The Alterity of Cool

William Melvin Kelley’s debut novel, A Different Drummer (Doubleday, 1962), imagines a different America, one where a slave revolt reconfigured the civil war and the nation thereafter. Three weeks before its release, Kelley flipped the term “woke” into its current common parlance in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. His central point was that the African Diaspora was responsible for the cool, “beatnik” slang of the time. One could say the same for hip-hop slang now. Some of it stays in predominantly hip-hop contexts, but quite a lot of it has traveled the wider world at large. As Biggie once rapped, “You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.”

Say word.

I dare say it’s gone farther than Big could’ve imagined. In Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States (NYU Press, 2016), Su’ad Abdul Khabeer traces the elusive cool to Africa, arguing that it’s “not the sole purview of U.S. Black American expressive cultures,” but that it is “fundamentally Diasporic” (p. 140). Cool requires detachment. Alterity is inherent in Muslim cool. Raised as a Muslim in the U.S., Khabeer operates as an anthropologist, enabling to both cross boundaries and remain of her subjects. Embedded and embodied, she nonetheless recognizes how these factors mediate her work, writing, “…simply being Muslim was never enough. In fact, my race and ethnicity (Black and Latina), my gender (female), and my regional identity (reppin’ Brooklyn, New York!) as well as my religious community affiliations and my performance of Muslimness mediated my access–how I was seen in the field, what was said to me, and what was kept from me–as well as my own interpretations of my field site” (p. 20). Just being “cool” ain’t always so cool. Sometimes it’s about standing out. Sometimes it’s about fitting in. The diasporic distinction of cool is one of the many things Paul Gilroy points out in The Black Atlantic (1995): History without a consideration of race and place is not history at all. In her ethnographic approach, Khabeer maintains attention to both and then some.

As Gilroy himself puts it, “the old U.S. cultural copyrights on hip-hop have expired.” Along with the rest of the globe, Europe is in the house. Some of the best at it are based over there. Dizzee Rascal is a native and a hip-hop veteran. Fellow East-Coast emcees M. Sayyid and Mike Ladd relocated separately to Paris years ago. Ex-New Flesh for Old emcee Juice Aleem also holds it down in the UK, among countless others. There’s an entire chapter on Aleem in J. Griffith Rollefson’s Flip the Script: European Hip-hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Sometimes to move ahead, you’ve gotta step back first. Rollefson investigates Aleem’s postcolonialism via pre-Enlightenment performative linguistics. It’s an Afrofuturist alternative history via precolonial tricks and tropes, not unlike Kelley’s reimagining in A Different Drummer. Aleem’s signifyin’ is one of many examples of Rollefson’s arguments regarding the postcoloniality of hip-hop.

“Hip-hop has come full circle at present,” South African emcee, Mr. Fat (R.I.P.) once said. “Emcees are like the storytellers of the tribe, graffiti is cave paintings, and the drums of Africa are like turntables: This is our ideology.” (quoted in Neate, 2004, p. 120). Indeed, as hip-hop has moved from around the way to around the world, mapping it requires a deft hand, a def mind, an understanding of the alterity of cool, and a handle on histories other than those in the history books.

References:

Gilroy, Paul. (1995). The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kelley, William. (1962). A Different Drummer. New York: Doubleday.

Khabeer, Su’ad Abdul. (2016). Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States New York: NYU Press.

Neate, Patrick. (2004). Where You’re At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet. New York: Bloomsbury.

Rollefson, J. Griffith. (2017). Flip the Script: European Hip-hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schulz, Katheryn. (2018, January 29). The Lost Giant of American Literature. The New Yorker.

Wallace, Christopher. (1994). Juicy. On Ready to Die [LP]. New York: Bad Boy/Arista.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Documenting Hip-hop: Ice-T’s The Art of Rap

Though he rarely gets his due outside of hardcore heads, Ice-T has always been one of Hip-hop’s best storytellers. Songs like “6 ‘N the Mornin'” (1987), “Colors” (1988), and “Drama” (1988) set the bar high for poetic narrative. These songs were gritty tales from the streets of L.A., “gangsta rap” before it was so-called (back then Ice-T called it “crime rhyme”). Now he’s set out to tell the story of Hip-hop itself in the documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (Indomina, 2012).

