During my undergraduate days, my friends and I used to play a silly game. Whenever a situation or topic came up and they pointed to me, I would attempt to recite a relevant rap lyric. Sometimes it was a stretch to get Ice-T or the Beastie Boys to fit a late-night Waffle House run, but I was rarely stumped.
As Gorham and Gilligan (2006) put it, “media allusions represent an important way in which audiences make use of the cultural products around them to form relationships with others and build community out of shared media experiences” (p. 3). That is, we determine which texts are appropriate for appropriating and which resonate with the shared beliefs of our community (Linde, 2009). We run around in these collective “textual communities” (Stock, 1983). Members of said communities allude to the same, shared texts in their personal narratives. The shared texts are where we “compare notes” on our collective experiences, as I used to do in college. The fans of a particular cultural artifact (e.g., fans of the band Rush, fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, etc.) do not constitute a textual community; textual communities are constituted by their sharing of similar texts in their personal narratives (Linde, 2009). A lot of these texts come from song lyrics.
Sometimes this sharing is called intertextuality, but the term is often misused and abused (Allen, 2000; Irwin, 2004; Orr, 2003; Roudiez, 1980). As originally coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966, the term meant “the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another” (Roudiez, 1980, p. 15; emphasis in original). Therefore, while lyrics, media allusions, and conversational sampling can all be considered intertextual, their intertextuality does not indicate a cohesive system of signs.
Reguardless, intertextuality says there is something outside the text — more texts. Building on Gérard Gennette’s work in art and literature (see Gennette, 1982; 1987; 1994/1997) , The Pop Palimpsest: Intertextuality in Recorded Popular Music (University of Michigan Press, 2018), edited by Lori Burns and Serge Lacasse, aims to explore those texts in popular music. I did my own dissertation research on allusions in rap lyrics, so I immediately gravitated to the chapters on hip-hop: “Rap Gods and Monsters: Words, Music, and Images in the Hip-Hop Intertexts of Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye West” by Lori Burns and Alyssa Woods would’ve been invaluable in my earlier research; “Intertextuality and Lineage in The Game’s ‘We Ain’t’ and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘m.A.A.d. City'” by Justin A. Williams also immediately grabbed me; “Mix Tapes, memory, and Nostalogia: An Introduction to Phonographic Analogies” by Serge Lacasse and Andy Bennett overlaps with a couple of new areas of my research.
It’s not all rap lyrics and samples though: Everything from French Vaudville and Neil Young to Genesis, E.L.O., and Eurythmics get a spin. And it’s not all just research either: The Pop Palimpsest is that rare academic collection that’s exhaustively researched and meticulously assembled, but also damn fun to read. The book has inspired dueling desires: I wish it had not only come out earlier but also that I could have contributed.
Allen, Graham. (2000). Intertextuality: The New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge.
Genette, Gérard. (1982/1997). Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Genette, Gérard. (1987/1997). Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Genette, Gérard. (1994/1997). The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Gorham, B. W. & Gilligan, E. N. (1997, May). And now for something completely different: Media allusions, language, and the practice of everyday life. A paper presented to the Language and Social Interaction division, ICA, Montreal.
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.”
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.
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.
As it always does, my to-read stack has already doubled just from compiling and editing this year’s Summer Reading List. Get ready to add to yours, because there’s plenty below that you’re going to have to check out. There are so many books to read and so many ways to read them, you have no excuse not to read every chance you get.
This year we have recommendations from newcomers Paul Edwards, Paul Tremblay, Mark Bould, and Matthew Gold, along with past Summer Reading List contributors Dominic Pettman, Dave Allen, Lance Strate, Alex Burns, Alice Marwick, André Carrington, Patrick Barber, Lily Brewer, Alfie Bown, Charles Mudede, Mike Daily, Brian Tunney, Gerfried Ambrosch, Jussi Parikka, Paul Levinson, Steve Jones, Peter Lunenfeld, and myself. Prepare yourself for a hefty stack of pages with words.
As always the book links on this page will lead to Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the biggest and best bookstore on the planet. Read on!
Gabourey Sidibe This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017): I’m already enjoying this a few chapters in, because the chapters read well on short trips. It’s not only funny, it’s genuinely touching. Sidibe has been a breakout star thanks to TV, but what has really flipped the script on her tragic/triumphant character in Precious is her incredible wit. I’m excited to see how she writes about her successes and the setbacks put in her way.
Janet Mock Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me (Atria Books, 2017): I read Redefining Realness (Atria Books, 2014) in like t-minus three days. I was so into Janet Mock’s voice and her ability to move me, as a reader, through times and places while conveying really important principles she’s come to value in her life as a Black trans woman with Native Hawaiian ancestry. The twenty-something memoir is an interesting genre that I hope will help me age into mentoring relationships as I approach my next decade. Mock is already decisive about putting her own life lessons and interests into forms that connect with more and less privileged people, and I expect that she’s even more reflective in this book. Recently, she launched a podcast, Never Before, and the first episode with Ms. Tina Knowles-Lawson was just… poise.
Regina Bradley Boondock Kollage: Stories from the Hip Hop South (Peter Lang, 2017): Regina is a colleague whom I’ve had the distinct honor of befriending earlier this year. I bought this book for my partner, and I’m going to have to get my own, because I need to read these stories as much as anybody else. I made my way through some classic short stories while teaching a course on science fiction, recently, and there was nothing like this that blended hip-hop, Southern everyday life, and race consciousness; there should be, and now, there will be. She’s giving you a voice from the South for the 21st century and beyond.
Mehammed Amadeus Mack Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture (Fordham University Press, 2017): While it’s hard to keep pace with contemporary criticism, because of the pressure on academics to increase productivity, just like in every other profession, I want to say I’m catching up with people who have done the work in areas I care about. This is a study on desire, the nation, ethnicity, and religion, as well as sex, gender, and sexuality. I’m going through 2017 without knowing if there’s any such thing as loyalty to the field of queer studies. So, for me, it’s important to do work that makes academia a space where we can exist, as desiring people, from marginalized backgrounds, engaged in a dialogue that implicates all of the social formations that claim us.
Simone Browne Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Duke University Press, 2015): A fantastic and long-overdue intervention, arguing that surveillance practices cannot be understood without interrogating the long history of policing Blackness.
Christo Sims Disruptive Fixation: School Reform and the Pitfalls of Techno-Idealism (Princeton University Press, 2017): Sims spent years inside an experimental NYC public school built around gaming. Its story becomes a cautionary tale of well-meaning tech philanthropy and how idealized educational technology often reinforces the status quo rather than upending it.
Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. (William Morrow, 2017): I read every Stephenson new release and although I wasn’t a huge fan of Seveneves (William Morrow, 2015) this techno-thriller about an academic, magic, and time travel seems more up my alley.
Reading biographical and historical accounts is one method of time travel, and I also intend to read up on the subject more generally by diving into James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History (Pantheon, 2016). Time being a topic of great interest to me, another book on my summer stack is Now: The Physics of Time by Richard A. Muller (W.W. Norton). Two books on language also have caught my eye and are on my pile, The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe (Little, Brown & Co., 2016), and Words on the Move by John McWhorter (Henry Holt, 2016).
Lastly, I look forward to savoring the recently published collections from two of my favorite poets, Mata Hari’s Lost Words by John Oughton (Neopoiesis, 2017), and Ego to Earthschool by Stephen Roxborough (Neopoiesis, 2017).
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (Haper Perennial, 2007), a thoroughly depressing and vitally important work of non-fiction (first published in 1973), will probably ruin your summer, but, in the long run, it will give you a profound understanding of what life was like under communism. Suffice it to say, George Orwell’s dystopian—and somewhat prophetic—depiction of a totalitarian Soviet-like state in his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (Secker & Warburg) was no exaggeration. Solzhenitsyn points out the crucial role of ideology—in this case, Marxism/Leninism/Stalinism—in the formation of totalitarian societies.
Douglas Murray’s new book, entitled The Strange Death of Europe (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2017), gives an unsettling account of the recent refugee crisis and why it really is a crisis. In his rather pessimistic view, Europe is on the rocks because it has failed to assert a meaningful first-person plural that autochthonous Europeans can identify with and immigrants can integrate into. The British journalist (The Spectator) and political commentator argues—compellingly—that Europe’s current discourse around identity, immigration, and Islam is dominated by a sense of surrender and cultural masochism, which has played into the hands of far-right groups and parties.
