WHEN I HEAR HIPHOP, I think of Heidegger. Yes, Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher who was a student (and successor) of the famous phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. In fact, it's not so much Heidegger as his most influential and complex work, Sein und Zeit (which was first published in 1927 and translated into Being and Time in 1962), that matters to me. Like most philosophers, Heidegger's views and ideas changed over the years, and so one has to be specific about which period of the philosopher's career one is interested in or drawing from. Heidegger's career can be broken into roughly two parts: one which focused on metaphysics; the other on language. Considering that rap is a language art, one would think that the connection I make between Heidegger and hiphop is with the latter part of his career, but that's not so. It's with the former part, the metaphysical years, that I find my connections.

Now, Heidegger would have been pissed if he learned that some character in Seattle was not only associating him with hiphop, but, worst of all, with metaphysics. He did not consider himself a metaphysician; meaning, he was not trying to figure out or contemplate the transcendental or eternal, but simply making an inquiry into what it meant "to be" or "to be here" (Dasein, as it is called in German). Therefore, he was not investigating "man" or "eternal man," but simply man's awareness of being. As Michael Gelven points out in his commentary on Being and Time, the distinction is this: Metaphysics "makes claims of, what are we?" but Heidegger's inquiry (or fundamental ontology, as he called it) examines how such claims are possible. To give another example: You may ask, "What is a jail?" and I may answer that it has bars, keys, guards, and so on. This reply gives us an idea of the jail as an "entity." What Heidegger wants to know instead is what it is like to be in jail, to be punished for a crime, to feel guilty, to feel lonely and separated from your loved ones. In a nutshell, Heidegger wants to know what it's like "to-be-in-the-world" and not an "object-in-the-world." This is why he would have been displeased with me--he considers his work or book to be anti-metaphysical. But even though it's not metaphysical, it is responding directly to metaphysics, and so, by default, it is metaphysical.

The metaphysical side of Heidegger, the side that is preoccupied with "being-in-the-world," is where I find the links to hiphop. The position of the rapper, the star of hiphop, is always "within-the-world." The rapper never sings in the third person, or looks at the world from a distance, objectively, but is always inside looking out. This is why it is so hard, if not impossible, to cover rap songs: They are written from the rapper's point of view, or "self-point." With a profound sense of their presence or occurrence "within-the-world," rappers then analyze their immediate surroundings (Ice Cube's "Once upon a Time in the Projects" or Queen Latifah's "Just Another Day" also express what Heidegger called "everydayness"), the consequences of one's actions (Slick Rick's "Bedtime Story"), or perform an entire "existential analytic" (East Flatbush Project's "Tried by 12" or Notorious BIG's "Somebody's Gotta Die" are great examples of what Heidegger calls "throwness," the fate of being thrown into the world, into the heart of experience). Indeed, at their best, rappers stand in the world of the hiphop song and say to us, "This is my philosophy," as KRS-One famously put it.

A considerable part of the rapper's lexicon is Heideggerian. Take for example this expression: "Tupac's in here," or "I'm in the house." (Indeed, did not Heidegger call language "the house of being"?) In hiphop, to announce that you are "in the house" or "in here," is to celebrate your arrival at what Heidegger called "authentic self." In a word, it's the total assertion of your occurrence "in-the-world." And by saying, "In the 9 and the 8 (the year '98)," as C. L. Smooth does in "Da Two," the rapper celebrates his being in time.

Another philosophical expression rappers have at their disposal is "I'm feeling you." This expression has many uses. In one sense, it can be used by a performer to explain that his new song became a hit because people started "feeling" him, meaning he now holds the public's attention. Another use is to express agreement. For example, I recently posted a letter to the e-mail group "afrofuturist" that compared Wesley Snipe's new film Art of War (which I admired) to the film Strange Days. A fellow afrofuturist responded by disagreeing with my assessment of the Art of War (he wasn't feeling me on that one), but on the matter of the neglected 1995 film Strange Days he wrote, "Now I'm feeling you in Strange Days," meaning that he also liked it.

The use of "I'm feeling you" that I have in mind, however, is the one that constructs this circuit: One subject affirms the presence of another subject (not object) "in-the-world." And it is not an affirmation of physical presence, but the presence of his or her being. Q-Tip uses this philosophical form of "feeling you" in the song "Body Rock." It occurs at its very start, when a beeping, fussing, stressing computer is trying to establish a connection, fax-like, between its computer soul and Q-Tip's human soul. Finally, the connection is made, and Q-Tip announces his arrival at the computer's center of being by saying, "Okay, okay, all right... I'm feeling you." Heidegger was certain of "being-in-the-world," and also of "being with" (mitdasein) others. In fact, he describes "the world" as a "with world" (mitwelt), a "world-with-others." But he never imagined that beings "in-the-world" could connect at an ontological level. Indeed, this expression of total connection or continuity with something outside of being has no precedent in Western thought. Since Georges Bataille, we have associated continuity with death or an orgasm, which, in both cases, implies a loss of identity. Hiphop's "I'm feeling you" does not imply the dissolution of self, but a profound recognition of another self or "self-point" within the immediate area.

Links between hiphop and Heidegger are everywhere! I could go on proving it forever. But if you are still in doubt, if you think this is all just a lot of hogwash and I'm pulling your leg (you skeptical philosophy student!), then please listen to Large Professor and Pete Rock's marvelous 1995 collaboration called "The Rap World." Its chorus, which I will leave you with, goes something like this: "In the world, you got money and clothes/In the world, you got friends and foes/In the world, you got projects and texts/In the world, who knows what's next."

Support The Stranger

2021 Earshot Jazz Festival – In-Person and Livestream options through Nov 6
Presenting artists that convey the social and creative complexities of our times