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“Blowing Up” at Project Blowed 135 the actual beat and Tragic’s rapping. After a few chants, the audience began to settle down. Within a few lines, however, Tragic was stumbling over his words, eventually reverting back to the hook that he was previously using, and Tren interrupted Tragic for the second time, criticizing him and telling him to “Leave hip-hop alone, and go get you a job at International House of Pancakes or some shit, but leave this rappin’ to some real rappers!” The success or failure of a performance opens not only a broader discussion of the types of skills rappers tried to develop at Project Blowed but also raises the question of why rappers take rapping so seriously in the first place. For many rappers, rapping was a career that grew out of a lifelong commitment to chasing one’s hip-hop dreams. Trenseta’s comment that Tragic should leave rap and get a job at International House of Pancakes illustrates the differing values young black men placed on living the life of a struggling rap artist versus working at a minimum-wage job. Although one actually might have made more money at the minimumwage job, the social status of that kind of work could be stigmatizing. Having rap dreams, on the other hand—while not as stable financially— at least provided young black men with an activity they cared about and for which they got to “call their own shots.” Rap Dreams and Opportunity in Los Angeles Although Oscar Lewis26 published his “culture of poverty” thesis nearly fifty years before my field research, themes from his work informed contemporary debates about hip-hop culture. Many scholars, policy-makers, and media personalities in the early 2000s had joined in a moral crusade against hip-hop. These critics claimed that the sometimes violent, sexist , and countercultural aspects of hip-hop lyrics discouraged behaviors closely linked with upward mobility.27 As images of black violence, misogyny, destitute urban neighborhoods, and drugs continued to saturate hip-hop media, it became more important to understand how these images shaped the ways society viewed urban black men and, conversely, how urban black men viewed their own life chances in society. For hip-hop critics, the mainstream hip-hop industry constructed negative stereotypes about the innercity and young black men. To them, popular mainstream films like Boyz N the Hood, Colors, and Menace II Society stereotyped young blacks in South Central Los Angeles as gangstas, pimps, and thugs.28 They perceived the same meaning- 136 Jooyoung Lee making at work in gangsta rap, where artists like South Central Cartel, MC Eiht, and The Game rapped about robbing and killing other young black men in Los Angeles. But what these accounts often missed is that hip-hop music had a very different meaning “on the ground” and in people’s everyday lives. Despite the negative and often sensationalistic images associated with hip-hop lyrics , urban black youth typically consumed the music as part of the daily routines they shared with family members and friends. This consumption traversed class lines and, for most youth, was not a determining factor in the life-altering decisions they made. Moreover, the men in this study described how their increased interests in producing their own rap music actually helped to keep them out of gangs and other trouble as adolescents . This is especially pertinent in urban areas like South Central Los Angeles, which have a long history of neighborhood gangs and associated problems. Although it is difficult to isolate an increased interest in a rap career as the cause that kept some young black men away from gangs and other violence, it is equally difficult to pinpoint consuming hip-hop music as the cause for why other young men decided to join gangs, commit acts of violence, or lower their academic aspirations. A more grounded perspective on hip-hop moves away from the dominant discourse foregrounding the perils of hip-hop and looks at how real people experience, use, and make sense of hip-hop in the course of their lives. Indeed, beyond the production of negative images in hip-hop, there are larger sociological questions that the hip-hop debate invokes. Specifically, this study raises questions about stereotypes linked with cultural production in South Central Los Angeles. Despite the controversy surrounding gangsta rap, which describes (and often sensationalizes) a particular social reality in South Central, most of the young black men in this study experienced rap as...


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