In addition to his pedigree as an emcee, Ice-T also knows every veteran of the game. On the selection of rappers in the film, he told Soul Culture (embedded below; runtime: 6:48), “I just went through my phonebook, that’s all it was. It wasn’t an intent to cut out the young kids or anything. I just said I’m going to do a movie (and) I can’t offer money. I can only get favors, so let’s call my friends. And I called up the people I toured with.” That explains a lot of the inherent omissions of a documentary of this nature. With that said, the film is a fun collection of thoughts from a range of Hip-hop luminaries. What it lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in breadth.

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There is a literacy to Hip-hop. “It’s just like a language,” says DJ Premiere, “You have to know how to listen to it… And if you don’t know how to listen to it, it doesn’t make sense.” The Art of Rap is similar in that it helps to already have a knowledge of the history of the culture, its major players, and their relationships with one another. For instance, when fellow West Coast rapper Ras Kass asks if Ice is getting an interview with Xzibit for the film, Ice says he can’t find him. Ras calls XZibit at his house down the street, and Ice-T makes it his next stop. Or when he’s up in Eminem’s studio. After talking with Eminem at length, Ice is chopping it up with Royce Da 5’9″, and Em comes in rapping Ice-T’s “Reckless” from Breakin’ (1984).

When Ice-T sits down with many of these folks, it’s obvious that they’ve been friends and colleagues in this for years–especially people like Ras, Dr. Dre, Snoop, Ice Cube, Rakim, Redman, MC Lyte, Q-Tip, and Lord Jamar. With others, Ice doesn’t even step in front of the camera (if he’s even there; it’s especially noticeable during the Kanye West spot). The Art of Rap gives one glimpses of the heavies in the game, but knowing a bit of their backstory helps those glimpses go together.

Of course, Hip-hop has been explored in previous documentaries. Peter Sprier’s The Art of 16 Bars (QD3, 2005), DJ Organic’s Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme (Bowery Films, 2000), and Doug Pray’s Scratch (Palm Pictures, 2001) provide a decent overview of the complexity of this art form. But Ice-T brings a special touch to the film. He knows almost everyone in this movie in a way that other documentarians of same do not.

If you lack the interest or the time to read some of the great books written about the genre and culture, Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap won’t school you completely, but it’s a fun companion piece to your further knowledge. As always, Ice-T tells the stories well.

Here’s the trailer [runtime: 2:33]:

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I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Reading Hip-hop: No Nostalgia Needed

If you’ve ever gotten the impression that the music industry is run by crooks, reading any part of Frederic Dannen’s Hit Men (Vintage, 1990) will more than confirm your suspicions. The false nostalgia some of us feel with the onset of the so-called digital age sees the past as something to which we need to return. A little research will dispel any delusions one might have about a golden age as far as the music industry is concerned. Nowhere is this feeling more prevalent than in Hip-hop. Ask anyone and they will tell you that it used to be better. Though if you ask them when exactly it was better, they’ll all have a different answer. Most will cite a time period that falls somewhere around 1988, as The Golden Era of Hip-hop is widely considered to be around that time.

A lot of the people who yearn for the years of yore are older. I was in high school in 1988, so one might expect me to feel that the best time for Hip-hop was during my formative years. I honestly don’t feel that way though. As my friend Reggie Hancock would say, “Wow, you’re so very well-adjusted about things that don’t matter,” but in many ways our attitudes do matter. A false nostalgia poisons progress, and Hip-hop is plagued with such attitudes. No one touched by this culture in the 1980s was left unchanged, but shit ain’t like that anymore. Nostalgia implies false or “imagined memories,” memories that are empty, devoid of significance that we fill in with what we imagine they were like. Paul Grainge (2002) points out an important distinction between nostalgia as a commercial mode and nostalgia as a social or collective mood. The former is often enabled by the latter as we drool over reissues of long lost demo tapes or clamor for reunion tour tickets. Thanks to recording technology, we live in an era when, as Andreas Huyssen (2003) put it, “the past has become part of the present in ways simply unimaginable in earlier centuries” (p. 1). With that said, the nostalgic friction that hinders the forward motion of Hip-hop is more about production and distribution, and more than any other genre of recorded music, Hip-hop led the way to the ways of today.

