Placing the Playback: Hip-hop in Context

February 19th, 2015 | Category: Reviews

The perpetual now of digital media makes it difficult to contextualize events in time: watching old SNL sketches and trying to explain what it was like to watch them live on television, playing old records and trying to capture what it was like the first time the world heard that sound, talking about where you were when the Shuttle exploded or the Towers fell. As Shinya Yamazaki so bluntly puts it in William Gibson‘s All Tomorrow’s Parties (Putnam, 1999),

I know you all think you live in all the times at once, everything recorded for you, it’s all there to play back. Digital. That’s all that is, though: playback. You still don’t remember what it felt like (p. 259).

Check the Technique, Volume 2Built as it is out of previously recorded material, hip-hop is especially vulnerable to this contextually lossy age. Thankfully, there are remedies. Check the Technique, Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-hop Junkies by Brian Coleman (Wax Facts, 2014) continues his investigating skills and impeccable taste with liner notes for 25 more classic hip-hop records. Some lesser known than the last the albums in the last volume but no less essential: debuts by 3rd Bass, Black Sheep, The Beatnuts, Ice Cube, Dr. Octagon, Jeru the Damaja, Mantronix, Black Star, Stetsasonic, Kwamé, Raekwon, Gravediggaz, Naughty by Nature, Diamond D, Smif-N-Wessun, and Company Flow. About the latter’s Funcrusher Plus (Rawkus, 1997), rapper, producer, and current Run the Jewels member, El-P says,

I didn’t have any specific expectations for the record, I just wanted it to be huge. Shit, they were playing it on Hot 97, we were in the Source, we were selling out shows. It was crazy. So yeah, it was great, it was a dream come true, and it was the thing that made the rest of my career possible (p. 75).

The promotional steps needed to break an act like Company Flow in the late 1990s were all but gone just a few years later. This kind of context—the historical milieu, the technical aspects, the events of the day, the personalities in the studio—these are the cues and clues needed to make sense of recordings heard out of their times. As Coleman told me in 2005,

When I sit down and chop it up with my friends about what hip-hop albums I love, I’m not like: “Wow, isn’t it weird how many white people like hip-hop? Why do you think that is?” I’m more like: “Holy shit, how did Schoolly D get ‘PSK’ to sound like that? Did he do that drum program himself? And that story about his mom tearing apart his room in ‘Saturday Night’ is fucking hilarious.” If writers are really fans of the music and the art form, personally I just wish they would put the energy into describing why it’s such a dynamic music and stop trying to describe and translate it to their unhip academic peers.

Check the Technique, Volume 2 and its predecessor, much like Albert Mudrian‘s Precious Metal (Da Capo, 2009), go a long way to not only contextualizing these great records but also to bringing the energy of fans to the music.

The Concise Guide to Hip-hop MusicFurther to that end, Paul Edwards, the man who brought us How to Rap (Chicago Review Press, 2009) and How to Rap 2 (2013), is back with The Concise Guide to Hip-hop Music (St. Martin’s, 2015). