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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Our Wounded Deserve Better

How much money do wounded veterans receive from the VA system?  Not much, according to a Washington Post piece.

The Center for Investigative Reporting released a telling infographic today that breaks down how much money veterans are eligible for based on the severity of their injuries.  This chart is eye-opening and is a painful reminder of how much the US neglects wounded veterans.  
Vets deserve better

Here are some highlights: If you lose a hand or become deaf from combat, you are eligible for a whopping $100 extra per month; if you lose both legs, you can get between $1,000 - $1,300 dollars in compensation; and if you are paralyzed, you are eligible for $2,100 in extra funds each month.  These are shameful figures, but the VA system isn't to blame here.  If anything, these figures point to the enormous financial strains that the VA system is under.  Nevertheless, this chart should be a huge stain on our public conscience.

While reading this article, I couldn't help but think of the young men that I followed around for 2 years in Philadelphia.  These men didn't suffer from lost limbs and weren't paralyzed, but faced similar kinds of physical and mental health challenges long after they had been shot.  Contrary to what the average person thinks, these young men also weren't caught up in gangs, drug dealing, or running with the wrong crowd, either.  The public health scholar and physician, John Rich, shows us the folly in this logic in his excellent book "Wrong Place, Wrong Time."  Like Rich, my work also shows that many gunshot victims simply live in dangerous neighborhoods, where everyday activities like walking home from school or going to the market can become fatal or near fatal activities.  

Some of these injuries were the kind that knocked previously able-bodied young men out of work.  Others suffered from less visible, but equally frustrating injuries that disrupted their personal and social lives.  One of the young men that I followed had his testicle blown off in an armed robbery.  Although he was otherwise "fine," he suffered the shame of losing a testicle and feeling emasculated.  And the vast majority of these men didn't have health insurance, which led some--like an informant I called "Paul"--into risky pill hustles to treat crippling pain and injuries.  

To be sure, the Affordable Care Act represents a monumental move toward insuring the most vulnerable. But, early reports are showing that many of the folks who stand to gain the most from the ACA missed the March 31 deadline to enroll in a health care plan.  Many didn't know about the deadline, some thought the deadline had passed, and others are saying that they'll remain uninsured even though they'll get fined in the coming tax year for non-compliance to the mandate.

All of this underscores the need to rethink political priorities in America.  In most industrialized nations, health care is considered a right, much like an education.  Let's hope that the ACA represents the first step in a move toward insuring and caring for all of our wounded.  They all certainly deserve better.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Renzo Gracie and the Sociology of Fighting

Renzo Gracie and some of his friends have been arrested for their role in a street fight.

This isn't the first time that Renzo Gracie (an MMA legend and BJJ black belt) has made the news for street fighting.  Many of you might remember that Gracie recently live tweeted while beating and stalking two guys who tried to mug him in NYC.
Renzo Gracie is the wrong person to mug

Not surprisingly, this event elicited mixed responses from the blogosphere and martial arts community.   Some people praised Renzo, saying that he was like a modern day Batman taking down thugs on the street; others were skeptical and said that Renzo acted like a thug, stalking his prey, and then celebrating it on Twitter.

Someone shot a video of his most recent altercation, but the video leaves much to the imagination.  As viewers we don't get to see who started what, or how the altercation even unfolded.  Instead, we are treated to the poster's comments about how Renzo is an MMA legend and see a crowd of people milling about, after the violence.

In other words, most of us have no grounds to start judging Renzo, his friends, or the bouncers in this fight.  We weren't there and don't know how this fight started or why Renzo and his friends were moved to fight.

