I started this series knowing approximately zero about hip hop, so where I’m missing the mark, drop them wizdom nugz on us – just maybe wait til we get thru all 4 parts.
Rap Attack – David Toop
There are 3 editions of Rap Attack (1984, 1992, 1999), each updated from the last. This beloved study of the music itself traces its roots in everything from West African chants to video game sounds. Maybe best of all, he provides lists of the essential albums, which he calls “Lightning Swords of Death”. Toop is a musician himself, and has written extensively on all kinds of music.
BONUS: Here is Toop’s first “Lightning Swords of Death”
The Vibe History of Hip Hop edited by Alan Light
This is a mixed bag of wide-ranging essays. Drawback: it’s from 1999, so there’s a lot it doesn’t cover. Advantage: It does cover the first 2 decades, and there’s perhaps no aspect of hip hop culture it doesn’t at least touch on: movies, money, women in rap, for example – not to mention pieces on everyone from Master P to Salt-n-Pepa. This is the one you throw on your coffee table to up your OG cred. (If that’s a thing; I wouldn’t know, as I have zero OG cred.)
Hip Hop America – Nelson George
More hip hop history, but a short read with a personal tone, as George talks a lot about his own life with the culture. It is not a thorough analysis, but it goes into a few interesting corners, such as the connection to basketball and the popularity of rap among white listeners.
Put On Your Crown: Life-Changing Moments on the Path to Queendom – Queen Latifah
(And check out her kids book Queen of the Scene about an athletic young lady making her mark… on the playground)
Now, this book is not a history of hip hop or hip hop technique or elements, like most of these other books. Nor is it a “here is my street cred” story. The Queen does tell some of her own story, the good and bad, but lays those experiences out as a service to young women. Since she’s possibly the most important female hip hop artist, in a heavily male culture, I would put her on the list even if she wrote books about cat grooming or Greek pottery or whatever – she’s the Queen. Here’s a bit she did with NPR.
From Pieces to Weight: Once Upon a Time in Southside Queens – 50 Cent
See also – The 50th Law – 50 Cent and Robert Greene
This is 50 Cent’s autobio. His mother was murdered before he was a teenager. He dug deep into the life of the streets, through drugs, violence, etc., and came out the other side (in fits and starts) as one of the major hip hop artists, another Queens rapper, another odds-defying, death-defying icon. The 50th Law is his “book of proverbs” type manual for life, written with Robert Greene, the entrepreneurial guru. The message: Fear nothing.
Ice Cube: Attitude – Joel McIver
While this is not an autobio of Ice Cube, it is his story and you’re in very good hands with Joel McIver. McIver has done books on everyone from Metallica to Erykah Badu (though he leans heavily towards the metal). And as for Ice Cube, he can’t be overlooked. First with NWA, and then solo, he was an essential rapper, who helped put LA on the map when NY was the only thing going. In leaving NWA over a royalties dispute, he showed some early business-savvy, and then held his own in the very serious 4 on 1 beef that ensued. And if all that weren’t enough, he’s developed a legit acting /producing career. The dude has handled his biz.
E.A.R.L.: The Autobiography of DMX – DMX and Smokey D. Fontaine
Earl “DMX” Simmons is from Yonkers, and his street cred is triple platinum. The young DMX suffered a lot of violence, even from his own mom (and the men in her life). Like a lot of other hip hop artists, his talent for making music – and his discovery by Def Jam records – was his way out of a violent lifestyle. This one is from the early 2000s, and… well, it’s an ongoing story for DMX, both spiritually and legally, but this is the deep background of a big time player.
Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent and the Rise of the Hip Hop Hustler – Ethan Brown
We’ve already covered a few bios of dudes who had one foot in the music world and one foot in the crime world. This is the story of how that relationship played out in Queens, starting in the 80s, when the drug kingpin legends grew, up thru the 90s, when it became de rigeur for one’s hip hop credibility to partake of that lifestyle. Everyone from underworld boss Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff (and his contemporaries) to the camps of 50 Cent & Ja Rule to the casualties of the violence, like Tupac and Jam Master Jay are part of this study.
The Gospel of Hip Hop: The First Instrument – KRS One
Is Hip Hop a new religion? Could it become one? KRS One lays out the basics in this canonical hip hop scripture. No, seriously – that’s what it is: a scripture. H-LAW: Health, Love, Awareness and Wealth are the pillars. Fascinating stuff, that taps into philosophy, existent religions and the civil rights movement.
Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your (Entertainment) Business – Thembisa S Mshaka
I mentioned in the intro to this series that it was tough to find books on the ladies of hip hop, but this book is standing in the gap. Focused on women working in or heading towards the entertainment industry – which, let’s face it, is a big piece of the hip hop pie – this book gives direction and disabuses of conventional “wisdom” about how to be successful. There are chapters on the music biz, movies, being an executive, image, travel, etc.. In terms of The Gospel of Hip Hop (see above), this book would fall under both Awareness and Wealth.
Sentences: The Life of M. F. Grimm – Percy Carey & Ronald Wimberly
Percy “MF Grimm” Carey was building a rap career when he was gunned down and paralyzed. He also survived Snuffleupagus rides as a child on Sesame Street (for real), and a prison life sentence for drug dealing, later reduced through his own efforts – yeah, he went ahead and studied law in prison. And he’s still making records. This is the graphic novel of MF Grimm’s holy-shit life. Here’s an interview with the man himself.
Understand Rap: Explanations of Confusing Rap Lyrics that You and Your Grandma Can Understand – William Buckholz
Hip hop and rap lyrics are just as full of imagery and figurative speech as any other kind of poetry. The first few times you pick up Shakespeare, it might help to have a specialized dictionary handy. This is not actually a dictionary, but reading this collection of rap lyrics and their banal explanations will do a lot towards acclimatizing yourself to the language. Also, the exegesis is pretty funny: “Flow so cold, chicken soup won’t help – The stream of lyrics that travel from my mouth to the microphone is so powerful that if it were a sickness, a common home remedy wouldn’t help.” Got it.
How to Rap – Paul Edwards
(see also How to Rap 2)
Content, flow, writing and delivery: these are the sections Edwards uses to break down rap technique. Through interviews and consultation with over a hundred accomplished MCs (and with his own background in literature) he provides this study and practical manual of rapping. It’s not his method; it’s how it’s done, according to Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane, Pusha-T, Kool G Rap, Cypress Hill, Will.I.Am, and so on and so on. Yeah, maybe you can’t straight learn it from a book, but on the other hand – you can’t straight hang out with Chuck D and ask him shit either, can you? This is next best.
BONUS: Sampling is like a brand new instrument invented by hip hop. Here’s a cool little story about paying respect to one of its most significant sources. Do not neglect to follow those other links to check out the most sampled songs ever.
Next up, we’ll call it part 3