Hip hop is everywhere. It is 100% American, and though LA and other regions have made essential contributions, it absolutely started in NEW YORK CITY… at some disputed point in the 70s, in one or possibly several of the boroughs, depending on whom you ask. Most will say MCing started in The Bronx, but there was some DJ stuff happening in Brooklyn and Queens, so…? Bottom line: at the same time that punk was gestating in one of NY’s huevos, hip hop was gestating in the other. Both of these cultural forces would grow quickly and send ripples of change out from where they started, but you might say hip hop held its shape better. It’s hard to go anywhere in the world where hip hop is not the most popular music.
Broadly speaking, hip hop is not only a style of music, but a lifestyle with 5 main elements: graffiti/street art, b-boy/b-girl (dancing), DJing, MCing and the knowledge of how it all fits together. I’ve tried to gather books that at least touch on all of those aspects, with mixed results.
Of course, like KRS One says in this talk, no amount of scholarship will make a person hip hop. “You can’t eat a slice of pizza, then say ‘I’m an expert on Italian culture.'” So a book will only get you so far. That said, some very legit folks have written on the subject, and all we want to do here is find the best hip hop books and put them in one place for you to sort through for yourself. There are four posts in this series (just like we did with punk), and they’re not in any particular order. These run the gamut: history, memoirs, theory, art/photo and specialty subjects.
And I know as much about hip hop as my mom, so feel free to add your thoughts in the comments. An interesting side note: though there have been a lot of significant female hip hop artists, it has been tough to find books on them. I’ll keep looking, but you will notice a gap. That’s why.
Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation – Jeff Chang, intro by DJ Cool Herc
This is the origin story, starting in the Bronx in the 70s and giving it a social/historical context, from a nod to its Caribbean roots to the political climate of the moment. The interviews are not only with key MCs and DJs (Afrika Bambaataa, Chuck D, et al) but with visual artists, activists, breakdancers, even gang members – in short, anyone involved in hip hop as a cultural happening, not limited to the music itself.
Hip Hop Files: Photographs 1979 – 1984 – Martha Cooper and Zeb.Roc.Ski aka Akim Walta
If you were a kid during this period (like [ahem] some people I know), these pix will make your heart ache with nostalgia: the styles, the boom boxes, spinning on cardboard – totally fresh. Martha Cooper took the photos, sometimes capturing future legends right at the beginning. Years later, Zeb went back and interviewed some of the subjects, and this text supports the images.
For my money, this is the fun stuff. This label, started by Rubin and Simmons in an NYU dorm room, sported such prime cuts as LL Cool J, Public Enemy and Beastie Boys. Def Jam was an explosion and though it was sometimes a mess, it didn’t have the darkness of Death Row Records. This thing is full of incredible stories, and a who’s who of (mostly) 80s hip hop, especially in New York.
An interesting way of looking at the history of the culture is to read the essays and reviews of hip hop as they progress chronologically. This collection, organized by decade, comes primarily from mainstream magazines like Vibe and The Source and focuses almost exclusively on the music.
Diary of a Madman: The Geto Boys, Life, Death, and the Roots of Southern Rap – Brad “Scarface” Jordan and Benjamin Meadows Ingram
This is a doozy. Jordan tells his story: including attempted suicide, hustling, violence, costly success; he’s had one of the rougher rides. He’s an extremely important artist – from Houston, of all places – who doesn’t get quite the mass media play of some of his more glamorous contemporaries.
Decoded – Jay-Z
This is Jay-Z’s memoir, yes, but it’s also an apologia for rap as poetry thru a deconstruction of his own lyrics. There’s a ton of name-dropping, but it’s Jay-Z, so… it doesn’t really count as name-dropping. I mean, he could prob legit just grab a beer from the fridge of folks you and I would flip out over if we saw them across the way at a mall. He’s been a fatherless crack dealer, and he’s now a 600 million dollar businessman/poet (and that’s not counting what Queen Bey brings to the kitchen table, but I’m betting they have to take the fruit basket off to make room). Sounds like a pretty amazing story. It’s got footnotes.
My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy with Laura Checkoway
Written while serving a few years in prison, this is Prodigy’s memoir, and gives an inside view of 90s era thug life. Coming from a storied musical family and himself a creator of significant music (as half of Mobb Deep), he has endured sickle cell anemia and survived relentless violence. The bracing honesty of this book is universally praised.
Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic – Michael Eric Dyson, Sohail Daulatzai, et al
Illmatic is one of the most significant hip hop albums ever, as evidenced not only by sales but by this book, which is simply a track-by-track analysis by a lineup of top notch critics and writers. How many albums merit that kinda close reading?
Fight the Power: Rap, Race and Reality – Chuck D
Public Enemy as a book, kinda. Chuck D addresses all manner of societal ills, from sometimes a radical perspective. Includes his own background and a ton of Public Enemy stories. This is about as inside as it gets for probably the most serious rap group of the 90s.
The Wu-Tang Manual – The RZA (see also The Tao of Wu)
Everything you ever wanted to know about Wu-Tang Clan – bios, lyrics, influences, philosophies – all from the abbot himself. There’s nothing like the Wu-Tang. In part, you could see this as a fanboy-type deal: photos of the band, etc. – but since it’s Wu-Tang, it’s got numerology, martial arts, chess – I mean…. There’s a reason there’s only one Wu-Tang Clan.
Go behind the scenes into the studios of 28 top hip hop producers. Check out their equipment and setups, turntables… uh, all that stuff they use to capture beats and rhymes. J Dilla and Madlib are here, and tons of other cutting edge pros I’ve never heard of.
Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip Hop – Justin A Williams
There are a handful of typical elements in hip hop music: dense lyrics, beats and sampling. This is the book that studies the sampling, which is basically borrowing sound clips from nearly any source and incorporating them into a song. It’s why you can hear some b-side Lynyrd Skynyrd or a piece of dialogue in an obscure movie and suddenly realize that you first heard it in a Beastie Boys tune.
There’s a God on the Mic: The True Greatest 50 MCs – Kool Mo Dee
Who but Kool Mo Dee, who had a genre-defining rap-battle “victory” over Busy Bee in 1981, could pick the all-time great MCs? Covering the entire history of MCing, and including a few supplemental top ten lists of various topics (rap battle rules, best rhymin, etc), he doesn’t just say “this guy is number one, then this dude over here…” – he has a multi-point rating system. Each entry is rated in areas like social impact, free-stylin ability, lyrics, and so on. You might disagree with his list, but it sure as hell ain’t random.
Damn Son Where Did You Find This? – Tobias Hansson and MIchael Thorsby
This is cover art from hip hop mixtapes. You know how metal is only as good as the album cover? (Well, sometimes it’s not half as good as the album cover.) This is that, but for hip hop. Remember, these are not commercial album covers: no record company approval, no external restraint of any kind – just freestylin’ hip hop design. It also includes interviews with the artists. You won’t find this one, but if you go to their website, you can get yourself on their email list, in case there’s a reprint. It’s the kinda thing that – if we’re lucky – will some day show up in our Annex behind a glass case.
Supah Stylin’s Supah Bonus !
Remember we said hip hop was the most popular music in the world? Check out this series of youtube vids sampling beats & rhymes from around planet Earth. For my $$: Mongolia. By a mile.
Alright – that’s part one. We got two, three, four more.