One Nation Under Hip-Hop

(Mike Thompson)
Reviewed by Adam Bradley
Sunday, January 28, 2007


A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White America

By Jason Tanz

Bloomsbury. 254 pp. $24.95


A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic

By William Jelani Cobb

New York Univ. 200 pp. $22.95

Hip-hop is dead. That's what rap legend Nas claims in the title of his latest album. He just might be right. According to Nielsen Soundscan, album sales in all genres declined by nearly 5 percent in 2006, largely attributable to the increasing popularity of digital downloads. Rap sales, however, plummeted by more than 20 percent, the most of any genre. Ironically, this downturn comes at a time when hip-hop seems to be catering to commercial tastes as never before, often at the expense of artistic innovation.

But don't write rap's obituary yet. Hip-hop still remains a dominant voice in youth culture, though it undoubtedly faces an identity crisis. Now 30 years old, hip-hop must reconcile the twin tensions of art and commerce -- just as jazz did in the 1940s, when bebop supplanted swing and young lions such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie emerged as cultural icons capable of crossing the color line. And because the majority of rap artists are black and much of the audience is white, the genre bears both the promise and the peril of interracial encounter. Like jazz, hip-hop has the paradoxical potential to promote understanding and to reinforce stereotypes.

Hip-hop's racial implications animate Jason Tanz's Other People's Property. Tanz contends that hip-hop is the continuation of America's longstanding racial drama by other means, coded in beats and rhymes. He describes his book as "an outsider's history, a look at how and why white people, and white culture at large, have consumed, interacted with, and used the narratives of young African American men."

Tanz travels across hip-hop's white American landscape, from a guided bus tour of hip-hop's birthplace in the South Bronx to a break-dancing class at a tony suburban dance academy to a convention of white "nerdcore" rappers who rhyme about Microsoft and "Star Wars," recording these interactions with acuity. And while he calls attention to his subjects' idiosyncrasies, he is unfailingly empathetic in describing their attraction to hip-hop, be it as a passing fad or as a way of life.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company