Between the Lines

You love to hear the storyagain and againabout how it all got startedway back when.

--MC Shan, ”The Bridge“

If one of the prime elements in hip-hop is The Word, why has so little been written about the music and its culture? It‘s ironic that the raveclub scene -- itself a close kin, if not direct descendant, of hip-hop -- has spawned a small cottage industry of music criticism and academic theory, while hip-hop has garnered comparatively little attention despite its 20-year history.

Notably, many of the major books documenting rap music appeared in the early ’80s, capitalizing on a blossoming subculture and its radical forms of expression. Works like Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti (by Steven Hager, 1984) and the anthology Fresh: Hip Hop Don‘t Stop (by Nelson George, Sally Banes, Susan Flinker and Patty Romanowsky, 1984) recounted the nascent hip-hop community with a mix of fashionable reverence and anthropological intrigue, as if the South Bronx were the birthplace for an exotic culture unknown to Western eyes. Of course, given the social and class disparities that arose in the post-industrial ’70s, America‘s urban communities of color may as well have been colonies in another solar system. Little wonder, then, that early hip-hop generated such a quick spark of interest, but that the media spotlight faded soon after being lit. As David Toop writes in the introduction to his new Rap Attack 3, ”By 1984, pundits were writing obituaries for hip-hop, a passing fad that would surely become a footnote in music history.“

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Time has since proved those pundits oh so wrong, but for the remainder of the ’80s and much of the ‘90s, the publishing houses largely ignored hip-hop as if incredulously waiting for this ”passing fad“ to finally die. Toop’s Rap Attack, published first in ‘84, updated in ’91 and again this year, has been one of the few tomes to survive this era of scarcity, outliving minor players like the pseudo-encyclopedic Bring the Noise (by Havelock Nelson and Michael Gonzales, 1991) and the adroit ivory-tower pretension of Signifying Rappers (by Mark Costello and David Foster Wallace, 1990).

That Toop‘s book has survived to a third printing speaks of its rarefied status within the modest rap canon. Ironically, though, the basis for its worth hasn’t changed much since its initial printing in 1984 -- namely Toop‘s exhaustive exploration of the roots of the old school. Rich in ethnographic detail, Rap Attack 3 persuasively suggests that everything from Cab Calloway’s scats to Frankie Lymon‘s doo-wop to the Temptations’ choreography influenced hip-hop‘s preschool years. Incredibly, Toop spends the first three-quarters of the book documenting the old school before he even arrives at the inauguration of the new school with Run-DMC in the mid-’80s.

Yet if Toop‘s focus on hip-hop’s adolescence is Rap Attack 3‘s strength, it’s also the book‘s weakness. Toop’s dip into more contemporary hip-hop (i.e., anything since the mid-‘80s) is cursory at best; it’s hard to fathom, but in updating 1991‘s Rap Attack 2 to this latest edition, all Toop added was a 23-page introduction that serves to summarize the major developments of the last eight years. Squashed together are musings on Wu-Tang Clan, Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G. and turntablism, all of which Toop handles with grace and insight. Despite his eloquence and obvious passion for the subject, however, Toop fails to capture hip-hop’s relentless growth and dominance during the ‘90s. In the end, Rap Attack 3 is a phenomenal source of information on the old school, but if you want a guide to what has transpired in the ensuing 15 years (and that’s a lot), Toop has little to say.

This is where the new The Vibe History of Hip-Hop takes up the slack. Edited by Alan Light, VHHH boasts the gloss and flair we‘ve come to associate with Quincy Jones’ magazine of modern urban haute couture. If Rap Attack 3 is the aging pioneer, reflecting wistfully on the days gone by, VHHH is the vibrant thing, basking in the glow of hip-hop‘s current popularity.

While VHHH follows a loose time line, its chapters are organized around concept more than chronology. It shows considerable breadth and depth in surveying hip-hop’s 20 years, careful in its inclusion of the genre‘s chief stylistic developments, regions and icons, and includes chapters on everything from the rise and fall of the Death Row label, to the graffiti movement of the ’70s, to the impact of hip-hop on cinema, to two separate chapters on the contributions of women rappers. The book draws on an impressive team of writers -- essentially the creme de la creme of New York‘s rap critics’ circle -- who approach their chapters with enthusiasm and acumen. Noteworthy are Chairman Mao‘s extensive and enlightened discussion of the hip-hop DJ, and Sia Michel’s humorously honest profile of L.L. Cool J, an informed yet personalized view on the aging star.

Yet, like Vibe magazine, which desires to speak for the new black urban bourgeoisie, VHHH doesn‘t merely seek to join the canon of rap pages, it wants to define it. As former Vibe editor Danyel Smith proclaims in the book’s preface, ”A history? No. A story, really. A tale from the dark side,“ and, as such, this story proceeds to confirm and expand on hip-hop‘s favorite origin myths and legendary figures: the South Bronx, gangsta rap in Los Angeles, Public Enemy, N.W.A, and, of course, Tupac and Biggie (forget diamonds, martyrdom is forever).

While the book impressively surveys more than 50 different topics and personalities, it’s still a top-down approach that valorizes rap music as the monster phenom it‘s become. Much like Nelson George’s astute but ultimately myopic Hip Hop America (1998), VHHH has the macro locked down but leaves the micro largely untouched, missing the more foundational elements of hip-hop life that don‘t make the cover of Newsweek or as an MTV buzz clip. Lost in its dizzying whirl of chapters is a scant seven pages devoted to the regional scenes, giving brief lip service to the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and other hip-hop pockets in the backwoods away from New York and L.A. The Vibe History of Hip-Hop is a book about producing music, producing images, producing ideas, but it rarely tries to converse with those who actually consume hip-hop. Despite its thoroughness and generally strong writing, it seems meant to be looked at once, then put on display as a reflection of the reader’s discriminating taste.

If the Vibe edition is destined for the coffee table, people will likely call Ego Trip‘s Book of Rap Lists the ultimate bathroom bible. Inspired by Dave Marsh’s Book of Rock Lists and edited by Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Chairman Mao, Gabriel Alvarez and Brent Rollins, the BRL is one of the most obsessively detailed explorations of hip-hop ever undertaken. The book is organized in a series of more than 400 lists, compiled into 25 chapters. The topics span from ”Best Rap Advertising Copy“ to ”5 Acts of Random Violence Between Rappers“ to ”8 Songs About Body Odor“ (No. 1: ”The Dragon“ by Biz Markie).

Filled with pages of intricate esoterica and acerbic asides, BRL is ostensibly a supreme rap trivia book. In its manic minutiae, however, it‘s historically thorough -- BRL isn’t meant to proffer encyclopedic knowledge like Rap Attack 3 or VHHH, but the Ego Trip team finds factoids and anecdotes that fill in the many gaps left by the other books‘ trickle-down approach. The sheer volume of information is mind-boggling, a laborious attempt to cover every facet of hip-hop’s influence, whether serious or humorous. While the Ego Trip approach is arguably arrogant, cynical and sometimes maddeningly parochial (not unlike the former zine itself), the act of actually writing the BRL -- of spending the endless hours to conceptualize, research and collect the hundreds of lists included -- is a testament to hip-hop‘s spark in the human imagination.

Ego Trip’s Book of Rap Lists is a remarkable book. Underneath its fanatically comprehensive cataloging, eccentric inclusions and twisted humor is a love letter dedicated to the passion and catharsis that rap music engenders every day for millions of fans worldwide.

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