The Last Word: Dr. Richard Schur
Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies
Coordinator of Alpha Seminar
How does a white lawyer end up teaching about hip-hop at a liberal arts college? This question comes up when people find out that I left the law and began studying African American literature and culture. In 1993, I worked as a legal intern in the Kenosha County public defender's office in Wisconsin. This was the height of the War on Drugs and the number of African Americans in prisons was exploding. I began thinking about hip-hop after an older white judge dismissed a criminal case against one of my clients because the prosecution's main witness, a young African American male, testified while wearing a brand new Dr. Dre t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "In Weed We Trust." At least for that judge, the t-shirt signified that the young man could not be trusted to provide reliable testimony and lacked the proper respect for the law. The case was, as a result, dismissed for lack of evidence. My client won, but at the cost of this young man's credibility and the good name of hip-hop and African Americans more generally.
Later, I read a number of copyright cases in which hip-hop sampling was viewed only as theft. Those judges did not understand the history of quotation and improvisation that was central to African American music, including jazz and hip-hop. What the courts called copyright infringement was frequently a complex critique of American music, history and culture. I came to see that race still haunted American culture, especially as hip-hop became a proxy or code word for Black in these debates. Although not initially a hip-hop fan, I realized that this music and culture had become a significant surface where debates about race, politics, feminism, and hedonism were occurring. If I wanted to understand my country and the challenges it faced, I needed to understand hip-hop.
During spring 2010, I taught an honors class titled "Hip-Hop Nation." The course explored the history and culture of hip-hop. With the help of a local deejay and b-boy, we studied the culture's four elements — dancing, mixing, rapping and graffiti art — and considered the political, cultural, social and economic importance of hip-hop. For the students, the class provided an opportunity to see how scholars — from music, history, literature and art — are making sense of this relatively new phenomena and how it links to earlier cultural movements. The course also afforded them an opportunity to explore a series of social debates from a unique perspective.
Over the past two decades, my classic rock records have been replaced by my hip-hop CDs, and I have fallen in love with this music from Grandmaster Flash and A Tribe Called Quest to Tupac and Lupe Fiasco. Hip-hop reflects the beauty and ugliness, anger and hope, politics and poetry of contemporary life. Hip-hop has its Plato in KRS-One, its Shakespeare in NAS, its Rabelais in the Beastie Boys, its Marx in Chuck D, and its Milton Friedman in Jay-Z. Hip-hop embodies the core elements of liberal learning: philosophy, ethics, creativity, poetry and entrepreneurial curiosity. Perhaps, most significantly, it can teach us how to "keep it real" in a world gone mad.