John McWhorter Says Hip Hop Must Be ...     

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7/1/2004 11:35:04 PM
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John McWhorter Says Hip Hop Must Be Stopped
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American academic John McWhorter is paranoid about being overheard: his views are not popular. Hidden away in a Manhattan bookshop, rap's most fierce opponent tells James Verini why hip-hop must be stopped .

Only a quarter century into its history, hip-hop has not only taken over American popular culture, but it has also gained a surprising respect among the intelligentsia. The lyrics of Tupac Shakur are dissected in university classrooms; former Public Enemy frontman Chuck D has a political talk-show on the radio. Among professional African-American intellectuals, big names such as Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West sing hip-hop's praises. Literally so with West, a Princeton University professor and probably the best-known black intellectual in the country, who last year cut his own rap and poetry album, Sketches of My Culture.

On the other side of the debate there are not as many prominent voices. In fact, there is really only one: John McWhorter, a black professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and an unabashed opponent of rap.

McWhorter finds the music pernicious and humiliating. He thinks of it as the musical manifestation of the worst traits of black America, particularly, and America generally. He says so often, in the opinion and editorial pages of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, among other major publications; in the pages of several best-selling books with leading titles like Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America and Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care; and on television and radio shows across the country. He has few allies on the public stage. But then he never expected to be loved for his views.

"My job is to comment from the sidelines and put a bee in at least some people's bonnets," he says. "I'd like to play some small part in changing the culture. It dismays me to see the energy that so many people waste in sticking their middle finger up - because it feels good - instead of actually trying to work with the world. I think we've taken a really nasty detour since the late 1960s."

McWhorter, 38, is tall and lanky, with large, emotive eyes, and close-cropped hair showing faint signs of gray. Unlike the perennially three-piece-suited West (whom McWhorter criticised in the pages of the Wall Street Journal for neglecting his academic duties in favour of cutting rap albums), he tends to dress down. He speaks in the quick, concise sentences of someone used to repeating his ideas.

I meet with McWhorter at a coffee shop in Manhattan. He is fresh off an opinion column in the Los Angeles Times and an article in Commentary magazine. In addition to being pressed for time, he seems a bit paranoid.

"The walls have ears here," he says, soon after we enter the coffee shop, ushering me away from the disinterested-looking patrons in search of more private surroundings. I ask him what he means. "People tend to listen in," he says, "and I'm not on television right now." We end up in a large bookstore a few blocks away, where we find two folding chairs in a secluded corner near the self-help books.

I ask McWhorter the question he's been asked countless times since throwing his hat into the ring several years ago: why does he hate rap? Surprisingly, he says he doesn't. "I like listening to rap, actually; the problem is that it's very, very catchy. The poetry is interesting, the rhythms are fantastic. But when I hear it, I hear it from a distance. For some people this music is a religion, and I don't mean religion in a hyperbolic way. It's at the point where a lot of people have never known the world without it. It's all the music they listen to. They wake up to it, they lose their virginity to it, they go to sleep to it, it's what they hear when the

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