Floating Signifiers: The Haunting of Hip-hop
by the Ghosts of Emcees Passed

August 21st, 2012 | Category: Essays, Videos

You know the story. On September 7, 1996, Tupac Shakur was shot as he waited at a traffic light in the passenger seat of Suge Knight’s car on the Las Vegas strip. He died on September 13. Six months later, on March 9, 1997, Christopher Wallace a.k.a. Biggie Smalls was gunned down in Los Angeles.[i] The two had been embroiled in a media-abetted, bi-coastal battle for Hip-hop supremacy, dividing the majority of the Hip-hop nation into two camps, East versus West.[ii]

On April 15, 2012, Tupac’s ghost performed to a packed crowd at the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California. The appearance of this apparition stunned and delighted those in attendance. The continued presence of both Shakur and Wallace represents an opportunity to examine how the genre represents a hauntology based on its use of pieces of the past in musical samples, lyrical references, and puffed-up personas, and how this haunting plays out in the larger contemporary culture.

Hip-hop is haunted by a number of dead performers (e.g., Adam Yauch, Jam Master Jay, Guru, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Big L, Big Pun, Eazy-E, Proof, Pimp C, et al.). Their ghosts continue to release records, do duets with living acts, and appear on its magazine covers. Over a decade later, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur are the two most prominent of these ghosts. They are deities subsequent emcees must pay homage to by mentioning them, performing posthumous duets with them (of course, having done a record with one or both before their deaths is the most respected position), or aspiring to become them. At the end of the music video for his song “99 Problems,” Jay-Z is gunned down on the streets of New York City. The song is from his Black Album (2003), which was supposed to be his last release. Preparing to retire from the hustle of recording and performing, Jay-Z simulated his own death, imitating the high profile and unsolved slayings of two of his contemporaries, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.

Hov got flow though he’s no Big and Pac, but he’s close.
How I’m supposed to win? They got me fighting ghosts.
— Jay-Z, “Most Kings” (Unreleased), Decoded, p. 98.

The practice of literally sampling previously recorded pieces of music, vocals, and sounds has remained integral to the process by which Hip-hop music is created. Hip-hop’s practice of sampling and manipulating sounds and voices lends itself to haunting. Schwartz writes that sampling “ultimately erases the line between the quick and the dead,”[iii] and Peters adds that mediated communication via recording “is ultimately indistinguishable from communication with the dead.”[iv] The DJ in Hip-hop combines and reanimates bits and pieces of old recorded history to create new compositions. Indeed the pioneers of the genre had little more than records, record players, and speakers.[v] “That’s how rap got started,” says Public Enemy emcee Chuck D, “Brothers made something out of nothing.”[vi]

Derrida calls our obsession with recording “archive fever,” writing, “The archivization produces as much as it records the event.”[vii] Nowhere is our feverish archiving of things for the future more powerful than in digital recordings. As Rimbaud puts it, “Capturing these moments, storing them, and redirecting them back into the public stream enables one to construct an archeology of loss, pathos, and missed connections, assembling a momentary forgotten past in our digital future. It is a form of found futurism.”[viii] Sterne adds that the advent of sound recording maintains the promise of future archeology, writing, “sound recording is understood as an extension of the art of oratory—a set of practices that depended heavily on the persona and style of the speaker and relations between the speaker and audience.”[ix] Sterne’s analogy to oratory rings true with the emcee in Hip-hop.

Hip-hop music is an artistic and aesthetic form similar to that of literature, and sampling is a similar practice to that of reference, allusion, and quotation in literature.[x] Regarding European novels, Meyer stated that the “charm” of quotation lies “in a unique tension between assimilation and dissimilation: it links itself closely to its new environment, but at the same time detaches itself from it, thus permitting another world to radiate into the self-contained world” of the piece.[xi] The use of quoting, or sampling, therefore creates “a new entity greater than any of its constituent parts.”[xii]

Further conflating sound recording and literature, Peters writes, “The phonograph, as the name suggests, is a means of writing.”[xiii] McLuhan stated that, “the brief and compressed history of the phonograph includes all phases of the written, the printed, and the mechanized word,”[xiv] and Peters points out that the phonograph “is a medium that preserves ghosts that would otherwise be evanescent.”[xv] Biggie and Tupac haunt us in the same way that the ghosts of literature do. Quoting Philip Auslander in their discussion of haunting in music, Shaffer and Gunn argue, “‘listeners do not perceive recorded music as disembodied’. Rather, he argues that listeners and performers fashion a ‘fictional body’ or personae when listening to music, an imaginary corporeality that is ultimately associated with a ‘real person.’”[xvi]

As many other so-called “gangsta rappers” have claimed, Tupac Shakur hoped to exact change by exaggerating ghetto narratives, stories of poverty and neglect.[xvii] The son of a Black Panther, Shakur grew up painfully aware of the disadvantages of his minority status.[xviii] Once the Panthers dissolved, Shakur’s mother, Afeni, raised him alone, often without a job and sometimes without a home due to her off and on affair with crack cocaine.[xix] In many ways in his short life, Tupac Shakur faced every ill with which the American black man struggles.

