Summertime, with its steamy air and sinuous rhythms, cries out for a soundtrack — and whether it’s rap or go-go, R&B or hip-hop, the music is more than likely to have African American roots. Two recent books about black culture are excellent guides to the sounds booming from the club, the car or the headphones.
Elijah Wald makes a persuasive case that rap grew from a verbal folk culture of improvised insults called “The Dozens.” This boisterous, age-old ritual consists of an escalating series of scabrous, profane attacks on the opponent’s ancestry and sexual practices, and it runs like a thread through underground black culture, surfacing in such disparate places as the ragtime records by Jelly Roll Morton and novels by Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama (Oxford Univ., $24.95) shows that the verbal dexterity and improvisatory elan that are the hallmarks of rap were shaped by an older, more mysterious, largely unrecorded tradition.
A guitarist who also teaches blues history at UCLA, Wald writes with the careful methodology of a social scientist, which at times can come across as faintly comical; he quotes passages of wild humor and unprintable obscenity, and then politely explains that “insults about mothers or sisters having sex with dogs have always been common in dozens playing.” The author’s affection and respect for this strange, unheralded current of folk culture shine through every word of his book.
Former Washington Post writer Natalie Hopkinson’s book about go-go music shares some of Wald’s ethnographic focus, but it’s a jazzier, slangier affair. Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City (Duke Univ.; paperback, $22.95) ties the rise of the music to the socioeconomic vacuum created in the wake of the urban violence and subsequent white flight of the ’60s. While outsiders may have seen a city devastated by crime and drugs, those who knew where to look could find a vibrant “black public sphere” that moved to the blaring horns and thumping percussion of the new groove created by such pioneers as guitarist and bandleader Chuck Brown.
Hopkinson’s insightful narrative is especially good at analyzing the music. While acknowledging that go-go lyrics are “not exactly easy reading,” she says that they are “impressionistic tales — poetry as opposed to prose.” She shows how go-go’s hybrid instrumentation, call-and-response vocalization and emphasis on interpretation are all potent expressions of a distinctive Latin African heritage. Hopkinson is even more trenchant on the social ramifications of go-go, which, as grass-roots music created by black residents of the black-majority city of Washington, D.C., represented an artistic ecosystem of unusual integrity and vigor.
Here Hopkinson smartly contrasts go-go’s “time-honored cultural scripts” with a hip-hop “platform that aggrandizes and exploits black pathology and dysfunction and then offers it up for the consumption of global audiences.” She’s skeptical of gentrification, political power plays and the media, noting “the historic disconnection between the Washington Post newspaper and the city’s black community,” partly the result of oversimplified portrayals of go-go as party music for drugged-out thugs. With the election of Barack Obama and the return of the white middle class to the urban core, Hopkinson’s beloved Chocolate City and the music it spawned may be a thing of the past. “Go-Go Live” is thus not just a work of scholarship but an eloquent piece of cultural partisanship, an elegy, a counter-narrative, a love letter. Like Wald’s dozens, go-go comes from the margins — societal, economic, cultural — but in American music, the margins are usually the real center of the action.
Lindgren is a poet and musician who lives in Manhattan.