Randall Collins shows us that violence unfolds in stages
Sociologists like Randall Collins and Curtis Jackson-Jacobs remind us that fighting is often the end result of a much lengthier social process.  They don't just "happen" and it's quite rare for people to blindly attack strangers.  Even people who go out "looking" for fights create opportunities to get into them.  The person who walks through a crowded bar and accidentally "bumps" into someone is inviting others to start something that can lead into a fight.  From there, mutual combat isn't even a given.  Fights often begin with some kind of small transgression that balloons into more serious kinds of shoving, blustering, and threats of real violence.  And then, as people become increasingly entrained into each other's rhythms, violence becomes more and more of a possibility.  The physical act of getting into a fight, then, is hardly inevitable and rarely a one-sided affair.

This is why I'm so disappointed with major news coverage of this fight.  The New York Post (which can hardly claim to be a legitimate news paper these days) has published a horribly slanted article about the fight.  Instead of talking about the fight as an event that police are investigating, post writers have framed Renzo and his friends as "thugs" who went after a helpless bouncer.

Why have journalists all but written off the bouncer's role in this fight?   Could it be that the bouncer tried to intimidate or bully Gracie, who then swiftly smashed him?  Before rushing to conclusions, it would be wise for the media to think more carefully about how fights happen.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Dr. Dre is now the Richest Person in Hip Hop (So will he finally drop Detox now?)

Dr. Dre just became the richest person in Hip Hop.

That is crazy.  The mastermind behind N.W.A.'s beat-making and the guy responsible for launching the careers of Snoop, Eminem, 50 Cent, and most recently Kendrick Lamar was estimated at a worth of $550 billion dollars. According to Forbes, Dre's net worth was only second to P.Diddy's in Hip Hop, who is reportedly worth $700 billion dollars.

But, scratch that. Earlier this week, Dre sold his "Beats" brand to Apple for a reported 3.2 billion dollars!  After taxes, Dre is estimated to be worth $800 million, making him the wealthiest Hip Hop entrepreneur.

Dre in the lab
This news has coincided with my own Dr. Dre renaissance.  I've been knee deep in writing this week and have been on a Dr. Dre binge.
From well-established hits to leaked singles from his long anticipated "Detox" album, I've been enjoying the simple and hypnotic sounds of Dre's production style.  His style might not work for you, but he has forever changed the ways that we look at producing and has a sound all his own.

For the past couple years, people in the industry have speculated that Dre was going to release Detox.  In 2010, he came out and said that the final album was done and that he was deep into mixing and mastering the album.  Like you, I waited eagerly for the album to drop.  In an era when consumers buy singles off iTunes, I waited on pins and needles, hoping that Detox would mark his triumphant return to Hip Hop.

But, 3 years have passed and Detox still isn't out.  As time goes by, people are becoming increasingly skeptical about Detox ever being released.  I recently saw an interview with Juelz Santana, who said that Dre must be scared to drop it because of the already insanely high bar that he has set for himself.

"And you don't stop..." A young Snoop with Dre
His previous two albums -- The Chronic and Chronic 2001-- are Hip Hop classics.  Mix that with Dre's long known perfectionist tendencies, and you get a picture of a guy who might be stuck in his own head about this album.  Or, so it seemed.  

A recent article in the Guardian has shed additional light on why he might have been reluctant to release Detox. Some of you might remember when he released "Kush," a song with both Snoop Dogg and Akon.   The article mentions the lukewarm reception to this and other singles and suggests that Dre and his team didn't want to drop Detox out of fear that it might hurt the Beats brand.   So, in addition to possible anxiety about Detox and his artistic legacy, Dre may have been concerned that a lukewarm (or worse critical) response to Detox could hurt his pockets.  So long as Dre continued working on building his brand and producing for other artists, he could avoid having Detox flop and having people say that he fell off.

In the end, we may never get the pleasure of hearing a complete Detox LP.  But, I'm holding out.  Even if it doesn't live up to the hype or his past, I feel like Hip Hop needs Dre back in the game.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop?

Who has the largest vocab in Hip Hop?