One of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read is The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011) by the American cognitive scientist, psychologist, and linguist Steven Pinker. Pinker’s optimistic book traces, in compelling prose, the decline of violence in human societies from the Stone Age to the present, explaining the social, cultural, political, and psychological factors behind this surprising phenomenon.
If non-fiction isn’t your thing, you might want to pick up Alex CF’s 2016 fantasy novel Seek the Throat from which We Sing (self-released), “a visceral tale of animal mythology, of dark and foreboding rite and ritual and the desperate rasp of life.” Seek the Throat… is the prolific British artist’s stunning debut as a novelist.
The summer between my second and third year of what I once heard Matt Morris call “Doctor School” is dedicated to the delightful if not academically required preparation for my hotly anticipated comprehensive exams. Because the History of Art and Architecture department at the University of Pittsburgh has a flexible exams program, I am putting my 70-book-and-article reading list to use toward three projects, one being an online publication entitled Sedimenta. Sedimenta, to be a semi-annual collection of critical engagements with contemporaneity, is accreting intellectual efforts toward tracing, for example, shifting subjectivities in the Anthropocene and the deracination of modernist philosophies of nature and landscape toward contemporary philosophies of ecology and deep time. Philosophically Pessimistic attitudes toward artistic practice in the final decades of a green planet are always an alluring line of inquiry as well. After the first edition, Roy Christopher will team up with me as print editor. Most of the books I’m reading this summer are to this end.
A few I’d like to highlight are: Anthropocene Feminism, edited by Richard Grusin (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), which caught my attention with its unsaturated hot-pink cover; Former West: Arts and the Contemporary After 1989, edited by Maria Hlavajova and Simon Sheikh (MIT Press, 2017), which I have already lit up with tabbed passages. The intellectual enterprise of “formering the west” and its Modernity, so far, is a challenging and important one; Reverse Hallucinations in the Archipelago, edited by Anna-Sophie Springer and Etienne Turpin (K. Verlag, 2017), confronts nineteenth-century will-to-knowledge and challenges colonial science and its reverberations in the Anthropocene. In the last year, I have become very excited about K. Verlag’s series Intercalations. In fact, it was in Land and Animal and Nonanimal (2015) I saw the word “sedimenta/tion” broken over two lines, which unearthed Sedimenta in name; Arts of Living on A Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), is likely to be my most anticipated this summer after seeing Douglas Armato flipping it backward and forward in a tweet. I anticipate that this book will enlighten-up my Pessimistic attitude toward artistic practice on a dead and dying planet. I would also like to note that whether by dexterous memory or by Freudian slip, I keep spelling it “damnaged” planet.
As above, Lucy Lippard‘s works are always so gently quaking below.
Those are for my eyes. For my ears, I have Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Warp) from 2010 on eternal repeat while writing for said comprehensive exams. More on personal brand, I’m playing Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There (Jagjaguwar) from 2014. Special thanks to David Lynch (and earlier, Brit Marling), for bringing her again to my attention from the Bang Bang Bar.
Brian Allen Carr Sip (Soho Press, 2017): After reading Brian Allen Carr’s The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World (Lazy Fascist, 2014), which reminded me of the masterful compression achieved by Kenneth Gangemi in his ’69 “miniature novel” Olt, I numbered myself among his fans. I haven’t read any of Carr’s other books. Sip will change that. Take a minute and six seconds to watch the trailer for his “lyrical, apocalyptic debut novel about addiction, friendship, and the struggle for survival.” I guess TLHNitHotW was considered a novella…
Knut Hamsun Growth of the Soil (Vintage Books, 1921): “The typical quirks of Hamsun are still present, and avid readers will find his unmistakable voice booming from the pages.”– s.penkevich on Goodreads (5-star review).
James Joyce Ulysses (1922; Random House US edition, 1934): Time feels right to read Ulysses, I thought as I perused a used hardcover with dust jacket copy from a bookseller’s shelves inside an Ashland antiques emporium. It’s the complete and unabridged text, corrected and reset, containing the original foreword by the author (who “punningly referred to himself as ‘Shame’s Voice,'” wrote Paul Strathern in James Joyce in 90 Minutes), the historic decision by Judge John M. Woolsey whereby the Federal ban on Ulysses was removed in ’33, and a foreword by Morris Ernst.
My 2017 summer reading list was probably the least consequential thing to change on November 9th, 2016, but change it did. As the U.S. has careened towards authoritarianism, I’ve been trying to learn more about 20th century experiences with totalitarian governments — and especially the early stages, as that seems most relevant to the U.S. context at the moment. I visited Auschwitz last summer during the annual digital humanities conference in Poland and wanted to learn more about how norms eroded in the run-up to WWII; so, I’ve begun by reading Volker Ullrich’s new biography Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 (Knopf, 2016). Ullrich’s careful account of Hitler’s rise to power is engrossing, readable, and distressing. What’s clear is that Hitler’s agenda was right out in the open from the beginning; as Ullrich notes, “even in the early 1920s, no resident of Munich who had attended a Hitler speech or read about one in the newspapers could have been in any doubt about what Hitler intended to do with the Jews” (104). Replace “Jews” with “immigrants” and we have reason to fear Trump’s next moves. I’ll likely take up books by Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism) and Czeslaw Milosz (The Captive Mind) this summer if I can get through the Ullrich biography quickly enough.
As I continue making my way through these academic texts, I’m looking forward to catching up on some pleasure reading; on the top of my list right now are Zachary Mason’s Void Star (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (Penguin, 2017), and Philip K. Dick‘s The Man in the High Castle (Putnam, 1962). It’s looking like a dystopian summer all the way around, unfortunately.
Mike McCormack Solar Bones (Tramp Press, 2016): This novel came recommended to me as a book about memory, family, and small town life in Ireland. If anyone has a unique perspective on those, it’s the Irish. I’m greatly looking forward to reading this one.
Larry Loftis Into the Lion’s Mouth (Caliber, 2016): This is an account of the life and exploits of Dusko Popov, a fascinating figure in Allied covert operations during World War II. Largely unheralded (at least in the U.S.), it is claimed he served as the template for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character.
Nicholas Stargardt The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–1945 (Basic Books, 2015): Two books in one summer related to World War II is twice as many as I’ve read in the past ten years. There’s no accounting for it. What caught my eye about The German War is its focus on the breadth and depth of German attitudes and behaviors before, during and after the war, that is, it explores the varieties of Germans’ experiences from within, on Germans’ everyday experiences and struggles with the moral and practical dimensions of the war.
Olja Savicevic Adios, Cowboy (McSweeney’s, 2016): This one caught my eye at first due to its title, which evoked the song “Cowboys Lost At Sea,” by For Stars, causing me to take it down from the shelf at the bookstore and rifle through its pages. Then the prose caught my eye, parsimonious and evocative.
Rick Shefchik Everybody’s Heard about the Bird: The True Story of 1960s Rock ‘n’ Roll in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Press, 2015): It wouldn’t be summer if I wasn’t reading at least one book about music, and this probably won’t be the only one (George Harrison’s expanded I, Me, Mine is a contender, but when it comes to the Beatles I’m mainly waiting for the second installment in Mark Lewisohn’s masterful biography of the Beatles, which I predict will be titled Turn On — you heard it here first!). I’m keenly interested in the local nature of music, its formation, its sound, and one of the most interesting and intriguing — and brief — early 60s rock scenes formed, in of all places, Minnesota. From what I can tell, Shefchik has done a yeoman’s job of unearthing details, including first-person accounts.
Meryl Alper Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality (MIT Press, 2017): As computers have been increasingly employing speech synthesis and voice recognition I’ve become more interested in how humans and machines communicate, and Alper’s book seems like an excellent critical look at mobile media, voice (both literally and figuratively), disability, and equality. I began reading this mid-May and am actually re-reading it over the summer with the thought of incorporating it into a seminar in the fall.
Joachim Kalka Gaslight (New York Review Books, 2017): As a lover of the ideas and literary mode of the German critic/philosopher Walter Benjamin, I could not resist this little book. It’s about the cradle of many of our troubles and so much of our optimism, the 19th century. Detectives, railways, gothic architecture, exoticism, new and strange technologies, the rise of mass consumption–these are few of my favorite themes.
