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Hip Hop Nation

A Scholar's View
Sociolinguists are intensely interested in the language of Hip Hop Nation, a highly fluid, creative and constantly changing dialect. H. Samy Alim explains how devotees “devise innovative ways to slice the system with the syntax."
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Hip Hop Nation Language, the language of Hip Hop Culture in the United States, is a “universoul-sonic force” being adopted and adapted by youth around the planet, in countries as distant and diverse as Mexico, Cuba, France, Bulgaria, Ghana, Pakistan, Japan, Australia and many more. The Hip Hop Cultural Movement, called “Black noise” by Black American scholar Tricia Rose in 1994, is a decade later termed “global noise” by European scholar Tony Mitchell.

The Hip Hop Nation has, as predicted as far back as 1991, become the “Global Hip Hop Hood” — but its profound global influence should not obscure the African-American origins of and continuing contributions to this highly fluid and creative artistic, musical, literary and linguistic form.

One of the San Francisco Bay Area’s hottest and most enduring Hip Hop artists, JT the Bigga Figga, relates the language of Hip Hop Culture to “Black Language.” He roots the creation of this unique linguistic form in what sociolinguist Geneva Smitherman called “an Africanized form of English reflecting Black America’s linguistic-cultural African heritage and the conditions of servitude, oppression and life in America.” Listen to JT:

The Black Language is constructed of — alright let me take it all the way back to the slave days and use something that’s physical. All the slave masters gave our people straight chittlins and greens, you feel me, stuff that they wasn’t eating. But we made it into a delicacy. Same thing with the language. It’s the exact same formula. How our people can take the worst, or take our bad condition, and be able to turn it into something that we can benefit off of. Just like the drums. They didn’t want the slaves playing drums because we was talkin’ through the drums. “What the hell did my slaves do? Oh, no, cut that! Take them drums!” you feel me? So through the music, that’s kinda like going on now with the rap thang. It’s ghetto music. People talkin about they issues and crime and, you feel me? “Don’t push me cuz I’m close to the eeedge!” [Rappin Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message”] You feel me? He talkin about, “Man, I’m so fed up with you people in this society, man.” So this is the voice of the ghetto. The rap come from the voice of the ghetto... Hip hop and the streets damn near is one, you might as well say that... Straight from the streets (Interview with rapper JT, cited partially in Alim).

Sociolinguists are intensely interested in Hip Hop Nation Language. This goes out to all Hip Hop Headz, whom I call “street linguists” and “word warriors.” They are the primary source of our knowledge on Hip Hop Nation Language, constantly adoring, evaluating and creating words … always devising innovative ways to use words as weapons, to slice the system with the syntax - and to put fear in the hearts of those who be frontin’ on their fierce phonology!

P.E.A.C.E. One…

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Hip Hop Lit, Spencer Michels of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer reports on an increasingly popular genre of streetwise fiction called "hip hop literature."
  • Hip Hop Style, a special feature on Online NewsHour Extra.
  • Alim, Samy H., Alim Abdul, James G. Spady, Charles G. Lee, Charles G. Leedham, and Leandre Jackson. Street Conscious Rap. Black History Museum Pub., 1999.
  • Eure, Joseph D., and James G. Spady. Nation Conscious Rap, The Hip Hop Version. PC Intl Press, 1991.
  • Perkins, William Eric. Droppin’ Science: Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. Temple University Press, 1995.
  • Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1986.
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