Tucson: A Hip-Hop Embedded Community

University of Arizona professor Alex Nava lecturing about Christianity using Kanye West lyrics. (Photo by John Ricker/Arizona Sonoran News Service)

What many thought would be a passing fad, scholars in Tucson saw it as something worth study. Today, Tucson is a beacon for the distinct sound and study of hip-hop.

Unlike other genres, hip-hop, a black sheep of the music family, has a fixed origin. Aug. 11, 1973, an apartment in the Bronx. A niche New York scene grew to a world-wide movement in a matter of years, creating vibrant communities all over the map, Arizona included. A melding of the grassroots hip-hop scene with the academic world makes the Tucson scene stand out in a saturated market.

“Hip-hop is a culture,” says Alain-Philippe Durand, dean of the College Humanities at the University of Arizona. He and faculty pioneered the nation’s first hip-hop minor at the school. “There are many different topics that are connected,” he says. “Through studying the art, you learn about a lot more.”

The minor has helped shine the light on Tucson hip-hop. Publications like BBC and the Los Angeles Times trekked to Tucson to see the flourishing hip-hop community.

Rapper Murs headlining the 2017 Tucson Hip-Hop Festival.
Photo by Julius Schlosburg.

Tucson has made such a name for itself in hip-hop that one of the pioneers in the genre, Joseph Saddler, better known as DJ Grandmaster Flash, went to the college town for the first time last year to do a “master class” at the university. “We were really interested in having him do a class where he actually explains,” Durand says. “It goes back to this idea of hip-hop based education.”

Alex Nava, a religious studies professor, explained that the study of hip-hop “deals with so many interdisciplinary aspects of the human experience.” Nava taught, at the time, the only course the UA that revolved around hip-hop titled Rap, Culture and God.

While there have been critiques of practical uses of hip-hop studies, UA faculty like Durand and Nava championed the use of hip-hop as an avenue to study other academic realms. In a time where hip-hop dominates popular culture, Nava said its study “could be profoundly relevant.”

The involvement in the Tucson community by the hip-hop studies is what Durand is proud of most. “It’s not just about the university,” Durand says. “It is to be a community participant and to give back to the community, which is the origin and spirit of hip-hop.”

He cited the Tucson Hip-Hop Festival as a prime example for the minor’s output. The first graduate of the minor at the UA, Jocelyn Valencia, is a co-founder of the festival. It is “thriving and really becoming bigger and bigger every year,” says Durand. The event has gained traction exponentially since its humble beginnings as the Hip-Hop Summit, a “bite-sized sneak preview” of the festival two years ago. What started in an underground house party-like venue called the Scratch Shack, the festival has grown and landed legendary emcees like Murs and Bun-B.

Tucson rapper Illslur performing at the Studio One stage at last year’s festival. (Photo by Julius Schlosburg)

On February 24th, homegrown Tucson talents will represent the city, but acts from elsewhere flock, too.  Graffiti artists from Mexico, rappers from Houston, producers from Phoenix, and b-boys from Tucson all get together at 191 Toole to celebrate the art. Supplemented by panels offering knowledge from scholars, businesspeople and journalists in hip-hop, the core elements of hip-hop are represented at the festival, one of the major visions that Valencia and company envisioned at the start of the festival.

While Arizona has scenes spread across the state, catalysts like the UA’s hip-hop minor and the Tucson Hip-Hop Festival is propelling the Tucson hip-hop scene, that has existed just under the scope the masses for years, more into the public view. Whether it is the college aspect, or the tight-knit vibe of the community, Tucson has always had an output of distinct art. Phil Ortega, founder of popular hip-hop website Flotivity Media, says that the sounds of Tucson tend to be stand out more than those of Phoenix.

Ortega contributed this to a sense an individualism in Tucson artists and their art. “Whereas Tucson has always tried to have been unique, our culture here in Phoenix has kind of been just replicating what’s cool,” he says. “But again, that’s very generally speaking and I think that is changing,” assuring his positive outlook of the Arizona scene as a whole.

A few years ago the hip-hop scene in Tucson might’ve not been aware to those outside of the bubble. But those inside know that the city’s residents offer an individualism and creativity that no other city can. With aspects like the UA hip-hop minor and the Tucson Hip-Hop Festival getting more and more publicity, those outside of Tucson now see what Tucsonans have been seeing forever: a hip-hop embedded community.

John Ricker is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at johnricker@email.arizona.edu

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