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Maxwell Williams

Maxwell Williams is a PhD student in musicology at Cornell University. His research interests include hip-hop and 18th century music. He has given conference papers on topics ranging from punctuation form and “galant schemata” in Mozart’s minuets to gender construction and Amy Winehouse’s female subjectivity. His forthcoming chapter, “From Black Hipsters to Black Hippy: the Sound and Cultural Genealogy of ‘Neo-Bohemian’ Hip-Hop,” will appear in The Oxford Handbook of Hip-Hop Music Studies (2017).

“‘Black Lip(ped) Bastard(s)’: Hip, Sonic Blacknesses, and the Racialized Voice in ‘Neo-Bohemian’ Hip Hop”
An emergent scene in contemporary hip-hop, which this paper terms “neo-bohemian,” is characterized by an aesthetic of hipness shared by representative artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Black Hippy. This aesthetic is linked to a history of racialized constructs of Black hipness and social transgression that can be traced back to bebop musicians, and which neo-bohemian rappers variously reproduce, modify, and reject. A key example of this is the parallel between bebop musicians using drugs to shape their instrumental performance and neo-bohemian rappers using drugs to shape their vocal sound. Like bebop performance practice, the voice becomes racialized as a sonic marker of Black hipness both in its performance and historically-conditioned reception.

Roland Barthes’ “The Grain of the Voice” helps theorize neo-bohemian hip-hop as a rich, intersectional space in which rappers “overload” historical constructions and reclaim Black hipness on their own terms. This paper first explores the other racialized constructs alongside which the voice operates in neo-bohemian hip-hop in shaping this hip aesthetic. Then, it examines the formative effect of drugs on the neo-bohemian voice through an analysis of vocal timbre and delivery. Here, theories of “acousmatic blackness” and post-humanism reveal how neo-bohemian rappers’ use of drugs can be understood as alternately channeling and challenging the problematic racial constructs that this invokes, shedding light on the complex position of “hipness” in relation to this scene and Black identities more broadly. Finally, moving away from vocal sound, the paper explores the deeper implications of the voice through the symbol of the “black lips,” an iconically signifying nexus of the voice and body invoked by a number of neo-bohemian rappers, most notably in the song “Black Lip Bastard (Remix)” (2012), through which the voice is seen to intersect with a number of other markers of Black hipness.

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