August Wilson Joe Turner’s Come and Gone(Theatre Communications Group, 2008): I’m actually reading all of Wilson’s plays this summer. I have a good reason for this reading project. Black English, like Irish English, is very musical. The same is not true, for say, Shonanized English, which is more philosophical than musical. Anyway, Wilson writes like he is playing the blues on the piano. With his work, the connection between Black English and the blues is made clear. I usually read the books of Zora Neale Hurston for this kind pleasure–the music of words and sentences. But this time I’m reading Wilson.
One other thing. The great novelist Richard Wright once bemoaned that Black American literature did not have a Remembrance of Things Past. In a way, Wilson’s plays, which are set in Pittsburgh, are a working-class Remembrance of 20th century Black America.
Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World (Greystone Books, 2016): Though this book is written by a German forester, Peter Wohllenben, it’s inspired, indeed has an afterword, by Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. She is just wonderful. I’ve had the pleasure drinking with her. Her aura is not totally human. Much of it has fused with the forest: the canopy, the understory, the roots, that hum of wood. Simard discovered the mother tree. It’s not only huge but shares nutrients with other, weaker trees around it by a fungal network in the ground.
Imagine the fate of a hypothetical forest–let’s call it the Forest of Friendship–in which, by some mysterious concordat, all the trees have somehow managed to achieve the desirable aim of lowering the entire canopy to 10 feet. The canopy looks just like any other forest canopy except that it is only 10 feet high instead of 100 feet. From the point of view of a planned economy, the Forest of Friendship is more efficient as a forest than the tall forests with which we are familiar, because resources are not put into producing massive trunks that have no purpose apart from competing with other trees.
But now, suppose one mutant tree were to spring up in the middle of the Forest of Friendship. This rogue tree grows marginally taller than the ‘agreed’ norm of 10 feet. Immediately, this mutant secures a competitive advantage. Admittedly, it has to pay the cost of the extra length of trunk. But it is more than compensated, as long as all other trees obey the self-denying ordinance, because the extra photons gathered more than pay the extra cost of lengthening the trunk. Natural selection therefore favours the genetic tendency to break out of the self-denying ordinance and grow a bit taller, say to 11 feet. As the generations go by, more and more trees break the embargo on height. When, finally, all the trees in the forest are 11 feet tall, they are all worse off than they were before: all are paying the cost of growing the extra foot. But they are not getting any extra photons for their trouble. And now natural selection favours any mutant tendency to grow to, say 12 feet.
This way of thinking turns out to be a lot of nonsense. There is actually a Forest of Friendship. It is connected by “wood-wide web” that links roots to roots like soul to soul. And, as Wohllenben points out in his book, which I’m reading for the third time and is written with almost no poetry, trees do stifle competition. For some trees, growing too fast and with no checks is dangerous. The slower you grow, the longer you live. Of course, Dawkins, the neoliberal of the biological sciences, doesn’t have the capacity or ideology to see this socialism. He can only see competition where ever he looks.
Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso, 2016) is a remarkable, detailed and acute revisionist history that overturns our understanding of the transition from water-power to coal-burning energy systems which were more costly and far less efficient (but – spoiler alert – made it easier to control workers, suppress wages and offset costs onto the public purse). It is the best book I have read so far this year – though I am looking forward to the stiff competition China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 2017) will put up. Dipping into it has persuaded me to clear a day so I can read it in a single sitting.
One of my regular train journeys is the ideal length for Tor’s fantastic (in both senses) novellas – unless, of course, there are cattle on the line between Bath and Chippenham. Which happened a couple of weeks ago when I was reading Gwyneth Jones’s hard-sf-thriller-cum-ultimate-locked-room-mystery Proof of Concept (Tor, 2017), leaving me bookless between Reading and London. Every bit as good is Everything Belongs to the Future (St. Martin’s Press, 2016), Laurie Penny’s dystopian vision of endless Tory austerity, and I am looking forward to the otherwise dully familiar trips that will get me to the Lovecraft revisionism of Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (Tor, 2016) and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (Tor, 2016), as well as Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti: Home (Tor, 2017) and Stephen Graham Jones’s Mapping the Interior (Tor, 2017).
My summer will be devoted to getting through the William T. Vollmann backlog. He only writes big, fat far-from-portable hardbacks, so they’ve been stacking up for a while. But I hope to spend at least some of this summer sat on my fat lazy arse -– also catching up on recent novels by Andrea Hairston, Cixin Liu, Mohammad Rabie, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Sofia Samatar.
Summer mostly means novels to me; an all-too brief respite from academic writing.
Having said that, I’m very much looking forward to an advance copy of Margret Grebowicz’s contribution to the excellent Object Lessons series, on Whale Song (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017).
I’m also looking forward to re-reading Gerald Murnane’s The Plains (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2003), which has just been re-released. It’s a unique instance of “incoherent geography,” and arguably the best novella to come out of Australia. Fans of Calvino, Borges, Casares, etc. should take a look.
John Cowper Powy’s ever-unfashionable Wolf Solent (Simon & Schuster, 1929) is a book I’ve been circling for decades, so will likely finally take the plunge soon.
Otherwise, I just finished Paul Beatty’s brilliant, exhausting, hilarious, and provocative novel, The Sellout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), and can’t recommend it highly enough.
Book that came out before summer: Mariana Enriquez Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories (Hogarth, 2017): It’s one of the best short story collections of the last decade. I couldn’t have loved it more. A heady mix of Gothic, weird, realism, and politics. Now I anxiously await for more of her books to be translated.
Summer books out now: Stephen Graham Jones Mapping the Interior (Tor, 2017): A ghost story, a story about fathers, and history… The amount of creepiness, ambition, and emotion Stephen packs into this novella is unfair.
Victor LaValle The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau, 2017): I’m reading it as I type, but already this dark, melancholy meditation on parenting is messing me up.
Summer book out later: Nadia Bulkin She Said Destroy (Word Horde, 2017): I had the honor of writing an introduction to this short story collection. This astonishingly fierce, intelligent, disturbing collection of sociopolitical shockers will be the perfect way to end your summer and dread the fall.
Keith Morris My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor (Da Capo, 2016): From 2011 through 2015, I ended up living in this forgotten about tract of Los Angeles called The South Bay. Not that it is actually forgotten about in the present tense—people still there—but the area was once home to a thriving BMX and punk rock scene, and those aspects of the land are largely forgotten about in the present tense, replaced by sprawling bars, expensive parking, and overpriced surf shops.
I picked Redondo Beach to live in, mainly because I grew up reading the town name in BMX magazines and in the liner notes of records released by SST Records. I had visited once in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, but aside from that, I felt I had a brand of adopted familiarity with the place. That led me to renting a house on Mathews Avenue in North Redondo, not far from a 7-11 on Artesia Blvd.
Something about the heightened curb outside of this particular 7-11 struck me as so familiar, but for the life of me, I couldn’t place it at first. Then it dawned on me. It was the site of a photo of Henry Rollins, while he sang for Black Flag, from 1985. And it looked almost exactly the same in 2011 as it did in 1985. I never knew an address, but from that day forward, I acknowledged that I was living in the same neighborhood that Black Flag used to practice in many years before me.
I was light years away in suburban New Jersey, listening to those Black Flag songs in early skate videos, and here I was an adult living blocks away from one of the creative homes of Black Flag. It then became a past time for me to zero in on locations formerly known for their influence on SST Records releases or in past BMX magazines.
So it came as no surprise that I read My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris, in little more than a day when I bought it. Morris was the original singer for Black Flag, an original Hermosa Beach local, and one of the squares that didn’t fit into the round hole of the South Bay in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Morris and his family lived in Hermosa Beach. His dad owned a bait shop, and Morris borrowed generously from his dad’s cash register to get into all sorts of mayhem as a teen. Through the early parts of the book, Morris also animates a version of Hermosa and Redondo Beach that I never got to know — seaside working class communities unaware of their future sitting on million dollar properties, or past as a vibrant punk rock community. Morris sings for Black Flag down the street from my second house on PCH, walks the streets of Pier Ave., and parties a mile north in Manhattan Beach.
He eventually escapes his hometown, touring with The Circle Jerks, living in Silver Lake and never really returning home to The South Bay in his later years, because, in his words, he doesn’t recognize the place he came from.
