Why Is This Happening? Celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop with Trymaine Lee, Imani Perry and Vic Mensa

We recently returned from Chicago, the second stop on our fall 2023 WITHpod tour, and we’re thrilled to share a recording of the event. Hip-hop, which is being celebrated for 50 years of impact this year, has grown into a global phenomenon. The music genre, born out of a very specific set of cultural and sociological conditions, continues to shape so many facets of international culture. MSNBC correspondent and host of “Into America,” Trymaine Lee, New York Times best-selling author Imani Perry and hip-hop artist, actor and activist Vic Mensa joined to discuss the precipitating conditions contributing to hip-hop’s rise, its growth and success, the impact of commercialization on artists and more.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Chris Hayes: Before we get into the episode, we should note this episode contains explicit language.

Hello, and welcome to “Why is This Happening” with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

We just got back from the Chicago stop of our WITHpod national tour. It was fantastic to be back in the city I love. We had an incredible time and we’re so glad to share a recording of the live event with you. Here’s WITHpod producer, Doni Holloway, kicking us off.

Doni Holloway: What’s up Chicago! Hey, everybody! Good evening and welcome to our live recording of “Why Is This Happening? The Chris Hayes Podcast.” We have been looking so forward to tonight. We have an amazing show ahead. And as we go throughout the show, don’t forget to share some of your favorite moments using the hashtag #WITHpod. You can keep the conversation going online and you can share some of the fun from tonight using the hashtag #WITHpod. Without further ado, I am so thrilled and please join me in welcoming our host, Chris Hayes!

Chris Hayes: What’s good, Chicago? How are you? Oh, this is wonderful. It’s great to be here. I love this city a lot. I have a lot of love for this city. My wife Kate is from Chicago, born and raised. My dad’s from the north side. He raised me in the Bronx, no less. He raised me a Cubs fan.

I was raised about three miles from Yankee Stadium. My dad had a choice between raising me to root for literally the most successful sports franchise in history or literally the most benighted. And I’m a ride or die Cubs fan. So, yes, it’s great to be here. It’s great to see family. A special shout out to Edie (ph) and Steve (ph) for hosting us this weekend. They’re somewhere in here. That’s my sister-in-law and her partner. Give them a round of applause for.

We had a lovely time on the 606. I went for a run today. Yeah, this is really a very special place, and I’m really excited to be here tonight. Obviously, there’s a lot of truly awful things happening in the world right now, but we’re going to talk about something that’s not awful tonight, which I actually feel good about.

So, one of the things that’s wild about the world we live in now and access to social media is that at any moment, you can see people from anywhere in the world just like doing stuff. Not like a foreign film or anything, just like I’m making breakfast and I’m in Singapore. And one of the things that’s really striking to me and I’ve really become a little bit of a TikTok addict, which is not great actually.

It’s like I say that it’s for work but, my social media addiction, it’s like someone who works at a tobacco company. They’re like, well, I just got to try the product. I got to do it. I’m like, well, this is for work. I’m scrolling for work. And one of the things on TikTok is it’s really wild to see the degree to which global culture, global youth culture is defined by the stylistic musical visual grammar of hip-hop, like everywhere.

It’s like here’s a dude in Beijing like popping and locking. And here is someone in Ukraine with a rap about the war. You have this cultural production from a very specific group of folks in the U.S., black folks, black urban folks particularly, from a very specific time and place that has become like almost default pop cultural style grammar of the whole world. All over the world.

And there’s some stuff that like, people make it one part of the world and everyone else in the world is like, I like that, like pizza. It’s like, you go anywhere, people are like, pizza is dope. We like pizza. You can buy pizza anywhere. Pizza is really good. And it just came from one place a certain amount of time and everyone loves pizza.

People love hip hop all over the world. And this year, at this moment when you have this incredible global cultural phenomenon that has sort of taken over the world, they’ve been celebrating and people seem to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip hop? Which itself is a little funny. Like it’s a date. Like this date, hip hop started, which when you think about it is a little strange.

Like, today is the birthday of jazz. When was that? Rock and roll just turned seven. I don’t know. It’s not like, there’s not like a birth certificate. But I thought that I would tell you the story tonight, which is a little bit of a mythology before we have this conversation. It’s gonna be an amazing conversation with incredible folks, including Chicago’s own Vic Mensa who is here in the house tonight from the south side straight to the House of Blues. Got a great new album called “Victor”, which I recommend. I thought I would tell you the story of the supposed beginning, why we’re celebrating. Did you ask yourself this question, why are we celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip hop? Blank stares, okay. Well, I did. And it’s my podcast, so I’ll tell you.

So, I grew up in a neighborhood in the Northwest Bronx, and about three miles from that neighborhood in the North First Bronx, I was born in 1979. My father was a housing organizer. My mom was an educator. She was from the Bronx. My dad moved there to go to Fordham University when he was a Jesuit seminarian. Which didn’t last. Spoiler alert. Here I am.

So, that did not hold. Good for me. And he was actually involved in housing, tenant organizing then, particularly in a neighborhood called Morris Heights. Morris Heights was a neighborhood that was on the border, you know, you know all the sort of like the Bronx’s burning of that 70’s era. Morris Heights was this neighborhood that was on the border where it sorts of held together, but it was under sustained pressure from the forces that were undoing the Bronx at that time.

And August 11, 1973, in an apartment complex at the address of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. It’s a real place. Wow. Shout out Sedgwick Avenue. All right. The Bronx is in the house. 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, a family that lived there that had immigrated from Jamaica in 1967. This is 1973. A woman named Cindy Campbell had no money to buy back-to-school clothes. She decided that she was gonna raise money, and this is a very common thing in the Bronx at that time, they would throw rent parties, but she decided she was gonna raise money for back-to-school clothing by throwing a party in the common room of 1520 Cedric Avenue, which is usually used for like birthday parties and tenant meetings.

And she wrote out index card invitations to friends with a price. It was 25 cents for girls and 50 cents for boys. Smart. And she passed it around the neighborhood, and the person who was gonna deejay was her brother, Clive Campbell, otherwise known as DJ Kool Herc. DJ Kool Herc this year will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yes, that’s good. That’s appropriate, yes. For what he did at this party and in his career.

So, Herc had grown up in Jamaica. In Jamaica, deejays tend to speak over the tracks a lot. There’s this sort of like running patois, so he sorts of did that. But what he had gotten really good at was he had found that when he was deejaying parties, and he was a graffiti artist, he was a track star, he was a break dancer. What he found was that people at the parties really liked the section of the song that was just the drum break, the breaks.

And what he was able to do is that he would cue up two records, sometimes the same record, on two different turntables. He would play the drum break on this record, and as it was playing, he would cue up the same drum break on this record. And he would crossfade between the two, so that he would keep the break going.

And he was a genius. This is, by the way, extremely hard to do, right? Like today with the technology we have, like it’s very easy to be like, I’m going to go to that point in the song, right, but this is very difficult to do. And just to give you a sense of what it sounded like, here’s a record from 1973. It was by a band called the Incredible Bongo Band. They had a track called “Apache”. This is the drum break in “Apache”.

You can hear that, that drum break is in all early hip-hop songs, like “Rapper’s Delight”. Think about the opening bars of Rapper’s Delight, it’s that drum break. “Tonto”, which is also Sugarhill Gang, which is actually this song, Apache just sort of remade, right? So, he would play the drum break and go back and forth and play the drum break.

And this was, for some reason we’ve decided this was this night, at this party. But it’s a wild thing to think about, and the topic of what we’re going to talk about this evening. To watch something created by a specific group of people under a specific cultural and social milieu and context. Black folks in the Bronx, Jamaican immigrants, having a party to rustle up enough money for back-to-school’s clothing.

Fifty years later, fast forward, becoming the dominant form of cultural expression around the world for style, for dance, for music all from this party in 1520 Cedric Avenue. Why did that happen that way? This is what I’ve been thinking about when selling the 50th anniversary of hip hop, like why? What was it about what happened in that room where he was cross-fading on the brakes that has brought us to this point? What an incredible thing it is that this specific cultural form produced by a specific set of Americans gets exported all over the world and creates literally trillions of dollars of value, that none of those folks see.

