Hip Hop


Incorporating the study of hip hop into undergraduate music curricula is fraught because traditional music theory and history sequences are built around the canon of Western art music tradition. It is important to consider issues of tokenism and academic imperialism that can arise when one either appends a lesson on hip hop to the end of a historical survey of Western art music, or when one uses hip hop alongside Western art music as illustrations of a common set of music-theoretical principles. Such maneuvers do not adequately convey the complexities and specificities of the hip hop tradition, nor are they sensitive to the history of hip hop as a tradition developed, performed, and cultivated first by Black artists. As Loren Kajikawa has argued, “hip hop producers have their own aesthetic values and ideas about complexity” independent from those accorded to Western art music. (Kajikawa 2019, 161) Moreover hip hop has developed into a visual culture and an artistic school and style, all of which are integral to this genre of music. It is therefore not sufficient to tack on a lesson about hip hop to canonic courses about Western art music, as doing the artform justice in the classroom would involve analyzing all of these components. Below, we summarize literature on hip hop in the US in order to aid teachers in thinking through these complexities when designing their undergraduate music courses. This literature review draws together two strands in hip hop studies: music-theoretical analyses of “flow,” and cultural studies analyses of identity, reclamation, and individualism. Structuring a study of hip hop around these two strands offers a framework for thinking through important questions about hip hop’s intersections between musical style and histories of racism and identity politics in the US.

Flow and the Sounds of Hip Hop 

Guiding Questions:

  • What is flow in hip hop?
  • How have music theorists defined flow?
  • What are some limitations of notation and transcription for representing hip hop?

The term “flow” in discourse about hip hop often invokes a rather slippery notion of the “feel” of rap music. One of music theory’s contributions to hip hop study has been to provide a more precise definition of flow by pinning down the musical parameters that constitute it. Flow comprises the backdrop of beats in the instrumental track, the rhyme pattern of the rapper’s text, and the rhythmic density of the rapper’s delivery. Another important parameter of flow is accent, which arises through the interaction between these parameters of flow. Music theorists have also studied how rappers manipulate flow in order to achieve different formal or narrative effects, and how these techniques of flow can also be used to situate the rapper historically and generically.[1]

To illustrate this definition of flow, figure 1 adapts Ohriner’s (2019) transcription of the song “Flip Flop Rock” by Outkast feat. Jay-Z and Killer Mike.

Figure 1. Adaptation of Ohriner’s Transcription of an excerpt from “Flip Flop Rock” by Outkast feat. Jay-Z and Killer Mike.[2]

This song is a useful example of flow because it features a section in which Big Boi raps that he is changing the flow; we can therefore understand the difference in flow before and after the stated change by analyzing parameters of beat, rhyme, rhythm and accent. See figure 1 for the transcription. Each line of the transcription represents one measure of music comprising four beats, and the numbers 0-15 at the top of each line represent time points along a sixteenth-note division of the beat. This example follows a common “Boom-bap” beat pattern in hip hop, where the tactus is oriented by a bass marking beats 1 (time point 0) and 3 (time point 8), and a snare marking beats 2 (time point 4) and 4 (time point 12). The rhythmic density is sparse at the beginning of the excerpt, characterized by predictable half and full beat rests between syllables. But at the moment where Big Boi raps the text “I switch the flow,” the rhythm becomes dense with text delivery on every sixteenth-note subdivision of the beat. This flow change occurs again at the corresponding moment in the following measure, with the text “I take a submarine.” The moment of the flow switch is also marked by a change in the rhyme scheme. Syllables that rhyme share a numeric designation above the text, and lines connecting syllables with a rhyme designation are multi-syllabic rhyme units. The beginning of the excerpt proceeds by two-syllable rhyme groupings, but the rhyme shifts at the text “I take a submarine” to the back-ended rhyming syllables marked with the number 2. Accented syllables are represented by an enlarged circle plotting the syllable on the timeline, and can be understood through the interaction between beat, rhythm, and rhyme. For instance, the text “AN-twan RAPS-on” are lent a beat-derived accent because they occur on the onset of a beat; both have prosodic accent due to their natural word accent, and rhyming syllables are also often accented.

