WHERE WOULD HIP HOP BE WITHOUT COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES?
BY ERIK NIELSON
In an interview with Fuse last year, Kendrick Lamar—who just took the top spot in MTV’s annual “Hottest MCs in the Game" list—revealed that his greatest regret in life was that he never attended college when he was younger. "Now all these years have passed, and I done got deep into a career, a music career," he said. "It’s gonna be hard to find time unless I really put my focus into it."
It might seem strange that a rapper at the top of his game would place such importance on going to college, especially coming from a genre that prizes street knowledge over formal education. And yet a glance just a bit further down the “Hottest MCs” list reveals that the ivory tower has been a stop along the path to stardom for some of today’s biggest names, including Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, and Kanye West.
In fact, this has been true throughout most of hip hop’s 40 year history. While traditional narratives tend to present early hip hop solely as the product of marginalized urban youth, cut off from elite social institutions, it’s hard to deny that colleges and universities have played a critical role in the early formation, and continued evolution, of hip hop as well.
Perhaps the most obvious illustration can be found in the formation of Def Jam Recordings. In 1983, Rick Rubin, an NYU student at the time, aspired to break into the burgeoning hip hop industry, so he borrowed $5000 from his parents and recorded “It’s Yours” by T La Rock and Jazzy Jay. When the song became a dance hit, he came up with the Def Jam label and began running it out of his dorm room. Shortly thereafter, he teamed up with Russell Simmons—himself a former college student—who had already begun signing the big names in hip hop that would eventually put Def Jam on the map. Among them were Kurtis Blow, rap’s first major-label artist, and Run DMC, easily one of the most influential groups in rap history. Like Def Jam’s founders, these artists also attended college, something D.M.C. (Darryl McDaniels) explicitly brags about on the 1984 song “Sucker MCs”: “I’m D.M.C. in the place to be. / I go to St. John’s University. / And since kindergarten I acquired the knowledge, / and after 12th grade I went straight to college.”
On its way to becoming the premier hip hop label in the business, Def Jam went on to sign more successful college-student-turned-rappers, including the Beastie Boys (two of whom attended college) and Public Enemy. In the case of Public Enemy, college turned out to be more than just a stop on the way to a hip hop career—Adelphi University in Long Island provided the creative environment that brought together Chuck D and Flavor Flav, as well as producers Hank Shocklee and Bill Stephney. And since then, the genesis of groups like dead prez, Blue Scholars, Kidz in the Hall, and Das Racist can also be traced to college campuses, where group members met one another as students.
These examples are hardly isolated. Indeed, over the decades a long list of hip hop’s biggest and most respected names can also claim ties to the academy, including …
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