From Lawyers to Language Practices: Two Hip-Hop Professors and the Living Legacy of 2 Live Crew

Academic Freedom, Censorship, First Amendment

By: Sarah Hartman-Caverly

I originally reached out to Dr. A. D. Carson to learn 2 Live Crew’s place in the hip-hop canon. I know of 2 Live Crew as the rap ensemble most associated with legal battles for expanding fair use and protecting obscenity under the First Amendment, and invited the assistant professor of hip hop at University of Virginia to comment on their broader contributions to culture.

Headshot of Dr. A. D. Carson, assistant professor of hip hop and the Global South at University of Virginia.
Dr. A. D. Carson, assistant professor of hip hop and the Global South at University of Virginia.

But Carson, aka aydee the great, immediately took me to school: “[M]aybe my issue is that canons exist in the first place.”

This welcome provocation prompted exploration of contemporary composition techniques, cutting-edge pedagogy, emerging areas of scholarship, and historiography-by-discography. In the excerpts below (view the full lo-fi(!) interview or read the transcript), Carson shares his experiences exercising Fair Use in the university setting, what happens to student creativity when you invite lawyers into the classroom, what makes him secretly proud as a faculty member, and what it’s like to put a scholarly hip-hop album through peer review.  

Looking back over the interview, 2 Live Crew’s presence looms larger than their occasional name-drop. This is due, in no small part, to what both Carson and Justin De Senso, lecturer of English and Africana Studies at Penn State Berks, point to as a lasting influence of the group on the songcraft of dirty rap. For both scholar-practitioners, the expressive freedom embodied in dirty rap is a double-edged sword. De Senso asserts: 

“At its most extreme, this style degrades and exploits others, trading in exaggerated and narrow notions of masculinity and femininity found throughout American culture. At its best, ‘dirty rap’ interrogates sex and gender norms, often using hyper-sexuality and the body as a vehicle for self-expression.” 

Similarly, Carson sees a place for explicit language in interrogating notions of truth, but will also push his students to consider whether obscenity plays a rhetorical role or is just filler: 

“I ask, ‘Do you really need it? Do you really want it? Or is that just the thing you add when in the course of your engaging with language, when you don’t have something to say, that’s the thing you say?’ ….And so, my hope is that ‘I don’t know’ is never where we stop when I ask ‘Why did you do that?’ or ‘What did you say that?’ 

“And I ask myself that question all the time,.. ‘Am I telling the truth?’ Or, ‘Is this the truth that I want to tell and share?’ And sometimes I find myself being overly cautious, so I’m saying something that is true but I’m not saying it directly, and I believe that there’s a more direct way to say it…. And I think that many of my students are probably the opposite of that, but the questions are still the same, and I try to share that with them as often as I can, the process of getting to the thing that you want to present, the actual thing that you want to present.” 

Headshot of Justin De Senso, lecturer of English and African American studies at Penn State Berks.
Justin De Senso, lecturer of English and African American studies at Penn State Berks.

Both professors find fault with 2 Live Crew’s perhaps outsized presence in the lore of rap’s formative years. Citing Dr. Tricia Rose’s research on the “gangsta-pimp-ho trinity” of commercial rap, De Senso posits that what looks like lyrical freedom can also disguise self-destruction: “2 Live Crew has perhaps played the most public (and legal) of roles to help the ‘hip-hop is dead’ narrative along.”  

Carson sees a need to recognize other contributors: 

“And then, you know, the next time we have a conversation about what was happening in the so-called golden age, or, you know, in the eighties, it’s not an issue, or it’s not even contested, that 2 Live Crew was a valuable contributor, not just musically but in these legal conversations, and the conversations about parody and fair use and obscenity.  And not just 2 Live Crew, but many of the others who slipped into the background because they weren’t the default example of something like obscenity and fair use, but because they were making music and they were contributing in the time. We should be able to make space and to talk about the many other folks who were there and who were contributing.” 

Beyond fair use and free expression, let 2 Live Crew’s living legacy be challenging us to shine a light where their shadow falls across the timeline of human events. 

Excerpts from interview with Dr. A. D. Carson

Assistant professor of hip hop and the Global South at University of Virginia. View the full lo-fi(!) interview or read the transcript.

On fair use and bringing lawyers into the classroom 

And so this might have been, this is the first year that I invited lawyers into the classroom – well, yeah, the Lab. So, it was interesting, but also kind of exciting for the students to have that, but I realize also that it has the students a little wary about whether they want to do the things that they thought were ok. 

And the context of a Rap Lab, I feel like falls into one of the pillars of Fair Use. That we are engaging in an academic activity, and we’re not trying, no one’s trying to become the next big rapper, or you know, we’re not trying to formulate the next hit record there, we’re really trying to think about how we make things from the things that we have, how do we enter into conversations with preexisting media?… 

I think this is one of the reasons I was so reluctant to have lawyers come into the class, because once the students start thinking about that, then they’re automatically thinking, “I don’t want to go through the trouble of having lawyers coming after me for writing this project,” and my response to that has always been, “Since when,” I mean, if you’re writing about Catcher in the Rye, or you’re writing about, I don’t know, Sula or Song of Solomon, I don’t think that Toni Morrison, or the Toni Morrison estate is going to say, “this long quote is not appropriate, so you need to stop,” so, because at that level it’s a conversation between my student and their classmates, myself, if they present it somewhere, maybe that society, or if it’s at the university, maybe the university.  