The notation system adopted by Ohriner is commonly accepted among music theorists as a means of studying hip hop music.[3] While this notation system draws out important parameters of flow, one issue is that it normalizes only rhythms falling along a sixteenth-note subdivisions of a four-beat measure, thereby conveying any deviation from this pattern as a structural abnormality. This structure of mapping syllables is problematic considering that it is in fact rather common for rappers to utilize other beat structures and that rappers frequently play with microtiming in their delivery.[4] This is not to suggest that teachers wholly abandon this form of transcription, as it facilitates discussions around a number of important topics: analyzing flow in this way can act as a window into defining characteristics of hip hop subgenres, historical developments of the music, the style of particular artists, and evaluations of discourses on and critiques of rap music. But the exercise in flow transcription also provides a good opportunity to teach students about the deficiencies of any musical notation, and the ways systems of musical notation prescribe and mediate forms of musical knowledge.

Flow is only one element of hip hop sound. Other units in a hip hop curriculum might delve into practices of sampling, elements of timbre in the recording, and the ways each of these sonic parameters interact in producing different kinds of musical meaning. Joseph Schloss offers an in-depth study of sampling as a practice derived from “digging in the crates,” in which hip hop producers locate and listen to LPS for sources of sampling and inspiration. At the heart of this practice is the use of others’ music to express oneself, and the communities that are created as fellow practitioners recognize the sources of sample-based hip hop. Krims analyzes the “layering” of sounds and textures in hip hop as a site for discourses about musical meanings such as “hardness” or “realness.” One could also bring in Kajikawa’s (2015) study to expand on Krims’s notion of layering to consider histories of race and musical meaning as well, analyzing how constructions of sound in hip hop have come to invoke ideas of race and how race became audible through the music in this way.

But this sonic analysis sits in tension with the act of transcription that grounds theories of flow. Joseph Schloss critiques the act of transcribing hip hop in musicological scholarship, arguing that scholars in this field have tended to study hip hop in order to defend its value against those who deem Western art music the only music worthy of academic study. As Schloss writes: “This approach requires that one operate, to some degree, within the conceptual framework of European art music: pitches and rhythms should be transcribed, individual instruments are to be separated in score form, and linear development is implicit, even when explicitly rejected” (Schloss, 14). Schloss offers four arguments against transcription:

  1. The level of specificity of the transcription. Schloss means that analyzing hip hop on the levels of individual syllables and rhythms is less productive than making claims about broader gestures based in hip hop musicians’ discourse.
  2. The ethics of the hip hop community, which forbid revealing the sources of a musician’s samples.
  3. The values adhering to a close reading of a beat, which Schloss argues are derived from studies of Western art music. Schloss finds that hip hop producers do not themselves think of their music at this microscopic level, and it is therefore more important to discuss hip hop in ways that better convey their analytical perspective.
  4. The deficiencies of musical notation for transcribing hip hop. The notation systems offered thus far do not get across the ways that the recording’s sound is made by sampling different recordings together, and understanding the origins of these samples is critical for understanding the concept behind sampling them together. While the above authors have skirted this problem by only focusing on the rapper’s text in the musical texture, their transcriptions have effaced the importance of sampling in this music.

While Schloss’s critique deters the act of transcribing the sampled elements of hip hop into a musical score, one might complement flow transcriptions with Schloss’s ethnographic methods of analysis to ask questions about the interaction between sonic layers in a hip hop recording. How and why do hip hop producers recontextualize others’ music through sampling? What kinds of meanings emerge when rappers use certain lyric and rhythmic techniques alongside particular beats and samples? What does it mean to formalize gesture or sampling through a musical notation, and how might one do transcription in ways that decenter the values inherent in scores of Western art music?

