendrick Lamar have commended on this reality by taking a step away from it.


N.W.A.’s “100 Miles and Runnin’” music video, released in 1990, and Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day” music video, released in 1993, use musical techniques, such as sampling and extra musical sounds, to reference a sensational and fictional world. Around 25 years later, in Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” music video, released in 2015, he uses techniques like sampling and layering to explicitly reference Afrofuturism, or the imagining of black future. By creating new worlds within their work, these artists can exert further control over their narrative and offer a sense of hope for a brighter future.






[1] Williams, Jonathan, “‘Tha Realness’: In Search of Hip-Hop Authenticity,” University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons (2007).

[2] Rose, Tricia, “A style nobody can deal with. Politics, style and the postindustrial city in Hip Hop,” Popular Music: Critical Concepts in Media and Cultural Studies, New York and London: Routledge, p. 341-359. 2004.

[3] Saunders, Ralph H., “Kickin’ Some Knowledge: Rap and the Construction of Identity in the African-American Ghetto,” The Arizona Anthropologist 10.

[4] Kajikawa, Loren, “‘Let Me Ride’: Gangsta Rap’s Drive into the Popular Mainstream,” Sounding Race in Rap Songs, University of California Press, p. 85-117. 2015.

[5] ibid.

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