DJ Kool Herc, later in life put together, in the last year, an auction with Christie’s, where he sold all these memorabilia for like $800,000. Which is like good, good for DJ Kool Herc, but think of all the value that was created out of this subculture, in this time and place, in the Bronx, the borough I’m from, the place I’m from, and the value that’s gone across the world, and how little of that has been seen by the people that engineered that.

So tonight, we’re going to talk about, with an incredible line up of guests, why it was that this specific cultural form, in this specific moment, this uniquely American expression, like things before it, from blues to jazz to rock and roll, right, took over the world. And I have some amazing guests. As I mentioned, Chicago’s own Vic Mensa will be joining us in just a little bit. But I also have two guests I want to bring out now. So, one is a phenomenal writer, scholar, and thinker, Imani Perry. She’s a distinguished professor of the Studies of Women, Gender, Sexuality, as well as African and African-American studies at Harvard University. You’ve heard of that?

She’s a “New York Times” bestselling author and wrote a seminal book called “Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop.” That’s her first book, and it’s about precisely what we’re talking about tonight. She also this week was announced as a MacArthur Genius Grant Award recipient, which is both well-deserved and incredibly impressive.

And then my friend and brother and colleague, dear colleague who I’ve collaborated with through the years, in fact, Trymaine’s reporting on violence and trauma in the city of Chicago won us an Emmy together. He’s also won a Pulitzer Prize. He’s the host of MSNBC’s “Into America” podcast and he did this incredible series which you should go home and check out. Don’t do it right now, because we’re talking. But later called “Street Disciples,” which focused on the 50th anniversary of hip hop. So please give it up to Imani Perry and Trymaine Lee.

Chris Hayes: All right.

Trymaine Lee: Yeah, good evening, good evening.

Imani Perry: Good evening.

Chris Hayes: It’s great to have you guys here. Should I start with just like the $64,000 question, which is unanswerable in the same way that like, why do people like pizza? But like, why? What is it about hip hop that has so captured the imagination of people from an unbelievable variety of times, places, social situations, political structures, institutional worldviews, that it has traveled all over the world to the point where it is the de facto default, stylistic, rhythmic, cultural grammar of the world?

Trymaine Lee: That is a big one.

Imani Perry: That is a big one. I mean, part of it is that it’s poetry, right, which is the most global art form, period. And its poetry that has this sort of immediacy of speaking to the conditions in urban centers, starting in the northeast of the United States, but all across the globe, right? The conditions of people who feel vulnerable, but also find a way to use every bit of their imagination and intellectual will and creativity to create something compelling.

And it’s constantly reinventing itself. So even that sort of reinvention, and of course, you know, it’s so American and so there’s a part that American cultural imperialism, people are fascinated by what comes out of this country. But I think the heart of it is that it’s poetry.

Trymaine Lee: And at the heart of it, it’s very black, right?

Imani Perry: It’s black.

Trymaine Lee: And when you think about the truest forms of art in America, the only music to originate from jazz, and you think about the blues, and you think about this continuum of culture and entertainment merging together with an art form and people who are creating this art, the audacity to challenge the status quo in this country and stand strong on their blackness and pushing against every single force that has attempted to chip away at us.

And to see people coming from, as you say, gotten out of the mud, right, really coming up in circumstances that America tried its best to destroy us, but through hip hop and had the power, harness through hip hop, that young man with two turntables and a microphone created what is now the global phenomenon worth billions of dollars.

Chris Hayes: That point, you know, and I talked about this before, you know, when you think about it, you go watch an interview with Mick Jagger or John Lennon, Paul McCartney, right? A 14-year-old boy from Liverpool, like listening to Delta blues.

Imani Perry: Yes.

Chris Hayes: Like their life is couldn’t be more different than the life of the people that had made this music. But there’s something that is just grabbing them. And they’re like going to the record stores and they want to play that music and they want to listen to that music. And we have seen that time and time again with American black cultural production that it leaves the specific place it might be, the Delta, the Bronx, and there is something about it that captures folks from the most totally different settings.

Trymaine Lee: The phenomenon of our existence. Period. There’s a quote, and I don’t want to say it’s James Baldwin. I think it’s attributed to James Baldwin. It’s not a matter of how many of us they killed. It’s a matter of how many survived. And so, for art and beauty and pain, the raw nature of exposing our wounds and our trauma and our pain, I mean, doing it in a way that also speaks to the beauty and humanity, and I think hip hop at its best does that, but also to the art that came before that, especially the blues.

Anything about the movement of blues from the south and how we experienced these new environments in the north of the great migration.

Chris Hayes: That’s right.

Trymaine Lee: And how that shaped us, and we shaped those spaces, and now that’s all reflected in the music.

Imani Perry: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And there’s real antecedents —

Imani Perry: Absolutely.

Chris Hayes: — before the party at Sedgwick Avenue.

Imani Perry: Absolutely. I mean, you have —

Chris Hayes: Talk about this a little bit.

Imani Perry: Yeah, you have the early 20th century toasts that are coming from the south, but they really are migration songs. They’re long-form rhyming ballads, often body, kind of vulgar, talking about social and political issues. I mean, an absolute precursor to hip hop and winds up on records in the 50s. Then you have the poetry albums of the 60s that come out of the sort of late civil rights movement, black power movement, last poets, Gil Scott-Heron, also precursors to hip hop.

And then you have, and this sort of ties in this sort of global flow, you have someone like Count Matchuki coming from Jamaica to the United States. He hears the way black deejays in the United States announce records and do these rhymes and talk a lot over them, brings that back to Jamaica. That becomes sort of the origin point of Jamaican chatting. Then that comes back to the United States and winds up in the Bronx in the early 1970s. So, there are these flows, but rhyming on tracks is not new with hip hop at all. It just takes on a new valence. And turntabling is really a major innovation.

Chris Hayes: The immigrant part of it is also really fascinating. I mean, in a city like Chicago, which has always been an immigrant city, and a city like New York, it’s been immigrant city in the borough that I was born in which is the Bronx which is a very immigrant city.

Imani Perry: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: The fact that like it’s American, but it’s also that back-and-forth conversation happening all among the African diaspora of —

Imani Perry: Yes.

Chris Hayes: And Herc going back and forth.

Imani Perry: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Like so many immigrant kids did particularly kids from the Caribbean, right, like going back for summer, coming, going, coming back. It doesn’t necessarily happen without that.

Imani Perry: Right. And I think it’s really important because we often don’t talk about places that are black and poor as cosmopolitan, but the Bronx is an incredibly cosmopolitan space.

Chris Hayes: Absolutely, yeah.

Imani Perry: So, there’s so much cultural exchange that’s happening. So of course, you’re going to get exciting new artistic forms that emerge. And it is that back and forth. And the back and forth also produces different forms of music in the places that people come from. It’s part of how hip hop becomes national and international and shapes other forms of music as well.

Trymaine Lee: And the collision of those forces, you think about the great migration beginning in like 1917, 1918 up through the 70s. And you get that second wave in the 40s and 50s. You have millions of African-Americans fleeing the violence of the Jim Crow South, arriving in places like Milwaukee, Chicago, and Baltimore, and New York City. At the same time in 1965, LBJ signed a law that eliminated quotas for, you know, people coming from Africa and the Caribbean.

Imani Perry: Yeah.

Trymaine Lee: So now you have this influx of people from the Caribbean, from Jamaica, right, and from the islands, converging together. So, you have black folks from the south bringing their foodways and folkways and all the ways that they existed in the south into this new context. And at the very same time, you have people coming from the Caribbean who have experienced a different kind of colonization, right, a different kind of socializing in their Africanness. And those two forces coming together in a place like the Bronx, right?

Imani Perry: Right.

Trymaine Lee: So, the way the physical world in which they existed and that ecosystem also goes to shape confluence of powers coming together.

