Flowin': Academic Freestyle Session

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Scholars and hip-hop-heads collided last week when UC Berkeley hosted its first Hip-Hop and Beyond academic conference, and it was often impossible to distinguish the two. As professor Cecil Brown said, "We call the performers scholars and the scholars performers here."

The Hip Hop and Beyond conference was the ultimate meeting of academia with the culture that sprung from the streets of New York. Dozens of events were scheduled between Thursday and Saturday, including DJ battles, hip-hop films, and performances by artists including the Bay Area's Aya de Leon, Zion of Zion-I, and Azeem.

Panelists dropped names as diverse as Jay-Z, Grandmaster Flash and Tipper Gore in a variety of academic-leaning discussions that were the core of the conference. Los Angeles MC Medusa, known for stirring live shows that blend pop locking with soulful rhymes, participated in a symposium on Hip-Hop and Feminism that touched on everything from homophobia to video chicks. The "Hip-Hop's Globalization" discussion looked at the culture's influence on various countries, including France, Cuba, and Brazil.

During the Masters of the Old School session, Grand Master Caz spoke with humor and eloquence about the pioneering era of hip-hop, when "hip-hop was free," developing in Bronx parks where kids would gather to hear DJs and watch b-boys practice their moves. Grand Wizzard Theodore, known as the inventor of the scratch, demonstrated his skills for the star-struck crowd. About the early days, he said, "We didn't learn [hip-hop], we lived it."

The Hip Hop and Beyond conference is an exciting milestone for the genre, and follows in a trend of similar conferences being hosted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (now on its third year) and last summer's Hip Hop Summit, sponsored by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. These conferences reflect a growing scholarly interest in hip-hop as it nears maturation.

Hip-hop journalists spoke of starting out during a time when writing about the music demanded occupying a defensive position, struggling against the popular assumption that hip-hop was just another dying fad. The Masters of the Old School panel spoke of their worries regarding the younger generation, saying that today's rampant sampling of beats means proper credit is not being given to innovators in the genre. When a generation mistakenly believes that Ashanti came up with that Biggie beat, what hope do Roxanne Shante or the Furious Five have of surviving in our collective memory? By speaking at Cal, they hoped to set the record straight about the culture's origin.

There was also considerable excitement about hip-hop's future. Program Coordinator (and prolific hip hop journalist) Eric K. Arnold hopes that the conference will lead to hip-hop curriculum being instated at Cal.

University bureaucracy tends to be slow moving, though, and it is uncertain if hip-hop will be recognized as worthy of class space. Arnold described the need of students to make themselves heard in gaining classes that represent their interests.


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