People say that Hip-hop is more than a genre of music–it’s a certain bounce in your stride, it’s the way you shake hands, it’s the ideas that circulate in your head. It’s the ideas that don’t circulate in your head. A philosopher might say it’s a way of being in the world. An authority on the subject, like the rapper Nas, says, “It’s that street shit, period” (Williams, 2010, p. 63).

Surely, the conception of Hip-hop as a lifestyle is part of the problem (as well as possibly part of the solution), but of all the things those folks invented in the South Bronx so long ago, nostalgia ain’t one of them. For those that bemoan the text of Hip-hop but miss the subtext, as Dan Charnas puts it, these words are not for you.

In his massive tome, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop (New American Library, 2010), Charnas charts the economics behinds the rise of Hip-hop from minor subculture to global phenomenon. It’s a far further in-depth and far more focused Hit Men, and upon reading it, anyone’s nostalgia for a better bygone era should be summarily squashed. The chapter on Ice-T’s hardcore band Body Count’s “Cop Killer” (“Cops & Rappers”) alone should be more than enough to murder any ideas that things in the music industry used to be better. Even Def Jam, that bastion and beacon of branding and boom-bap was plagued with bad management, back-handed deals, and pathetic working conditions. You’ll wonder why you ever pulled the curtain back on these wizards of your dreams.

It’s unfortunate for some and generates fortunes for others, but Hip-hop is big business. Its hard-earned lesson is this: If you don’t make money a priority, you will never have any. Mind your business lest you lose your mind. The history behind the scenes is trife, rife with broken lives and forgotten talent.

Like me, Sujatha Fernandes was transformed by Hip-hop in the 1980s. Attempting to reconcile the money-grubbing from record labels and the international solidarity felt by fans, in Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip-hop Generation (Verso, 2011), Fernandes seeks the ties that bind all ethnicities behind the music and the movement. Her book is informed by her early 80s induction, all four elements of the culture, and a deep love for all of the above. Close to the Edge is about a whole world of people finding just what they were looking for. From Sydney to Chicago (including an appearance by our man Billy Wimsatt), Cuba to France, Fernandes follows Hip-hop around the world looking for the heart she feels beating so strongly in this culture.

As scholars such as Tricia Rose and Imani Perry claim, Hip-hop is fundamentally a black cultural form. It is also colonized by every other. Who better to study its effects than an expert on colonialism? Jared Ball is that dude. His I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto (AK Press, 2011) posits an emancipatory journalism based on the trope of the mixtape. From jump, he writes, “despite tremendous shifts in image and application, African America (and by extension the rest of the country and world) continues to suffer a process of colonization subsumed within a media environment more pervasive and all-encompassing than any other known in world history and against which alternative forms of journalism and media production must be employed” (p. 3). Ball concurs, as I’ve argued elsewhere that the mixtape is Hip-hop’s unsung mass medium. As Maher (2005) put it, “there wouldn’t be a rap music industry if it weren’t for mixtapes… the development of Hip-hop revolves around [them as] a singularly crucial but often overlooked medium” (p. 138). Ball goes on to argue that the mixtape is the perfect tool for the job. He certainly mixes what he likes, and his crates are deep!