Last summer, I visited Hermosa and Redondo again after being away for little over a year, and it was a strange visit. The place that had formerly forgotten or never acknowledged its punk rock roots, now had murals of bands birthed in The South Bay painted on electrical boxes. It was still expensive as shit to even be there, and a little lonely just like I had remembered it, but at least someone in Hermosa Beach had remembered the influence of Black Flag and Descendents.
I wasn’t crazy — all of the mentions of Hermosa and Redondo that I read as a teenager in New Jersey had happened. And Keith Morris’ book is a definitive place to start to learn about the history of punk rock in the South Bay.
It’s also a lesson in understanding one’s place as a legendary influence, but never attempting to capitalize on that legacy. It’s about always moving forward, wherever that road may lead.
The 33 1/3 entry on The Pharcyde’s Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde by Andrew Barker (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017) is excellent. The album is one of my favorites and the book covers a lot of the details you want to know as a fan. It goes into the recording of most of the songs and in the order they happened, so you get a nice feel of how the album was constructed. Definitely in a similar style to Dan LeRoy’s exemplary 33 1/3 of The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique(Bloomsbury Academic, 2006).
I also recently read J-Zone’s Root for the Villain: Rap, Bull$hit, and a Celebration of Failure (Old Maid Entertainment, 2011) which was as hilarious and insightful as I had hoped it would be. This is a must-read if you’re a hip-hop fan, even if you’re not too familiar with J-Zone’s music. It combines a behind-the-scenes underground rap expose together with some in-depth opinions and observations from a true hip-hop head and music lover.
This one isn’t actually out yet, but it should be on people’s radars: Martin Connor’s The Musical Artistry of Rap (McFarland & Co., 2017). Martin is a musicologist who breaks down rapping with tools from traditional music analysis and this is his first book, hopefully the first of many. I’m not sure if you can get it in time for summer… If not then maybe spend the summer preparing for this book by brushing up on your music theory, etc.!
When Roy Christopher’s Summer Reading List email lands in my inbox I become paralyzed. I tend to shy away from even attempting to get my head around which books or authors I should be sharing. Roy never nudges me with follow up emails, I just get one. The guilt is unbearable. That’s surely his plan, because at the last minute I get it done. So, another year, another list. Here goes:
In the latter half of 2016 I began collecting many of Jim Harrison’s books. It became a minor obsession. Perhaps his death spurred me to backtrack through his work. I have collected a dozen of his past works of fiction, finding them in online used bookstores, recovered from libraries. Of all of these books, none have struck me as deeply as Sundog (E. P. Dutton/Seymour Lawrence), first released in 1984. I know I added Harrison to Roy’s 2016 list, but I felt it only right to go with this first.
Changing gears, or rather countries, H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape, Ltd, 2014) by the English author Helen Macdonald had been sitting in the unread pile for two years. After reading the rave reviews the book had received, I was concerned that it would be a mawkish read and that wasn’t a frame of mind that I felt was desirable to me at the time. I was mistaken. Having read her articles on nature and natural history in the New York Times Magazine, I felt that I should put my feelings aside and give the book a chance. It is far from mawkish. Ironically, I should have noted that Jim Harrison gave it a great review, which makes perfect sense. Here’s a snippet of what he had to say: “A lovely touching book about a young woman grieving over the death of her father and becoming rejuvenated by training one of the roughest, most difficult creatures in the heavens, the goshawk.” Macdonald’s book is a wonderful meditation on life; part memoir, part grief, and lots of soul-searching.
Mary Gaitskill’s latest book of essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer (Pantheon, 2017) had my head spinning. I became fascinated as she moved through the world of music, literature, politics and society, covering date rape, Charles Dickens, John Updike, Bob Dylan, Bjork, Talking Heads, Norman Mailer, Dubravka Ugresic, Hanan al-Shaykh, and more. She muses on Nabakov’s Lolita. Of Linda Lovelace she writes, “Icon of freedom and innocent carnality; icon of brokenness and confusion; icon of sexual victimization, sexual power, irreconcilable oppositions.” The book contains 31 riveting and concise essays. I suspect it is one I will go back to often.
Joan Didion South and West: From a Notebook (Knopf, 2017): Didion shares with us but two excerpts from her notebooks that up until now she has never revealed before. “Notes From The South” covers the road trip with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in June of 1970, traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Her eyes and ears capture everything around her as she describes a South that is largely unchanged today.
“California Notes” came about when she was assigned by Rolling Stone to cover the Patty Hearst trial in 1976. She never wrote the piece. Instead, being in San Francisco triggered thoughts about the West, the Hearsts, and her own upbringing in Sacramento. It is a short book, I read it in a single day; a day well spent.
Thinking how to respond to this call, my first instinct was turn my head towards the left, and look at my office bookshelf to see all the volumes that I have had not time to look into over the past months. There’s lots. So some of the books mentioned below are texts that I will read, some are what I want to read and some are what I would anyway suggest to read. I will start with the latter and cheekily, suggest two recent books in our Recursions Series: Ute Holl’s fabulous study (translation) Cinema, Trance and Cybernetics (Amsterdam University Press, 2017) and Liam Young’s just published List Cultures (Amsterdam University Press, 2017)– a book on cultural techniques of listing.
Otherwise, I will be reading a lot of things that relate to my current research projects more directly. This will mean reading about labs, art and technology, making, and such things, but a lot of that material won’t be in books but in various articles, shorter texts, interviews, and such. It also includes going back to reading or re-reading some material such as Johanna Drucker’s Speclab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (University of Chicago Press, 2009). My other writing addresses imaginary media and imaginary futures, so I am reading also some fiction for that one, for example the collection Iraq +100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion (Tor, 2017) that Hassan Blasim edited.
I’m currently reading two books, each a tour-de-force in its own right/write, and I’ll definitely be continuing in their pages this summer.
The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction by Hugo Gernsback and Grant Wythoff (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) shows how Gernsback, generally regarded as the grandfather, father, or some kind of primary progenitor of science fiction, did the same for media theory, presaging Marshall McLuhan’s way of thinking about technology and communication by decades. Wythoff’s 59-page Introduction is itself more than worth the price of admission.
I’ve never not been an ardent Beatles’ fan, so I can’t quite say that Rob Sheffield’s Dreaming the Beatles (Dey Street, 2017) rekindled my love of this group’s music, but it certainly placed it first and foremost in my brain this summer, and Sheffield’s masterful, delightful prose makes great accompaniment to the Beatles on the new Beatles Channel on Sirius/XM Radio.
And while I’m here, a few recommendation for books I’ve already read, but which would make wonderful summer reading for anyone who hasn’t: Bonnie Rozanski’s The Mindtraveler (Bitingduck Press, 2015) is one of the best time-travel novels I’ve ever read. David S. Michaels and Daniel Brenton’s Red Moon (Breakneck Books, 2007) is a novel you can’t put down, with a science fictional but who knows explanation of why the Soviets lost the space race in the 1950s.
Most of my year was taken up with prep for my new book (The Playstation Dreamworld; Polity, 2017), but for the summer ahead I’d rather recommend the two better forthcoming books in the series, Xenofeminism (Polity, 2017) by the brilliant Helen Hester and Narcocapitalism (Polity, 2017), the English translation of Laurent de Sutter’s L’âge de l’anesthésie, which I read earlier in the year. Hester, a member of Laboria Cuboniks and the Xenofeminism movement, is among the most exciting writers of recent years and work on feminism and technology seems as important as anything else I can think of. Complementing this intervention, De Sutter’s book shows how living in modern society means living in a world in which our very emotions have been outsourced to chemical stimulation.
In my Hong Kong Review of Books duties, the most exciting book I encountered was Yuk Hui’s The Question Concerning Technology in China (Urbanomic Media, 2016), which he answered our questions about last month. Another book for the serious philosopher to look out for is Gregor Moder’s Hegel and Spinoza (Northwestern University Press, 2017), the latest in the Slovene-Lacanian revolution and coming soon from Northwestern. Last year’sAbolishing Freedom by Frank Ruda (University of Nebraska Press, 2016) is equally exciting, arguing for a renovation of attitudes towards the complicated signifier “freedom” that could get us out of the political crises we face today. In a world in which the corporate establishment and the far-Right make use of the term to assert their agendas, Ruda asks us to think again about the functions and effects of the word “freedom.” Experimental poets–of which I’m really not one–might like Robert Kiely’s How to Read (Lulu, 2017).
