The Striking Similarities Between These Rappers and Ancient Philosophers
The work and statements of some of our favorite MCs line up quite comfortably alongside philosophy’s greatest — and most notorious — minds
Hip-hop is a lot of things, but the least discussed of all its facets is how it operates as a philosophy. I don’t mean as a KRS-One riff or as subject matter; I mean structurally.
Consider Thomas Kuhn. In 1962 Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he describes the field as having stretches of “normal science,” interrupted by moments of “crisis.” Every once in a while, there’s a revolution in the field, challenging and ultimately subsuming the existing paradigm. This kind of intellectual coup is how we came to understand that Earth rotates around the sun (the Copernican system) rather than the reverse (a framework Ptolemy had theorized).
New concepts flaring up to challenge and even replace core systems of understanding is an extremely applicable principle in hip-hop. First, the “Rapper’s Delight” party style of rapping was supplanted by the “new school” sounds of Run DMC, then the denser verbal gymnastics of practitioners like Slick Rick, KRS-One, and Rakim became the norm. Eventually, those gymnastics morphed and were excised out of the Rap Olympics, replaced with other stylistic contenders over time, with even mumble rap — the seeming antithesis to layered polysyllabia — becoming a standard paradigm. On and on the revolution turns, the atoms of culture smashing themselves against one another until something new and powerful enough to take the throne for a while comes along.
The music of hip-hop is loaded with as many ethical questions as it is moral imperatives, and the bulk of its practitioners adhere to at least one personal philosophy. (Rap has very few dadaists.) In fact, the work and statements of some of our favorite rappers line up quite comfortably alongside philosophy’s greatest — and most notorious — minds.