This is part three of a four part series (which started here) collecting the best books on hip hop. This library will undoubtedly be incomplete (as is the literary record of hip hop to this point). Nevertheless, you should find plenty to deepen your understanding and enjoyment of this keenly American expression with vast global reach.
Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records – Ronin Ro
This is the Suge Knight & Co exposé. Unbelievable violence and the complicity of the industry (including journalists) lined a few pockets with a LOT of money. A startling array of famous (Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., for example) and totally unknown role-players (an exec here, a publicist there, etc) were killed, beaten, sodomized, humiliated by Knight and his goons and though everyone around the edges knew it was happening – well, gosh, they’re making so much money for us, so… I mean… you know….
Third Coast: Outkast, Timbaland and How Hip Hop Became a Southern Thing – Roni Sarig
This is a really intense examination of Southern hip hop, pushing back a bit against the idea that it was a completely new thing introduced from New York: the elements were already deep in southern culture and were just re-birthed through a new form. Whether or not you buy that, the contributions of cities like Miami, New Orleans, Houston and so on are significant.
The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop – Dan Charnas
Exactly as advertised, this is the backroom, visionary deal-making story. From Sugar Hill to Def Jam, from DJ Cool Herc to Vanilla Ice to Jay Z, this is less about the music or the culture itself, and more about the business – well… as if the two aren’t intrinsically connected. This one is huge, and if you think you’ll get sick of hearing about biz, it has tons of funny stories, too.
Dr. Dre: The Biography – Ronin Ro
If there was a Mount Rushmore of rap, Dr Dre would at least make it to the last round of voting. An NWA co-founder, and therefore West coast hip hop co-founder, he also co-created Death Row Records and his own label Aftermath. And Ronin Ro has both legit hip hop cred and bio cred – having written Have Gun Will Travel (see above) and also about Prince, Sean Combs, Run DMC and… Jack Kirby?! Yep, the comic book artist. This one goes on your list.
Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption from South Central to Hollywood – Ice-T and Douglas Century
Ice-T has range. Orphaned in East Coast suburbia, he ended up in South Central LA. He was both a criminal and a soldier in the United States Army. He co-wrote “Cop Killer” and now plays a cop on TV and owns an NAACP Image Award. That’s the broad outline. He’s a fascinating dude who’s seen it all, and along the way, he invented gangsta rap.
One Day It’ll All Make Sense – Common and Adam Bradley
Street cred blah blah – honestly, if I’m making these MC bios all sound the same, then that’s my fault. Each of these guys are, of course, completely unique, but have been pushed through similar situations (rough childhood, violent neighborhoods, and of course membership in an oppressed population). Common ran with a rough crowd in South Side Chicago, but has become an artist (rapper and actor) known for conscientiousness and activism – and a shelf full of awards, including a few Grammys and an Oscar. You know who makes frequent appearances in his book? His mom.
The Rose that Grew from Concrete – Tupac Shakur
Before he was a hip hop legend, Tupac was a poet. This is a collection of his early poems, and includes facsimiles of same in his own hand, with attendant illustrations. There’s even a preface written by his mother, Afeni Shakur (an activist and Black Panther), and a foreward from Nikki Giovanni. Intimate.
Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere – Gwendolyn D Pough
Though hip hop is male-dominated, Pough acknowledges its value. So instead of working against it as a cultural force, she fights for space within it for female voices. It’s heady stuff, legit sociology and covers music, film and literature.
Home Girls Make Some Noise!: Hip-Hop Feminism Anthology – editors Gwendolyn D Pough, Elaine Richardson, Aisha Durham, Rachel Raimist
This collection is vast. Poetry, essays, interviews, fiction – it really has everything. Contributions cover pretty much any topic you could imagine in a space that involves women and hip hop, from politics to sexuality, and from a variety of sources, from artists to intellectuals to journalists. These are the voices that don’t get as much play in mass media. If you ignore these voices, you’re only getting half the story.
Hip Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap – Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar
Hip hop, and especially rap, expects a certain credibility of its artists. Ogbar analyzes what this authenticity really is, starting from roots in certain African American male identities of the past (minstrelsy, 70s anti-heroes, for example), he builds up to the thug image of rappers, which are often authentic, but sometimes the result of marketing. If image is everything, this study is an important one.
The Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop – Adam Bradley
also The Anthology of Rap – Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois
Bradley breaks down rap lyrics like a poetry textbook, with chapters called Rhythm, Rhyme, Wordplay, Style, Storytelling, and Signifying. He’s basically placing rap within the canon of Western literature (at least the quality examples of it). Coupled with that analysis, you might include The Anthology of Rap, which collects key works and profiles of key artists exactly the way my Norton Anthology of English Literature does it. This is the poetic literature of our time, and a hundred years from now it will bore the shit out of all but the most literary of college students.
DEFinition: The Art and Design of Hip Hop – Cey Adams, Bill Adler
The title says it, the art and design of hip hop, from Snoop Dogg to Spike Lee to Shepard Fairey and a bunch of other artists I’ve never heard of because I’m as design-savvy as a farm mule. This is the look.
The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip Hop – Saul Williams
This is hip hop poetry that doesn’t come directly from the music scene (though Williams is a performer). The story is that he found these writings (as actual scrolls) in the New York subway, like some kind of lost scriptures. (In case you weren’t aware, the parallel is to the Dead Sea Scrolls, a collection of ancient scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, found in a cave near the Dead Sea in the 40s/50s.) Williams is maybe the king of slam poetry and has made several award-winning films in that vein. Here’s a number he did in Canada with a couple musicians, to give you an idea.
Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop – Joe Schloss
Sampling (as briefly pointed out in part 2 of this series, right there at the end) is using cuts of other material (music, sound clips, whatever) in a song. It involves a variety of elements including a certain code for how much of what is actually someone else’s work can be used, the discipline of exhaustive treasure hunting for rare or interesting music (think, digging thru stacks of vinyl), and all of the technique and artistry involved in sampling. This is the book about that, and it gets high marks from them what should know.
BONUS for FOLKS WHO AIN’T PAYING ATTENTION: In case you haven’t taken your headphones off for the last few days, Snoop Dogg and The Game led a peaceful march to LAPD headquarters in DTLA [just a few blocks from the store!], and had a little sitdown with Mayor Garcetti and Chief of Police Beck. Here’s the story in Vibe, with some video and what not. Pretty cool; that’s some leadership right there, all the way around.
There’s one more coming (and we still won’t know it all.)