After all that hard work, I’ll settle down to the long-awaited new novel from the king of Scandinavian crime noir, Arnaldur Indridason. If enjoyment is everything, The Shadow District(Minotaur Books, 2017) is the only book you need.
Maile Meloy Do Not Become Alarmed (Riverhead, 2017): I finally got a copy of Maile Meloy’s new novel, Do Not Become Alarmed, and somehow I am managing to save it for next week’s Solstice campout. Meanwhile, I’m taking the opportunity to re-read Meloy’s story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (Riverhead, 2010). It’s gratifying to warm up to a new book from a favorite author by revisiting her older books. I should do this more often…
Meloy has an amazing touch with characters, particularly in the form of a short story. Her writing is crystal clear, seemingly without affect. The stories manage to be both hard and tender. There is a lot of loneliness, and few happy endings, yet the stories don’t seem dark or brooding or pessimistic. She lights up the way people make their way through their lives; their thoughts, their self-reflections, their awareness of and fealty to their own weaknesses.
Like so many in the summer of ’17, I’m still trying to figure out what happened in the fall of ’16. I’ve avoided Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan Books, 2016) which came out before the election. I suppose that’s because it’s a direct attack on the Democratic Party I’d supported and which had shaped so many of its policies around the concerns of people like me. With the GOP holding the presidency, both houses of Congress, the last and probably next Supreme Court appointments, and too many state legislatures and governorships to recount without weeping liberal tears, maybe a rethink is needed.
Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Zer0 Books, 2017) is another, more techno-cultural tool for me to use on the political and social practices we inherited from the 20th century that just seem broken at the moment. Nagle is merciless in her analysis of the techno-utopian hopes of early Internet cheerleaders, and sets up a cage match between identitarian Tumblr and the lol fascism-light of the mouth breathers on 4chan. Its like cross-breeding Greshem’s Law and Godwin’s Law, wherein shit-posting drives out coherence.
I refuse to consecrate the whole summer to hair-shirting myself for my own liberal normie tendencies, so I’ll read lots of fiction, almost all revolving around Los Angeles. Top of the pile is Dodgers by Bill Beverly (Crown, 2016) about a low level drug kid from the South LA projects who gets sent deep into the Midwest to commit a murder.
Should be good, but the kid could probably cause more disruption by staying in the Midwest, registering, and voting Democratic.
I’m finishing up the research on my book Dead Precedents (Repeater Books, 2018), which tellingly is what I was researching during the list last year. There’s plenty of great, new work to read though.
Paul Youngquist A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism (University of Texas Press, 2017): Not since John F. Szwed’s Space is the Place (Pantheon, 1997) and the first two chapters of Graham Lock’s Blutopia (Duke University Press, 1999) has there been an in-depth study of Sun Ra that connects as many dots as Younquist’s. Most studies of Afrofuturism trace its roots at least back to Sun Ra, but none have done a study so specific, and studies of Sun Ra don’t necessarily make such an explicit connection to his Afrofuturist legacy (Szwed mentions the word once; Lock doesn’t use the term at all). For a broader picture, read along with Reynaldo Anderson and Charles E. Jones’ recent edited collection, Afrofuturism 2.0: The Rise of Astro-Blackness (Lexington Books, 2016).
Greg Tate Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (Duke University Press, 2016): If you study Black Atlantic art or music, you will contend with Greg Tate. Always a worthy opponent or worth a thorough read, Tate’s work is shiny and sharp and reflects the culture that it cuts. Flyboy 2 is the second such collection of his writings for the Village Voice, Spin, the Wire, Ebony, Paper, and many other publications, as well as some previously unpublished joints.
The perpetual now of digital media makes it difficult to contextualize events in time: watching old SNL sketches and trying to explain what it was like to watch them live on television, playing old records and trying to capture what it was like the first time the world heard that sound, talking about where you were when the Shuttle exploded or the Towers fell. As Shinya Yamazaki so bluntly puts it in William Gibson‘s All Tomorrow’s Parties (Putnam, 1999),
I know you all think you live in all the times at once, everything recorded for you, it’s all there to play back. Digital. That’s all that is, though: playback. You still don’t remember what it felt like (p. 259).
Built as it is out of previously recorded material, hip-hop is especially vulnerable to this contextually lossy age. Thankfully, there are remedies. Check the Technique, Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-hop Junkies by Brian Coleman (Wax Facts, 2014) continues his investigating skills and impeccable taste with liner notes for 25 more classic hip-hop records. Some lesser known than the last the albums in the last volume but no less essential: debuts by 3rd Bass, Black Sheep, The Beatnuts, Ice Cube, Dr. Octagon, Jeru the Damaja, Mantronix, Black Star, Stetsasonic, Kwamé, Raekwon, Gravediggaz, Naughty by Nature, Diamond D, Smif-N-Wessun, and Company Flow. About the latter’s Funcrusher Plus (Rawkus, 1997), rapper, producer, and current Run the Jewels member, El-P says,
I didn’t have any specific expectations for the record, I just wanted it to be huge. Shit, they were playing it on Hot 97, we were in the Source, we were selling out shows. It was crazy. So yeah, it was great, it was a dream come true, and it was the thing that made the rest of my career possible (p. 75).
The promotional steps needed to break an act like Company Flow in the late 1990s were all but gone just a few years later. This kind of context—the historical milieu, the technical aspects, the events of the day, the personalities in the studio—these are the cues and clues needed to make sense of recordings heard out of their times. As Coleman told me in 2005,
When I sit down and chop it up with my friends about what hip-hop albums I love, I’m not like: “Wow, isn’t it weird how many white people like hip-hop? Why do you think that is?” I’m more like: “Holy shit, how did Schoolly D get ‘PSK’ to sound like that? Did he do that drum program himself? And that story about his mom tearing apart his room in ‘Saturday Night’ is fucking hilarious.” If writers are really fans of the music and the art form, personally I just wish they would put the energy into describing why it’s such a dynamic music and stop trying to describe and translate it to their unhip academic peers.
Check the Technique, Volume 2 and its predecessor, much like Albert Mudrian‘s Precious Metal (Da Capo, 2009), go a long way to not only contextualizing these great records but also to bringing the energy of fans to the music.
Further to that end, Paul Edwards, the man who brought us How to Rap (Chicago Review Press, 2009) and How to Rap 2 (2013), is back with The Concise Guide to Hip-hop Music (St. Martin’s, 2015). Subtitled “A Fresh Look at the Art of Hip-hop, from Old-School Beats to Freestyle Rap,” this book is truly that. It’s that rare book that’s both perfect for the beginner and essential for the veteran. As I said in my back-cover blurb,
Part oral history, part investigative nitty-gritty, Paul Edwards’ The Concise Guide to Hip-Hop Music fills the cracks left by the large and growing literature on the genre. From the very origins of the word to its worldwide word-up, this is the essential guide for both the hip-hop buff and the hopelessly baffled.
That’s real. No matter what you think you know about the history of hip-hop, this book will school you on some, if not all, aspects of the genre.
From the wide world of hip-hop history to its many regional influences, Chicago Hustle and Flow by Geoff Harkness (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) connects Chicago hip-hop to its subcultural context. His perspective is further from the theories and closer to the streets. When you think of Chicago hip-hop, perhaps you think of Common, Kanye West, or Lupe Fiasco, but, as Adeem states in the Introduction to Chicago Hustle and Flow, “that’s all fine and dandy, but that’s a Hollywood type of Chicago picture right there. You need to get to the underground, to the actual ‘hood, the heart of it. Then you’ll come to understand it” (p. 1). Harkness does just that. From the Xcons vs Bully Boyz to Chief Keef vs Lil Jojo, and from traditional appropriation to the inverting of gang signs, this is the first in-depth exploration of Chicago’s hip-hop underground. It’s a worthy read about a worthy region.
Just when you thought you knew everything about hip-hop, more great books come out. Getting this stuff situated in its proper context both historically and geographically is the work of book-length interrogations by knowledgeable, reverent writers like these.
Depending on the fandom, our attention to music can span from the insignificance of wallpaper to the altar upon we sacrifice our days. It can be everything from decoration to downright worship. I probably tend more toward the latter than the former, but you probably already know that.
