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Rappers pack educational potential

Courtesy of MCT

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When parents prevent their children from listening to hip-hop, it’s usually to protect them from the bad habits discussed within the songs. Drugs, violence and bad language are all things that you should keep away from your kids. Music’s effect on behavior, however, is overrated.

As a young person, I listened to as much hip-hop and played “Grand Theft Auto” as much as the next child. Neither I, nor that next child, ended up as carjackers or drug dealers. In fact, if rap music had any effect on me, it made me savvier to pop culture.

Eminem’s revival of Dr. Dre is the ultimate example. I was a sixth grader when the song “The Real Slim Shady” emerged on radio waves. One of Eminem’s lines, “Dr. Dre’s dead; he’s locked in my basement,” was especially amusing to us 12-year-olds, although we didn’t know who Dr. Dre was. I finally used a computer to figure out that he was a rapper from a bygone era that I didn’t even know existed.

The rest of America had a similar reaction. Eminem’s success caused a boost in popularity for Dre, his producer and mentor. More than 10 years later, Dre’s name is on the trendiest headphones you can buy.

My most recent bit of experience with cultural education came courtesy of Rick Ross’ “Blowin’ Money Fast.” The hook’s homage to “Big Meech” and “Larry Hoover” went over my head until someone in the newsroom finally looked up who these guys actually were.  

Both were heads of huge drug operations, as was expected based on the context of the song. Will knowing who Big Meech and Larry Hoover are help me on the LSAT? No, but it’s impressive that hip-hop songs inspire me to conduct background research on the tracks. Critics will say that a Radiohead album is 28 times more intelligent than a Rick Ross album (and they’d be right, musically) but I can’t say I’ve ever learned anything from a Radiohead album.

Of course, hip-hop’s influence on society leads to some backwards learning as well.

In 2006, I volunteered at a Columbus Public Schools’ spelling bee as part of a community service requirement. The first round involved the students being read 25 words aloud, and they would spell them on page. The other volunteers and I would mark off the incorrect spellings to see who would advance to the next round.

One of the words was “ludicrous.” I can’t remember how many of the students spelled it correctly, but I do remember that more than half spelled it “ludacris,” with some even capitalizing the “l” to indicate that it was a proper noun. It seems that Lauryn Hill wasn’t the only one being miseducated.

The majority of rappers who reside in the top tier of the game aren’t dumb people. Evidence would suggest quite the opposite. Eminem told Anderson Cooper in an interview that he wrote the dictionary in notebooks word-for-word so that some would get wedged in his brain and he could use them in raps later. I read Jay-Z’s memoir over winter break, and his travels from hustler to rapper to media mogul indicate he had more than just money to invest. He had the brains to know how to invest it.

These guys have the ability and influence to educate the youth of the nation more effectively than any teacher, especially in underfunded inner-city schools. The problem is that rapping about algebra won’t get anyone a record deal. If Jay-Z or Eminem did an album on math, it’d probably still be great, but no one will green light that record because education doesn’t sell. Swagger and hustle sells.

So don’t blame hip-hop for violence or drug use. If anything, blame hip-hop for not using its enormous influence to better society.

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