Hip Hop Headphones: Songs from a Scholar’s Critical Playlist


For years, friends and colleagues of scholar James Braxton Peterson would call on him for help: we want to discuss hip-hop culture in the classroom, we want to listen music critically with our students, we want to understand the politically conscious aspects of hip-hop… where do we begin?

After years of already incorporating Hip-Hop culture in his classes, Peterson schooled us all by writing Hip Hop Headphones to serve as a “crash course in Hip-Hop culture.” This book gives everyone a starting point to start class discussions about music, American identity, and much more.

To that end, the book includes interviews, academic essays, and other scholarly material about Hip-Hop, but perhaps one of Peterson’s favorite pedagogical tools is the playlist. In his words, “Given the proper tools – an mp3 player or music streaming service, a pair of headphones, some basic critical listening techniques and approaches – the playlist can become a tool that extends the potential for learning well beyond the traditional classroom space.”

These three playlists – each a collection of songs that illuminate a particular theme of Hip-Hop culture – are just a sample of the material that Peterson offers to get you started listening to music critically. Plus, they’re great songs by some of the most dynamic MCs out there!

Warning: Before you listen, you should be aware that many of the following songs contain explicit language and content, including descriptions of interpersonal and sexual violence. Like the field of critical Hip-Hop studies in general, the book Hip Hop Headphones treats all the elements of Hip-Hop culture as intentional, so the playlist features songs with mature content for the sake of stimulating scholarly inquiry and understanding the artistic choices of Hip-Hop artists.

The Hip Hop “Tellability” playlist

The Tellability playlist features songs that explicitly tell stories, an important and recurrent theme in Hip-Hop culture. Across the range of eras and subject matter represented, it showcases the variety of ways in which stories are presented through Hip-Hop music. Some of these stories work to defy stereotypes about inner-city America, or to bear witness to moments of encounter with the police (like in “Children’s Story” or “Crime Story”), or simply to put the listener inside the mind of an MC. Taken together, they show how no single “essential” story exists about race, Hip-Hop, or struggle in America.

One exceptional song on this playlist is “Dance with the Devil” by Immortal Technique. I’m partial to the haunting and ominous atmosphere throughout the song and especially the repeated piano loop. I’m struck too by the depth of the story itself, as it follows the downward spiral of its main character for nine-plus vivid minutes, which really establishes the song as an ambitious piece of art. I’ll leave you to interpret the meaning of the lyrics “there’s no diversity because we’re burning in the melting pot/”


Education policy playlist


This playlist focuses on the theme of education (or lack thereof) in Hip-Hop culture, talking about subjects including: being bored in school, the systemic failures of the school system, self-education and self-reliance, and the all-important schooling found in Hip-Hop.

Hearkening back to the last playlist, “I Used to Love H.E.R.” highlights the Hip-Hop pattern of telling stories. By including more explicitly political songs, like “They School” by Dead Prez, this playlist does a good job of representing more socially conscious elements of Hip-Hop culture. “Rap History,” by the prolific MC KRS-One, is one of the best example of rap claiming its self-importance across history, another common theme in Hip-Hop.

One of my favorites is “Blue School” by Blue Scholars. I love the persona of the two artists; they create an image of themselves as “educators” and sources of scholarly authority in a fresh way. And it’s super catchy. Although it sounds like a throwback, the pair of artists behind Blue Scholars started the group in 2002 when they were in college. Their self-made debut album, to their surprise, won awards and a lot of critical attention, and they embraced the resulting spotlight to promote progressive causes.


The most likely to be sampled playlist


For those who don’t know how it applies to Hip-Hop, the process of “sampling” is extracting a small piece of music or sound (like a melody, beat, or vocal hook) for use in a different, original song by another artist. Thus, the “most likely to be sampled playlist” is a collection of songs whose components most frequently appear in the music of other artists, and these songs feel familiar for exactly that reason. You’ve already heard them, by way of other musical artists.

At its core, this playlist exemplifies the very DNA of Hip-Hop culture. Since Hip-Hop finds inspiration in recreating and reusing material from everywhere, this collection of songs is a nod to the culture of remixing that is the foundation of creative work in Hip-Hop.

Here’s a selection from the book that speaks to how different listeners respond to this playlist:

DJs and producers from around the world use their extensive knowledge of (usually) Black music to teach audiences a bit of music history through sampling. Depending upon the generational makeup of an audience, the most-sampled songs playlist can generate vastly different educational and/or discursive responses. If it is a younger demographic, they will have heard many of the rifts and every drum sequence in these songs without having ever having heard these songs, specifically or directly.”

Listening to the originals, though, is significant because these are the actual works that have spawned a huge amount of new music and inspired generations of new artists. For example, James Brown is all over this playlist, showing his outsize influence on future musicians. Although the musicians who followed him made music that sounded much different than his brand of funk, they still found inspiration in his energy and creativity, or his actual music, and that is an act essential to the soul of Hip-Hop.

The song I’ll highlight from this playlist is “Apache” from the Incredible Bongo Band. For people my age, it’s instantly familiar – a standard of parties like weddings and bar mitzvahs. Hearing the original is a little spooky, as it’s much longer and more complicated than the versions to which we dance today, but it’s cool to know the name responsible for that classic drum lick.

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