by katie zhu

26 Sep 2015

what journalism can learn from rap

If there’s one thing journalism can learn from rap, it’s that everything was better in the ‘90s.

The golden age of hip hop was characterized by the diversity, quality, innovation, and influence of the artists that emerged in that time. Names we still talk about today — Eric B. & Rakim, Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the list goes on.

For journalism, the ‘90s were a simpler time. A time before the internet disrupted the entire industry, back when legacy advertising business models still worked, a time when media organizations were the primary source of news for most Americans.

Rap has always been interesting to me because it draws on so many genres to create something stunningly unique. This isn’t unlike what we’ve seen in journalism in recent years — look at the influence of fields like statistics and computer science in creating new disciplines of data journalism, editorial applications and tools, and computer-assisted reporting.

Rap can be poetic — full of word play, metaphors and snark. But at its purest, rap is the most powerful storytelling. The art form has provided a medium for those underrepresented in mainstream media to shed light on their neighborhoods, their communities, their story. “Our art is a reflection of our reality,” says O’Shea Jackson Jr. in the recent NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton.

“I’m living everyday like a hustle / Another drug to juggle, another day, another struggle” — Biggie Smalls, “Everyday Struggle”

Let’s consider rap on the axes of content and flow — each with valuable takeaways for journalism.


Sampling is okay.

It’s aggregation, and while that’s no substitute for creation, assembling different pieces of content and creating something where the whole is other than the sum of its parts can be compelling in its own right.

Listicles are the autotune of news.

It was kind of cool for a while, but we’re over it and let’s be real. You’re using the format to hide shitty content. I don’t really care about the 19 things I should know if I was born in the ‘90s.

We need better remixes.

The idea of “the scoop” in journalism kind of died with the rise of realtime platforms like Twitter. We should also kill the practice of dismissing stories just because they’ve “already been done.” That’s not an excuse to automatically shy away from covering something — rather, it’s an opportunity for remixing and innovation. Take the story of Brooklyn’s gentrification as an example. Not a new story. Pretty much old news at this point. But a couple summers ago, The New York Times remixed this story and told it through the lens of hip-hop:

“The mean streets of the borough that rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. crowed about are now hipster havens, where cupcakes and organic kale rule.”

Bring on the guest appearances.

Collaboration breeds greatness. HOV killed it on Ye’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix),” dropping one of his most quoted verses: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” See also: Watch The Throne, What A Time To Be Alive, A$AP Mob.

We’ve seen guest appearances in journalism as well, and it’s produced some amazing work. Take the NSA encryption story that broke in August 2013, which brought The Guardian, The New York Times and ProPublica together on a groundbreaking story. Or think back to the 2011 WikiLeaks story, where The Guardian and The Times teamed up on the investigation and coverage.


There’s metrical structure to rap verses. Each artist has a distinct flow — their command of rhythm and rhyme — which sets the tone and style for each song.

“I’m just a Chi-town nigga with a Nas flow”
 — Kanye West, “Dark Fantasy”

Similarly, every journalist has a unique voice. This bubbles up to the organizational level, so when people talk about “Timesian style,” there’s a general understanding of what that means. Mr. Obama. Mr. West. Mrs. Carter. The Times’s flow is markedly more uptight than say, The Awl.

Flow in rap and voice in journalism serve analogous roles. I’ve always been fascinated by the diversity in rap styles — from Biggie’s bounce-rhythm between bars to Twista’s ridiculously fast rhymes, from Jay-Z’s cool flow to ODB’s raw aggression. Each rapper owns their style, and publications should be more assertive about developing and owning their voice.

stray thoughts

Local is about celebrating place and integrating a native, authentic voice into the work itself. Our news outlets rep our cities just like rappers rep their cities. How can we embrace the flavor, voice and feel of our geographies and cultures in our content? I was running through the six with my woes…

We’re all familiar with the East Coast — West Coast hip-hop rivalry. But the media industry also has its own Biggie vs. 2Pac feud brewing. New York is arguably the media capital of the world and the East has long been home to most of America’s renowned publications. They own finance and politics. California is both the technological forefront and entertainment epicenter, industries that also substantially impact America’s cultural fabric. Vox Media acquired Re/Code, based in the Bay Area, and Buzzfeed also opened up a San Francisco office. Will we see the rise of a West Coast media capital with enough momentum to displace New York?

We need more feuds in journalism — minus the bloodshed. Competition is good, it prevents publications from stagnation and keeps things fresh.

if rappers were publications…

Gratuitous autotuning for your enjoyment.

  1. Kanye West is The New York Times: Critically acclaimed, and even though people like to shit on him, he really does do good work.
  2. Jay-Z is the Wall Street Journal: Basically hasn’t changed for the last 10 years. All content is behind a paywall. “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!”
  3. T-Pain is Buzzfeed: A repetoire full of club hits, but there’s actually some substance under all that autotune.
  4. Common is NPR: Socially conscious with cultural impact, especially among youths. All about engagement.
  5. The Game is The Washington Post: A major player on the national stage, but all about reppin’ his city. Old school.
  6. Kendrick is Quartz: Excellent newcomer a couple years ago that had everybody talking, but less buzzed about these days.
  7. Fetty Wap is The Awl: Strong following and earned respect by doing things their own way. Too cool to show up for awards. Hint of indie, but actually more of serious operation than you might think. Cranks out hit single after hit single, all the while making asymmetry look dope.
  8. J. Cole is Fusion: Backed by big corporations (Disney, Roc Nation), but appealing to a young, diverse, and inclusive audience. Doesn't shy away from addressing racial stereotypes and owning the dialogue in that space.
  9. Macklemore is the Seattle Times: Seattle about sums it up.

This post was inspired by a session I ran with my friend Trei at News Foo a couple years ago. I'm very timely. Also thanks to Rebekah, Marie, Ryan and everyone else who came, chilled, and listened to hip hop.

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