The once quotable KRS-One once said, “The essence of Hip-hop truly is the transformation of existing objects and forms.” In Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip-hop (University of Michigan Press, 2013), Justin A. Williams takes KRS at his word and starts from the fundamental assumption that Hip-hop comes from putting together pieces of the past. Whether or not sampling and remix are legitimate cultural practices shouldn’t even be a debate anymore, and, thankfully, Williams’ concerns go much further than that.
Citing Serge Lacasse, he draws an important distinction between sampled and nonsampled quotation (the former being the straight appropriation of previously recorded material, and the latter being like the variations on a theme found in jazz: performed not cut-and-pasted), and in Chapter 4 “The Martyr Industry,” he tackles the haunting of Hip-hop by its fallen emcees, writing,
Rappers who sample martyrs such as Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. add to the creation of new identities, tributes that often become part of new narratives within the imagined community of hip-hop culture (p. 109).
In that chapter, Williams cites songs by Nas and Jay-Z who were both contemporaries of Tupac and Biggie. In Chapter 5, “Borrowing and Lineage,” Williams goes on to cover Eminem and 50 Cent, neither of whom were famous recording artists until after Tupac and Biggie passed the mic. Their collaborations with the dead emcees align them with the fallen rappers. Williams also does an adept job of illustrating how the concepts of lineage, continuity, and community come not only from the songs but from the fans and the press.
Williams’ approach is interdisciplinary, drawing not only from the usual cultural studies and aesthetics but also from musicology and history, as well as the evolution of technology. All of this makes Rhymin’ and Stealin’ a unique and informative read on a shelf otherwise crowded with similarities.
Another recent standout is How to Rap 2: Advanced Flow and Delivery Techniques by Paul Edwards (Chicago Review Press, 2013), the follow-up to his essential How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC (Chicago Review Press, 2009). Edwards’ books analyze rapping techniques from the practitioner’s point of view. This gives them a much different feel from the many studies concerned with aspects of poetics, literature, and figurative language use. That is, when you’re thinking of how words go together best and sound good together, you don’t care whether it’s assonance or antanaclasis, asterismos or anthimeria. You only care if it sounds dope or not.
Not that Edwards’ language isn’t precise — it is — the focus is on technique though, not analysis. Shit like Shock G’s Humpty Hump voice being an impression of the Warner Brothers Frog, which is itself an impression of Bing Crosby; using the impermanence of a verse to experiment with it; and trying out bars that don’t or barely rhyme: That’s what this book is about.
Continuing the care he took in part one, Edwards asks advanced wordsmiths for advice on rhythm, melody, pitch, timing, enunciation, percussion, playing characters, rhyme schemes, and rhyme patterns. Among the experts included are Cage Kennylz, Royce Da 5’9″, Brother Ali, Buckshot, The Pharcyde, Del the Funky Homosapien, Souls of Mischief, Freestyle Fellowship, Q-Tip, One Be Lo, Planet Asia, Sean Price, and my dude Aesop Rock, among many others. It’s a who’s who of lyrical prowess opened with a foreword by Gift of Gab.
Just when you thought there were already too many books on Hip-hop, these two essential texts come out, showing two more directions in which Hip-hop truly is about transforming and transcending.
I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.