Of all the things that December brings, year-end lists might be the most polarizing, to some by their contents and to others by their mere existence. Regardless, these are the records that soundtracked my 2014, in no particular order. The links on this post, unless otherwise specified, link to the bands’ Bandcamp page so you can listen to them if you like.
Yob Clearing the Path to Ascend (Neurot): If there’s any band that has yet to get their due, it’s Yob. They’ve been slowly building a stellar body of work for years, and Clearing the Path to Ascend illustrates just how refined their sound has become. It’s heavy and doomy, yet oh so subtle, their most personal and personable release: a near-perfect record.
Nothing Guilty of Everything (Relapse): Nothing came out of nowhere last year promising to update a sound that was all but lost to the past. On their debut full-length, Guilty of Everything, you can hear the presence of various bands from the 1990s: The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Sebadoh, Eric’s Trip, Teenage Fanclub, The Boo Radleys, etc. But Nothing manages to take those sounds and do something all their own with them. For every influence you might trainspot, there’s always something ultimately unique about the way Nothing brings it all together. It’s a mesmerizing mix.
Young and in the Way When Life Comes to Death (Deathwish): The mix of black metal with other genres in not new. Many bands have done it to great effect (e.g., Wolves in the Throne Room, Deafheaven, Panopticon, Myrkur, etc.), and the blackened crust of YAITW is a perfect alloy. The riffs that are usually missing from black metal are here en force. I can never seem to play it loud enough.
White Suns Totem (The Flenser): White Suns, whose last record spent a lot of time in my ears, completely reinvented themselves for Totem. As they said of a show just prior to the record’s release, “You may notice that it is a bit different from our previous work.” The core of what they’ve done in the past is still here, but it’s much sharper, much more piercing. Here’s hoping that abrasive electronics like this and Wreck & Reference, whose Want (Deathwish; See below) was also in heavy rotation around here this year, continue to crush expectations.
Godflesh A World Lit Only by Fire (Avalanche): I’m always wary when a long-defunct, all-time favorite band reunites years later. Not that I doubted Justin Broadrick and Benny Green’s getting back together, but I did have to wonder. The record that resulted, A World Lit Only by Fire, is a welcome return of a monster outfit. It fits well in their catalog and continues what they were doing when they split 12 years ago. The title evokes a flaming planet, cities and nations scorched in ruin, but it’s actually a reference to a book about the darkness of the Middle Ages by the same name. Both visions work well for Godflesh’s sound on this record. It’s dark, brutal, and could come from a tumultuous past or a post-apocalyptic future. Glad to have them back.
Trans Am Volume X (Thrill Jockey): The tenth album from Trans Am, the 21st-century’s own Kraftwerk Plus (Lily calls them “Krautwerk”), is no less confounding than anything in their nine previous lives. From their usual arty Krautrock to the surprisingly frenetic thrash of “Backlash,” Trans Am is well worth exploring if you haven’t already, and Volume X is as good a place to start as any.
Code Orange Kids I Am King (Deathwish): This is another record that just makes you proud to love the band that made it. Code Orange Kids studied up, did their homework, and schooled everyone else trying to make any kind of heavy music. I Am King stays true to its hardcore roots while bringing all kinds of new noise to the network. This is the anthem.
Hail Mary Mallon Bestiary (Rhymesayers): Even if I’ve strayed from Hip-hop with my several year metal kick, there are still a few folks I have to check in on. My dudes Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and DJ Big Wiz are among the few, and Bestiary illustrates why. This is just classic beats and rhymes with tight wordplay, the turntable on display, and an atemporal sense that it could’ve been made during any era. Timely, timeless, and right on time.
Wreck & Reference Want (Deathwish): This is the sound of despair. There’s no other way to describe it. Wreck & Reference defy genre conventions with machine-driven noise, anguished vocals, and abject nihilism. Want is as heavy as anything out, but it’s nothing you expect from heavy music: monstrous, wondrous, and somehow beautiful.
Perfect Pussy Say Yes to Love (Captured Tracks): Debates about punk being dead are over. Perfect Pussy keep it alive and kicking so much ass. From The Shoppers to Perfect Pussy, Meredith Graves is a force of nurture.
Panopticon Roads to the North (Bindrune): Panopticon, Austin Lunn’s one-person band, continues to show why he’s such a force in American black metal. Where his work with Seidr is heavy on the heavens, Panopticon tends toward the trees. It’s as rural as it is dark and might be the only black metal in which you’re likely to hear a banjo.
Torch Runner Endless Nothing (Southern Lord): After nearly wearing out Committed to the Ground this year, I found out that Endless Nothing had dropped. It’s a welcome 13 more songs of violent, ugly, hardcore grind. Just what I needed right when I needed it.
Earth Primitive and Deadly (Southern Lord): Earth are the undisputed kings of drone, and they expand their sound in subtle ways with every record. Primitive and Deadly includes more vocals than normal, courtesy of Mark Lanegan and Rabia Shaheen Qazi on two respective tracks, but all of the reasons that Earth is so revered are here in glorious form.
Pallbearer Foundations of Burden (Profound Lore): What else is there to say about Pallbearer’s break-out opus? This is the kind of record you always wish a band you love would release. Foundations of Burden is a beautiful blend of loss, rage, and hope. It’s heavy in every possible way and rewards the repeated listen. It’s a beast of a release.
If I’m Being Honest: It should probably be noted that I listened to Deafheaven’s Sunbather (Deathwish) as much or more than any record from this year. I should also mention that this list was compiled in the shadow of intense anticipation of the new Xibalba record, Tierra Y Libertad, to be released next month on Southern Lord.
Special Thanks: I can’t imagine what it must take to run a record label these days. Many thanks to the people who do, especially the fine folks at Deathwish, Inc., Southern Lord, Profound Lore, The Flenser, Bindrune, Neurot, Sargent House, Thrill Jockey, Crucial Blast, Season of Mist, Rhymesayers, and Relapse: Power to you all.
I turned my head for a minute and Eminem dropped this single “Berzerk” from his forthcoming record. The song illustrates everything I love about Hip-hop. It’s not that I miss the era he’s referencing here (I don’t), it’s that he’s referencing things: All kinds of things. Mathers’ use of allusion is masterful, and it’s one of the reasons I study rap in the first place.
Eminem’s sense of humor and of himself is firmly intact. “Berserk” boasts guest shots from and references to “So Whatcha Want?”, Royce da 5’9″, Rick Rubin, Billy Squier’s “The Stroke,” Public Enemy, N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar, Ad Rock, and Kid Rock. It’s a celebration of roots: from rap and rock to the city block [runtime: 4:20].
More than anything else, Em gets his Beastie Boys on here. Because they, more than anyone else, encompass all of the things going on in this song. Rubin employs his standard formula, which he once described as “reduction” rather than “production.” It’s heard on early LL Cool J records like “Rock the Bells” (1985), Run-DMC tracks like “Rock Box” (1983), “King of Rock” (1984), and the Run-DMC/Aerosmith collaboration “Walk This Way” (1986), and reprised on Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” (2003). But the Beasties’ Licensed to Ill (1986) is the best exemplar. Rubin stripped everything down to just the boom bap: 808s, John Bonham drums, big guitar riffs, and the noises and voices of the boys. The result was resonant and irresistible — and it still works.
The new record, The Marshall Mathers LP2 comes out next week.
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.
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.
Scholars, researchers, and journalists have had a tumultuous relationship with Hip-hop in general and the cultural practice of remixing specifically (McLeod, 2002). Some, seemingly refusing to contend with Hip-hop at all, trace the practice back to the collages of the Dadaists, the détournements of the Situationists, or the cut-ups of Burroughs and Gysin. Regardless, there’s no denying that Hip-hop brought sampling, scratching, and manipulating previously recorded sounds to a global audience. Along with allusion, quotation, and interpolation, sampling is now standard among the tools of the modern media maker (McLeod & DiCola, 2011). It’s one more option in what Joanna Demers (2006) calls “transformative appropriation, the act of referring to or quoting old works in order to create a new work” (p. 4).
Even so, some use such appropriation as an opportunity to either critique or dismiss the idea of originality altogether. In 1985, Eleanor Heartney complained that “we have finally reached the stage where the very notion of artistic originality is suspect” (p. 26). Others want to spread the practice out, to see it everywhere. As Simon Reynolds puts it, appropriately citing the worst misuses of the concept yet,
“We use the old to make the new and the new is always old.” Much the same idea crops up in Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, a sort of self-help manual for modern creatives. Kleon moves quickly from “every new idea is just a mashup or a remix of one or more previous ideas” to insisting that “you are the sum of your influences” and that “you’re a remix of your mom and dad.”
