02/07/2012 06:51 BST | Updated 27/08/2012 06:12 BST

Google Puts Hip-Hop on Trial

Google has a problem - its social network G+ has some neat features, but very few people use it regularly - 83% of users are 'inactive', preferring the established Facebook and Twitter. One of these neat G+ features is 'hangouts' which allows people to have video conferences.

'Why not persuade people to come and participate in a Google Hangout?', the Google marketing people must be wondering, 'We could pick a ridiculous topic that young people would be interested to participate in, fly a bunch of the right people to London and film them and others on G+ Hangouts.'

So the geniuses at Google realised that Hip-Hop is popular with young people, and decided to arrange a debate titled 'Hip-Hop on trial: Hip-Hop doesn't enhance society, it degrades it', staged last night (Tuesday), which would get plenty of the target demographic irate and involved.

On paper, it looked amazing. A stellar line-up included civil rights campaigner and one-time presidential hopeful Rev Jesse Jackson, one of the greatest rappers of all time- KRS One, Egyptian rapper Deeb who was one of the voices of the Arab Spring, Benjamin Zephaniah, and John Sutherland (yes, that John Sutherland).

Emily Matliss was David Dimbleby, and Jemima Khan hosted feedback from digital viewers.

Defending the proposition came Eamon Courtenay, an avuncular lawyer from Belize (Belize? Yes Belize - please keep up), who argued that Hip-Hop was once a great artform, but has become 'debased'.

The argument against came from Michael Eric Dyson, 'hip-hop intellectual' and professor of sociology at Georgetown University. His bombastic, rapid-fire delivery was far less sympathetic than Courtenay's and you would think twice about buying a used car from him.

Opening debates out of the way, Courtenay and Dyson cross-examined the assembled bigwigs to bring their arguments to life. The hip-hop fraternity defended the great things Hip-Hop brings, while the intellectuals attacked Hip-Hop's weak spots - misogyny, use of the words 'Nigger', 'Bitch', and 'Ho', and a general infatuation with crime culture.

Rev Jackson went off-piste early on, saying politicians not rappers debased society, citing the invasion of Iraq. So far so good.

Unfortunately, the debate quickly descended into farce. One extended segment painfully explored whether rap was in fact poetry. Rap clearly is poetry, but the questioning rumbled on and on regardless with participants becoming increasingly angry and frustrated.

I'm no professor of literature but John Sutherland, who is, made the remarkable comment, without a trace of irony that: "In 20 years, Tupac will be thought of in the same way as Walt Whitman is now." Really? Tupac?

The G+ Hangout feature was used sparingly, to speak to Khan, A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q Tip, Slaughterhouse, British rapper Estelle and ?uestlove of The Roots, and finally a bemused P J O'Rourke who asked, "One question - what the fuck am I doing on this panel?"

Eclipsing even Jesse Jackson, the big draw was KRS One, who meditated on the 'N' word: "Nigger, or Nigga, or as in the ancient Ethiopian, Negus, which means 'king'," a point made three times to defend its use. He later claimed a lyric by Kanye West where we refers to his 'bitches' was about a car. He seemed to have his tongue firmly in his cheek, and couldn't help smiling when Courtnay asked him, "So when you are using the 'N' word, you are referring to yourselves a kings?"

None of the rappers gave an inch but of the other participants there was a loose consensus that too much modern Hip-Hop is not terribly good, particularly commercially successful Hip-Hop. Several interesting areas were raised - the marketing by record labels for example - but never explored.

Another major flaw was using Hip-Hop's great and good to make the arguments. KRS One has been prominent in the 'Stop the Violence' movement since his DJ partner Scott La Rock was shot and killed in 1987. ?ueststlove and Q Tip are similarly regarded as the good guys here. Slaughterhouse appeared briefly and absurdly to defend the use of the word 'bitch', but to make this debate work, a rapper like 50 Cent, who if far more difficult to defend and does rap about prison, guns and making money would have made a far more effective addition.

Star of the night was Tricia Rose, author of Black Noise, who was the perfect mixture of angry and eloquent, panning sloppy, sexist rap but backing its transformative powers.

Low points included Maitlis asking The Roots' ?uestlove if he would consider writing more positive lyrics. Whoops - rather like asking the Pope to be Catholic. A handover to Jemima for viewer comments resulted in a frozen picture - the technology had fallen over. "Oh dear, Jemima has frozen," said a helpless Maitlis.

Another glaring inconsistency was the overwhelming focus on American rap, where opinion is most polarised and excesses are most evident. Because the event was hosted in London, little was said about British rap which is undergoing a very healthy and exciting renaissance, and tends towards the conscious or considered, which I suppose makes it very British.

So, no smoking gun, limited exploration of any topics of real value, but the night was undeniably fun.

Jesse Jackson rounded the night off with some call and respond with the audience, echoing the late James Brown: "I am... Somebody," which completed the evening on a high.

I can't see the project converting more people to G+, as the buzz generated reverted largely back to Twitter, but cynically using a topic designed to inflame opinion was probably a good idea. A shame it fell over in the execution, which is a common complaint of G+ itself.