11 Classic Hip-Hop Songs You Can Teach With

miseducation-of-lauryn-hill

11 Classic Hip-Hop Songs You Can Teach With

by Terry Heick

Let’s start this post out clarifying what it is not.

This isn’t about why to teach with hip-hop. It’s also not about how to teach with hip-hop. Nor is it a political statement, an endorsement of controversial language and themes, or something you can just play for your students on a whim with no preparation. If you “hate rap music”–and your classroom is all about you–then don’t read any further. This post won’t change your mind.

If you’re still reading, here’s the idea, in short: the evolution of hip-hop, as both an art form, a critical cultural voice, and medium to reach the youth is an authentic, complex, and hugely “human” concept. While hip-hop is increasingly present in pop music “top 100” lists, its roots lie in 1970s New York City, and has since diversified from street corner cyphers to a nuanced and regional musical form of its own, including southern and west coast forms to add to the east coast origins.

Engaging students isn’t easy. Ideally, you’ll create “authentic” learning experiences that dissolve the classroom walls and make it all “real.” But there is also a place for inherently interesting media that emphasizes critical academic content, and ignoring inherently interesting content like YouTube, social media, video games (see “how to teach with video games“), or other polarizing content may be worth reconsidering.

Hip-hop, like social media, video games, smartphones, and other (metaphorical) “banned books” of education, has extraordinary potential to reach all students. The same is true of music in general, but hip-hop makes a point to be staggering and prone to themes of antagonism, influence, and social justice. It’s also full of hyperbole and other literary devices, historical movements, along with the energy, charisma, and word play that interest students.

Hip-Hop In The Classroom

Maybe the best way to think about these songs is to view them as a kind of chronological overview of where hip-hop has been so that students may begin to see its evolution as well–all through the lens of teachable music. That is, every song here has something to say–something worth teaching.

Note, I tried to include the clean version of each song, but not all are clean. Some have “language.” As with any media, preview everything twice before playing for students in a classroom.

Also, if you’re still reading this you probably know that the hip-hop that is violent, foul-mouthed for the sake of being foul-mouthed, and otherwise intellectually bankrupt doesn’t represent “all rap” any more than Bill Clinton represents the morality of U.S. Presidents, Target’s cybersecurity policy represents sound cybersecurity policy, or McDonald’s represents good food. If you’re willing to open your mind a little, you might be surprised at what you find.

Note, I’ve included brief overviews of the songs (or included an excerpt from wikipedia), but teaching with these depends on your grade level, content area, relevant standards, and more. Though I’ve included some Common Core standards that make suggest themselves in spots, using these in an authentic way will require that you get to know the music and how it might fit in with your curriculum on your own.

10 Classic Hip-Hop Songs You Can Teach With

Title

“Microphone Fiend,” Erik B. & Rakim

Summary

A pioneering duo in east coast hip-hop that represents early “knowledge” style of rap, Erik B. and Rakim are likely the most influential rap duo of all-time, and Rakim is certainly among hip-hop’s elder statesmen.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.11-12.R.L.1 Key Ideas and Details: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

Title

“Coolie High,” Camp Lo

Overview

This song conveys a narrative through mesmerizing lyrics, imagery that jumps around constantly, and a mellow sound that hearkens back to another era.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.SL.3 Comprehension and Collaboration: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric, identifying any fallacious reasoning or exaggerated or distorted evidence.

Title

“When They Reminisce Over You,” Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth

Wikipedia Summary

“Pete Rock and CL Smooth were known for their uniquely soulful sound that they brought to the genre of hip-hop….Verse one discusses the hardships of growing up with a single mother. CL Smooth talks about how his father did not play a role in helping his mother raise him or his sister, and how his mother was forced to take on both roles in the household. He says that although his mother raised him right, he still needed a male figure in his life. He ultimately concludes the first verse saying that the lack of male leadership destines young men to repeat the cycle of not being involved in their own children’s lives. The second and third verses take a more positive light. In the second verse CL Smooth talks about how his uncle played the crucial role of a male father figure in his life and helped him become a man and how more males need to make a positive impact on the community. Finally in the third verse CL Smooth speaks to his friend Troy. He thanks him in being one of the only people believed in him and kept him on the right path. He then continues to update Troy on the well being of his family and saying that they reminisce about him.”

