One Nation Under Hip-Hop
Even as its beat begins to fade, the influence of the music is everywhere.

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.

Hip-hop's transformative capacity is the book's most powerful theme, particularly when Tanz turns to his own experience as a white hip-hop fan. With often excruciating frankness, he recounts "the palpable anxiety and self-doubt I felt so many times when I had to interact with a black person and I couldn't help but think, Is this working? Are they buying it? Am I a poser?" In these moments of racial anxiety, Tanz looks to hip-hop not only to escape the humdrum reality of white suburban life but, more tantalizingly, to experience blackness and all it has come to represent to him: passion, danger and a certain kind of freedom.

"Blackness," Tanz writes, "provided the purest form of escape from mainstream society. And if hip-hop couldn't provide me with that same liberation by physically transporting me into that world, it gave me the next best thing: a window seat from which to observe it."

Viewed from this window seat, however, blackness appears an indistinguishable mass, rather than a loose collection of 35 million individuals. As a consequence, Tanz attributes too much mystical power to blackness and too much vanilla banality to whiteness. Seeking answers in the depths of some collective white psyche, he never considers the possibility that white kids might love hip-hop for much the same reasons black kids do: because it appeals to adolescent passions, because their friends like it and their parents don't, because it is sold to them and because some of it -- though not all -- is transcendent art. While Tanz is scrupulous, almost to a fault, in avoiding even the tincture of racism, he instead reveals another troubling reality of modern American life: the extent to which even those with the best intentions sometimes fail to see clearly across the color line.

What makes William Jelani Cobb's To the Break of Dawn so refreshing is that it centers on what hip-hop is, rather than on what it does. Eschewing the common practice of treating rap lyrics as just another way to talk about race, politics or the self, Cobb treats them as art. His aim is ambitious: to articulate hip-hop's aesthetic principles while tracing its roots back to the "ancestral poetic and musical traditions" of black oral culture, from Sunday sermons to gut-bucket blues.

To the Break of Dawn celebrates lyrical invention, the artists and even the particular rhymes that make hip-hop great. For the uninitiated, it is Hip-Hop 101, offering a rich overview of rap's verbal artistry. For the aficionado, it alternately affirms and challenges deeply held beliefs of what is valuable in hip-hop.

As a study of aesthetics, however, the book has its limitations. Cobb's own tastes run to old-school New York lyricists and the more recent cadre of socially conscious rappers such as Talib Kweli and Common. Accompanying Cobb's personal preferences, however, is an unhealthy disdain for the tastes of rap's popular audience. "That there is a sonic distinction between the great MC and his wack counterpart is lost on most of the consuming public," he writes. But popular taste, too, is an expression of aesthetic values -- albeit different values than Cobb's. His narrow definition of excellence, embodied both in the artists he features and those he ignores, ultimately undercuts the very purpose of aesthetics, which is to find beauty no matter the form it takes.

Such biases, however, are instructive: They call attention to the need for continued exploration of the subjects Cobb so fruitfully surveys. Is hip-hop great art? What does its future hold? Does it have room to grow as a genre, or is it destined to fall victim to commercialism and creative stagnation? These are some of the questions we must ask of hip-hop, decades after its birth and a long way from its final resting place. ยท

Adam Bradley is an assistant professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College.

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