When I found Hip-hop, I lived in the hinterlands of southeast Alabama. Unbeknownst to the nostalgic youth of today, that good ol’ Hip-hop from the golden age wasn’t all over the radio. If you wanted to hear it, you had to go find it. Early on, you only found it on mixtapes. Now every region has their mixtape gurus, and one of those is Atlanta’s DJ Drama. Ben Westhoff‘s Dirty South (Chicago Review Press, 2011) tells the story of the RIAA busting into his spot with dogs and guns looking for “illegal” mixtapes, guns, and drugs. They only found the former, but that didn’t stop them from confiscating those, as well as much of his studio gear, computers, and four vehicles, two of which he never got back (talk about colonization…). I use scare quotes to describe the legality of Drama’s mixtapes because, unlike the well-known bootleggers and indolent crooks, his are made in collaboration with the artists and with label backing. “During the raid,” Drama says, “there were people [at the labels] that were like ‘Why is this happening?'” (quoted in Westhoff, p. 187).

Westhoff’s book tells this and many other stories of southern artists finding their way in an industry once dominated by representatives from the Coasts. There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind who’s paid any attention at all that the South is definitively on the Hip-hop map now. The artists are too many to name here, but Westhoff tells all their stories. He dug deep and has returned with the definitive history of the Dirty South.

A chapter on the South is one of the welcome additions to the new edition of That’s the Joint! The Hip-hop Studies Reader (second edition) edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal (Routledge, 2011), and if you’re interested in a more scholarly look at the culture, this is your new bible. Since its release in 2004, the first edition has proven indispensable, and the update is fresh. Gone are a few outdated articles, including the error-riddled Alan Light piece (Joan Morgan‘s great piece on Hip-hop and feminism is thankfully intact), and, in addition to Matt Miller’s “Rap’s Dirty South” chapter, there are new joints by Greg Tate, Kembrew McLeod, Imani Perry, H. Samy Alim, and Craig Watkins, among several others (Tricia Rose is noticeably absent). This a one-book crash-course in Hip-hop history, theory, culture, criticism, and politics.

Speaking of one-book crash-courses, Jay-Z’s Decoded (Speigel & Grau, 2010; co-authored by dream hampton) covers everything mentioned above: The growing up with Hip-hop, its moving from around the way to around the world, taking care of the business, and many of Jay’s lyrics are also broken down herein in the style of RZA’a Wu-Tang Manual. Hell, it’s even mildly nostalgic: “The feeling those records gave me was so profound that it’s sometimes surprising to listen to them now.”

While Hip-hop nostalgia in the commercial mode is not ever likely to cease as it is so heavily marketed, and each generation tries to make the next nostalgic for what they miss, our own nostalgia as a collective mood can change. Maintaining the essential tension between tradition and innovation is paramount (Kuhn, 1977), but we have to let it go where it wants. It’s the only way to see what the next generation of Hip-hop heads will create. Reading books that take the culture seriously enough to criticize as well as celebrate is one way to see past our own biases. As El-P once told me, “I don’t hold on to too much nostalgia because I don’t have to.” That, my friends, is the joint.

References:

Ball, Jared. (2011). I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Carter, Sean (Jay-Z). (2010). Decoded. New York: Spiegel & Grau.

Charnas, Dan. (2010). The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-hop. New York: New American Library.

Dannen, Frederic. (1990). Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business. New York: Vintage.

Fernandes, Sijatha. (2011). Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip-hop Generation New York: Verso.

Forman, Murray & Neal, Mark Anthony (eds.). (2011). That’s the Joint! The Hip-hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1977). The Essential Tension: Selected Studies in Scientific Tradition and Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maher, George Ciccariello. (2005). Brechtian Hip-Hop: Didactics and Self-Production in Post-Gangsta Political Mixtapes. Journal of Black Studies, 36(1), 129-160.

Westoff, Ben. (2011). Dirty South: Outkast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who reinvented Hip-hop. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Williams, Thomas Chatterton. (2010). Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture. New York: Penguin.

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Hip-hop Then & Now: Chuck D, Common, and Joan Morgan Come to The University of Texas at Austin

On February 10th, 2011, Chuck D, Common, and Joan Morgan assembled in the brand new Student Activity Center at The University of Texas campus in Austin. It was an evening comprised of in-depth discussion, astute analysis, and the usual gripes.

