University of Cambridge to host hip hop conference

The UK’s first academic conference on hip hop comes straight outta Cambridge

February 18, 2016
Rapper Rakim performing live onstage, Bologna, Italy, 2011
Source: Rex
‘Where you’re at’: the event’s name echoes a lyric by hip hop pioneer Rakim

The UK’s first academic conference on hip hop is to take place at the University of Cambridge this summer.

A long way from the ghettos of New York and Los Angeles where the music form originated in the late 1970s, experts will gather at Wolfson College in June to discuss the now-ubiquitous genre.

Talks at the conference – titled Ain’t Where You’re From, It’s Where You’re At (the title comes from a lyric by the legendary 1980s MC Rakim) – will cover the influence of hip hop via linguistics, gender studies and musicology.

While the ancient seat of learning may seem an unlikely venue for the hip hop symposium, the genre that made stars of Tupac, Biggie Smalls and Public Enemy is actually well established in many of the UK’s most traditional universities, said musicologist James Butterworth, who is organising the conference with sociologist Richard Bramwell.

Based at Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, Dr Butterworth and Dr Bramwell – whose book UK Hip Hop, Grime and the City on London’s rap scene was published last year – are currently examining how hip hop is used in the prison system and other state-funded institutes, such as youth centres.

“You may be surprised that many music faculties at UK universities offer courses in hip hop,” said Dr Butterworth, a classically trained pianist who took his undergraduate degree in music at Cambridge.

“Cambridge has a course in hip hop, and I have taught a course at the University of Oxford on hip hop that is a compulsory module for all first-year music students.”

Other universities to offer modules on hip hop include Soas, University of London, as well as the universities of Bristol and Southampton, Dr Butterworth added.

“Sadly, if it’s reported that students are studying Kanye West, then it normally becomes a story about dumbing down, which is disappointing,” he said.

However, hip hop is a valuable topic for academics to examine because it is “unquestionably the most listened-to music in the world”, continued Dr Butterworth.

“Hip hop studies spans so many areas of the humanities and social sciences – more than any other musical form – but the challenge in this context is to think about it as an art form,” he said.

“Hip hop has gone mainstream in the UK over the past 10 years with the likes of Dizzee Rascal and other grime artists, but there are still lots of aspects of it that exist outside the established music industry that are worth examining.”

He added: “I am sure there are some people at Cambridge who will find this conference problematic, but there are plenty more who will want to get involved.”

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