Chris Hayes: It’s also like, it’s funny when I was doing the research for this to go back and listen and read all the oral history of this party, which is that, not to over intellectual, obviously there’s like a lot to talk about, but it was a party.

Imani Perry: It was a party.

Chris Hayes: Like that is the other thing about this music that captures people and has captured people everywhere that has traveled across the globe. It’s that it was born as party music, it was born as dance music, it was born as music to move, to celebrate to, like this was a party. And a great detail is that Herc style was a mechanic and he had bought these enormous speakers.

Imani Perry: Speakers.

Chris Hayes: And they would occasionally take speakers out of cars that didn’t work anymore and wire those up. And he just had this like powerful sound system that just shook the glass in the lobby of the building. And then later they would move them outside until the cops shut them down. But that is also part of it too. Like the festive nature, the dance nature, the fact that it is from the moment of inception celebration music.

Imani Perry: Yes. And I love that, I mean that point because what you described is also the use of intellectual energy for joy, right? So, the harnessing of the technology, trying to imaginatively produce the kind of sounds that you want, even though you don’t have the resources necessarily to do it the straightforward way, not for any, at that moment, not for any particular material gain. I mean, you know, trying to get school clothes, but really to enjoy each other, right, to be in community. It’s extraordinary.

Trymaine Lee: And that joy being radical, like radical joy in light of deep economic disparities and inequality and oppression, right? But the radical nature of that joy and harnessing that together collectively, that’s powerful.

Chris Hayes: More of our conversation after this quick break.


Chris Hayes: Let’s talk a little bit about that first period from ’73, I mean, Sugarhill Gang’s big singles, Rappers to the Light, ’79. That’s the first big, I think charting billboard hip hop single. The Bongo Band, it uses that break. The first period of hip hop’s life in the 70’s, in some ways it’s sort of a classic scene in the outer boroughs of New York, and then how does it start to like move around?

Imani Perry: Oh. I mean, I think it’s partly the flows. It’s tapes, right, that circulate, right? It’s the selling of mixtapes, the taping of the radio, the live tape. I mean, I think because it has all of these, you know, antecedents and previous ones, actually people fairly early start to take on sort of new versions of it. I mean, you get sort of Philly, which I often like to say is really the origin point of Gangsta Rap. Even though the style doesn’t get popularized until years later in California. But it moves organically, which is part of what I think often happens with culture that’s infectious, you know.

Trymaine Lee: And technology at this point, too, talking about this idea of tapes, going from turntables, where I talk to a bunch of the old heads and old school rappers and deejays, literally having a tape recorder in front of your turntables, right? And then you had to copy each one, one at a time. And so, as it’s being passed, it’s being taped again and again, it starts to fade. By like the 50th copy, it’s starting to fade. But it literally went from your cousin in Queens back to Brooklyn, through the Bronx. So, you have all these people moving.

But then also the advancement in technology and also ingenuity. This is before they closed down all the shop classes and before they closed down the music classes, right? And so, this is all happening at once. Now you have all these kids with these skills who are rewiring speakers and turntables and making them do things that they weren’t necessarily designed to do.

Imani Perry: (Inaudible) yeah.

Chris Hayes: There’s also the sort of, when you talk about the oral tradition and the dozens and the antecedents in black culture that hip hop had was building on, particularly like battle raps, B-boy battles, battles between different dance crews. This idea of like, essentially this idea of verbal combat as a central part of what begins to develop here in the culture. If you could talk a little bit about that because it has long, long roots.

Trymaine Lee: I think part of this, for better and worse, and we see this playing out in different ways, you have these young men mostly, even though there were some young ladies early in the game, but these young men, the machismo, the competitive nature —

Chris Hayes: Right.

Trymaine Lee: — of seeing each other. These are all young men, too. These are teenagers. And I think that plays a role in how they were arriving at each other in these moments through the music.

Imani Perry: You know, this storyteller, when I first started writing about hip hop, this storyteller I knew said something that I think speaks to this. He said, when the society you live in reviles you, you become the glorious outlaw. And there’s something about part of the reason why there’s so many Muhammad Ali references in hip hop.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Imani Perry: I mean, he rhymed also, right? But you had different iterations of references to him constantly to his rhymes. This idea of like battling each other, but also the idea of surmounting what seems insurmountable odds against you as a young black man in this society, right? That is really, really compelling. It’s kind of like that underdog story is at the center of hip hop.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. The glorious outlaw is a great phrase because that really is so much of what the iconography of hip-hop is.

Imani Perry: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: I mean, and that goes back through a million different, I mean, that’s Odysseus is a glorious album. Like that’s a very old and extremely compelling cultural archetypes, right? Like, unbounded by the hierarchy, unbounded by the rules, sort of taking it on with kind of bravado. And that really does become like one of the central archetypes of the rapper, particularly in the early, but all the way through to like today.

Trymaine Lee: And then how you show up in the world matters because again in light of all of the attacks and black men literally being public enemy number one and public enemy came up in the 80s. Their logo is a b-boy, right, a guy with a hat in the crosshairs.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Trymaine Lee: And owning it.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Trymaine Lee: The way you show up matters because this world will destroy you if you don’t stand strong. And so, at its worst a lot of machismos, a lot of that kind of the violence baked in, but on the best of it it’s trying to harness a certain kind of masculinity and manhood to survive it all, right? And so boastfully and dress well, right? And I’m the greatest, right?

Imani Perry: And being fresh (ph).

Trymaine Lee: And fly (ph).

Imani Perry: And that goes that has deep origins. So even like the folk tales on slave plantations about High John the Conqueror, the enslaved man who could always outwit the master, stronger than everybody, right? John Henry, the steel-driving man, Stagger Lee, Dolemite, all of these folk heroes from the late 19th to the early 20th century are that type, right? So, it’s a revival.

Chris Hayes: It doesn’t take long. It doesn’t stay underground for long. It really explodes, right? So, it’s a scene in different urban centers, tapes are being passed around, there’s sort of like an underground aspect to it, and then it becomes in the 80s, you can identify different moments. Talk a little bit about like what that, and you report on this in the series. You know, what happens when something goes from the underground to top 40 big time, record labels, sold out venues, MTV rotation, all of that?

Trymaine Lee: There is this immediate tension. And so, I talked to a bunch of Melle Mel and DJ Red Alert, a lot of the originators, and they say the moment when they heard Sugarhill on the radio, that was a moment that just blew their mind because rap, hip hop, was on the radio, right? But also, that was the most watered-down version of what they had been doing all along. And so, when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, broken glass everywhere, right? That was the moment that changed everything. But it put in the stark relief as battle between what would be this commercial tug of war, between who owns it, who gets to capitalize off it, who has value, and who’s keeping it real to the essence of the art. And we see that play out in generations to come.

Imani Perry: Every generation. And there’s also the generational tension, because I mean, I’m always saying that there are four or five generations in hip hop, and we usually talk about it as though there are two, but there are really four or five. And that the boomers, sorry, but the boomers in hip-hop are —

Chris Hayes: There are none here.

Imani Perry: Right, right.

Trymaine Lee: We love you. We love you. Thank you. Thank you for being here.

Imani Perry: They didn’t have access to the kind of, you know, financial opportunity that some members of Generation X did. I mean, it’s that turning point actually translates —

Chris Hayes: You’re saying in hip hop.

Imani Perry: — in hip hop. Yeah. So that you could actually be a rapper for like a living for people in Gen X for the first time. That’s it.

Chris Hayes: The Kool Herc situation specifically, personally, like this is a guy who is sort of going through, he’s doing all these interviews, the 50th anniversary, he’s being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s the guy who’s like, he wasn’t like, he was like making it big. He struggled with a substance addiction issues. And here it’s now, it’s wild that like you, you’re on the Mount Rushmore.

Imani Perry: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: But that wasn’t like this, you know, no one gave him some like cushy sinecure or fellowship to be DJ Kool Herc.

Imani Perry: Right.

Trymaine Lee: Right. Imani, you mentioned that how American hip-hop is and par for the courses, everyone deserves a piece of this blackness and everyone gets to get some value out of it. So, the creators of hip hop are struggling with all these health issues.