Matt Daniels, a New York designer/coder/scientist, has published a cool infographic that appears to answer this age old question.  His chart compares 85 Hip Hop artists and the unique words that appear in their music.  He selected the first 35,000 lyrics in an artist's history and compared them against one another.  I wonder how this list might look if he developed some sort of unique words per song average?  We could think of this figure like a baseball player's batting average of a basketball player's field goal percentage.  These figures might help account for style shifts across an emcee's career and give us a more accurate representation of how many unique words emcees use in their music.

Is this list really about vocab?
And if we did this, speed and cadence might begin to complicate his findings.

For instance, the Top 10 or so are dominated by East Coast artists, who tend to have a faster delivery than Southern and West Coast artists.  Producers and Deejays can attest to this, but the average Wu Tang or Aesop Rock beat is played at a faster BPM (beats per minute) than beats that Lil Wayne, Master P, or even Snoop rhyme over (who are predictably low on this list).

The one exception to this rule might be Bone Thugs N Harmony, who come in near the bottom of the list.  I wonder how this worked?  Daniels admits that Hip Hop is hard to transcribe and that it's full of compound words.  Could this help explain why Bone isn't higher on the list?

Lastly, I wonder what this list would look like if Daniels had also used less mainstream artists?  The list pretty predictably shows that artists whose songs are more club-oriented (e.g. Too Short, Lil Wayne, DMX--who have repetitive hooks and simple verses) appear lower on the list than those whose songs are less for the club and more for the Hip Hop 'head' (e.g. Kool Keith, MF Doom are quite high on the list).

An underground classic!
How might this list look if Daniels had used underground artists, too?  I wonder how Freestyle Fellowship, Busdriver, Nocando, and other Good Life/Project Blowed artists would appear on such a list?  And if we considered the words/song average, certain artists that rank high on this list, might drop down a tad, too.

If you think Aesop and other east coast artists rhyme quickly, you should listen to some of the aforementioned cats.  These guys rhyme faster than anyone I've ever heard.  They are part of a generation of emcees from The Good Life (the historical predecessor to Project Blowed) that created a style called "choppin'" which is a rapid-fire style of rhyming.  I write about this and other sides of aspiring emcees in my book, which is currently under review.  Marcyliena Morgan, a sociolinguist at Harvard, has also written about this in her excellent work.   But, to see an example of this, check out this video of P.E.A.C.E. and Ellay Khule--two Good Life/Project Blowed veterans--going back and forth freestyling with each other.

Anyways, this is just to say that Daniels has done some interesting descriptive stuff on Hip Hop and I am looking forward to seeing more.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Nas' Illmatic Should Be Required Listening

Now that I'm in my 30s, I regularly experience moments that make me feel old.

Today I had one of those realizations: It's been 20 years since Nas dropped "Illmatic."


For those who don't know, "Illmatic" is widely considered one of THE most influential Hip Hop albums of all-time.  If you asked around, you'd be hard pressed to find a serious 'head' who doesn't rank it in the top-5 Hip Hop albums.  Some might even put it in the top 3.

There are lots of reasons for why Illmatic is such an important album.  I would argue that it should be required listening for all high school students in the US.  Some of you might smirk at that idea, but it's really an important testament to the kind of creativity that emerges from poverty, racism, and harsh conditions in ghettoes across the world.  In this way, we can think of Illmatic like a primer for the uninitiated.

Anyways, here are three reasons why Illmatic is still dope 20 years later (feel free to add your own, too!):

Reason #1: It is a sonic masterpiece.  Nas worked with Hip Hop heavyweights like Dj Premier and Q-Tip on this album.  The end result is beautiful.  There are few Hip Hop albums that I can listen to from beginning to end.  I have some die hard friends who only listen to albums this way, but I've never been like that.  There are probably only a handful of albums--Hip Hop or otherwise--that can hold my attention from top to bottom.  Illmatic is one of them.  If you're not familiar (or if you haven't heard it in awhile), take a stroll down memory lane.  The album isn't bloated with filler.  It's sleek.  There are 10 songs, which run for a total of about 40 minutes.  You can listen to the entire album in a subway ride.  Some folks would later criticize Nas for releasing albums that have a mix of heaters and filler.  Illmatic is only heat.