Hip Hop as a Cultural Phenomenon

Guiding Questions:

  • What are some important components of hip hop culture?
  • How do identity politics interface with the sonic elements of hip hop?
  • Why is it important to represent hip hop as a holistic culture in the classroom?

It is also important to focus transcriptions of flow and analyses of sound with attention to hip hop as a lived culture. Oliver Kautny’s (2015) work on the musical qualities of hip hop’s lyrics, including its rhythm and rhyme, ties the semantic content of these lyrics to its cultural meanings. He recognizes that the lyrics are tied to Black culture in the United States, which strongly influences the formal style of the genre; the sense of competition throughout the genre manifests in the form of verbal dueling or the use of punchlines. Kautny also emphasizes the rhythmic delivery of these lyrics, detailing microtiming, syncopation, and off-beat rhymes as markers for analysis. “We… have to adjust our microconcepts of rhymed and temporally organized syllables with regard to notation, measurement, and articulatory categorization,” he writes in “Lyrics and flow in rap music” in The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop. Kautny’s coupling of flow with rhyme and lyrical delivery can be broken up into three aspects: the rhythm’s production into the flow of sound, its synchronization to a musical arrangement, and then the resulting feel of the music to a listener (Kautny, 103). Flow can serve as an element of a rapper’s individual sonic signature, but flow can also be a marker of the rapper’s identification with communities of race, ethnicity, gender, and place.

Because hip hop originated as a form of Black culture, as Cheryl Keyes argues, the roots of hip hop culture can be traced from West African bardic traditions to southern Black cultural forms and into its most recent transformation in the context of northern urban cities. The roots of hip hop followed a conservative ideology, and it has been embraced and exploited by mainstream entertainment, taking on a mass-marketed quality. As such, it has turned its attention to American ideals of capitalism, materialism, sexism, violence (and especially violence against women), and masculinity, and the artists celebrated in hip hop culture have developed stereotypical archetypes. Yet, it is problematic to wholly collapse hip hop into this mainstream culture. As Kyra Gaunt has noted, histories of black cultures often reduce the untidy diasporic conditions of these musics by presuming “black masculinity as the primary, if not sole, signifier of race in mass popular culture” (Gaunt, 114). It is therefore important when teaching hip hop to avoid rehearsing the mainstream and masculinist narrative of the genre’s history, and to instead guide students to question how gender archetypes figure into the popularity of this music? 

Recent publications in hip hop scholarship have focused on this dichotomy between mainstream culture and counter cultural movements within the hip-hop genre, particularly with efforts to avoid essentializing hip hop culture and Blackness. In particular, feminist and LGBTQ perspectives have weighed in on hip hop culture, although scholars such as Mark D. Wilson and Andreana Clay are careful to avoid prescribing identity labels to the artists themselves. Instead, they argue that these artists’ work lends itself to feminist or queer interpretations and activism, placing these songs in relation to the broader politics. History that doesn’t rehearse the same great man narrative structure that has plagued WAM surveys and that those scholars are now attempting to reckon with. Not only do these interpretations avoid some of the easily prescriptive mainstream ideals of masculinity and violence, but also these interpretations humanize these marginalized artists, as Regina N. Bradley argues by validating their anger.

Christopher Deis understands hip hop as a site to challenge and expand definitions of “politics” and “political behavior.” He sees these understandings of identity in the genre of hip hop as part of a larger understanding towards the “intersection of politics and popular culture as not one set of behaviors or practices, but rather existing along a continuum” (Deis, 195). Using some of the subversive ideology that has permeated the genre, Deis argues that re-framing the understanding of the “political” then foregrounds how “marginalized” publics make meaning for their own personal experiences in the art form. Artists use this music to discuss sociopolitical ideas, while this music simultaneously reflects the views and opinions of their fans and listeners through their responses and the resulting broader culture of hip hop. As Derek Conrad Murray writes, these artists who have been historically marginalized gain legitimacy and seek commercial success by thriving on the alterity of the genre. It enters into the market through “guerrilla capitalism,” by continually attacking the market through unconventional means. As such, hip-hop culture encourages rugged individualism and a subversiveness that thrives on constant innovation. However, it is not a subculture; taking its cue from black radicalism, hip hop takes its alterity and “makes it universal, becoming a transnational phenomenon” (Murray 8). 

