Much Respect: Toward a Hip-Hop Theory of Punishment

35 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2007

See all articles by Paul Butler

Paul Butler

George Washington University Law School


This Article imagines the institution of punishment in the hip-hop nation. Hip-hop can be used to inform a theory of punishment that is coherent, enhances public safety, and treats every human being with respect. As a top-selling genre of music in the United States, hip-hop already has had a significant social impact. Now, in a remarkable moment in American history, popular music is weighing the costs and benefits of punishment. In a Rawlsian sense, members of the hip-hop nation are best positioned to establish a criminal justice system; they are, demographically, most likely to be victims of crime and most likely to be accused of crime.

Hip-hop exposes the current punishment regime as profoundly unfair. It demonstrates this view by, if not glorifying law breakers, at least not viewing all criminals with the disgust which the law seeks to attach to them. When too many people are absent from their communities because they are locked up, criminal justice has unintended consequences. In a hip-hop jurisprudence, retribution would be the object of punishment, but it would be contained by important social interests.

Part I discusses the relationship between popular culture and criminal law. Part II provides a short history of hip-hop culture, with special attention to the rule-breaking that attended the culture's birth. Part III describes hip-hop's relevance to the current debate in criminal law scholarship about social norms. Part IV sets forth several elements of a hip-hop theory of criminal law. The Article concludes by comparing hip-hop justice with constructs of justice found in civil rights and critical theory.

Keywords: incarceration, punishment, deterrence, hip-hop, rehabilitation, retribution, incapacitation, popular culture, rap, sentencing, social norms, drugs, crack

Suggested Citation

Butler, Paul D., Much Respect: Toward a Hip-Hop Theory of Punishment. Stanford Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 983, 2004, GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 314, GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 314, Available at SSRN:

Paul D. Butler (Contact Author)

George Washington University Law School ( email )

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