Christopher Wallace (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls; The Notorious B. I. G.) lived a similar, truncated life story. Raised by a single mom, Wallace came up hustling in Brooklyn and rapping on the side.[xx] The hours of standing on street corners, selling crack afforded Wallace plenty of time to rehearse his street-borne rhymes. At the time of their deaths, they were also entangled in the largest battle in Hip-hop history. Shakur was shot five times outside of a studio in which Biggie was recording.[xxi] The coincidence was too much to be ignored and helped launch the much-discussed East Coast/West Coast Hip-hop battle, which was primarily waged between Tupac and his label Death Row Records and Biggie Smalls and his label Bad Boy. The feud, largely conducted via lyrical shots, eventually ended in both of their deaths.

While Biggie was posthumously honored with a film biography in 2008 entitled Notorious, Tupac remerged in 2012 at Coachella as a “hologram.” The ghostly image, which was accompanied on stage by Tupac’s peers Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, was actually a nineteenth century special effect known as a Pepper’s Ghost, a trick that’s been used to create apparitions in haunted houses. John Henry Pepper, after whom the effect is named, along with Henry Dircks developed the technique to make ghosts appear on stage.[xxii] And that’s just what visual effects company Digital Domain did at Coachella, much to the awe of the music fans present and those who have seen it via the internet.

Viewing Hip-hop as a hauntology illustrates how deep our culture’s ghosts run. From the musical samples, lyrical references, recorded memories, and now rapping revenants, the haunting seems endless. Thanks to recording technology, we live in an era when, as Andreas Huyssen put it, “the past has become part of the present in ways simply unimaginable in earlier centuries,”[xxiii] and more than any other genre of recorded music, Hip-hop is willfully haunted by its own ghosts.


[i] Joy Bennett Kinnon, “Does Rap Have a Future?” Ebony, June 1997, 76.

[ii] Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005).

[iii] Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles (New York: Zone Books, 1996), 311.

[iv] John Durham Peters, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 176.

[v] Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn, Yes, Yes, Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-hop’s First Decade (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002).

[vi] Quoted in Russell A. Porter, Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-hop and the Politics of Postmodernism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995), 73.

[vii] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 16-17.

[viii] Robin Rimbaud, “The Ghost Outside the Machine,” in Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture, ed. Paul D. Miller (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), 131-134.

[ix] Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: The Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 308.

[x] For further discussion of the correlations between literature and rap music, see Richard Shusterman, “Challenging Conventions in the Fine Art of Rap,” in That’s the Joint: The Hip-hop Studies Reader, ed. Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (New York: Routledge, 2004), 459-479, and Richard Shusterman, Performing Live: Aesthetic Alternatives for the Ends of Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000).

[xi] Herman Meyer, The Poetics of Quotation in the European Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), 6.

[xii] E. E. Kellette, Literary Quotation and Allusion (Cambridge: Heffer, 1933), 13-14.

[xiii] Peters, Speaking into the Air, 160.

[xiv] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

[xv] Peters, Speaking into the Air, 160.

[xvi] Tracy Stephenson Shaffer and Joshua Gunn, “‘A Change is Gonna Come’: On the Haunting of Music and Whiteness in Performance Studies,” Theatre Annual 59 (2006): 44.

[xvii] Tricia Rose, The Hip-hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip-hop and Why It Matters (New York: Basic Civitas, 2008).

[xviii] Eric Michael Dyson, Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur (New York: Basic Civitas, 2001).

[xix] Chang, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, 46-47.

[xx] Jake Brown, Ready to Die: The Story of Biggie Smalls, Notorious B.I.G. (Phoenix, AZ: Collossus Books, 2004).

[xxi] Dyson, Holler if You Hear Me, 2001.

[xxiii] Huyssen, Andreas. (2003). Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ed Note: This is an edited excerpt of a chapter from my book-in-progress, Hip-Hop Theory. It was originally a much longer and much different piece co-written with Joe Faina for Josh Gunn’s “The Idiom of Haunting” seminar at UT-Austin (which is being offered for the last time this fall). Many thanks to Josh Gunn for his knowledge and guidance on this topic.

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