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What Travel Writing Has to Learn From Hip Hop

by Jason Wire Aug 18, 2011
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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 BrazilHometown 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.

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