If you know me, you know that Public Enemy is one of my all-time favorite groups regardless of genre. Their It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988) is not only what I consider the best record ever recorded, but was crucial in my lifelong fandom of Hip-hop (my own first book is named after a Chuck D lyric from the record). Chuck and P.E. were essential to my getting through high school and undergraduate studies.

Common has been one of my favorite emcees since I first heard Resurrection (Relativity, 1994) in the early 1990s. Not only was he the first rapper out of Chicago that I heard (peace to E. C. Illa), but he seemed to be keeping the Native Tongues torch burning bright at a time when they were fumbling (no disrespect; they got their grip back). He has taken risks, pushed boundaries, and remained successful where others follow trends or fall off.

Joan Morgan is a bad ass. She’s been doing Hip-hop journalism since before it had a name. Her presence and insights in this talk were invaluable, and I wish we’d had more time to hear from her (I’m hoping to interview her for the site at a later date; fingers crossed). Her angle is vehemently feminist, nuanced with knowledge, and tempered with truth. When Nicki Minaj became the topic of discussion, she was one of the few people I’ve heard speak on the Regis Philbin incident. That story should’ve been in everyone’s face, but it was invariably buried.

If nostalgia is the longing for a past that never existed, then the SAC Ballroom was full of just that. Joan asked if the crowd thought that Hip-hop was better “then” than it is “now,” and most of the hands in the room went up. I find this very troubling. I was one of the few, including our three honored guests, who actually there “then” (I heard students around me say that they didn’t know who Chuck D was until they looked him up after hearing about this event). I continue to argue that Hip-hop is better now. Sure, everything that came out then was that next new shit. The genre was young and finding its way (I would also argue that it still is), so there was plenty that hadn’t been done or heard yet, whereas now those styles have been done and heard. But for every Public Enemy and Common, there was an MC Hammer and a Vanilla Ice. Go back and listen to the average record from 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1994 — pick a year: Most of them sound dated and not near as complex and interesting as the worst thing out today. Sure, there are exceptions, but as a whole, Hip-hop is better now. It just is. Thinking that you missed the best of it is problematic on many levels.

Chuck mentioned the fact that fans now have access to the past in a way that the fans of then never did. This is a key insight. Technology curates culture. You cannot assume that the next generation doesn’t know about something from the past. They might not grasp the historical context of say “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy, “Wicked” by Ice Cube, or even “Fuck the Police” by N.W.A., which were uncompromising responses to volatile times in our nation’s history, or to grasp what it was like to hear The Low End Theory, Straight Outta Compton, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) — or It Takes a Nation of Millions… for that matter — when they dropped. But you can’t assume they haven’t heard them or seen the videos. It’s all out there.

On the other hand, Common blamed technology for the lack of creativity and “feeling” in current Hip-hop. This argument troubles me as well. It’s a non-argument that leads to an infinite regress. Hip-hop’s detractors claim that sampling — whether with turntables or sequencers — isn’t really making music. They claim that at best it’s lazy and at worst it’s theft. No one at this talk would agree with that, but it’s the same argument. Saying that technology takes away the human element and therefore the feeling of music or that it makes it too easy thereby giving someone an unfair advantage is the same thing as claiming that sampling isn’t a viable way to make music in the first place. It’s all about what you do with it. Heads know better.

These are not new issues, and I was hoping we’d moved past them. Hip-hop — then and now — is still the most interesting thing happening in music. I will always love H. E. R.

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Here’s a handheld video (no cameras were allowed) of the Q&A session with Common, Joan Morgan, and Chuck D in the SAC [runtime: 8:13]:

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I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.

Rappin’ is My Radio: New Books on Rap Poetics

One of my favorite Hip-hop studio tales is from the recording of “Brooklyn’s Finest.” The story goes that Jay-Z and Biggie were sitting in legendary D&D studios in New York City listening to Clark Kent’s beat, a pen and a pad on the table between them. “They’re both looking at the pad like, Go ahead, you take it. No, you take it,” says Roc-A-Fella co-founder Biggs, “That’s when they found out that both of them don’t write.” That is, neither of these emcees write any of their rhymes down. They write, edit, and recite straight off the dome. Their method isn’t freestyling per se, but it’s still quite amazing.

