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One of rap's most traveled. Photo by Kim Erlandsen.

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I HATE THE TERM ‘travel writing’. While it encompasses a wide spectrum of literature, the worst of it has become the de facto understanding of what travel writing is or should be: whimsical, romanticized and othering “accounts” of places that people don’t call home. Guide books. Restaurant and hotel reviews. Samatha Brown.

Maybe the real face of travel writing looks something more like this:

Let’s try an experiment. Try to guess the hometowns of the following well-known artists: Dr. Dre, Neil Young, David Lee Roth, Notorious B.I.G., Eminem, Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Kanye West, Nelly, Jack White, Dave Matthews (answers at the end of the article).

Most Americans born after 1985 probably know more about where the hip-hop artists hailed from than those from other genres. There are good reasons for that. Somewhere in the unwritten rules of rap, it’s known that one’s identity is inherently tied to one’s hometown.

Hip-hop begins with place. Lyrics are rooted in place. Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind” is a near-perfect introductory guide to New York; Immortal Technique’s “Harlem Renaissance” gives a thorough historical account of Harlem’s gentrification; Royce 5’9 gives a brief demographic rundown of Detroit in “Rock City”; and a large part of 2pac’s catalog chronicles street life in L.A.

And like travel writing, place-based rap lyrics range from the guide bookish:

Just to come to get a taste of this A.T.L style

All the homies on the southside up in the Ritz
Tuesday night, the Velvet Room same shit
Wednesday Strokers I don’t go no mo’
Cause they don’t know how to treat you when you come through the do’
Thursday night, was Plush but we moved the fuel
And I be up in the booth drunk actin a fool
Friday night, at Kaya they still got love
And the Sharkbar we poppin like it’s a night club
Saturday still off the heezy fo’ sheezy
You can find me up in One Tweezy
Sunday gettin me some sleep please,
I’m on my way to the deck then hittin Jazzy T’s

…to transparently ground-level and personal:

You gotta live it to feel it, you didn’t you wouldn’t get it
Or see what the big deal is, why it was and it still is
To be walkin this borderline of Detroit city limits
It’s different, it’s a certain significance, a certificate
Of authenticity, you’d never even see
But it’s everything to me, it’s my credibility

Like travel writing, the spectrum is large. While Jermaine Dupri gives an overview of his most preferred nightlife spots, Eminem admits that even in the highest levels of fame and wealth his roots in Detroit’s poor neighborhoods make up part of his identity.

But hip-hop doesn’t just take place in artists’ hometowns. In Lupe Fiasco’s “Little Weapon,” the artist takes the point of view of two very different places, but finds them commensurable: that of a child soldier in a third-world warzone, and of a child playing violent video games somewhere more developed. The geographic locations are paramount to the song, but the lyrics don’t pander to the idea of either place being a ‘destination.’ In both situations, the artist is at ground-level with the subject. He’s not ‘visiting’.

Assuming that travel writing, or traveling itself for that matter, comes as a product from taking a bus or plane somewhere unfamiliar does nothing but objectify a place. It doesn’t keep it real. When we think of travel as “destination-based” we never actually arrive anywhere. We’re putting up a perceptive barrier of Otherness that never brings us as close as we are at ground level.

Travel writing does not occur at in the late hours of the night after a day of sightseeing. It doesn’t need to narrate one’s stream of consciousness during an endless road trip. All that matters is that it’s focused on a place: Who’s there? What are the people doing? Why does it smell this way? What does it look like? And equally important: What’s your reaction and involvement?

One of my favorite new websites, RapGenius, offers a tool called the Rap Map as an interactive index of significant locations in hip-hop history and lyrics. It’s not just the oft-name-dropped cities: Auschwitz, Osaka, Sierra Leone, and middle-of-nowhere middle America are among the places explained thus far. And while, as I mentioned before, the levels of placed-based-ness vary widely throughout rap (like this bad example), it’s worth noting just how often geography comes up. Just try for any place in a lyrics search.

I’m not saying that most emcees would make great foreign correspondents. Okay, maybe I am, but that’s only because of how great it would be to read Gucci Mane’s dispatch from Calcutta, and Common’s reflections from a time spent in Bolivia (both for entirely different reasons).

And now, reporting from Brazil

Hometown answers: Los Angeles, Winnipeg, Bloomington (IN)/Massachusetts, Brooklyn, Detroit, Duluth, Gary (IN), Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Johannesburg

*The MatadorU Travel Writing program will help you build the skills you need to become a travel writer.