Everything is not a remix, and putting two things together does not a remix make. To say that all such combinations, appropriations, and amalgams are remixes is to lose sight of what makes remix a unique concept of its own. Eduardo Navas remedies this line of thinking with a nuanced, discursive approach to remix culture. In his Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling (Springer, 2012), Navas lays out a systematic way to think about the cultural history and controversial layers of remix, grounded in the “concrete form of sampling,” and focusing on “conceptual strategies used in different forms of art, media, and culture” (p. 6). These include photography, art, and, of course, music. The latter form of remix being rooted in Jamaican dub and defined by three actions: extending, selecting, and reflecting.
Extending the break is the original form of Hip-hop remix, but those roots reach back not only to Jamaica but also to Jazz. When the written melody ended, Jazz players would improvise over the chord changes to keep the dancers moving (Byrne, 2012), just as the original Hip-hop DJs did in the park. Selective remix is just what it sounds like: a new composition created by adding and subtracting elements from the original piece, heightening or downplaying its salient aspects. Reflexive remix extends, adds, and subtracts but also allegorizes the original composition. That is, it is its own thing, but also maintains the original’s “spectacular aura” (Navas, 2012, p.66) and displays “distorted reflections” (Hebdige, 1979, p. 26) of its source material. It is allusive, revealing its sources through a warped, funhouse mirror. In more general terms, Navas contends that remix is the cultural adhesive that holds our current culture together. Remix Theory is as erudite as is is readable and deftly demonstrates how remix applies far outside its origins.
Taking a more specific tack, Mark Katz’s Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ (Oxford University Press, 2012) explores all of the practices of the Hip-hop DJ including remix. With his stethoscope firmly pressed against its chest, Katz listens closely to what Rob Swift calls “the heartbeat of Hip-hop culture.” Groove Music is as definitive a cultural history of sampling, scratching, and remixing you’re likely to find. The art of the DJ proves that it ain’t all final on black vinyl, but Katz has it all down in black and white. From the early 1970s to the early 21st century, it’s all in here. Groove Music along with Joseph Schloss’s Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-hop (Wesleyan, 2004) and Katz’s previous book, Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (University of California Press, 2004), will get you a long way to understanding the cultural production of music in the 21st century.
For the most part, Hip-hop DJs and producers don’t think about remix the way that scholars, researchers, or journalists do. Heartney (1985) continues, “Appropriation is culture with an omnivorous appetite, gobbling up every image that wanders across its path” (p. 28). While any DJ might agree with that, their reasons will vary. Are they always making a statement with their sampling choices? Nah, sometimes certain sounds just sound dope together (for one example, see Schloss, 2004, pp. 147-149). As Steinberg (1978) puts it, “there is as much unpredictable originality in quoting, imitating, transposing, and echoing, as there is in inventing” (p. 25). Indeed, cutting and pasting pieces of the past together can yield work as original as any other act of creation.
But you don’t need me to tell you that.
Byrne, David. (2012). How Music Works. San Francisco: McSweeney’s, p. 21.
Demers, Joanna. (2006). Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Heartney, Eleanor. (1985, March). Appropriation and the Loss of Authenticity. New Art Examiner, 26-30.
Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.
Katz, Mark. (2012). Groove Music: The Art and Culture of the Hip-hop DJ. New York: Oxford University Press.
McLeod, Kembrew. (2002). The Politics and History of Hip-hop Journalism. In Steve Jones (ed,), Pop Music and the Press. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, pp. 156-167.
McLeod, Kembrew & DiCola, Peter. (2011). Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p. 55.
Navas, Eduardo. (2012). Remix Theory: The Aesthetics of Sampling. New York: Springer.
The last few years have been hectic, and 2012 kept it moving in a big way. I’ll get to my personal stuff in a bit, but first, here are the people, events, music, and media that shaped my year.
Encounters of the Year: I had the honor of breakfast with longtime mentor and friend Howard Rheingold at SXSW this year. Howard has offered me endless advice and encouragement over the years online, and it was a true treat to chat with him face-to-face over a meal.
Also at SXSW, I was invited by my good friend Dave Allen to sit on a panel about music technology with Rick Moody, Jesse von Doom, David Ewald, and Anthony Batt, all of whom I am proud to now call friends. I’ll never forget the look on Rick’s face when I asked him to say grace at lunch that day.
We also ran into Hank Shocklee who was doing a panel discussion adjacent to ours. As the architect of the Bomb Squad, who produced such frenetic noisefests as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, as well as Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Hank has been a hero of mine since high school. He hung out and conferred with us like we were all old friends.
Comebacks have really made a comeback this year.
— Seth Cockfield via Twitter, December 3rd, 2012.
Speaking of Public Enemy, I caught “The Hip-hop Gods Classic Tourfest Revue” at The House of Blues in Chicago on December 5th. I hadn’t seen P.E. since 1991, and I’ve only seen them on package tours like this (once in 1990 with Digital Underground, Kid N’ Play, Queen Latifah, and The Afros, and twice in 1991, once with Sisters of Mercy, Gang of Four, Warrior Soul, and Young Black Teenagers, and again with Anthrax, Primus, and Young Black Teenagers). This time around it was them, X-Clan, Monie Love, Leaders of the New School, Wise Intelligent, Schoolly D, Son of Berzerk, and Awesome Dre. Chuck did a lot of talking and Flav did a lot of goofing, but the few songs that they did–both old and new–were absolutely on point.
Earlier in the year, I barged into Helmet’s dressing room at The House of Blues in Chicago to meet Page Hamilton. In my defense, I was looking for Ume‘s room, and once inside, I asked Page where it was. Before I left, I got Lily to take a picture of us together because people always say we look alike, to which Page quipped, “Yeah, but I’m 105 and you’re, like, 29.”
Coup of the Year: Death Grips: As Christopher R. Weingarten explores in his “Artist of the Year” story on Spin.com, Death Grips showed how to use technology to get what you want, and then disappear before anyone knows what happened. They duped the internet, a major label, and their fans and became one of the most talked-about artists of the year. It goes, it goes, it goes…
The Return of Aggro Rag Freestyle Mag: While Mike Daily has been perpetually busy over the twenty-two years since he ruled the BMX zines, he brought Aggro Rag back out for one last issue before the zine gets anthologized in book form on new year’s day, 2013. The come-back issue boasts interviews with fifteen flatland undergrounders like Mark McKee, Aaron Dull, Gary Pollak, Chris Day, Jim Johnson, Derek Schott, Gerry Smith, and Dave Nourie. Being “The Hip-hop Issue,” the zine also features interviews with Dark Time Sunshine, Sole, and a review of Death Grips’ Money Store.
Daily even asked me to contribute an interview with my friend Aesop Rock, which you can read right here. Big props to Aes for bringing sketchy back this year with Skelethon, giving wack(y) haircuts on tour, sporting the hobo beard™. The steez is on lock.
Music of the Year:
I’ve clearly had a Gunplay problem this year:
Other than Gunplay mixtapes and my usual prog/post-rock fare (e.g., Radiohead, Mogwai, The Mars Volta, Eno, Baroness, Followed by Ghosts, God is an Astronaut, etc.), these are some releases I relished:
Erik Blood Touch Screens (Erik Blood): How much reference to previous work is the right amount? Thomas Kuhn called the dialectic between tradition and innovation the “essential tension,” and Erik Blood has found the perfect middle. To call Touch Screens unoriginal would be to admit you didn’t listen to it. Yes, this is stuttery, gooey, taffy-like pop in the vein of Brad Laner and Kevin Shields, but Blood puts these things together with that third thing, the thing that comes from more than just nailing the essential tension.
“Most of [the shoegazers] couldn’t rock their way out of a paper bag,” once quoth Simon Reynolds. Not so with Erik Blood. There’s as much Loop here as there is Main, as much Anton Newcombe as there is Courtney Taylor-Taylor. I also hear some Can and Neu!, which Blood claims he likes but doesn’t consider an influence. “Though I guess everything one hears is an influence,” he concedes. I could listen to the last half of “Amputee” all damn day. “That’s the idea,” he told me. Blood broadcasts these soundtracks from some unplaceable future, some unknown space out of time.