Insight like this into the creative processes of Hip-hop is rare, but becoming more prevalent as the culture is recognized for what it is: the last salient, significant musical and cultural movement in history — and one that is now global in scale (Omoniyi, 2009). A few years back, Brian Coleman‘s book Check the Technique (Villard, 2007; née Rakim Told Me, WaxFacts, 2005) set out to fix this by providing liner notes to classic albums. “…it’s about talking to the artists themselves about their work as musicians, as creators.” he explains. “It seems to me that when you talk about music a lot of times, people tend to view the image of a group or at least the end product of their art, an album, as the most important thing. I think that the process of making them what they are as a group is as, if not more, important.” No question.

The books assembled here focus on language use, a tack that is often taken for granted in studies of Hip-hop (Alim, 2009), but one that is central to the culture and the music. Michael Eric Dyson (2004) puts it thusly:

Rap is a profound musical, cultural, and social creativity. It expresses the desire of young black people to reclaim their history, reactivate forms of black radicalism, and contest the powers of despair and economic depression that presently besiege the black community. Besides being the most powerful form of black musical expression today, rap projects a style of self into the world that generates forms of cultural resistance and transforms the ugly terrain of ghetto existence into a searing portrait of life as it must be lived by millions of voiceless people. For that reason alone, rap deserves attention and should be taken seriously (p. 67-68).

Enter How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC (Chicago Review Press, 2009) by Paul Edwards. This book is a collection of discussions with hundreds of emcees of all stripes about inspiration, techniques, writing, freestyling, flow, content, style, subject matter, etc. More specific topics like rhyme schemes, metaphors, rhythm, delivery, and collaboration are covered, and with a chapter each on working in the studio and performing live, contextual considerations are given due time as well. Comments, advice, and insight on all of the above from nearly everyone in Hip-hop who matters (including our dude Cage Kennylz) from every school and era that matters. Is your favorite emcee in here? Mine is. Here’s Sean Price on the art of flow:

Like Bruce Lee said, if the water is in the jug, it becomes that jug. If the water is in that bowl, it becomes that bowl. That’s how I approach it (p. 64).

It’s not all koans and riddles though. For instance, here’s Clipse’s Pusha-T on Jay-Z and writing in your head:

Anything that you’ve ever heard of anybody saying about seeing Jay-Z in the studio, what does he do? He mumbles to himself, he walks around, he mumbles to himself, he walks around, he mumbles to himself, then he’s like OK, I got it. It’s not like, stroll into the booth and [record immediately]–he plays with the idea. Paper and pen is nothing but comfort, to me it’s nothing but being comfortable and being able to look at it, digest it, and say OK, this is how it’s supposed to [go]. But if you can train your mind to do it without that, that’s dope (p. 144).

The next few pages go on to explain the reasons one might want to learn to write in one’s head, and techniques for doing so. How to Rap covers every technique in this way. Weighing in at over 300 pages and introduced by a Kool G. Rap-penned foreword, this is seriously the handbook emcees have been waiting for.

Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-hop (Basic Civitas, 2008) breaks down emceeing in a different, but just as useful and intriguing manner. He digs deep into the meter, rhyme, and rhythm of rap in search of its poetics. “In the hands of unskilled poets and MCs alike,” writes Bradley, “rhyme can be an impediment, and awkward thing that leads to unnatural sounds and unintended meanings. But rhyme well used makes for powerful expression; it at once taps into the most primal pleasure centers of the human brain, those of sound patterning, and maintains an elevated, ceremonial distance from regular speech” (p. 57). Emcees must stay elevated, maintain that distance, but not drift too far away.

