Thursday, June 28, 2007

Hip Hop Lit

When I first started listening to rap music in the late 80's/early 9o's, it seemed like every MC had a favorite book or two that they would name drop incessantly in songs and interviews. On the East coast, rappers were pushing The Autobiography of Malcolm X and pamphlets detailing the teachings of Brother Clarence 13X. Out West, Eldridge Cleaver's prison memoir, Soul On Ice, was the undisputed book of choice. It was a time when even so-called 'thugs' boasted of their continuing self-education, and artists with thoughtful, literary lyrics were often those with the highest sales. KRS-ONE spoke frequently of the period of his life spent homeless, and how much of that time was passed holed up in various New York libraries, reading voraciously. Public Enemy brought a 'minister of information' and a 'media assassin' along with them on tour, and stressed the need to study not only the writings of the politically and socially conscious, but also the works of the less-enlightened opposition. (It was through P.E. frontman, Chuck D, that I first heard mention of Willie Lynch's disturbing-as-it-sounds how-to treatise, Making Of A Slave, and you can just imagine the looks of disgust a fourteen year old White boy with a shaved head garnered while ordering this book at the local bookstore). A few of the other groups stressing the importance of reading in regards to self-empowerment were Brand Nubian, The Poor Righteous Teachers, The Wu-Tang Clan, Nas and the X-Clan (writer Sonny Carson's son, Lumumba a.k.a. Professor X, was a founding member).

My how times have changed. These days, you're more likely to hear a shout-out for Phil Jackson's autobiography than Malcolm X's, and starting a clothing line has long since replaced the dream of spearheading a revolution. That's not to say that there aren't a few artists still stressing brains over ballin'. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez and Immortal Technique spring immediately to mind. What's sad is that these artists are now viewed as 'underground' or 'alternative.' The hip hop mainstream, by and large, has become as shallow and tepid as its rock'n'roll counterpart. But like Coach Jackson says, things move in cycles. There's still a slight chance that politics and poetry will return to mainstream rap. Until then, we can enjoy the current crop of books being published by writers who came of age during the early days of hip hop, writers who grew up believing that in order to express oneself to the fullest, they must also expose themselves to the widest variety of influences -- not just in music, but also in literature. These writers are a part of the re-emerging hip hop intelligentsia, and are managing to achieve mainstream success without dumbing down their delivery. Listed below are a few of their books. I highly recommend them all.

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
From the book's website: Based on original interviews with DJs, b-boys, rappers, graffiti writers, activists, and gang members, with unforgettable portraits of many of hip-hop's forebears, founders, and mavericks, including DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D, and Ice Cube, Can't Stop Won't Stop chronicles the events, the ideas, the music, and the art that marked the hip-hop generation's rise from the ashes of the 60s into the new millennium.

Bomb the Suburbs by William Upski Wimsatt
Written more like a collection of fanzine entries than a typical piece of non-fiction, Wimsatt covers topics as varied as train hopping, graffiti, rapping, breakdancing, train hopping and grassroots political activism -- all from the vantage point of someone who was there, actually participating in it before they ever thought of writing a book about it.

Ego Trip's Book Of Rap Lists by Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Chairman Mao, Gabriel Alvarez & Brent Rollins
From E.T.: If the editors of Mad were hip-hop heads, they might produce a book as funny, irreverent, and indispensable as this one. It's just as well that they're not, since the obsessives at rap fanzine ego trip have already assembled what may be the most readable, humorous, and enjoyable tome about rap music and culture extant. Within these pages is a wealth of fascinating trivia and arcane knowledge. Several hundred howl-inducing entries -- including ''# of Times the 'N' Word Appears on N.W.A's Albums,'' ''8 Songs About Body Odor,'' and ''Rap Artists Who've Survived Shootings'' -- constitute a funky fresh and decidedly def history lesson. One proviso: If there are other rap fans living with you, you may want to keep this ultimate bathroom book in the living room.

Unbelievable: Life, Death & Afterlife of The Notorious B.I.G.
by Cheo Hodari Coker
Coker conducted quite a number of interviews to flesh out this detailed and surprisingly even-handed biography of the late, great 'rap Alfred Hitchcock.' In an interview with the Stanford Daily, Coker says, "B.I.G. was the one person, where through his life you could explore the history of hip-hop. When you look at his art, its more than just a gangsta rap record, it is about Reagan-omics and drug use in the ’80s, and how that affected the content of hip-hop. I wanted to show who it is he was, but not shy away from the Biggie who pulled guns, smoked weed and had more girls than any man should. When he got big, he was not only able to have music change his life, he brought in the people from the corner and showed them that instead of risking your life for $20,000, I can get you $20,000 a show.”

The Wu-Tang Manual: Enter the 36 Chambers, Volume One by The RZA
Designed to look like a school text book, it was written with a similar goal: to educate like one. The Wu Manual not only gives the history of the Wu-Tang Clan's members, the group's formation and their brief domination of rap, it also dissects their work and highlights their wide variety of influences. The RZA discusses everything from Eastern religions and martial arts to vegetarian diets and Times Square in the early 80's. This is the sort of book that ends up costing you a lot of money in the long-run. Not because of its cover price, but because of all of the movies, music and books that it mentions that you will be curious to track down and experience for yourself.

Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, And The Rise Of The Hip-Hop Hustler
by Ethan Brown
From The Onion AV Club: Ethan Brown's compulsively readable new page-turner Queens Reigns Supreme explores the ways in which the dope game and the rap game have inspired each other in Queens, documenting how the crack kingpins of the '80s gave way to the rap superstars and moguls of the '90s and today...Many of the kingpins Brown documents embody a compelling, ultimately fatal combination of street savvy and stupidity, like the crime boss who was smart enough to launder his drug money through seemingly legitimate businesses, but shortsighted enough to name those fronts, and himself, after Al Pacino's iconic Scarface gangster. Queens Reigns Supreme is full of juicy anecdotes, telling details, and larger-than-life characters, like the boss who had his car custom-made to dispense oil slicks and clouds of smoke, having seemingly gleaned the idea from a few too many lazy afternoons at the arcade playing Spy Hunter.