Please Pass the Mic: A Sociological Look at Project Blowed

Alex Dwyer's Off The Books columns returns with a look at Jooyoung Lee's new, "Blowin' Up."
By    May 26, 2016

blowin up

Dweezy wonders whether he or the Big Dweezy in Lee’s book came first.

“You know how it makes me feel when I go up to people and I got the James Brown greatest hits or a Tupac CD? You know how it feels when people say shit like, ‘Yo, Choppa, you spit harder than anyone I know!’ That fucks with my mind, Jooyoung. I’m not supposed to be selling bootlegs and shit, playing cat-and-mouse with the security guards. I’m supposed to be changing the game!” Choppa

 

Blowing up is hard to do. Even when a rapper has honed skills, an experienced stage presence, and connections in the entertainment industry, there is no guarantee they will summit the culture’s gigantic mountain. In fact, like those who aspire to scale Everest, these rappers might as easily die or fade into obscurity, which ever comes first.

With Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central, sociologist Jooyoung Lee spent a half-decade at Leimart Park’s open-mic Project Blowed in South Los Angeles, and came away with an ethnographic peek about what it takes to become a famous rapper.  

What Works:

From 2005-2010, Lee spent most of his Thursday nights at Project Blowed. He put in work. The thousands of pages of field notes, interviews with thirty separate emcees, and five years of follow-up attest to the academic-grade rigor with which he handled the undertaking. What’s most impressive—and most useful in his analysis—are the 90 hours of video he shot of performances, ciphers, and battles in Leimert Park.

Lee has some videos as an online appendix to the book—they include a young Nocando scraping with Flawliss and a dreadlocked Open Mike (before the Eagle landed) in a performance with the group Tony Bourdain named his CNN show after.

Practice is the theme of the Blowin’ Up’s first half: Becoming Rappers. In a tone I’m going to call “Academic Deadpan,” Lee breaks down the complexity of rapping to simple enough terms and concepts for the most basic readers to understand. On page 58, he explains how Open Mike discovered how to gauge audience approval: “He learned to sense when they were “feeling” him: head nodding, dancing, arm waving, and other body movements were signs they were engaged. Silence, quizzical looks, and stirring were signs that he was quickly losing the crowd.”

This all might seem obvious to someone with an even marginal understanding of hip-hop, but defining what “feeling” someone actually means is an interesting exercise. The Academic Deadpan at times allows something magical to happen, where clichéd concepts can be seen anew. Like on page 70, “When OGs and hosts implore less experienced rappers to “get their bars up,” they mean that the person is lyrically weak and needs to improve his or her skills.” On the page after, Lee writes “Indeed, young men who revert to the code of the street and cannot “keep it hip hop” risk losing more face by breaching the implicit emphasis on charisma and creativity in the seen.”

“Get your bars up,” and “keeping it hip hop,” are so ingrained in the rap vernacular that one can be at a loss to explain them to outsiders. Lee’s Academic Deadpan resolves this for his primary audience—those who know very little about, or who remain suspicious of, hip hop culture.  

He doesn’t rest at merely reframing slang, but also explains rap’s mechanics — like the challenge new emcees have of using a microphone properly. From page 52: “As novices, the microphone is a foreign instrument that interferes with their ability to be heard. Many hold the microphone awkwardly and make mistakes trying to project into it. This leads to an equally frustrated and unsettled audience.” Almost all rap books that have come before it, have taken this minutiae for granted. Lee’s attention here has produced, in just a couple hundred pages, a how-to book and a document of historical record.

If you don’t have the patience for the Academic Deadpan to work its magic in the first half’s, part II: Trying to Blow Up, is quality reading even those already well-steeped in literature about hip-hop, Los Angeles, or both.

Lee does a great justice to the history of not just hip-hop but music in this city. Project Blowed is L.A.’s 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. It is directly responsible for the emergence of Art Rap. Without it, Low End Theory and its beat scene might have never come to be. A defter city historian than I could probably trace South L.A.’s musical lineage from the Jazz on Central Avenue through Leimart Park’s Good Life Café and Project Blowed, and into the South L.A.-bred young jazz giants of our day (Kamasi Washington, the Bruner brothers, and Terrace Martin). Lee’s work here is already seminal in that historical chain and in giving Project Blowed well-earned props.

What Doesn’t:

Often, the Academic Deadpan works wonders. For any non-academic audience, those uninterested in scrutinizing Lee’s unturned stones, the first half of the book can also occasionally bore. Here are some terms Lee defines mid-text:

putting in work: demonstrating one’s toughness and loyalty

pass: exemption from joining the gang

jumped in: initiated into a gang through violence

ride: mobilize in violence

fam: short for family

veterans: what locals call senior rappers

While I understand the logic behind defining “spitting writtens” within the text (“trying to pawn off prewritten rhymes as extemporaneous”) many of the terms could be easily placed in a glossary for the rare reader who might not understand that “Lambo doors” are short for “Lamborghini doors.”

This might go against the rigor required in the ivory towers, but the paragraphs overpopulated with these sort of definitions can be a chore. Lee certainly leaves no room for confusion, but he simultaneously cuts away space for nuance and makes reading the first half a turbulent affair compared with the smooth ride elsewhere.

But Should You Read It?

From 1994 on, Project Blowed (and before it The Good Life) helped the city branch out from its stereotypical depiction as the city of gangsta rap. Beyond the sheer impressiveness of Lee’s research, its real contribution is the book’s central thesis: that hip-hop offers a creative alternative to violence. It’s certainly not an earth-shattering notion. It’s an argument posited by heads since Clive Campbell. It’s one even superficial onlookers of the culture might make on their own. The difference with Lee is that Blowin’ Up isn’t opinion: it’s scientific proof.

Few readers of this blog are in-need of this proof in the flesh. However, something interesting happens for any hip-hop head in the second half of this book. Lee’s Academic Deadpan reveals truths hiding behind the hype—indeed behind the witty criticism. Blowin’ Up allows for us to see a composite sketch of the Sherpa of rap culture again, anew, or for the very first time.  

The culmination, as Lee dexterously sets up, comes when one Sherpa is forced to drag with him, one more piece of luggage up the mountain after being shot. From Page 207:

“I looked around as the crowd stared down at the colostomy bag. Previously invisible, now it was all they could see.”

In an era where the unfinished product is more desirable than the finished, where then under-produced, underdeveloped artist can garner the attention because of his unpolished-ness, the Project Blowed approach is artisan. Blowin’ Up testifies to the notion of rap as high art.

I wonder how long these Sherpa of the genre—acrobatic, battle tested lyricists—the ones who help elevate the bars of the collective culture will continue their now-traditional trekking. The mountain is getting crowded. More climbers, with less experience are taking on the challenge. The weather window for climbing narrows by the day.

Perhaps Lee’s book, like the Sherpa film, will ultimately exist as an instruction manual: a how-to guide for those not just willing to climb mountains despite the odds against them but for those who are willing to put in the work.

*Page numbers are taken from Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central, 2016, University of Chicago Press. That was the edition reviewed.