While considering the cultural negotiations of hip hop, it is also essential to acknowledge and recognize the interaction of Black and Latino culture that took place in major cities. Rather than studying only Black perspectives in the formation of hip hop culture, we also must be inclusive of the Latino artists that contributed to the dissemination and growth of rap beyond the streets and into the musical industry (Keyes).

Considerations for Teaching

Adam Krims has advocated for broadening the understanding of “music theory and structure” into a more generalized “musical poetics,” a term that directly includes hip hop and its culture. This terminology traces different genres based on music-structural, cultural, and discursive features and their development over time, including African bardic traditions that fed into the rapping style of hip hop. However, although Krims utilizes hip hop artists’ own terminology to systematize meaningful musical gestures comprising this genre, Schloss has critiqued Krims’s study for not significantly expanding “musical poetics” beyond traditional Western musicological thought (Schloss, 14). Reading Krims in dialogue with the above scholarship expands the theoretical possibilities and critiques of this genre. Our compilation of resources has shown what “musical poetics” would need to account for in order to fully understand the sonic and cultural dimensions that have become integral to the genre of hip hop. Teaching hip hop means formalizing a musical genre as a confluence of a rapper’s techniques of flow, sonic layering, parameters for the exchange and discovery of musical ideas between hip hop producers, identity politics in the US, and black visual and aesthetic cultures.

A curriculum around hip hop is rich because it acts as a window into histories of racial identity in the US, and it opens up broader issues about how race can and should be negotiated through music studies. For instance, a strand in hip hop scholarship is a debate about musical essentialism, which is an argument about the extent to which African American music practices do or do not embody an inherent African sensibility. Two scholars who represents the essentialist side of this debate are Johnson and Chernoff, who identify common rhythmic patterns across genres cultivated by African American musicians as a way of arguing for an  “elementary classification of some of the major ways in which an African musical sensibility has been and is being expressed in the Americas” (Johnson, 63). An example of work positioned at the other side of this debate is Alim’s edited collection, which is a study of global hip hop practices that argues that these diverse practices do not embody their Afrodiasporic origins.[5] Paul Gilroy has characterized the essentialist debate as a deadlock between two inadequate and ultimately mutually-dependent positions, and instead provides a useful theorization of Afrodiasporic music as a model for anti-anti-essentialist inquiries into the nature of black identity, whereby “racialised subjectivity [is] the product of the social practices that supposedly derive from it” (Gilroy, 102). By structuring a class discussion around these three readings, teachers might guide students through questions such as: What kinds of relationships exist between musical sound and lived identity? How might one parse the complex histories by which they become intertwined and mutually signifying? How do interactions between different groups of people cultivate musical genres, and how do genres develop and change over time?

[1] See both Adams (2009) and Krims (2000).

[2] The original figure appears as Example 1.5 on page 17 in Ohriner’s book Flow (2019). The example appears early in Ohriner’s study, before he has introduced all of the elements of his notational system. We have therefore adapted the figure by marking accent and rhyme following Ohriner’s conventions.

[3] Adams and Krims also utilize this notations in their studies.

[4] For example, in figure 1, Ohriner’s transcription places the final three syllables squarely on beat markings 14, 15, and 0. However, the listener will note that in the recording, all three of these syllables fall before the downbeat of the following measure, and none of the syllables falls exactly on a sixteenth-note subdivision of the beat.

[5] Alim, H. Samy, Awad Ibrahim, and Alastair Pennycook. Global Linguistic Flows: Hip-Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language. New York: Routledge, 2008.