But I just feel that that’s just so unlikely [for a student to receive a DMCA takedown notice], that it’s a situation that we would deal with whenever it happened, but the students are not going to want to take the chance, they’re not doing to want to risk doing the really dope project. 

On what students do to make him “secretly proud” 

…It really just comes when two students are having a conversation about a thing that starts off as an idea, and starts off as an almost really solid definite idea, and through that questioning and through that tossing the idea up in the space and having these questions be asked, the thing that gets created is sometimes the exact opposite of the idea. You know, if there was an argument that was being made and then they realized, you know, “That wasn’t really the argument I was trying to make,” it’s something else, or it’s the opposite of that, and I always feel secretly really proud because I’m never trying to interrupt and jump in and be like, “That was dope.”

On producing a hip-hop album with an academic press using peer review 

And so my newest project, which is volume III [of the Sleepwalking series], but it’s called I Used to Love to Dream, I did, this was different because I go to an academic press and we go through the peer review process, which is different, because my peer review, you know, it’s trusted producers, MCs, artists who I send the Dropbox file to, and I get the feedback, I make the changes, I do all of these things. Now there’s this so called official thing that universities and university presses do that my colleagues night understand a little better, but there are challenges, too, finding folks who have relationships to those presses and relationships to universities who are also interested and qualified to do the peer review for this rap album that’ll be released through the university press. That to me is also really interesting, and an interesting way to think about an album, or a mixed tape, or a rap album, rap music, or a hip-hop production existing. 

And if it’s only to take me through, or to take someone through, a violent process that is akin to hazing, then I don’t find that very useful. But if it’s going to make the work better, it’s going to make it more critical, it’s going to help people think through these issues, or to think more critically, or to think in different ways, then, I’m with it. But I just don’t want to be taking through a process, and I don’t want to be taking people through a process for the sake of saying that the process was the same thing that someone who is creating something totally different went through.  

Because we have to evaluate, I mean, to a certain degree, we have to evaluate the evaluators. And also say that the people who are doing the evaluating might not be qualified to do this, and if that’s the case, then let’s say it and try to make better work or to make better conditions to create the new stuff, not to say that the stuff isn’t good because we can’t evaluate it. Because how can we know that that’s true? “Well, it’s not very good because I didn’t know what I was listening to.” If you didn’t know what you were listening to, say you didn’t know what you were listening to, and your evaluation means nothing.

On revision, failure, and the freedom to disagree with yourself 

Sometimes when someone’s interviewing me about a piece, and they ask, “Where did it come from?”, and sometimes I don’t want to reveal where it actually came from, I don’t want to go all the way back to the original idea, because the original idea is sometimes either so far off, or the exact opposite of the thing that is the piece that it would seem odd to the person listening that the idea for this song actually came from something supportive of its inverse. And through the creative process I realize that I don’t support the inverse, I actually support the other thing now, or I’m trying to present a perspective, so I was trying to convince myself, and so apparently I was so persuasive that this is the thing you get as opposed to the other thing.  

And also, the freedom to disagree with the previous version of yourself. So, the piece that you write and record and that people hear may not be how you feel later. Or it may not even be the way that you felt, it’s just the thing that was created because you wanted to create the thing and have it in the world because it was really helpful to have it be in the world and present it in such a way.  

So, I’m working on a piece like this right now, that, you know, I don’t know what it’s going to end up being, but you know, at this point it’s thirty-two bars of me trying to tell a full conceptual short story. And I don’t know if I’m going to make it through it. I don’t know if the first pass is going to be enough to make me want to take a second pass. 

And that’s the risk that I hope, I mean, I tell the students as well, that failure is not something that you should be worried about and it’s honestly a thing that’s very helpful, it’s going to teach you quite a bit in this kind of composing practice. And if you’re not willing to fail to the highest degree, if you’re not willing to, you know, you’re trying to write forty bars, and you get to thirty-eight, and then it just folds, if you’re not willing to do that, then it’s going to be really difficult to find yourself in a situation to get the thirty-eight bars before the two that complete it. Which means that you won’t have the pay-off of seeing the idea realized if you aren’t willing to fail bigtime at trying to execute that idea.  

And sometimes you write a song that’s just bad. Sometimes you write a thing that’s just really really awful, but you have to write a lot of really awful drafts, a lot of really awful attempts, sometimes to get the really dope take or to get the really dope version.

Sarah Hartman-Caverly

Sarah Hartman-Caverly, MS(LIS), MSIS, is a reference and instruction librarian at Penn State Berks, where she liaises with Engineering, Business and Computing programs. Prior to her current appointment, Sarah was a reference and instruction librarian at a community college, and was an electronic resources manager and library system administrator in both community and small liberal arts college settings. Sarah’s research examines the compatibility of human and machine autonomy from the perspective of intellectual freedom. Recent contributions include “Version Control” (ACRL 2017), “Our ‘Special Obligation’: Library Assessment, Learning Analytics, and Intellectual Freedom” (ACRL 2018), and “Human Nature is Not a Machine: On Liberty, Attention Engineering, and Learning Analytics” (Library Trends, 2019). She earned her MS(LIS) and MSIS from Drexel University in 2011.


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