Since rap is a battle-borne art form, emcees must continually add on with their contributions while maintaining the culture’s heritage. That is, a practitioner must make something new while still adhering to the rules. Thomas Kuhn (1977) described an essential tension in science between innovation and tradition: Too innovative and the theory is untestable, too traditional and it’s not useful. The same tension can be said to exist in Hip-hop, as if one “innovates” without regard to “tradition,” one is no longer doing Hip-hop. Where lyrical interpolations are concerned, one must not adhere too closely to the original source lest one be accused of biting. “What separates ‘biting’ and ‘enlightening’ is the difference between repetition and repetition with a difference,” Bradley writes (2008, p. 150) It’s a delicate balance to be sure, but one of which a violation is not difficult to discern.

Bradley, along with Andrew DuBois, continues his exploration of rap’s poetics with The Anthology of Rap (Yale University Press, 2010). This giant tome compiles over three hundred lyrics from over thirty years of Hip-hop. The editors shot here for diversity rather than inclusion, thereby showing rap’s poetic and stylistic breadth rather than just its sheer quantity, though the book does weigh in at just under 900 pages. It also sports an foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., afterwords by Chuck D and Common, and essays that contextualize each major era of rap music. The four eras according to the editors are The Old School (1978-1984), The Golden Age (1985-1992), Rap Goes Mainstream (1993-1999), and New Millennium Rap (2000-2010). Among the undisputed legends and usual suspects, other monsters on the mic include Jay Electronica, Ras Kass, Edan, Eyedea (R.I.P., Mikey), O.C., Big L, Pharoahe Monch, Black Sheep, Brother Ali, and the homies Aesop Rock and Chino XL, among many, many others. Bradley points out in Book of Rhymes that lyrics are to be taken and judged differently when spoken as when on the page, and The Anthology of Rap gives one a chance to do the latter. It is comprehensive, definitive, and essential to be sure.

And if you don’t think people care about lyrics anymore, these are Sean Price‘s final words in Paul Edward’s How to Rap book:

I think it’s going to get back to lyrics, man, and that’s good. I’m ready for that, I can rhyme. Redman, he can rhyme, Jadakiss, he can rhyme–it’s going to get back to them [MCs] who can spit real hard-body lyrics, lyrics that count—Talib Kweli and all of them, they spit bodies. I like those dudes (p. 312).

Word is bond.

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Here’s the book trailer for The Anthology of Rap [runtime: 3:12]:

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References:

Alim, H. S. (2009). Straight outta Compton, straight aus Munchen: Global linguistic flows, and the politics of language in a global hip-hop nation. In H. S. Alim, A. Ibrahim, & A. Pennycook (Eds.), Global linguistic flows: Hip-hop cultures, youth identities, and the politics of language (pp. 1-23). New York: Routledge.

Bradley, A. (2008). Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-hop. New York: Basic Civitas.

Bradley, A. & DuBois, A. (2010). The Anthology of Rap. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Coleman, B. (2007). Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies. New York: Villard.

Dyson, M. E. (2004). The culture of hip-hop. In M. Forman & M. A. Neal (Eds.),That’s the joint: The hip-hop studies reader (pp. 61-68). New York: Routledge.

Edwards, P. (2009). How to Rap: The Art and Science of the Hip-hop MC. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.

Erwin, J., Malcolm, S. A., Duncan-Mao, A., Matthews, A., Monroe, J., Samuel, A., & Satten, V. (2006, August). “Told You So: The Making of Reasonable Doubt.XXL Magazine, 10, 7, pp. 89-102.

Kuhn, T. (1977). The Essential Tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Onimiyi, T. (2009). “So I choose to do Am Naija style” Hip-hop, language, and postcolonial identities. In H. S. Alim, A. Ibrahim, & A. Pennycook (Eds.), Global linguistic flows: Hip-hop cultures, youth identities, and the politics of language (pp. 113-138). New York: Routledge.

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Apologies to Aesop Rock for ganking his “No Jumper Cables” lyric for the title of this piece (“Rappin’ is my radio, graffiti is my TV, B-boys keep them windmills breezy”).

[Top photo of Ras Kass by B+. Photocopy treatment by royc.]

I marshal the middle between Mathers and McLuhan.