How did English teach hip-hop?

Educators are now using hip-hop to teach English — but how did English teach hip-hop?

Like other writers, hip-hop artists dedicate years immersing themselves in language in order to refine their craft. Whether improvising rhymes in freestyle or writing the lyrics of the next #1 single, it’s clear that these artists have an appreciation for words.

Tupac, for example, might have been someone you’d want in a book club. Not only did he spend his spare time reading, including such works as Macbeth and Les Misérables, but he could comfortably discuss literature with strangers. In fact, one such conversation could be arguably what got him his start in hip-hop. He once struck up a conversation with a woman he’d never met before about Winnie Mandela’s book, A Part of My Soul Went with Him. The stranger ended up being Leila Steinberg, both an instructor and music manager. Tupac made such a positive first impression that she introduced him to the rap crew Digital Underground. He worked his way up until becoming the respected and influential hip-hop artist he is today.

What about Slim Shady? His rapid-fire lyrics — and ability to rhyme with orange! — are evident that he has a firm grasp of language. In fact, a 2015 study by MusixMatch revealed that Eminem had the largest vocabulary of hip-hop artists. The results are not entirely surprising, especially considering Eminem has frequently mentioned that he studied the dictionary.

As he said in a 60 Minutes interview in 2010, “I just felt like I [wanted to] be able to have all of these words at my disposal, in my vocabulary at all times whenever I need to pull [them] out.”

His large collection of words have certainly become useful, especially when making extemporaneous verses that still adhere to meter and rhyme.

Jay-Z, like Eminem, obsessively hoarded words. He attributes his affinity for them to his 6th grade teacher, Miss Lowden.

“It was very difficult for teachers to give you one-on-one attention,” he said in an interview with Forbes magazine, “And there was this one sixth-grade teacher named Miss Lowden. She must have seen something in me, and she gave me this attention and this love for words. It’s funny how it works, just a little bit of attention.”

The boost to his confidence and the teaching of language helped him become one of the most successful musicians, producers, and businessmen today.

Jay-Z, Eminem, and Tupac are only three examples of musicians who have dedicated a large part of their lives to studying language; there are, no doubt, countless others. The connection between English and hip-hop is unmistakable. Educators have played, and will continue to play, a large role in shaping future artists.

Teach powerful words through passages that even your most reluctant readers will love with Vocabulary in Context: The History of Hip-Hop.