Meet the Creators of The Hip Hop Book Club—The Young Rap Ambassadors Pushing the Culture Forward
Last Friday, Google celebrated Hip Hop’s 44th anniversary by creating the ever-popular Google Doodle in Hip Hop’s honor. When clicked, the doodle comes alive transforming into two interactive turntables complete with a crate of iconic records a user can mix and match to channel their inner disc jockey, if only for five minutes. The doodle also impresses on the user a bit of Hip Hop history as Fab 5 Freddy, an early Hip Hop ambassador, recounts the legendary Bronx summer day when DJ Kool Herc extended the break beat and ushered in a new sound—birthing a vibrant Hip Hop generation that continues to this day.
While admired by Hip Hop lovers everywhere, the institutional recognition from Google won’t ever eclipse the element that carried the genre to other-worldly heights. I’m talking about the fervent, insightful, sometimes controversial dialogue that Hip Hop lovers embrace the world over. This aspect of Hip Hop is so fundamental to the culture that Chris Rock made an entire movie about it. Enter the Hip Hop Book Club (HHBC), a young group that understood this eternal truth and designed an event that centers Hip Hop’s rich, discursive roots while also honoring the art form that transformed the world.
I happened to catch the creators of HHBC in Washington D.C. after their first event outside of their hometown Dallas, Texas. It ended up being standing room only as Hip-Hop lovers passionately dissected Reasonable Doubt, JAY-Z’s 1996 classic album. By the end of the event, there was no question they had another hit. Gracious enough to spare a few minutes before celebrating their first book club on the road, I parlayed with the four founders (Attah “A.T.” Essien, Kenny Reeves, Terrance “T. Lee” Lee, and Sobechi “Sobe” Ibekwe) to learn more about their idea to discuss influential Hip Hop albums, their interpretation of the genre’s rapidly changing sound, and what’s next for the growing platform. Oh, and, their intent to continue producing quality content and “make that sh*t look sexy” while doing it.
From what I understand, HHBC originated from a GroupMe chat. What was that like? How did an idea shared among friends turn into a live event?
Kenny Reeves: You’re right. The idea of the Hip Hop Book Club started out in a GroupMe chat for a podcast me and T. Lee created. At first, we planned to just get together as a group of friends and discuss the merits of a particular rapper’s discography. We considered discussing JAY-Z’s discography first. But then, T. Lee suggested that we turn the concept into a full blown event and it grew organically from there. We decided Kendrick Lamar’s first album—Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City—would be a good album to start HHBC off. We then started to discuss a curriculum and that’s when we got the idea for our four pillars.
That’s right. I did notice that each of you talked about a certain aspect of the album. It seemed that the discussion was intentionally divided into four sections—influence, visuals, production, and lyrics. Tell me why these were chosen as points for discussion. Do you consider these elements to be fundamental to Hip Hop?
A.T.: Most definitely. We wanted what we were discussing to not only work in the HHBC setting, but to translate elsewhere within Hip Hop. You can’t talk Hip Hop without talking lyrics. The same could be said for music production. And then, there are elements of Hip Hop that transcends music. For instance, the visual pillar addresses music videos and marketing material. Pretty much everything you see when you take in an album.
Hip Hop is a vast genre with endless amounts of music. How do you choose an album to talk about?
Sobe: We want to pick albums that impact the culture. That is the benchmark. We want an album that people still listen to, or if they haven’t listened to before, could go back and listen to it in 2017. We want to discuss those bodies of work where the artist just blacked out and made something incredible. We consider those to be classic albums and best for our event.
Do albums also need to be Billboard acclaimed?
In Unison: Hell naw!
T.Lee: We’re not those people, bro. In the past, we discussed albums that have yet to reach platinum status. For example, we had an event recently to discuss Lord Willin’, an album that has yet to go platinum. It’s the influence that matters to us.
What did each of you do prior to the book club? How has your prior work influenced what you do now?
Kenny Reeves: My day job doesn’t have anything to do with HHBC. But aside from that, T. Lee and I have a podcast I mentioned to you earlier called Good Culture. Our podcast basically opened up the door for people to hear our opinion on matters in Hip Hop. People gave a damn about what we thought, which gave us confidence. What we did on the podcast turned out to be a natural transition to what we do on the stage.
A.T.: I’m in digital marketing, so HHBC has little to do with my day job. But at my core, I just love Hip Hop. When we get together, we talk about it in the way you would talk about it with your friends. I’m also an event promoter, and T. Lee and Kenny Reeves had the podcast. So, our talents complemented each other.
Sobe: We all love music. And for me, music has been the constant in my life when other things weren’t as consistent. Before this, I had a brief stint with Complex Music. And I was also the content editor for another music blog. I wanted to be an A&R. Still do. I feel that HHBC is my opportunity to contribute something positive to the culture and still be myself. Hip Hop gets sh*tted on in the media, so it’s a beautiful thing to get together and have good, intelligent dialogue with people of all backgrounds, creeds, and colors.
T. Lee: As the visual guy, I’m the imaginative one. I’m comfortable around these guys, which helps to keep me at my most creative. It’s refreshing to have an outlet where I can share my opinion on matters that are important to me. I’m enlightened after each event. I also want to contribute something original to the culture and we think it’s important to grow this particular aspect of the culture as the genre can easily be demonized. But ultimately, this team is amazing. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
What can an attendee expect from HHBC? Any unique aspects that differentiate the book club from other ways to engage with music?
T. Lee: Well, you’ll first find that we come prepared. People should expect to receive thorough information on an album, but we don’t aim to lecture. We want people to bring their own experiences and add to the collective understanding. You should come away from our event thinking of the album in a new way. While in preparation, we also try to understand what makes Hip Hop good for us and for others. However, we never try to pick an album that everyone loves. We have moments where we don’t agree and that’s a good thing.
Kenny Reeves: This is our first HHBC outside of Dallas. We usually host them at a local record store called Josey Records. But, D.C. was a natural fit because we also host other events here, too. We were nervous at first. But, it turned out that DC was super receptive and Songbyrd definitely showed us love. We will definitely plan to do more here.
What are some of the challenges of putting together HHBC?
T. Lee: Honestly, every time we go out there we’re going to make that sh*t look sexy, bro. The only thing that can stop us is us. As long as rappers rap, we are going to be here. We don’t want to sound cocky, but I’ve never worked with a group of people that had so much determination. That’s why we’re so confident.
Where do you think HHBC will end up 5 years from now?
Sobe: We plan to be in more schools and colleges. With the success of DC, we want to continue to take HHBC on the road. Maybe one day we’ll end up on Beats One or Tidal. We just want this to eventually reach a larger platform. This is the first play in a long line of work for us.
Last question. Where can people find you?
You can follow us on Instagram @hiphopbookclub.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.