Hip-Hop Journalism Never Played by the Rules. It Doesn’t Mean Standards Aren’t Needed.

When Ye appeared on Revolt’s Drink Champs podcast last October, it was one of the most controversial moments of his career. The rapper formerly known as Kanye West spewed antisemitic rhetoric and misinformation about the death of George Floyd, leading the deceased’s family to file a $250 million lawsuit against him. 

Drink Champs co-host N.O.R.E. subsequently went on an apology tour for the emotional harm caused by Ye’s comments, telling Hot 97 he regretted the interview. However, N.O.R.E. also declared himself a practitioner of journalism, saying the interview was a success because he allowed the rapper to express himself and didn’t interject his own opinion. 

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While it’s true an ethical news reporter wouldn’t insert their opinion, they also wouldn’t give hate speech and false information a platform, and they wouldn’t cause families who have suffered tragedy unnecessary harm. N.O.R.E.’s comment brought into question just who is, and who gets to be, a hip-hop journalist. 

DJ EFN (left) and N.O.R.E. of the podcast Drink Champs. (DJ EFN/Drainflix)

Hip-hop turns 50 this month, and much like the music, the work of hip-hop journalists hasn’t always played by the rules or been taken seriously by the mainstream. Due its humble origins of scene reports from college students, fans and pop culture critics in teen zines and alt-weeklies, cultural regard and insight are primary factors in who covers hip-hop. 

“It takes all kinds to make hip-hop journalists,” said Dan Charnas, a former writer for The Source who is considered a pioneer of the genre.

In recent decades, the decline of print hip-hop publications and the rise of digital media — including podcasts, streaming networks and online publications — has only broadened and blurred what is considered hip-hop journalism. “News” can sometimes feel like a conflation of industry-insider interviews, commentary and gossip. An unclear line exists between journalist and media personality.

Adding to the blur is the fact that media consumers cannot always determine which platforms adhere to accuracy and journalistic standards. This makes it even more necessary for those in hip-hop media to make clear their role and type of work they do — and for those particularly in journalism to adhere to more rigorous ethics.

Here is how hip-hop journalists can implore more clarity, accuracy and ethics in their work, while still holding onto the “outsider” ethos that established the genre.  

Label what is reporting vs. commentary vs. criticism

Consumers of hip-hop media want to know the inside scoop about their favorite artists and stay on top of developments in the culture. Word Up!, Rap Pages and The Source (an outlet I have written for) were the pinnacle publications for hip-hop enthusiasts in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Writers were already immersed in the hip-hop community, and their organic familiarity with the culture determined a publication’s credibility with fanatics, college students and urban Black and Latino communities where the music thrived.

“Hip-hop journalism was created by a confluence of folks who thought of themselves as journalists and some who didn’t,” said Charnas, now a professor at NYU. “Some who trained as journalists and some who didn’t. Some who really wanted to do good and deep work and some who just wanted to write album reviews.”

As hip-hop media developed, so did the identity of the hip-hop personality. From NYC radio DJ Mr. Magic in the ‘80s and ‘90s, to DJ-turned-talk-show-host Wendy Williams at the turn of the century, to current podcasters like Joe Budden, these personalities are depended upon by listeners and viewers to give the latest info. However, dishing the latest isn’t the same as reporting verified news. 

In recent years, popular podcasters Budden, Gillie Da Kid, Willie D, Charlamagne tha God, N.O.R.E., Yung Miami and Math Hoffa have amassed trust from the core hip-hop audience because many of them are rappers. While their perspective can lead to more intimate interviews, what is being shared isn’t necessarily objective fact. This is not to say there are not newsworthy moments that come out of such engaging clips, such as Trina sharing her experience as a Miami native on Caresha Please, or Black Thought delving into the impact of Malik B with Talib Kweli on the People’s Party, or Tony Yayo sharing the story behind the division of G-Unit with Hoffa on My Expert Opinion. These are all headline-worthy moments in hip-hop. But it’s also important for audiences to realize their work represents the entertainment aspect of media, not journalism.

“Just because news happens on a radio show or a podcast doesn’t mean that the person who is in charge of that radio show or podcast is a journalist or thinks of themselves as a journalist or even holds themselves to any particular code of ethics,” said Charnas.

DJ EFN, who is N.O.R.E.’s co-host on Drink Champs as well as a part of an esteemed groundbreaking Miami scene disc jockey, does not consider himself a journalist. He views his podcast as an entertainment platform that heralds notable figures in hip-hop. “We’re there to inform while entertaining,” he said. “We want to be a beacon to maybe a younger audience that normally wouldn’t want to hear about some of these artists because they are older, and serve it to them in a way that they think it’s fun, and while they’re having fun with it, they’re being educated about something.”

Budden and Hoffa have also recently clarified that they see themselves as entertainers, not journalists. In fact, Hoffa’s five-host panel on My Expert Opinion includes Mecca Rashawn, a veteran hip-hop journalist who adds an objective lens to the show. It’s a start toward media personalities understanding the responsibility of their influence and being explicit about how they are labeled. A next step would be to include disclaimers clarifying their broadcasts are a form of entertainment and a reflection of their opinions. 

The same goes for stories published in print or online: Album reviews, a form of criticism, should be clearly labeled as reviews; opinion pieces labeled as opinion; and fact-based reporting labeled as news.   

Create more initiatives for hip-hop media literacy

The need for clearer labels goes hand in hand with the need for a more media literate public. For hip-hop media consumers, this means having the ability to identify different forms of media, define their specific purpose and utilize them accordingly.

DeMario Phipps-Smith, senior manager of the News Literacy Project, says one of the first things hip-hop media consumers can do is “slow down, stop, evaluate where [the content] is coming from and who it’s coming from.” Is it coming from a fact-based news source written by a journalist? Or is it a form of entertaining commentary from a media personality?