Imani Perry: Yes.

Trymaine Lee: There’s no pension plan. Meanwhile, you can’t turn on the television without seeing a commercial without a hip-hop beat.

Imani Perry: That’s right. Yeah.

Chris Hayes: It is wild, you know, and this is a story that’s an old story about the music industry specifically. And it goes all the way back and across different continents. And again, read The Beatles sometimes they talk about their record contract with Apple Records. Look at Taylor Swift like remaking her whole catalog to get back the ownership of her songs. But obviously in the case of hip-hop, there’s this specific racial dynamic and also the sort of like in practice like consistently exploitative nature of the way these deals were. People come in; they find people who don’t have much money —

Imani Perry: Right.

Chris Hayes: — who have a lot of talent and they’re like sign this here and we will give you $10,000, $20,000, like that’s more money than I’ve ever seen. That’s gonna be like rent from my mom for a year, you know.

Imani Perry: Right.

Chris Hayes: And you don’t know what you just signed. And this happens over and over and over again. It happens in the music industry before hip hop, but I guess it’s particularly, Trymaine, in hip hop that is a consistent thing.

Trymaine Lee: It’s the same thing when you look at communities that gentrify and this beautiful Brownstone in Brooklyn that your grandparents worked hard for, and now the grandkids get it, you can’t afford the taxes, right? And so, someone says, I’ll give you $200,000 for it. It’s worth $1.5 million.

Chris Hayes: Right. Yeah.

Trymaine Lee: And we see this time and again, we’ve talked before in different ways about, you know, he who controls the means of production controls the, and when it comes to distribution, when it comes to payola, who owns these record stations that are playing this? Who owns the trucks to distribute this stuff? And you talk about these kids from the South Bronx and from Brooklyn and from, you know, economically devastated and disinvested in communities all across the country who simply don’t have the means. So, it’s like, I can just rap and get paid. Meanwhile, you have to pay back studio time, you have to pay back the tour, you have to pay back all the different points on each record sold, right?

And so, really taken advantage of a lot of young people who didn’t have the means, which is celebrated. Talk about your hard-struggled life. Talk about the violence. But then on the back end, we’re exploiting you for that very same reason.

Imani Perry: But you know what I think is interesting about that is part of what made, I think, hip-hop so compelling for so long, maybe this is less common now, that there was an internal critique of that in hip-hop. You know, we think of that tribe, right? Industry rule number 4080, record company people are shady, right? There is this awareness of living under the conditions of exploitation in order to produce the art so that speaking on multiple registers, I think actually is part of what has made hip hop so compelling, because it helps you. It’s actually a tool for analyzing the very world that you occupy.

Chris Hayes: We’ll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: Can we talk a little bit about the 90s and the kind of explosion of, and I’m sure everyone in this room remembers this, when this was like, in the news cycle, right? Ice-T’s “Cop Killer,” NWA, Public Enemy, and those are different artists from different traditions, but in the zeitgeist, right, that there was the parental advisory explicit, remember that? And the whole Tipper Gore thing and C. Dolores Tucker.

There was this moment particularly in the 90s as it was building and building, where these groups like NWA were finding incredible commercial success expressing their experience and worldview from life in South Central or Compton, and it became the point of a lot of money and a lot of controversy, and this real sort of political spotlight put on hip hop. And you write about the politics of hip hop and it as political texts in that book, and I’d love for you to talk about that a little bit.

Imani Perry: Yeah, I mean, because it was a complicated storm in a sense, right? So, one, it was clear that black music and black people, as often happens, were being scapegoated, right, as a kind of as a scourge upon the nation and they were going to, you know, there was a moral panic that they were going to turn white kids bad, essentially was the discourse, right, and they sort of terror associated with hip hop. So that was one piece of it, but then there was a generational concern amongst black people. I remember hearing Reverend Joseph Lowry, who was Martin Luther King Jr.’s right-hand man, you know, head of SCLC, saying once upon a time, talking about hip hop in the 90s, once upon a time black people were the moral conscience of the nation. We have ceased being the moral conscience of the nation with this art form.

And that thought that there was actually a moment for the post-civil rights generation was not interested in the kind of politics of respectability in the same way.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Imani Perry: And were willing to sort of defy all of the sort of training to put your best foot forward, right? And then there were people who were concerned about the glorification of some unsavory aspects of life and urban centers that was present in hip hop. We know where there’s the politics of gender, where there’s violence, so there was a lot going on. And I would say as someone who was of the hip hop generation though, it felt just though there was a lot of targeting being directed at the most vulnerable members of the society.

Chris Hayes: We were talking about this backstage and I want to bring on Vic in a second. But it’s funny now and I’m 44 or like I will try to play tracks from my youth for my kids. And which is just such a lame dad thing to do. We get in the Sienna Minivan and I’m like –

Trymaine Lee: Listen to this. Look.

Chris Hayes: This is called the far side (ph). Like check it out.

Imani Perry: No, it’s great.

Chris Hayes: It is great. And it is interesting, actually, because some they like and like, you know, there’s some tracks that really speak to them, and some don’t. But also, some of them, like, whew. Even the clean version is like, and there are aspects to what was embedded in that music at the time. I think to myself, we were really just yelling this at 17-year-olds in rooms? Now part of that is just like kids these days, right? Like you get older, your perspective shows. But part of it too is particularly around gender. I do feel like there is stuff that is happening in a lot of those songs —

Imani Perry: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: — that are real tough for me to like be cool with now, frankly. And I’m curious how you two feels about that.

Trymaine Lee: Whether it’s gender or going back to NWA, and that was the first time in the early 90s when we started to hear that white kids are buying most of this music.

Chris Hayes: Yes, right.

Imani Perry: Yes, right.

Trymaine Lee: And so, we also at the same time saw artists pushing the boundaries holding a mirror up, F the police, challenging the system in ways we hadn’t seen, but it also gets really dramatic, really vulgar, really pushing the mind —

Chris Hayes: Caricatured in some way.

Trymaine Lee: Right. A caricature that’s being reinforced by the system itself.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Trymaine Lee: And sometimes when it comes to gender, you know, I just turned 45. So, we’re on the same boat here.

Imani Perry: I’m the old head.

Trymaine Lee: You hear this music and you’re like, this is disgusting. But then you go back to what we were actually listening to. So, it’s always been a part of that. But part of that is expressing yourself, having the freedom to do that, whether it offends or not. But the gender issue is a very complicated one in this moment.

Imani Perry: Yeah. I mean, I will say as I’m 51 and raising boys, there are things that I found that were somehow sort of rolled off my back that when I was like, I don’t want them to hear that. Right? And I do think that I don’t know if I would say that it was more. It’s age and shifting perspective, but I also think the society, particularly as discussions of politics of gender and race and sexuality has gotten more sophisticated, that we’re more sophisticated, right?

Chris Hayes: Right. 100% agree with that, and this is an amazing segue. I want to bring out an actual practitioner, an incredibly, incredibly thoughtful guy, one of Chicago’s own, Vic Mensa. I’m so happy to have you here.

Vic Mensa: Hey, I’m happy to be here. How you all doing today, man?

Chris Hayes: We’ve been talking about hip hop and obviously we’re not practitioners.

Vic Mensa: You’re not an MC, man? I couldn’t tell.

Chris Hayes: I mean, don’t get —

Vic Mensa: Throw that beat on. Throw that beat on.

Chris Hayes: Wait. Don’t get me wrong, I talk for a living.

Vic Mensa: Just put it in rhyme and couplets I mean.

Chris Hayes: I definitely talk for a living. Can you tell me a little bit about when you started rhyming and do you remember like how you started and what context you started?

Vic Mensa: Yeah, I started rhyming man when I was like 12-years-old, 12 or 13. And I basically started by freestyling. I really studied hip hop in every element. So, I used to break dance. Graffiti was the first one I did in earnest and I got in a lot of trouble doing that. So, my mom wasn’t feeling it. Sometimes she would go around the neighborhood and wipe off all my tags.

