Everything I needed to know about journalism I learned from hip-hop


Joel Stinnett, Editor-in-Chief

In the 1970’s South Bronx, NY was on fire…literally. It is estimated that over 40% of the building were burned down by its disgruntled residents during that decade. The police in the borough were so overwhelmed that they stopped investigating arsons.

The borough was rife with drug addiction, welfare hotels, squatters and slumlords. Parts of the area had even been taken off of official New York City maps. Tourists were afraid to visit, fire departments were overworked, and cops struggled to do their jobs. It wasn’t the most inviting place for journalists either.

Out of this fire of crime, hopelessness and neglect was born hip-hop.

Kool Herc is credited with creating this style of music when he DJed his sister’s back to school in the Bronx. We all know hip-hop has the power to make people dance, but it is its ability to provide social commentary that makes it such a versatile, and dangerous, genre.

Chuck-D of Public Enemy famously said that hip-hop is “the CNN of the streets.”

As a kid, listening to the stories of people overcoming struggle and fighting a biased system is what made me fall in love with hip-hop. And while it can be used to glorify some social ills, it has been equally effective at exposing some of the root causes.

As rappers began to tell the story of the South Bronx in the early 80’s things began to change for the better.

I don’t have the skills to become a successful rapper, Dr. Dre still hasn’t responded to the demo tapes I sent him, so I decided to become the next best thing to a rich and famous hip-hop star…a journalist.

This is how hip-hop taught me journalism.

“Broken glass everywhere/ People pissin’ on the stairs, you know they just don’t care,” Grand Master Flash, “The Message.”

In 1982 Grand Master Flash released “The Message.” A scathing account of the realities of life in the South Bronx. It was the first time hip-hop had been used to provide lyrical social commentary. It also paved the way for artist like NWA and Public Enemy.

I was oblivious to the song until Puff Daddy sampled it in 1997 for “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down.” When I found out the hook from that song wasn’t original I had to seek out “The Message.”

In the 90’s gangster rap ruled, so this was one of the first times that I realized that art, music and the written word could be used for more than entertainment. The lyrics were brash and blunt. I could see in my head the crumbling buildings and forgotten junkies of South Bronx. It was a world away from Kentucky, but I felt every word.

Slick Rick was perhaps the master emcee of storytelling. The song “Children’s Story” is a charming way to warn others about a life of crime on the streets. The beat is so melodic and the rhymes so playful that you are caught off guard when the truth finally hits you.

One of the reasons I got into journalism was to be a voice those that don’t have one. To tell the stories of people that need to be heard. And create change. That is what “The Message” and what “Children’s Story” did. Honest, factual accounts of a cruel world told through stories.

“‘Cause I am, whatever you say I am/ If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?/ In the paper, the news everyday I am/ I don’t know it’s just the way I am,” Eminem, “The Way I Am.”

Released in 2000, “The Way I Am” might be Eminem’s angriest song (that says a lot). The lyrics are a fantastic example of something we often talk about in The Horizon newsroom. Perception is reality.

As a journalist, a writer or even just a human being, we are all susceptible to being misunderstood.

Commas, headlines and design choices can nullify a well thought out 800 word article in a heartbeat.

“Stop clubbing baby seals.”

“Stop clubbing, baby seals.”

Are we trying to stop the murder of baby seals or are we trying to stop them from hanging out at 4th Street Live on Saturday nights?

That is a light hearted example but those type of mistakes can have real consequences for journalists. Eminem’s lyrics always remind me that the perception of my words become reality.

“Some perpetrate, they drink Clorox/ Attack the black, cause I know they lack exact/ The cold facts, and still they try to Xerox,” Public Enemy, “Don’t Believe The Hype.”

These lyrics have two lessons: be true to who you are and make sure you get the facts correct.

A journalist’s main job is not to write, it is to ask questions. Getting the facts straight is paramount.

Too many times journalists print untruths. Sometimes this is in a rush to be first, other times it is pure laziness. It has resulted in a nationwide mistrust of the media. Even though the perpetrators are a small minority.

I believe that if I can be true to the reasons I wanted to become a journalist, gather as much information as I can, and not let the pressures of a Twitter society get to me, it will pay off in the long run.

“I don’t want no scrub,” TLC, “No Scrubs.”

This lyric really has nothing to do with journalism. But one night as we were designing in newsroom the song came on.

“This is my jam!” Adam Maksl, assistant professor of journalism, said in delight.

In reality, Maksl and Ron Allman, associate professor of journalism, have been reasons I fell in love with journalism.

When I came to IU Southeast, my 4th college, I wasn’t sure if it was the place for me. Adam and Ron taught me why this profession is important and gave me the tools to one day, hopefully, be successful at it. For the first time in my college career I feel as though I am a part of something important.

Thank you Adam and Ron for being the best mentors I could ask for and for and, finally, giving me a true college experience.