Adams, Kyle. “On the Metrical Techniques of Flow in Rap Music.” Music Theory Online 15, no. 5 (October 2009). https://mtosmt.org/issues/mto.09.15.5/mto.09.15.5.adams.php.

Alim, H. Samy, Awad Ibrahim, and Alastair Pennycook. Global Linguistic Flows: Hip-Hop Cultures, Youth Identities, and the Politics of Language. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Bell, Crystal. “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez: Examining Representations of Black Masculinity in Mainstream Versus Underground Hip-Hop Music,” Journal of Black Studies 45/4 (May 2014), 287-300.

Bradley, Adam. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. New York: Basic Civitas, 2009.

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation. New York: Picador, 2005.

Clay, Andreana. “Like an Old Soul Record: Black Feminism, Queer Sexuality, and the Hip-Hop Generation,” Meridians 8/1 (2007): 53-73.

Cohen, Judah. “Hip-Hop Judaica: The Politics of Representin’ Heebster Heritage,” Popular Music (2009): 1-18.

Crossley, Scott. “Metaphorical Conceptions in Hip-Hop Music.” African American Review 39, no. 4 (Winter 2005): 501–512.

Curry, Tommy J. “Pessimistic Themes in Kanye West’s Necrophobic Aesthetic: Moving Beyond Subjects of Perfection to Understand the New Slave as a Paradigm of Anti-Black Violence,” The Pluralist 9/3 (2014), 18-37.

Edwards, Paul. The Concise Guide to Hip-Hop Music: A Fresh Look at the Art of Hip Hop, from Old-School Beats to Freestyle Rap. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015.

Forman, Murray. The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Forman, Murray and Mark Anthony Neal, eds. That’s the Joint! The Hip Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Gaunt, Kyra. The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

George, Nelson. Hip Hop America. New York: Viking, 1998.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso, 1993.

Harrison, Anthony Kwame. Hip Hop Underground: The Integrity and Ethics of Racial Identification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.

Jeffries, Michael P. Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Johnson, Hafiz Shabazz Farel, and John M. Chernoff. “Basic Conga Drum Rhythms in African-American Musical Styles.” Black Music Research Journal 11, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 55–73.

Kajikawa, Loren. Sounding Race in Rap Songs. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

Kajikawa, Loren. “The Possessive Investment in Classical Music.” In Seeing Race Again, edited by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, 155-174. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019.

Keyes, Cheryl. Rap Music and Street Consciousness. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Krims, Adam. Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Ma, David. “Hip Hop 101: A University Level Course Curriculum for Examining Hip Hop in the Modern World.” Master’s thesis, San Jose State University, 2010.

McLeod, Kembrew and Peter DiCola. Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Murray, Derek Conrad. “Hip-Hop vs. High Art: Notes on Race as Spectacle,” Art Journal 63/2 (Summer 2004): 4-19. 

Neal, Mark Anthony. “Digging in the Crates.” The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, edited by Trevor Schoonmaker, Duke University Press, 2010.

——. “A Way Out of No Way: Jazz, Hip Hop and Black Social Improvisation.” The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, edited by Ajay Heble and Daniel Fischlin. Wesleyan University Press, 2004. 

Ohriner, Mitchell. Flow: The Rhythmic Voice in Rap Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Perry, Imani. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.

Pough, Gwendolyn D. “What It Do, Shorty? Women, Hip-Hop, and a Feminist Agenda,” Black Women, Gender + Families 1/2 (Fall 2007): 78-99.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

——. The Hop Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop–And Why It Matters. New York: BasicCivitas, 2008.

Schloss, Joseph G. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.

Wang, Jimmy. “Now Hip-Hop, Too, Is Made in China.” New York Times Jan. 23, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/24/arts/music/24hiphop.html.

Williams, Justin A., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Wilson, D. Mark. “Post-Pomo, Hip-Hop Homos: Hip-Hop Art, Gay Rappers, and Social Change,” Social Justice 34/1 (2007): 117-140.


Hip Hop Archive & Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University

Cornell Hip Hop Collection

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