Chris Hayes: What was your tag?

Vic Mensa: Well, at that time I was writing my actual name. So, I think that’s it.

Chris Hayes: Like, here’s my government name.

Vic Mensa: Yeah, it was my actual name. It was our family name. So, I guess I get why she wanted to do that. But you know, I started rhyming around that time, man. My first rhyme, it was like alphabet soup. I got you eating your words. That was my first hard bar.

Chris Hayes: That’s good.

Vic Mensa: Yeah, I started doing it then, you know. I was really freestyling. And I was very impacted by Common and Tupac and the stories they told, the emotions they conveyed. It resonated with me and I think it gave me a language with which to process and make sense of the world around me, which is so fraught with inequity and just unfairness that Western education doesn’t give you the reality of, you know? They just glaze over it and be like, this is how it is. Whereas hip-hop will give you a direct, live and direct analysis of how things got to be, how they are, and, you know, to a young kid who’s being targeted by police, and hip-hop turn you up too and you’d be like, yeah, man, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) the police, you know?

Then they come around and you’d be like, shh. Quiet, trying to run away. Yeah, man, so I started rhyming then. And I started to treat it with a lot of discipline when I was young of that age, 14 and 15, and spent a lot of time inside just writing. I think about comedians, you know, I was with Dave Chappelle like last night or something, two nights before, just marveling over his artistic expression of so many pieces of his life experience and other people’s life experience and thinking that this is like almost like a stream of consciousness, the journal of this man’s window to the world.

And I think hip hop became that for me, writing became that for me, and I would just spend time. I was writing little lines here, little lyrics there, sitting in the house for hours on end, just writing punchlines and songs. I was always writing though as a kid.

Chris Hayes: It’s funny you say that. There was a piece in the Times the other day I really liked by a guy who wrote a book about J. Dilla called “Dilla Time”. It’s a great book.

Vic Mensa: Yeah, it’s a dope book.

Chris Hayes: And he was talking about how, you know, the sort of public. You start with 50 on version of hip hop and we think about it as music of the streets. He’s like, don’t under look the degree that’s music of the nerds, of people that spent a lot of time writing, a lot of time pouring through records, a lot of time making tracks, like hours and hours and hours of getting better, getting better. And it sounds like, for you, it was a discipline. You wanted something out of it. You wanted to get better. You thought of it in those terms.

Vic Mensa: It’s diligent study, man. And it’s also kind of nerdy, too. Just think of two people who have it out for each other, and they pull out notebooks, and they’re like, I’m going to talk about you. You know what I mean? That’s kind of nerdy. You know what I’m saying? You know, I excelled in school, but I did not connect with public school system. I was very anti because I had bad experiences. They were just racist from a kid, you know, being put in like developmentally challenged classes and the things that happen to young black kids across the board in American schools.

So, although I had an affinity for study and, you know, my pops are a PhD professor and education is in my blood, that outlet was just in direct opposition with me. You know what I mean? You learn the statistics in school about how black kids are treated and the tests they do with dolls. It’s deep, you know, so when I started to study hip hop, it was a form of study that felt like it resonated with me and, you know, rewarded me in a way that I just couldn’t get past the authoritarian, you know, Eurocentric thing in school. That wasn’t lining up.

Hip hop was making sense and it was like, I spend my time studying this and I’m gaining skill. I’m gaining a skill that is valuable. Every kid wants to be a rapper. So, when you start rapping and it’s like good, you’re astounding people in, you know, school.

Chris Hayes: Will you talk a little bit about that? Because it is the case and this was true. I mean, this was true in the Bronx in 1992 and it’s true in South Side of Chicago in 2010, right? Like the amount of people that want to be rappers, the amount of people that are writing, the amount of people that are, particularly as it’s gotten easier and easier to produce, like literally anyone with a laptop can put a track together. What were you doing to get to be good? Like, and how are you learning that you were good at this? Like, do you have a memory of being in a public setting or getting that feedback and sort of that clicking that you actually were good at this?

Vic Mensa: You know, I think mastery across disciplines contains many of the same ingredients. You know, it’s like a relentless persistence. Kobe put a lot of free throws in. He told you, his method. He was up earlier and later than everybody else was. There’s got to be an unrealistic view of your possibilities. You know?

Chris Hayes: That’s key.

Vic Mensa: For sure, whether you’re doing this. I read a book recently about just mastery and there was a man speaking about how he basically raised his daughters to be violin prodigies, you know? And it’s like, there’s so much practice, but it’s turning practice into play. I think that’s one of the key ingredients too, is that your practice is something that feels fun. So, you’re still exploring, you know, you’re having a good time because I was just practicing all the time.

Chris Hayes: But you loved it.

Vic Mensa: But I loved it. So, it’s like you got a kid and you’re trying to force them to practice the piano and it just don’t dig.

Chris Hayes: It doesn’t work.

Vic Mensa: Whereas my practice was something that I really love to do, so much fun to me. And you might think it’s weird for a kid to be spending so much time indoors in the summer, but I was having an amazing time, you know. So, I think that’s always been my process. And then there would be particulars like, I would print out lyrics from certain artists I love like Nas or Common or Jay-Z. And I would print their lyrics out. And I would write identical stanzas to them, you know.

So, if Nas said, like, fake thug, no love, you get the slug, I’d be like, real pain, I’m still here to gain, you know, and I would write just —

Chris Hayes: To mimic the line.

Vic Mensa: Yeah. Yeah. A mirror verse of theirs, but with my own words in it.

Chris Hayes: Was it a social activity for you? Did you have people that were the kids that you did this with, this was your thing to do together?

Vic Mensa: Yeah, for sure. I mean, you know, I was rapping even before I started writing raps and I was in like middle school, I would be freestyling at the lunch table. I always had this vein that pops out on my forehead for sure. I’m still trying to get it to go away. It always comes. It might be there right now. So, there were a group of people like one of my guys would beatbox for me. All the girls would fawn over me. Girls like rapping man, for real. It’s always worked.

So, you know, I was doing that and there was a group of people involved in that. And in high school too, you know, there were people rapping and I would come and I’d show my raps to my friends, they would have some rap. Freestyle was a really big thing in high school. I want to freestyle as much as I used to in high school because it was like, you do so much walking, you’re riding the bus, the train. You ain’t got no car. You got to walk long distances. So, we would just freestyle the whole time. So, it was very much so a communal activity.

Writing has always been an isolated personal thing for me, but hip hop and, you know, rap music and being introduced to different music, it was around that same time. When I was 14 that was when I first met Chance. And he was like the only other person I knew who at that time was like really trying to rap, you know? So, we went to the studio, did like our first studio session together because he had raps written. I had raps written. A lot of other friends of ours were freestyling with us and be super dope. You know, like Joey Purp was always so dope at freestyling, but he and I were the only ones I knew at that time who were like, no, I’m writing songs. Like, I’m actually, I’m a rapper.

Chris Hayes: When did you think that it was a thing that could be the thing, what you did?

Vic Mensa: It was weird, man. It was like, I was on a road trip with my family. My mom had this Honda Odyssey minivan.

Chris Hayes: It’s a dope car, man.

Vic Mensa: It was not dope.

Chris Hayes: That’s my second favorite minivan after the Sienna.

Vic Mensa: I’m not sure (ph).

Chris Hayes: I’m just saying.

Vic Mensa: That joint wasn’t really that dope, man. It definitely got the job done though.

Chris Hayes: Agree to disagree. I’m just saying.

Vic Mensa: Yeah, and I was on a road trip, man. I was writing a rhyme, and I must have been 14 or something like that, and I was writing a rhyme. I think it was over a Ghostface Killah beat. Shout out to Wu-Tang Clan. And it was good, you know? And I was like, huh, I think I could get famous off this. You know? Give me a few years because it was good. But I was always a writer, you know what I’m saying? Like when I was a kid, I had these Somali immigrants or refugees perhaps from Somalia or Rwanda. They were like sister church with my church in Hyde Park. So, they came to stay with us. And this must have been sixth grade.

