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Rap Sheets

Reviewed by Tony Green
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page BW08


By Miles Marshall Lewis. Akashic. 197 pp. Paperback, $14.95



The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years

Edited by Raquel Cepeda. Faber and Faber. 361 pp. Paperback, $16


The Hip-Hop Studies Reader

Edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal

Routledge. 628 pp. Paperback, $35

Midway through his collection of coming-of-age essays, Miles Marshall Lewis describes a dilemma that has been part of hip-hop writing and criticism since the beginning. "I ultimately had to face the reality that a hip hop literati movement could never process the gravitas of movements past," he writes, "because literature no longer holds the same space in society. The Internet, DVD collections, shortened MTV attention spans and hundreds of cable television channels have contributed to transforming America into a less literate nation." Writing was once the sole occupant of a space it now shares with free music downloads, streaming video, live concert DVDs and other high-tech diversions. How will it remain significant in hip-hop, an art form increasingly defined by more immediate visual and aural media?

Each of the books under review confronts that question with varying results. Taken together, they present a fairly good look at the music and culture of hip-hop. Taken individually, each is limited by its particular approach.

That's The Joint!, edited by Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, is a ready-made cornerstone for any multidisciplinary hip-hop course. It collects work by some of the most high profile names in black cultural studies (Robin D.G. Kelley, Tricia Rose, Michael Eric Dyson) and music criticism (Nelson George, Alan Light, David Toop).

While its far-ranging scope encompasses a number of contentious topics, the book is at its best when individual entries tackle seldom debated subjects. The history of hip-hop has been documented by everyone from the underground magazine Ego Trip to VH-1, rendering much of the first chapter slightly moot (refer instead to Toop's Rap Attack, for years the definitive hip-hop text). Subjects such as gangsta rap's identification with the folk legend Stagolee, as well as the unbearable whiteness of its consumer base and executive branches (both covered in the section devoted to "Hip-Hop authenticity"), are well-covered topics in both intellectual and mainstream circles. Contrast this with Juan Flores' "Puerto Rocks" essay, which not only dissects the "Latin hip-hop" oxymoron, but demonstrates that Puerto Rican culture -- the Hispanic culture most responsible for the creation of that subgenre -- is often marginalized. (Jennifer Lopez, who launched her career playing Selena, an artist from an even more marginalized Hispanic culture, is the obvious exception.) Other subjects, hip-hop's ongoing gender problem, for example, remain fresh due to a hip-hop aesthetic that has elevated misogyny from aberration to staple in the years following Tricia Rose's groundbreaking 1990 essay "Never Trust a Big Butt and a Smile," which is included here.

Keep That's the Joint! on hand as you read through Lewis's Scars. The latter lends dimension to some of the former's heavily academic analyses, while the former fills in some of the latter's thin spots. Lewis's book is stylish and engaging, long on first-person anecdotes and sociocultural musings. It's ultimately hamstrung by a "thinking out loud" narrative style that often tells instead of shows, deigning to fully develop any of its more pointed observations.

For instance, the essay titled "Peace, Unity, Love, Having Fun" covers topics from hip-hop's '70s gangland connections to the black bohemian aesthetic (symbolized by the author's mid-'80s mixtape that included Run-DMC, Sting, David Bowie and L.L. Cool J). But Lewis's observations on the lack of guiding principles in modern hip-hop often come across as pat and undeveloped. While he declares that "the fifth element of hip-hop is knowledge," he doesn't explore the meaning of that word beyond an admonition to read the "Infinity Lessons," a series of proverbs and observations produced by the hip-hop collective Zulu Nation. (Does it mean knowledge of history, music, oneself? And who is this admonition indirectly addressing?) An original spin on these questions, and others like them, would have made this book more than just a fun variation on the hoary "growing up black in America" theme.

And It Don't Stop! is the most satisfying of these three books. Some of its contributions are provocative think pieces, while others are feature stories that tell more about the state of hip-hop than any semi-didactic jeremiad. David Kamp's look inside the Puff Daddy (now P-Diddy) hype camp touches on any number of hot-button topics -- hip-hop violence, music-industry gamesmanship, class and authenticity -- and juxtaposes them with skill. In "The Nigga Ya Hate to Love," Joan Morgan communicates her maddening ambivalence toward rapper Ice Cube through a series of vivid snapshots, proving that the most intellectually stimulating writing inspires more questions than it answers. "Hell-Raiser," Dream Hampton's profile of Tupac Shakur, is even more compelling. Skillfully weaving together vignettes addressing the late rapper's skirmishes with various figures (including the filmmakers Allen and Albert Hughes, with whom Shakur famously clashed in 1993), Hampton captures the essence of one of pop music's most contradictory figures. And adds some dispassionate perspective to boot.

While earlier writers were writing passionately about a culture no one even knew existed, much of modern hip-hop commentary often retells old tales in new ways or -- even more frequently -- plays a supporting role to visuals, fashion spreads and video. In such a fluid and rapidly changing context, it remains to be seen whether future generations of hip-hop writers will be able to keep up. •

Tony Green is a musician and writer living in Largo, Fla., whose criticism has appeared in Slate and elsewhere.

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