Old-Schooled: 8 Classic Hip-Hop Hits Worth Teaching to Students

In honor of National Hip-Hop Appreciation Week, here are eight seminal rap songs that offer some valuable lessons.

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HIP-HOP LESSONS
Queen Latifah; Nas; Outkast

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Founded 16 years ago by Lawrence Krisna Parker, aka KRS-One, National Hip-Hop Appreciation Week (May 19-25) seeks to recognize the original elements of the culture—rapping, deejaying, break dancing and graffiti—and to renew the consciousness of the art form. This year’s theme is heritage. Artists, activists, entertainers and scholars around the world participated in a variety of activities to celebrate the purity of hip-hop and how the practice continues to spread into new and improved spaces like the classroom. Here are eight songs I believe can be used in K-12 and college by students who want to learn about hip-hop and teachers who are interested in using it as a teaching tool.

1.  “Rapper’s Delight,” the Sugarhill Gang

It’s important for any student or teacher to start here. It is the first “real” crossover rap song. Sonically, it provides a bridge between disco and rap with the sampling of Chic’s “Good Times.” Verbally, it highlights the boasting that is indigenous to the African-American toast tradition. One last fact for the classroom: A woman by the name of Sylvia Robinson produced this worldwide hit. Pre-Russell Simmons. Girls should know this.

2. “The Message,” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Robinson was also the driving force behind “The Message.” Recorded in 1982, it is the first example of lyrical social commentary. The verses of this song, some of which contain no profanity, can be used as early as middle school as youth begin to critique issues of race and class in social studies. I’ve even used it with college students—graduate and undergraduate.

3. “Ladies First,” Queen Latifah featuring Monie Love

If the goal is to build the self-esteem of young girls and teach them how to treat themselves and others, then the video for and the song “Ladies First” should be the go-to resources when working with any group of young women and men—regardless of race, culture or status.

4. “I Can,” Nas

This song is perfect for elementary schoolchildren. It explores African history and speaks directly to young girls and boys about how to treat one another. It also contains an infectious chant of youth singing, “I know I can. Be what I want to be.” Imagine teachers and students chanting together each morning before school. So encouraging for both.

5. “Juice (Know the Ledge),” Eric B. & Rakim

I like this song for working with teens—especially African-American males—because Rakim takes on the voice of a young street hustler who falls victim to the lifestyle of money and power. Each verse ends with “Let’s see if I know the ledge” which is a play on the word “knowledge.” In other words, let’s see if I have enough knowledge to know how far to take a situation before it’s too late to turn back. A great song for youth leadership development.

6. “B.O.B.,” Outkast

“Don't pull ya thang out, unless you plan to bang” is a great discovery line from the song’s hook. Meaning, don’t put yourself in a dire situation unless you have the resources to get out of it. “B.O.B.” can be used to explore some of our nation’s most historic wars and battles. However, it goes well with “Know the Ledge” because it too is about making correct decisions when faced with disorder and chaos in personal wars that youth face.

7. “Untitled,” Killer Mike featuring Scar

 This song is an all-around great teaching tool on the college level. First, the narrative leaves it up to the listener to come up with a title. The song deals with topics of political theory, ethics and the role of women in the fight for civil and human rights. Parts of the song can be particularly useful in women’s studies courses, as well as Africana studies, and religion.

8. “Sucker M.C.’s,” Run-DMC

In hip-hop, “Sucker M.C.’s” is one of the go-to songs when break dancing or while tagging graffiti because of the drums, breaks and claps. This beat is also attractive to students in a classroom when they work independently on a project, in groups, or if a teacher wants to stage a problem-solving battle. For example, in a high school math class a teacher might have his or her students come to the board to solve a word problem or equation. Imagine each student standing with his or her markers ready to step to the board when the song begins. Whoever finishes the problem first and correctly wins the battle.

The songs above represent only a slice of the resources available to students and teachers who want to study or teach hip-hop. Remember, the art form is about raising one’s consciousness. Let’s keep this in mind as we celebrate what it was intended to do from the outset.

Joycelyn A. Wilson is a hip-hop scholar in the School of Education at Virginia Tech and director of the Four-Four Beat Project. Follow her on Twitter.

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