We did young authors books at that time. So, my young authors book was called A Long Way Home and it was like snapshots of these —

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Vic Mensa: — East African refugees’ life here, and then the next chapter would be during the war. Then it’d be back life here, then it’d be firebombing the village, you know what I mean? So, I was just like always inclined to writing. So, rap gave me a way to do it that really spoke to me, it made sense.

Chris Hayes: We were just talking about the business of it and what that moment is like to go from at whatever age you are, young man, where you’re having your first conversations, encounters with the industry and whether that’s a record contract, like what was that experience like to you for you to go from doing it as a young man doing it because you had the love for it to it as a profession, as a business and having to deal with what that meant on the other side?

Vic Mensa: You know, commercialization of art and hip hop in particular, man, it’s like, it could be a tough pill to swallow, you know what I’m saying? Because there’s a certain love and magic that is contained in it when it’s just self-expression.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Vic Mensa: I think the pursuit, though, is to continue to identify what made that special and find how to integrate that into this side. The moment when that changed, I don’t know, I mean, maybe at the end of my teenage years when I started like performing in Europe and across the planet and getting like six figure deals and checks and things like that. But I had people working for me who were like kind of paying attention to those things. But something I really want to do now is like do like financial and legal literacy workshop for artists because you come into it and you have no clue that the person who is ushered into your life as your business manager will tank your (EXPLETIVE DELETED), you know, and like (EXPLETIVE DELETED) the money up.

Mismanage, you know, it’s just such a common, common story. And it’s just another one of the ways in which America leeches and siphons the money out of our pockets. I mean, we’re making other people a lot of money.

Chris Hayes: You’re operating in a business version of this world that’s very different from the one that we were just talking about, ’92, ’93 CD sales, like the Spotify streaming world. Will you talk a little bit about what that’s done for artists like yourself? Like, it’s basically like touring is what live performance is what actually can make money, but the streaming system.

Vic Mensa: There’s conglomerates that own all these venues, too, and we keep it a buck with you, champ. But you ain’t going to get too deep into it. But you know, it’s a game of mass exploitation. They got football combines, they’re looking in brothers ears and checking their pecs. And then they’re told to run around and don’t have an opinion. Basketball is a very similar situation. And then you have the music industry where all of these aggrandized and highly paid systems of quasi-slavery exist. You know, it’s a tough pill for people to swallow, but you really can’t separate anything that is intrinsic of the black experience in America from the history and continued legacy of slavery. It’s just like that.

Chris Hayes: What is your work habit, work life like now, as a professional?

Vic Mensa: I got a new vibe, man. No, for real, I got a new vibe. I get up at 5:00 now and go to the gym at 6:00 and then start doing music directly after that, you know. I used to be all in the night. But you know, Pharrell was the first person I got into the studio with who I saw working early in the morning. He would clock in, you know, and then 5:00 p.m. maybe like I’m done. And I just like, I thought that was so interesting. And Pharrell, I was like, this is early, bro. We in the studio. I’m so used to being in the studio all night. You know, that’s the classic thing is to be in the studio all night.

But, you know, I’m sober now. Thank you. So, man, it’s hard to stay up all night without drugs, gang. I swear to God to you, it’s hard. But I was even having a thought today about sunlight. Sunlight is obviously the source of all energy on this planet. And so, I think that there’s something to be gained from working at a creative pursuit while you can see the sun, you know. There’s something you can take from that. So, my process now has been like that. It’s been early and it’s been just consistent.

And I find that, like writing for me is not very easy, you know. Like it’s often times a labor of love. But I find that if I hustle it, like I push the pen for three, four, five, six hours for a number of days in a row, then without fail, I land at something super dope. Like I land at some of my best (EXPLETIVE DELETED). When it’s spotty and I, you know, do all the other things and I’m taking the calls and the Zooms and the podcasts and the photo shoots. No diss to this podcast. I forgot this was a podcast.

Chris Hayes: I mean, this one aside, I was going to say.

Vic Mensa: No, but I’ve learned about myself, though. And that’s really bringing me back to that basement, bringing me back to my mom’s basement. That’s why I was always so ill when I was a kid, because I didn’t have any of those things to do. So, there was never a period of time when I was not actively writing on a daily basis for hours on end.

Chris Hayes: I’m working on a book right now, which is due in like a week, and I find for writing, it’s like a plane taking off where you need enough runway to get into the flow. It’s very hard to like, do 30 minutes in between two things.

Vic Mensa: Right.

Chris Hayes: Because your focus gets pulled, you need this like chunk of time. And even if you only, you can have a chunk of time where you only write in the 30 minutes, but you need the time around it because you’re doing work even when you’re not, like you said, pushing the pen.

Vic Mensa: I feel exactly that way and that’s something I’ve really learned about myself and I’m so glad that I’ve like identified that process because that was honestly what drove me to a lot of drugs, was like not knowing how to get there. It’s like this magic that exists. And I know what it feels like, you know. It’s like a little tingling in my spine, the hair stands up, or a little emotional connection, like a small well of tear in my eye, or even just a laugh, you know. I know what it feels like, but in the past, I didn’t remember what the pathway to get there was. And I was dealing with so much pain and trauma and things we all deal with, that taking a drug seemed to be like an easy way to get there, but it’s also like a false sense of strength because you actually gain strength from repetition.

I mean, you can’t go in the gym geeked off like Mountain Dew one time, you know? And you might get somewhere, but you don’t build muscle that way. You build muscle by repetition. And so, realizing that it was that repetition that was so much more effective than the drugs have changed my whole process. And it’s like at this point, now if I have a song, I have a song I’m working on that I was writing on my way here and still thinking about.

And like, I might make a beat and then write one verse to it, think about it, show it to a friend, they give me a different perspective, write a different verse, try it again. I might write, you know, five times to one piece of music before I find what it is I really wanted. Whereas in the past, I might have just scrapped it if I didn’t like the first thing I did, you know.

Chris Hayes: You’ve been producing more of your own beats.

Vic Mensa: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: Just tell me about what it’s been like to do that. I always find it invigorating when I’m learning something new and I’m on that sort of thrilling part of the learning curve where you can feel yourself getting faster when you’re in that first part of it.

Vic Mensa: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: What has it been like to be working on that?

Vic Mensa: You know, I’ve been producing a long time, man, but I never gave my beats that much of a chance as I would give other people’s production. But I am still learning, for sure. I’m constantly learning. I’m learning as a writer like as far as production, you just mentioned J. Dilla. I studied J. Dilla a lot. I’ve been chopping samples and making beats for 10 plus years, you know, but I think right now I’m doing it with a lot of intention.

And studying, you know, studying different drum patterns, playing guitar, practicing that, learning that. Still learning songwriting. I’m reading a book about songwriting, like melody writing right now, that’s super dope, giving me a whole bunch of different perspective and cues to a lot of the ways that amazing songs have been written in history and things that we do intuitively, kind of learning how to arm myself, like add things to my tool belt, you know, that I can use.

And I might take that from, you know, Nas or Lauryn Hill the same way I might take it from Bruce Springsteen or Amy Winehouse or Bob Marley or Jimi Hendrix or Prince or Elliot Smith, you know. I’m taking it from everywhere. And just because I’m me and I walk with a limp, it comes out as hip hop, you know.

Chris Hayes: I mean, this is too general a question, so you can take it wherever you want, but what you think about where hip hop is these days. Like, this 50th anniversary thing has gotten a lot of attention, and partly it’s just because we in the media like anniversaries. It gives us —

Vic Mensa: I was wondering, man, y’all making a big deal of it.

Chris Hayes: I know. I didn’t. I know. No, it is. There’s something sort of funny and artificial about it, but it’s always like —

Vic Mensa: It’s cool, though. I like how they’ve been bringing up the OGs, like, honoring them. That’s been really cool about the 50th thing because, you know, hip hop is often seen as like a young man’s game. And I think that’s selling ourselves short, you know.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Vic Mensa: Like Prince kept making albums, you know. Miles Davis kept making albums and nobody was like, you have no right to have a voice anymore, you know, because you’ve aged out. So, I think that it’s dope that people are honoring the legends in this moment.

