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Keeping It "Real": Making a Career in Pittsburgh's Rap Music Scene

Tienes, Jeffrey (2017) Keeping It "Real": Making a Career in Pittsburgh's Rap Music Scene. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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How do aspiring artists in the Pittsburgh rap music scene propel themselves onto the national stage? Through interactions with others in the local rap music scene, artists develop the skills, practices, and dispositions that allow them credibly to “do hip-hop”. Through ethnographic interviews of 25 aspiring artists and 2 years of observation of live performances, studio recording sessions, social media interactions, and other events, I trace the process of accountability through which artists demonstrate that they are in and of the culture of hip-hop: They assess themselves and others according to the rap music credo of “keeping it real,” and enforce adherence to this central criterion of artistic and personal integrity. Rappers hold themselves and others accountable for their ability to cite hip-hop – and realness – as a norm. Despite artists’ desires for a unified scene and literature that conceptualizes scenes as nurturing musicians’ careers, Pittsburgh’s rap scene is rife with instances of horizontal hostility; artists see others in the scene as threating their success. I analyze the diverse pathways by which artists develop their ambitions to pursue rap music as a career. I uncover social, economic, and cultural forces that guide artists into their aspirations in music. I catalog a set of strategies artists deploy as they try to “make it” in rap music, with a particular focus on how they transition from amateurs to professionals. As artists attempt to “make it” and accountably “do hip-hop,” their interactions are shaped by the ways race, class, and gender organize expectations, standards of realness, and possibilities for success in the rap music industry. This study enriches the literature on cultural production by showing how local music scenes can both hinder and help the careers of artists trying to break into the mainstream. Additionally, my findings and analyses add to sociological and cultural understandings of how race and gender shape and reinforce not only individual identities and career trajectories but also the limits and possibilities of creativity and what it means to “do hip-hop.”


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Tienes, JeffreyJtienes@gmail.comJmt1140000-0001-9427-4704
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairBrush, Lisalbrush@pitt.edulbrush
Committee MemberZboary, Ronaldzboray@pitt.eduzboray
Committee MemberDuck, Waverlywod1@pitt.eduwod1
Committee MemberHughes, Melaniehughesm@pitt.eduhughesm
Date: 28 September 2017
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 21 April 2017
Approval Date: 28 September 2017
Submission Date: 2 August 2017
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 352
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Sociology
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Authenticity, Hip-Hop, Gender, Ethnography, Professionalism, Identity
Date Deposited: 29 Sep 2017 00:55
Last Modified: 29 Sep 2017 00:55


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