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.SL.1.d Comprehension and Collaboration: Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.

Title

“Fight The Power,” Public Enemy

Wikipedia Summary

“Fight the Power” incorporates various samples and allusions to African-American culture, including civil rights exhortations, black church services, and the music of James Brown.

As a single, “Fight the Power” reached number one on Hot Rap Singles and number 20 on the Hot R&B Singles. It was named the best single of 1989 by The Village Voice in their Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. It has become Public Enemy’s best-known song and has been accoladed as one of the greatest songs of all time by critics and publications. In 2001, the song was ranked number 288 in the “Songs of the Century” list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.”

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.R.H.4 Craft and Structure: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.

Title

“Killing Me Softly,” by Lauryn Hill

Summary

This remake of the 1972 Roberta Flack version was important as much for what it represented as it does the themes in the song itself. Lauryn Hill was a rap artist from the group The Fugees, and “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” was a bold step towards a solo career, and a chance for her full range of talents to shine.

In an industry dominated by males–and male bravado–female artists were often marginalized, and successful women rappers, including MC Lyte and Queen Latifah, were few and far between. In “Killing Me Softly,” Hill simultaneously paid homage to a part of rap’s legacy (early R&B), as well as demonstrated her range as a rapper, singer, and new kind of hip-hop talent that seamlessly blended genres.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.R.ST.7 Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: Translate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text into visual form (e.g., a table or chart) and translate information expressed visually or mathematically (e.g., in an equation) into words.

Title

“Holy Intellect,” Poor Righteous Teachers

Summary

Poor Righteous Teachers were a 1990s hip-hop group that pushed knowledge of self over violence or materialism. While this wasn’t entirely unique (KRS One often did the same, for example), their fast beats, playful tone, and contrast with other music during that time made them modestly successful. The album this appeared on was voted one of the top 100 rap albums of all-time by The Source magazine in 1998.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.11-12.R.L.2 Key Ideas and Details: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

Title:

“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” Naught by Nature

Overview

“You want me to be positive? Well positive ain’t where I live.” A brutally honest message that somehow manages to be bursting with hope.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.R.ST.9 Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: Compare and contrast findings presented in a text to those from other sources (including their own experiments), noting when the findings support or contradict previous explanations or accounts.

Title

“The Choice Is Yours,” Black Sheep

Summary

“The Choice Is Yours” presents listeners with a simple choice (false dichotomy?): get with this (their progressive sound and approach) or you can get with that (drugs, violence, etc.) Another positive song that also had street credibility–a difficult balance to achieve.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.L.4.b Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., analyze, analysis, analytical; advocate, advocacy).

Title

“Ring The Alarm,” by Fu-Schnickens

Overview

Along with Das EFX, Fu-Schnickens popularized a new style of rap that was characterized by its speed, delivery, and word play. “Ring the Alarm,” doesn’t offer anything new in terms of meaning (it’s essentially a self-proclamation of their power as artists), the style was novel, and a notable development in the history of hip-hop.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.11-12.R.L.5 Craft and Structure: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Title 

“Me, Myself, and I,” by De La Soul

Overview

A song from the very late 1980s–1989, to be exact–that brought hip-hop that was both reflective and accessible to the “mainstream” at the same time.

Possible Focus Standard

CC.9-10.L.3 Knowledge of Language: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Title

“Tennessee,” by Arrested Development

Summary

An excerpt from verse 3:

“Lord it’s obvious we got a relationship
Talkin’ to each other every night and day
Although you’re superior over me
We talk to each other in a friendship way
Then outta nowhere you tell me to break
Outta the country and into more country
Past Dyesburg into Ripley
Where the ghost of childhood haunts me
Walk the roads my forefathers walked
Climbed the trees my forefathers hung from
Ask those trees for all their wisdom
They tell me my ears are so young (home)
Go back to from whence you came (home)
My family tree, my family name (home)
For some strange reason it had to be (home)
He guided me to Tennessee (home)”

Boom.

 

2 Comments

Leave a Reply