Reason #2: Nas' skills are on full display here.  I've talked to so many emcees and heads over the years and there are lots of different ideas about why Nas is so beloved in the Hip Hop community.  I'm paraphrasing, but many talk about how Nas is so respected because he perfectly balances storytelling and wordplay--two of the main pillars in the emcee's craft.  There are other artists who write better songs and surely others who have a more creative and dense wordplay.  But, there aren't many who combine both into a beautiful synergy like Nas.  For good examples, check out "One Love" and "Represent."  In different ways, both are masterful examples of Nas' rare blend of effortless storytelling and wordplay about life in the Queensbridge Projects.  Also, there is a rare kind of maturity in his songs.  Nas doesn't glorify violence, drug dealing, and other local issues, but he doesn't skirt them, either.    

Reason #3: Finally, we all love Illmatic because it's one hell of a debut.  Nas recorded it as a teenager!  Is there a better debut by a Hip Hop artist?   It takes many years for artists to find and cultivate a unique style.  Many go through various growing pains before they find a style that is uniquely their own.  I sometimes cringe when I listen to old albums by my favorite artists, but Illmatic seems to stand the test of time.  Aside from some of the production sounding dated, Nas' verses and rhymes could still hold up under modern day scrutiny.  I'm no emcee, but Nas reminds me of Rakim in this way.

All of this is to say that Illmatic is an important part of Hip Hop's continual evolution and history.  It's been fascinating to see Nas and other artists grow into new roles over the years. Much like other pioneers whose influence extends beyond music, Nas has also become a cultural ambassador.  Many of you might remember how Harvard University announced the launching of the Nasir Jones Fellowship to support Hip Hop studies in the academy last year.  And in addition to a special 20th anniversary album, fillmakers One9 and Erik Parker are releasing a documentary called "Time is Illmatic."  The documentary will cover the album and has already opened in some film festivals to resounding applause.  I can't wait to see it!  Until then, I'll be bumping some more "Illmatic."

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Oscar Pistorius and the Likelihood of Accidental Slayings

Remember Oscar Pistorius?  He's the South African runner who made headlines for competing in the Olympics on prosthetic legs.

Shortly after the games, he made headlines again for shooting and killing his girlfriend, South African model Reeva Steenkamp.  He testified today in his murder trial.

Pistorius and Steemkamp at an all white party
The details of this shooting are very bizarre.

Pistorius and his defense team claim that the fatal shooting was a big mistake.  According to their story, Pistorius thought that intruders were breaking into his house through a tiny bathroom window.  After hearing the sounds, he went for his gun and fired a number of rounds from his 9mm pistol.  They also claim that he was doing all of this on his stumps, without the aid of his prosthetics.

The prosecution is arguing that Pistorius premeditated the shooting and may have shot Steenkamp in a jealous rage.  Different media sources report that Steemkamp may have received a text from an ex-boyfriend, which could have led to a fight.  A lead detective in the case also claimed that Pistorius had a violent past and had arrested Pistorius for assault (he was never charged).  One account even claims that detectives found a casing in the bedroom, which led some to doubt Pistorius' story.  In their version, Pistorius likely fired at Steenkamp in the bedroom.  She fled into the bathroom, which is where she met her end.

I don't have data from South Africa, but accidental slayings with guns are extremely rare.  Let's look at the US for illustration.  In 2010, the CDC reported that there were 31,513 firearm deaths in the US; 19,308 were suicides and 11,015 were homicides.  600 were accidents.  That's about 2% of all shooting deaths.  I looked around for more data, but couldn't find out what percentage of accidental shootings were self inflicted vs. "other" inflicted.  This would be interesting to note, because it could give us a slightly better heuristic for thinking about the statistical probability of Pistorius' story.