Chris Hayes: Can you see yourself doing this like 20 years from now, say?

Vic Mensa: 20 years, yeah. 30, hell no, I don’t think I want to be no old ass rapper. After all that, no, I don’t think I really want to be an old ass rapper (inaudible). I would probably write T.V. or like movies. I’ll continue to write for sure. I don’t know if I would want to be like an old, wrinkled rapper. I would continue to write and I would probably make music for fun. You know?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Vic Mensa: Yeah, I’m not sure if I would want that to be.

Chris Hayes: Imani and Trymaine, just to hear your thoughts on like, there is something amazing about hip hop’s lasting power, right? And reinvention and dynamism, the fact that like it keeps changing and growing as a medium. That’s always going to be the case? Or whether things kind of like run their course and something new happens? Is that even like a thing you can imagine? Like, I guess the question is, will hip hop always be with us?

Trymaine Lee: You know what, Vic, I’m going to ask you, to that point, this dynamic you speak of, not wanting to be an old ass rapper, but Aerosmith gets to go out there and get paid. Rolling Stones get to go paid and they old, old. Part of what keeps —

Chris Hayes: People in the crowd are like, not, okay, not —

Trymaine Lee: I mean, matured. You know, they’ve matured. But the beauty of hip hop is that it’s always changing, and it’s always something fresh. Whether we like the direction or not, it’s always new and fresh. Is that a gift and a curse, you think?

Vic Mensa: Well, I think the curse is that we don’t control the narrative, so we don’t have subgenres because we don’t name our own music in genres, you know. So, you don’t compare Green Day to AC/DC, you know what I’m saying. This is not rock because it’s not that, because they’ve made all these different sub-genres.

Chris Hayes: That’s fascinating.

Vic Mensa: I think we run into a lot of issues with that in particular, because people try to take this new and fresh.

Chris Hayes: And it’s all put in one category.

Vic Mensa: You know, cutting edge and be like, this doesn’t sound anything like Big Daddy Kane, you know, which I think does a disservice to the art form. But I also think, like, as you asked before about the state of hip hop. Hip hop is intrinsically linked to the state of the people and particularly our community. You know what I mean? So, if you see our community in a moment of consciousness, then hip hop will reflect it. If you see our community whole, fully, like wholly disorganized and disillusioned, confused and very toxic, then hip hop will reflect that as well.

And it won’t be a monolith, you know? None of those things. Those things will exist at the same time. But I will say that I think right now, the other people are misled and, you know, obviously from 2020, fed up with a mind for revolutionary action, but they’re too distracted, you know? And you can’t focus on anything because everything’s happening in your pocket at the same time. So hip hop reflects that. It’s got its moments and you have a select few people that are razor sharp, focused on, you know, uplifting, empowering, breaking free from oppressing.

But hip hop, like many things in our community, has been so brainwashed and programmed that it actually carries on the role of our oppressors for them like a toy with a wound-up motor in it, you know, and it’d be like point the gun at each other, you know, sell the crack to your mother. You’re saying it like they don’t even got to do it no more. And hip hop is a vessel for that, too.

Chris Hayes: That point, that’s a really interesting point about distraction too, because I think that to me is like the thing that every political and cultural conversation comes back to at this moment is just the war for focus. And I mean, this is the book I’m writing, so I’m biased in this respect. Like when you talk about discipline, just as work craft, like to do good work you need to focus. And for anyone doing good work, you need to focus. It’s hard to focus. And that’s true of art, it’s true of cultural production, it’s true of journalism, it’s true of rigorous scholarship, it’s true, and it does feel like whenever you hear someone talk about, interviewed about your journey as an artist or what Kool Herc was doing, it’s like focus, repetitions and discipline are key components of it, and everything in the culture is hostile to that.

Vic Mensa: For sure.

Chris Hayes: And it’s very hard to just sustain anything.

Vic Mensa: Super difficult. I like the do not disturb modes on the phone though. They’ve been helping me out.

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Vic Mensa: Right?

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Vic Mensa: I’m telling you, bro. I mean, because you know, you’ve got to find it. You have to find and reclaim your time, you know? Stop giving it away and just every day it’s a process though especially as an artist because my business revolves around social media, you know. It’s funny because people don’t actually know you or acknowledge things that are happening in your life unless it’s on social media, you know? It’s not real for real to a lot of people until it’s on social media. And you know, that’s dangerous, man, because it’s given the power of marketing and expansion and promotion to the creatives. So that’s, you know, a massive tool, but it’s also in the way of the creative process for me.

Chris Hayes: Has it been a, and this is a personal question that you can answer or not as you see fit. I mean, I’ll just speak for myself, that like, you know, I have a public facing job, I have a television show, and like, it messes with you pretty intensely.

Vic Mensa: What’s that, social media?

Chris Hayes: Social media and being in the public eye, like people recognizing you. Our brains are not evolved for it. You have this sort of experience of recognition that is this kind of synthetic approximation of something that’s like an actual relationship. And social media, I think, reproduces that en masse at scale. So, like starting at the age 13, like everyone’s getting a little taste of that weird synthetic thing. And I found it difficult for myself just to like figure out how to keep myself amidst that. And I imagine you’re extremely successful, you have to operate public facing and also on social media and like how you keep your head about you.

Vic Mensa: You know, in real life, that doesn’t bother me at all because I move through my life with the policy of gratitude, you know. I’m just grateful, you know, in every moment. And so, I can find a way to be grateful for pretty much anything that could happen. So, it’s definitely not hard for me to be grateful for somebody that wants an autograph or take a picture, you know. Social media definitely bothers me, you know, for sure. That’s the whole song I’m writing right now is called “Thick Skin”, you know, and I don’t have it, you know what I’m saying? So, I don’t read anything. I won’t be reading any comments, you know me. I can’t read that stuff, man. You know what I mean?

I think that’s another way the human brain is wired. It’s like, people can say 100 nice things to you, and then one person says one thing. They were like, they told me, they were like, he’s going to be so handsome when he gets veneers. I’m like, damn, are my teeth that crooked? Now I’m looking in the mirror every time. I’m smiling from different angles and (EXPLETIVE DELETED), you know. I thought my (EXPLETIVE DELETED) was cute until he said that. Now I’m like, (EXPLETIVE DELETED). I need to call a dentist. For real, I told my dad the other day, let’s go to the dentist, man. No, because it’s just like that, man. You know what I’m saying?

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Vic Mensa: So, in real life, I’m great with it. On the internet, man, I have to limit my exposure to the things that people say because I’ve done so much work and continue to do so much unceasing work to be at peace and to maintain mental health that like reading anything, good or bad though, that’s the thing too, is like —

Chris Hayes: Yeah, the good stuff messes you up in a different way.

Vic Mensa: Just to stay at an equilibrium because it’s like, yeah, I don’t want to be too gassed up by compliments and I know that I’ll be stung by criticisms or hate or whatever it is. I just don’t read that (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

Chris Hayes: There’s also, Trymaine, like you talked about this a little bit, obviously some kind of conflict and beef has always been woven into hip hop. Sometimes that’s performative, sometimes it’s real. Obviously, like famously in the ’90s, like what happened with Biggie and Tupac and East Coast, West Coast, it got extremely real, extremely dangerous. But also, beef is just part of life. Any scene, any subculture, like people have conflict. That’s how things go. But you do have a crazy combination between social media and hip hop now. Where like —

Vic Mensa: Yeah. It’s different.

Chris Hayes: — social media really, really amplifies that. And that’s like a real phenomenon, not just at your level, but even at the high schoolers in Chicago, like just —

Vic Mensa: It’s different.

Chris Hayes: — kids beefing and they now have an ability to beef with each other across time and space they didn’t before.

Trymaine Lee: When it’s manufactured, you talk about this idea, the way that the dynamics we have with social media and how it plays in our psyche, it seems so manufactured. But I think one of the most troubling things to come out of, you know, drilling this idea of rap as a battle between your opposition, is that everyone looked like you were an op. So, at every corner, everywhere you turn, there’s an op there with deadly consequences for folks who really are struggling in so many different ways. And I think that, and I would love to hear, especially Vic in Chicago, you know, what you make of the turn that hip hop has taken, especially in the drill sense of things.