With a pornography-related concept and a cover reminiscent of H. R. Giger’s painting for Dead Kennedys’Frankenchrist poster, Touch Screens is guaranteed to offend some. Don’t be scared, especially if you like your valentines bloody and your Warhols dandy.
JK Flesh Posthuman (3by3): To explicate the pedigree of Justin K. Broadrick would require a book-length exploration, but let’s try to nick the surface. He was a founding member of Napalm Death, invented and inverted genres in Godflesh, and happily drones in headphones in Jesu—not to mention stints in final, Head of David, Fall of Because, Ice, God, Techno Animal, Greymachine, and Pale Sketcher, among others. Now Broadrick revives his JK Flesh moniker to make some noise that doesn’t fit under any of his other active names. The sounds on Posthuman land between the lines and demonstrate that the disc deserves its own designation. Sure, there are echoes of past projects, especially Greymachine and Pale Sketcher, but this record has a soul of its own. A soul that deserves to be played very loud. These songs need to stretch out, to reach out, and to touch someone. “Idle Hands” sounds like some bastardized, end-of-the-world Hip-hop (apocalypse-hop?), the title track is the theme song to a spy movie with an all-android cast, and the other ones will satisfy your need for a soundtrack to entropy and the heat-death of the universe. No one knows what that would sound like better than Justin Broadrick.
Neurosis Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings): Among the many burgeoning subgenres of post-metal, there is one band that is consistently named as a starting point: Neurosis has been bending and rending metal, punk, crust, sludge, drone, doom, ambient, folk, and other odd musical categories since 1985. Their latest, Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings, 2012) more than illustrates both why they’re the godfathers of this sound and what exactly it is that all of their progeny are still trying to achieve.
On their tenth studio outing, the Oakland sextet gathers together pieces from their storied past to pull off a defining document of their sound. Honor Found in Decay is that rare record that serves the seasoned fan as well as the newbie. It continues their long and fruitful recording relationship with Steve Albini. The ten-plus-minute dirges are here (e.g., “At the Well,” “My Heart for Deliverance,” “Casting of the Ages”). The growling and wailing are in tact (e.g, “Bleeding the Pigs,” “Raise the Dawn”). The bulldozer grooves are as deep and wide as ever (e.g., “We All Rage in Gold,” “All is Found… In Time”). Like all of their releases since 1992’s Souls at Zero, this is nothing less than a monolithic affair.
Not that it doesn’t move them forward, but Honor Found in Decay feels like a summary of sorts—much like The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief were. And like those two bands, Neurosis has plenty to summarize: They’ve always pushed themselves in new directions and they’ve kept fans and critics guessing at every turn. Honor Found in Decay is just as complex and dynamic as the collective history that created it. It’s as lush as it is loud, as heavy as it is heady, and as mysterious as it is majestic. Your expectations will be immediately reached and quickly wrecked.
Other releases that stayed in the speakers and headphones include Deftones Koi No Yokan (Reprise), Baroness Yellow & Green (Relapse), The Mars Volta Noctourniquet (Warner Bros.), Sean PriceMic Tyson (Duck Down), and mixtapes by Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, Chief Keef, Alleyboy, and A$AP Rocky. Along with Gunplay (see above), Skweeky Watahfawls, Johnny Ciggs, Fan Ran and the whole Gritty City Fam are the finds of the year. Here they are with The Jam of the Year, “Hunnid Dolla Bills” [runtime: 5:23]:
Video of the Year: Killer Mike “Big Beast” featuring Bun B, T.I., Trouble, & El-P: If this video doesn’t move you in some way, you’re probably dead. First of all, the pairing of Killer Mike on the mic and El-Producto on production is a match made somewhere south of Heaven: It’s dark, it’s evil, it’s raw, and it’s hard as fuck and the record they just did, R.A.P. Music, proves it many times over. Next, we have this straight bananas lead track “Big Beast,” including sick verses by Bun B. and T. I. that will remind you why they’re both Hip-hop legends, and a catchy chorus by Trouble. Then, we have this face-eating, car-chasing, enthusiastically violent video that has them all doing some ill shit (that’s El-P in the mask) directed by Thomas C. Bingham and produced by CFILM1 in partnership with Adult Swim. Like I said, check your pulse [runtime: 9:23].
Movie of the Year: Looper.Rian Johnson is one of my favorite people on Twitter (his day-long stories about his beef with Jason Reitman are hysterical), and he’s finally made his Philip K. Dick movie. Time-travel is a trope I never tire of, and it’s used masterfully here, as in it stays out of the way of the story. Looper features stellar performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels, but the real surprise was the young-but-amazing Pierce Gagnon. Watch out for that one.
Book of the Year: Nick Harkaway Angelmaker: A Novel (Knopf): Nick Harkaway’s second novel is a surrealist noir novel like no other. Angelmaker is heady and heavy, but Harkaway’s prose is giddy in its grasp. It’s a little bit steampunk, a little bit spy novel, a little bit mystery, and a whole lot of fun. As an added treat, I also got to interview him earlier this year, during which he told me of his writing, “…I suppose I have a tendency to use movie shapes — like the Classic Myth Structure George Lucas used for Star Wars — because they’re dramatic and recognisable and they keep you on track. Writing the kind of books I write, with lots going on, you need not to get lost. Structure helps. A story spine is vital. And so is knowing what the voice is, the tone. With those, you can go all over the map and come home safe, and you know it, and your reader gets that confidence in you and settles, so you can take liberties and amaze them. The less secure they are, the less likely they are to go with you when you do something unusual — and that unusual thing is often why you’re there, so that’s bad. They close the book. And once they do that, you have a hell of a time getting them to open it again.” Unlike several other books I read this year, that’s not a problem I had with Angelmaker.
Skateboard Video of the Year: Girl and Chocolate’s Pretty Sweet: You know nothing else came close.
Documentary of the Year: The Unbookables (Fascinator Films): The Unbookables are a loose band of comedians (emphasis on “loose”) handpicked by Doug Stanhope.This movie documents their 2008 tour of the middle of the country, from my own Austin, Texas through Kansas City, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. The cast of characters (emphasis on “characters”) includes Brendon Walsh, Sean Rouse, Andy Andrist, Norman Wilkerson, Brett Erickson, Travis Lipski, James Inman, and Kristine Levine. The unfortunate star of the show is James Inman. If nothing else, this film documents how reckless behavior can bring people together as well as single one of them out.
The first gig is at Nasty’s in Austin, and one of my own University of Texas colleagues gets the narrative rolling by leaving drugs around for Inman to find, like an Easter Egg hunt with negative repercussions. I was at Nasty’s that night, and everyone killed. It was proof of both why these guys are The Unbookables and why they’re such revered comedians. Night two was a “chicken wire” show at Beerland during which chicken wire is draped in front of the stage and the crowd throws fruit at the comics while they attempt to tell jokes. True to its heritage, the show was a complete trainwreck with mostly just the comedians pelting each other with fruit. Few jokes were told as everyone just made fun of Inman.
Inman’s shady behavior continued through the gigs in his then-home Kansas City. He almost ditches the others as they get fired from the first show of the weekend there thanks to one of Travis Lipski’s tamest jokes. Tensions mount, Kristine Levine joins the crew, and the plot spirals out of control as our heroes reach Peoria. Luckily Brett Erickson is there to save the day.
There’s obviously a lot more to it than I’ve detailed above, but it’s not all worth mentioning. With that said, The Unbookables is a gruesome glimpse into the world of touring stand-up comedy, and it’s damn worth checking out. Props due to all involved — except Inman, of course.
Move of the Year: Austin to Chicago: Continuing the family trade, my girl Lily got into grad school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so we packed up and moved from the Tattooine of Austin to the Hoth of Chicago. Thanks to Zizi Papacharissi, I joined the adjunct faculty at The University of Illinois at Chicago. This will be the biggest, coldest city I’ve ever lived in, but we’re certainly enjoying it so far.
Many thanks to Chris Noble at Level Magazine, for which many of the reviews above were originally written throughout the year. Thanks to Tim Baker over at SYFFAL for turning me on to Gunplay and the Gritty City Fam. Mad thanks to Michael Schandorf, Adriane Stoner, and Zizi Papacharissi for making the transition to Chicago a smooth one. Onward.
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.
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.