I'm certainly interested in seeing how all of this plays out.  I just find it hard to believe that someone can fire a bunch of rounds inside their home and mistakenly kill their partner.

What do you think?  Is this a terrible accident?  Or, is this a crime of passion?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Narco Cultura, Randol Contreras, and Torture

If you have 90 minutes and love documentaries, you might want to check out Narco Cultura.  It's on Netflix and is a powerful, visually stunning, and sobering look at the drug cartel wars in and around Juarez.

This is one of the best documentaries I've seen in awhile.  It's certainly the best one I've seen on the drug wars in Mexico.  The film is directed by Shaul Schwarz, an award-winning Israeli photojournalist.  This is his debut film and it really makes a mark.  The scenes are just stunning.  Schwarz and his crew capture the grinding, dusty poverty along the US-Mexico border. They also show you communities and families who are destroyed by all the chaos and killing.

Ironically, they also show you people whose fortunes are tied to different cartels.  Most of the documentary follows a young guy living in Los Angeles who is an aspiring "narcocorrido" singer.  "Narcocorrido" is a type of Mexican folklore music that tells the stories of drug cartel outlaws.

It sounds quite similar to norteno, a type of folklore music that I grew up hearing a lot as a kid in Cathedral City, CA.  Up until I was 12, I lived in a small apartment complex across the street from this big Mexican church.  I'd stay awake at night and hear the booming sounds of accordions and people singing through my bedroom windows.  Sometimes the music would reverberate against the windows and feel like an earthquake.  And then, I'd hear people blaring it out of their car windows.  The music would quickly come into aural focus and then fade away into broken notes as cars raced down the block.

 I had no idea what people were singing about, but loved the sounds of accordions and the passionate singing.  (I later learned that lots of songs were about 19th century battles between the US and Mexico).  Musically, narcocorrido sounds like traditional norteno, but the content is a lot different.  Narcocorrido music tells the outlaw stories of executions, beheadings, massacres, and other extreme violence committed by the cartels.  The rise of this genre only seems to further glorify the lives of cartel members, who exert enormous power over people living in war zones like Juarez.

A bloody crime scene in Juarez

Although the entire documentary is great, I was particularly struck by one scene where Schwarz and his crew interview a member of the Sinaloa Cartel.  They go into a prison near Juarez and talk to a guy who tells them about torture.  He describes how he and his crew beat a guy with baseball bats and then hammered nails into his hands and limbs.

Much of this interview reminds me of scenes from Randol Contreras' "Stick Up Kids," an incredible urban ethnography about South Bronx drug robbers.  In one chapter Contreras interviews young men from his neighborhood and gets them talking about burning and mutilating drug dealers.  This book isn't for the feint of heart, but it's an important study of young Dominican men whose lives are destroyed by the drug game.

But, unlike Contreras' stories--which highlight the sometimes sadistic pleasure that people get from torturing others--Schwarz's interview leaves you with a different picture.  The interviewee describes the lingering trauma that he felt during and after his torture.  He talks about being scared while torturing his rival.  He also explains how his higher-ups would see any sign of weakness as a sign that he was useless.  So, to hide this (and protect himself), he became super violent and beat this poor guy's head to a pulp.  Afterwards, he couldn't sleep for a week.  He felt regret.  More than anything, this interview helped humanize hitmen and agents of cartels who are also victims in their own right.  We see these men at the mercy of organized cartels that have a stranglehold on places like Juarez.

Anyways, Narco Cultura is an excellent documentary. It helps put some faces on a drug war that sometimes feels surreal.  It also got me thinking a lot about the human toll of drug wars.  Here are some sobering facts. Juarez is a city of approximately 1.3 million residents.  In 2011, there were nearly 2,000 people murdered.  This means that the murder rate was 148 per 100,000 residents.  It had the 2nd highest murder rate in the world that year.  This was 2.5 times higher than the murder rate of New Orleans (58 per 100,00) which was the murder capital of the US.