Vic Mensa: Yeah, I was having a thought about op culture the other day. I think that it’s been one of the primary ways that we’ve been brainwashed, you know, and how hip hop has perpetuated that age-old self-hatred. And, you know, we’ve come to believe that we are in opposition with somebody just because they’re from a certain intersection, you know, they’re from a certain project building. None of us own any of the businesses, buildings in our communities, and, you know, we’ve somehow been set up to kill each other over them. But I think that hip hop’s specific brand of competition is just rooted in the black experience.

I mean, the black experience has had so much self-hatred in it for so long, and young black men who feel powerless other than through violence often as crime works is within proximity so that aggression is being pointed at somebody that looks just like you, you know, because it’s much more difficult to like, you know, go shoot up the white power structure, like that (EXPLETIVE DELETED) don’t work out. People don’t even want to hear that (EXPLETIVE DELETED). It’s just like the puppeteer who’s pulling the strings is so far beyond our scope of influence that our aggression is most often pointed at each other.

And there’s a lot of it in a healthy way in hip hop, for sure. It’s a competitive sport. And when it’s great, you know, it’s like boxing.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Vic Mean: It’s skill and it’s regulated. And when the bell rings, it’s peaceful. But we also don’t live in a peaceful nation, you know. And hip hop is a very, very American art form, although it exists all over the planet. The ghettos of America are like the truth of what this country has to offer in many ways and hip-hop is a product of that. So, it’s like, it will be violent, you know? And that’s unfortunate, because you go other places, man, I was like, I was blown away, man, when I was in South Africa, and just like learning about their hip-hop scene, meeting their artists.

And they were telling me, they were like, yeah, being a gangster is bad for business over here. Even though South Africa and Johannesburg is like, it’s critical. It was real over there. But they were like, in the music industry, that’s seen as unmarketable and is not supported or it’s not encouraged. Whereas here, if you kill somebody and you get away with it, your record finna sell. Like that’s all the way enough to put you on. You got a little bit of skill and you kill somebody and you get away with it, you out of there. I promise you. And that’s sick, you know?

But man, I had this thought, too. Hip hop is the scapegoat for many of America’s problems. They always point to hip hop and say, look, this is the reason for the black America criminality. This is a reflection of it. But it’s rare that we point to video games, for example, and video games by numbers on any given year have far more, you know, provable players than hip hop has listeners. And the biggest video games are always Call of Duty, or even like on a cartoon level, Super Mario Bros, Smash Bros fighting each other.

Now let’s shift to the film industry, which has more viewers than hip hop has listeners by far. And the top film franchises are all violent. James Bond, he keeps a strap on him. You know, The Avengers, even though it’s like sci-fi.

Chris Hayes: John Wick.

Vic Mensa: John Wick, it’s all punching, killing, shooting, violence, you know. This violence thing is American. You know what I mean? This (EXPLETIVE DELETED) is fully American, and so is hip hop, so hip hop will be violent.

Chris Hayes: That’s a really good point. Talk a little bit about how you understand bravado and vulnerability, if I can ask you that? Because like, your music is excellent and you can be very confessional at times, and you can have a lot of bravado at times, you can move between those different registers. And there’s hip hop songs that are peak of bravado and hip-hop songs that I love that are the peak of vulnerability.

Vic Mensa: Yeah.

Chris Hayes: And those two things can be intertwined. And I’d be curious to hear you talk a little bit about how you think about that.

Vic Mensa: You know, I think the power is in the vulnerability. I’ve been studying some psychology and I think it was Carl Young who first discussed the concept of the shadow. And you know, we all have this shadow self that is our most feared, most vulnerable version of ourself. For you it might be like an acne-faced 13-year-old kid. For somebody else it might be a small child cowering from their alcoholic father, you know. We all have these shadow versions of ourself.

This book that I’m reading right now, I just finished reading, was just showing how by accepting and bringing your shadow into how you approach the world, you become much more powerful because I think you have nothing to hide. You know, the shadow is what we want to hide and that’s what we mask with the alcohol and the drugs and the sex and, you know, plastic surgery, whatever it is. But the powerful approach, in my opinion, is to become one with that shadow.

So, I think that in music, I try to do that. I try to uncover the most, you know, shameful parts of myself and do it in a witty way, in a lyrical way, you know. I think that juxtaposition with that bravado is just my way of really trying to express who I am in all of its truth, you know what I mean, because I have that shadow and that, you know, just like insecure, you know, mixed kid that didn’t fit in with this black community or this white community and didn’t feel accepted.

And then that inspired me in ways to like, grow a tough external shell and to be very violent and to wield that as currency and, you know, to learn to fight and be quick to explode. So maybe that gives me a certain sense of bravado, but now my process of growth has been, how do I maintain that fire that drives that rage part of me, but used in a constructive, vulnerable way. So, I’m not self-destructive, you know, or destructive in general, you know. That’s not what I’m here to do. I’m trying to build things.

And that other (EXPLETIVE DELETED), you see it in Tupac, man. It’s like Tupac was literally the expression of what I’m talking about. And he was a Gemini. I’m a Gemini. Tupac’s a Gemini. Geminis are the best. So, whatever. You know what I mean? You see it in Tupac, man. He was the most empathetic, sensitive, ballet kid. Tupac was not a Cancer. He was a Gemini, but I love Cancers. Love, love, love. My mom’s a Cancer. I love Cancers. But you know, yeah, poetry, ballet. At the same time, he was raised by the Black Panthers in the middle of a war.

So, he saw his mother and uncle and aunt be persecuted by the United States government to prevent the rise of a black Messiah. This was a campaign of the CIA. So, Tupac had these things going on. He was torn between these two realities.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Vic Mensa: And ultimately, that rage in him that led him to, you know, after being targeted in many ways, link up with Suge Knight and the Bloods and start gang banging, that rage side of him, it took control and things spiraled out and he died at 25, you know. So, it’s like, how do you be fueled by that, yeah, that inner aggression? How do you be fueled by that, but be disciplined and controlled enough like a martial artist, to use it when necessary and then get calm again, you know what I mean? You know, you got to do it.

Chris Hayes: I want to thank you, Vic, for joining us. Seriously.

Vic Mensa: Thank you for having me, man.

Chris Hayes: His latest album, which you should check out, is called “Victor.” I want to thank as well Imani Perry and Trymaine Lee. I want to thank these fine folks, all the people at the House of Blues that put their labor into tonight, that served drinks, that did sound check, the amazing MSNBC and “All-In” and “WITHpod” crew. Special shout out to Doni Holloway, our producer.

This is the second date on our tour. We’re also going to be in Philadelphia, October 16 with Joy Reid and Naomi Klein. We’ll wrap up our tour in New York City on November 12 with the one and only Rachel Maddow.

It was real. This was a fantastic evening. I didn’t know how this was going to go, but this far surpassed my expectations. I hope you guys had a good night. Give it up for them one more time. Thank you very much.

Once again, my great thanks to Vic Mensa, Trymaine Lee, and Imani Perry. The three of them were just unbelievably generous with their time and game and thoughtful and it was just a real honor to be able to convene that conversation.

You can get in touch with us on X, the site formally known as Twitter using the hashtag WITHpod. You can also follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. You can follow me on Threads where I’m doing a lot more posting these days @Chrislhayes. And on BlueSky @Chrislhayes.

“Why is This Happening” is presented by MSNBC and MBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O’Melia. This episode was engineered by Fernando Arruda and Harry Culhane and features music by Eddie Cooper. Aisha Turner is the executive producer of MSNBC Audio. You can see more of our work including links to things we mentioned here by going to MNBCnews.com/whyisthishappening.

“Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway and Brendan O’Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and featuring music by Eddie Cooper. Aisha Turner is the executive producer of MSNBC Audio. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to NBCNews.com/whyisthishappening?

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