Smith says a journalist strives to be objective, fair and accurate while trying to get the story out to the public. If a journalist is with a reputable outlet such as The New York Times or Rolling Stone, it is likely the outlet has an ethics page or mission statement that outlines their approach to news production. This offers a measure for credibility.

Many online hip-hop publications do not have an “ethics” or a mission statement page. In these cases, readers wanting reliable news should look for transparency (has the article omitted any key information?), accountability (does this article hold the subject accountable for the reported and proven action in question?), challenges (does this publication allow readers to challenge their reports?) and corrections (does this publication update their articles with corrections when erroneous?).

Blogs such as The Shade Room and Hollywood Unlocked have gained popularity on social media as portals for hip-hop news. Even popular YouTube bloggers like Tasha K have labeled themselves as journalists, but a blogger is not necessarily a journalist — it’s someone with an online presence and something to say. 

“A blogger can be a regular person, it could be a journalist, it can be a former rapper, it can be a musician, it could be an audio person, a blogger can be anyone, a journalist can be anyone,” said Smith. “The difference between a journalist and a blogger is that journalists hold themselves to a certain ethical standard.”

Make room for diverse perspectives

An ethical journalist has the responsibility to “boldly tell the story of diversity and magnitude of the human experience,” according to the Society of Professional Journalists. And yet hip-hop publications nowadays are prone to primarily publishing profiles of those who have climbed to the top of the charts, or sensational stories about the dramatics of hip-hop artists like their baby mother struggles. Stories from sources whose voices we seldom hear — hip-hop pioneers, battle rappers, underground performers and obscure communities relevant to the formation of hip-hop culture (e.g. 5 Percent Nation) — are rarely highlighted and are only relevant during hype or controversy.

Nikki Duncan-Smith

For example, as hip-hop culture commemorates its 50th anniversary this month, publications have been pumping out content that highlight key moments of its history: top albums, the first artists to break through and iconic fashion. Prior to this cultural milestone, though, hip-hop history was not a desired topic to cover. 

The media coverage of hip-hop pioneers and legends steadily declined during the transition from print to digital. A new generation of hip-hop consumers shifted from the dominant hip-hop genres of the golden age like boom bap, to bling bling of the early aughts, to today’s trap and drill music. A younger audience was less familiar with rappers from the previous eras, not solely due to generational differences, but a lack of media exposure. In hip-hop culture, it is standard to acknowledge your predecessors — and coverage concerning the influence of acts from the transformative eras became faint. 

The same applies to the worlds of battle rap and underground hip-hop — both have developed a cult-like following without much journalism coverage. Battle rap is considered to be an artistic sport, a reflection of the original stance of the rapper or MC who was embedded in the competitive prestige that comes with using words as a weapon. Rap battles of the 1980s — including The Cold Crush Brothers vs The Fantastic Five, Busy Bee Starski vs Kool Moe Dee, and the presence of all-female crews like The Mercedes Ladies — defined hip-hop’s MC element and competitive edge. If the go-to hip-hop media platforms embraced modern battle rap culture, Gen Z hip-hop consumers may gain a greater respect for pioneering acts and the overall lyrical miracle of rapping. The hip-hop community is not a monolith.

Then there is the historical lack of coverage of female hip-hop acts, something female hip-hop journalists have long been aware of. Women of hip-hop culture were subject to what veteran hip-hop journalist Nikki Duncan-Smith calls the “dangerous space of hip-hop.” They were cat-called, name-called and sexualized in an overwhelmingly gangsta, mafioso culture. This caused female hip-hop journalists to form a little sister or best friend bond with male rappers for credibility and protection. Among women hip-hop artists, media personalities or journalists, there was a desire to be seen as professionals and taken seriously.

Out of this void came Honey, the first female hip-hop magazine, created in 1999 by journalists Kierna Mayo and Joicelyn Dingle. Duncan-Smith views the legacy of Honey as a safe space for women in hip-hop. Magazine covers featured Mary J. Blige, Left Eye and Lil’ Kim, and coverage focused on the multicultural landscape of women in hip-hop culture, including actresses, authors and business owners.

Now, more than 20 years later, female MCs and rappers dominate the charts and interests of hip-hop consumers. The likes of Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion, Remy Ma and Cardi B have enhanced coverage not only in hip-hop outlets, but also in fashion and lifestyle publications. Black culture digital spaces like MEFeater and Sheen have risen to prominence by featuring promising women in hip-hop and having a roster of women journalists who can offer a perspective free of the male gaze, much like in the tradition of Honey.

It’s clear hip-hop journalism, much like journalism in general, can always strive to do better. But Duncan-Smith says it’s also worth examining ethics as a concept — whose ethics are we talking about? And who created those ethics? — and how they apply to hip-hop. “Sometimes corporate ethics are built off of rules and systems we didn’t create,” said Duncan-Smith. “Culturally, the ethics of making sure you open a safe space for people to come in and learn and explore and experiment,” that is more important, she said.

Duncan-Smith said in the mid-90s, magazines like The Source and Vibe created value, delivered perspective and secured a place for hip-hop culture in the mainstream world. By the 2000s, hip-hop music had dominated the airwaves and set the tone for popular culture. Now is the time for journalists to put into context — with accuracy, with insight — where hip-hop can go next.  

Ime Ekpo

Ime Ekpo is a journalist specializing in hip-hop culture, African diaspora history and Black enterprise. In 2014, Ekpo started a niche-based Tumblr blog, Old School Hip-Hop Lust, which became one of the platform’s highest-ranked classic hip-hop blogs. Ekpo has written for Street Khemistry and The Source, and is founder of the online publication Rich Black Earth, where she highlights victories throughout the African diaspora.