Wednesday, August 8, 2012

American Hip-Hop: Rappers, DJs and Hard Beats (Out Now)

As I keep saying, very exciting times here at Rockaliser. For one thing, I wrote a book:

Available at Most Online Bookstores Within the Greater Googlesphere

It's a textbook about rap music, covering the history of the genre from its origins in the South Bronx to the present day, written with a middle school/early teen audience in mind. This entry represents one of six genres featured in Lerner Publishing's "American Music Milestones" series--the others are rock music, Latin music, country, pop, and soul/R&B, the last of which you will be hearing more about soon. Check out all the titles on Amazon.

While American Hip-Hop: Rappers, DJs and Hard Beats is written for younger readers, it can be read by curious music fans of any age. My hope was that kids and hip-hop laymen alike would be able to pick up this book and learn a decent amount of history in sixty scant pages. The book covers a lot of ground, and is full of neat sidebars and extras, like "Must Download" playlists, timelines, and glossaries of terms, all of which are calibrated for maximum new listener pleasure. If there's one thing that bothers me about the finished product, it's that I had to leave out a lot of artists because of word constraints (a partial list of really, really important rappers I couldn't get to: Busta Rhymes, Kool Keith, Das EFX, Gang Starr, EPMD, Redman, the Beatnuts, E-40, T.I., the Fu-Schnickens, MF Doom--the more I rattle off the worse I feel). Nevertheless, despite its manifold, unforgivable errors of omission I do think the book effectively condenses forty years of music, politics, controversy and fashion in a digestible and entertaining package.

I've always wanted to write a book, and as far as introductory-level work-for-hire gigs go, this was the jackpot. Even when I struggled at certain points--say, when forced to cut entire sections about Fear of a Black Planet--I could rely on the input and patience of editors far more experienced than me, who knew and supported exactly what I was going for but nevertheless tamped down my enthusiasm for random, irrelevant historical trivia. Freelance book-writing gigs, especially for younger, inexperienced writers, can be nightmarish and painful, but this one was almost disturbingly pleasant.  

More importantly, working on this book broadened my appreciation for the genre, which was already substantial. I listened to hundreds of albums, studied rap style and wordplay, researched samples, and read every book I could get on the subject, aiming to get the most complete picture of rap music in my head that I could. The best consequence of this was an enhanced understanding of the hip-hop's capacity for social change, built into the genre from the very beginning. To understand hip-hop, it is important to picture the impoverished and segregated Bronx of the 1970s, a bleak period for the borough which nevertheless inspired these amazing innovations in sound first introduced by DJ Kool Herc in 1973. 

Rap music is not a politically neutral art form. It is only recently, after all, that journalistic "neutrality" in the public sphere has come to be seen as a virtue, and this notion is complete nonsense. Hip-hop is about the individual voice as an instrument of radical change. Forget the boring arguments about what is and isn't "authentic" or "real" hip-hop. A rap scene that doesn't challenge prevailing notions of authority and privilege, that wastes its resources on celebrity gossip and beefs and other such nonsense, is denying its own radical history. That's a plain and obvious fact. In writing about some of the controversies that have fueled misunderstandings of hip-hop culture, I touch on some characteristics of modern race relations that are rarely articulated in the public school classroom. I strongly believe hip-hop remains a relevant mode of expression because it is uniquely capable of contextualizing sometimes dark themes in a profound, uplifting and exciting manner. For younger audiences, hip-hop is an especially potent method of expressing complex ideas about race, politics, and class.

It's a really great time to be a hip-hop fan in 2012. There have been reams of amazing albums to come out this year. Off the top of my head, I can think of killer LPs or mixtapes from Curren$y, Masta Ace, DJ Premier and Bumpy Knuckles, Killer Mike, El-P, Big K.R.I.T., Devin the Dude, The Alchemist, Large Professor, Odd Future, Ab-Soul, and probably others. Rick Ross' new album is shockingly brilliant, as was his mixtape Rich Forever from earlier this year. And the year is only half over, with more to come from beloved veterans Ghostface Killah and Big Boi as well as young upstarts Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky. Hip-hop is entering a remarkable new era, with new scenes incubating every day in less densely populated regions of the country. Even my home state of Iowa seems poised for a decent, breakout rapper to make it big in the next few years. Despite the think pieces proclaiming "hip-hop is dead" every few years, the amount of amazing rap music seems to be growing exponentially, as more rappers choose to circumvent the major label system and release music directly on the Internet.

Anyway, all this rambling may be a bad way of trying to convince you to buy my book (if $30 seems excessive--which I totally understand--there are an array of cheaper prices at non-Amazon bookstores). American Hip-Hop is ideal for kids interested in exploring the genre, and already it's garnered a couple of positive reviews from adults as well. Teachers might especially be interested in using it as a potential classroom resource--anyone is invited to email me here with questions or suggestions about using hip-hop in an educational setting. If you like what we do at Rockaliser, please check out this book: it might not be the most comprehensive ever written on the subject, but it conveys what it knows with what I hope is real, palpable enthusiasm for the music and the culture, both of which I have come to respect more than ever.

1 comment:

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