Blog Post No. 4,001: A Tentative Start to a Unit on the History of Hip-Hop

OK! I published my 4,000th post on this blog two days ago, which is something I’ve been pushing toward since the COVID19 pandemic began in March. Now that I’ve reached this point, I’ll be taking a break to look for a job, and to begin to review works in progress with an eye toward finishing some of them. And reading and resting, with an emphasis on resting often. I’ll continue to publish, just not at the frenetic pace I’ve set in the past five months. And, again, I hope I’ll have some new materials for your consideration, review, and use.

Before that, though, as has been my custom each time I’ve passed another thousand posts, I’ll publish some unfinished materials to store them for future use, and to offer users and readers of this blog some preliminary documents to develop from the ground up should they be so inclined.

Throughout my career as a teacher, and in every school in which I’ve served, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, my students have been deeply interested in Hip-Hop music. Since I’ve been present for the entire history of Hip-Hop–I remember vividly discovering the first album by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and its electrifying single, “The Message”–but I’d heard Kurtis Blow and The Sugarhill Gang before that, I knew at the beginning of the genre’s life I was hearing something new, original, and, man, oh so danceable. I started playing Hip-Hop records in 1981 when I began to DJ the occasional party. I still have Hip-Hop songs in my playlists (have you heard the song and album “Back on the Block” by Quincy Jones? You should).

So, when I showed up to teach at a school on Jackson Avenue in the South Bronx in the fall of 2003, I quickly started to think up ways to reach the students in my classroom. One thing that always stuck with me, as I watched Hip-Hop develop as a genre, was the remark Chuck D made that Rap music was the CNN of young, urban Black people (and I thank Quote Investigator for clarifying that paraphrase).

Chuck D’s aphorism became the guiding principle for the development of my unit on Hip-Hop. Broadly, I saw this unit as an exploration of the oral traditions that are common to cultures worldwide. Moreover, I wanted to situate Hip-Hop in the context of global oral traditions so that students would be able to move between the general (oral tradition) and the specific (Hip-Hop music). In any case, I knew that I could use Hip-Hop to engage my students.

When I first conceived of this unit, as I say, I was a new teacher in New York. Instead of outlining a unit plan, which at that time I still didn’t fully know how to do, let alone understand the purpose of, I just improvised. I can tell you in that improvisation, the first lesson involved a choral reading of the first twenty-five lines of Homer’s Odyssey, which I presented as the world’s first Hip-Hop song. My students were very self-conscious about choral reading, so I subsequently shortened that exercise to eight lines. I proceeded to the medieval troubadours as messengers, hewing to the greatest extent possible to the idea that musicians could be deliverers of the news in that (or any) world. From there I moved on to the Griot tradition in West Africa, then on to a review of  popular music in the United States, particularly blues songs from the world of Chess Records. Then, while continuing to focus on the oral tradition, I included material about and by The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron as the progenitors of Hip-Hop. Finally, I moved on to the earliest Hip-Hop recordings, as above, by The Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Later, as I began to deepen my research into the history that informs this unit, I also would include material (as below) on the Black Power Movement and DJ Kool Herc.

After running through this a couple of times in an improvisational mode, I began outlining a unit and preparing reading and writing work for its lessons. It was at that time that the New York City Department of Education, alas, abruptly changed the approach we were using with special needs students and struggling learners. Teaching to the Regents Examination became de rigueur, and this unit fell by the wayside.

As I look over the documents I accumulated in the run-up to writing out this unit, I can see that I envisioned an interdisciplinary reading and writing unit that analyzed the sociology of language, knowledge, and culture, and how all this was held together by music to synthesize Hip-Hop. I definitely wanted to focus on DJ Kool Herc’s ability to bring communities together in celebration with music–i.e. his famous block parties. To sum up, and move on to the documents, let me say this: the history of Hip-Hop offers a trove of possibilities for conceptual instruction that deals with continuity and change, poetry and poetics, tradition and innovation, mythology and earthbound humanity, modes of communication within and across cultures, the sociology of culture, registers of language from vernacular and dialects to the rule-bound and stylistically formal, the business of the music industry, what constitutes “news,” and the politics of, bumantity, equity, and liberation. As the music changed over the years, and I discussed these changes with a colleague (thanks for your insight, David) in New York, I saw that there was room in this unit for a discussion lesson on the corporatization and commodification of Hip-Hop driven by a question about how we got from the socially conscious lyrics of “The Message” (or, earlier, but lesser known among younger people, Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” or the beautiful “Lady Day and John Coltrane“) to songs glorifying murder, mayhem, and misogyny.

Anyway, let’s get on to the documents. First, the planning materials: here is the preliminary unit plan, which shows its age by my citation of New York State Standards. Those standards mean I started writing this before the Common Core Standards arrived and were adopted in New York State (if you need something shiny to show to an administrator, here are the Common Core English Language Arts Standards for grades 9-12 in Microsoft Word, so you can copy and paste from this document); this is the lesson plan template and this is the worksheet template. And here, as a do-now exercise, is a Cultural Literacy worksheet on the troubadours.

Now the texts I accumulated, haphazardly, for this unit: here are three pages of mixed text, including a definition of “Oral Tradition” from The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theorythe first eight lines of The Odyssey from the Fagles translation of that work by Homer, and the lyrics from three classic songs–one from Willie Dixon and two from Elias McDaniel (aka Bo Diddley)–from the Chess Records catalogue that anticipate the good-natured, playful, boasting of early Hip-Hop songs. This reading on The Last Poets, that I all but certainly took from the pages of either The Source or XXL magazines–and which I did a very bad job of scanning and citing–outlines the history of these proto-Hip-Hop writers and performers. Here’s a reading on DJ Kool Herc along with its vocabulary-building and comprehension worksheet. From elsewhere on this blog, here is a reading and comprehension worksheet on Public Enemy, the seminal Hip-Hop group. Finally, here is a reading on the Black Power movement and its accompanying vocabulary-building and comprehension worksheet.

As always, I seek your peer review on this material. In this case there isn’t much to review. But if you do use this material or its ideas to build a unit of your own, I would be interested in hearing about that. If you need or want anything in the way of ancillary materials to develop this unit, for example a context clues or Cultural Literacy worksheet, please advise; if they’re not already available on this site, I’ll write something for you and attach it as an addendum on this post. As far as typos and the rest, if you think it’s important, please advise. When or if I use this material, I’m sure I’ll revise it extensively.

Get well soon, Jacob Blake. I deeply regret and am ashamed of the assault on your dignity and your life.

Now: on the Blog Post 5,001.

2 responses to “Blog Post No. 4,001: A Tentative Start to a Unit on the History of Hip-Hop

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