MusiciansTravel Writing Tips

 

About The Author

Jason Wire

Jason Wire graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2010 and spent the year after writing and teaching English in Spain. He's back in the states now, but doesn't know where. Follow him @wirejr.

  • http://miller-david.com david miller

    just jump in anywhere with andre 3000:

    Meanwhile the video starts playing

    BET college radio and a van

    Packed full of niggaz with a blunt in their hand

    And one in their ear

    You know what I’m saying

    But, I kept your number in my old phone

    Got a new chip flip with the roam roam

    So it took me a minute to retrieve seven digits

    But I promised I would call you when I got home

    But, when I got home I never did

    By the time I did, heard that you had a kid

    By some nigga in Decatur

    Who replied see you later when he got the good news, that’s life shit

    Now, I’m nineteen with a Cadillac

    My nigga had a Lex with the gold pack

    Got a plaque but I’m living with my pop pop

    So I got glock and a low jack

    You kinda fast for that fella in class who used to draw

    And never said much cuz half of what he saw

    Was so far from that place you wanna be

    That words only fucked it up more follow me

    Are you starting to gather what I’m getting at?

    Now if I’m losing you tell me then I’ll double back

    But keep in mind, at the time ‘keep it real’ was the phrase

    Silly once said now, but those were the days

    When spring break

    And Daytona

    And Freakniks

    Made you wanna

    Drop out of college and never go back

    Move to the South but that ain’t a Kodak

    Moment, on went myself and big boi

    Well you knew him as Twan

    That’s right you were around before this shit begun

    When Twan had a daughter and

    Sort of was made to mature before the first tour

    We hit the road like jack

    Laughed and cried and drived it back with some Yak

    Girls used to say, y’all talk funny, y’all from the islands?

    And I’d Laughed and they just keep smiling

    No, I’m from Atlanta baby

    He from Savannah, maybe

    We should hook up and get tore up and then lay down hey we

    Got to go because the bus is pulling out in 30 minutes

    She’s playing tennis disturbing the tenants

    15-love

    Fit like glove

    Description is like

    15 doves

    In a Jacuzzi catching the Holy Ghost

    Making one woozy in the head and comatose, agree?

    Enough about me

    How’s about you?

    How’s the lil’ kid?

  • Matt G

    Heet Mob did a song that is basically an ad for Kansas City http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXweUUv0X6I

    KC (It goes down), good song too, catchy…

  • http://twitter.com/davidleetong David Lee Tong

    Love this article hehe… So true about how these artists attach themselves to a geographical location and even for folks like me who have never seen Compton can visualize what Snoop and Dre describes in their lyrics :)

    Dave Tong

  • Writingjulie

    Jason-

    Fantastic essay; can’t wait to share it with U students and friends on twitter and Facebook. I’d never really thought of rap and hip hop in this way, but you’re right– almost every song is deeply, deeply rooted in a very particular place. 

    If you haven’t seen it, you might like the documentary “Sin Mapa” about Calle 13. 

  • http://jasminewanders.com Jasmine Stephenson

    Love this article! It’s so true, and probably why people from different regions identify so much with rappers from their area – who doesn’t want to hear their hood being thrown up? :)

    For some reason, this article made me think about a video with Rick Ross shot in Medellin, Colombia. It was weird seeing the city being portrayed from his “eyes” (including shots from a pueblo, which was just straight up strange) : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6X6LoSWGOc

  • Jordan Dinwiddie

    I instantly thought about the Snoop’s video for “Beautiful”. Such a beautiful city. Great article.

  • http://wherespablo.com Pablo

    Great article! I grew up listening to hip hop and never really looked at the music from that perspective. I’m not sure if you listen to Macklemore, but it reminds me of his song, “The Town” demonstrating his love for Seattle.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pIBdAdnTqqo

  • http://twitter.com/deviations Alasdair Pettinger

    Hating the term ‘travel writing’ because it has become associated with a small, unrepresentative segment makes as much sense as hating the term ‘hip hop’ for the same reasons.   That said, I found this a sharp, refreshing post.  

    For what it’s worth, here are some Places and Spaces from London’s Cookie Crew to add to your examples: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=butieKXfEXU 

  • Candice

    Jason, this is definitely my favourite article by you yet! Such an awesome way of picking apart hip-hop lyrics. 

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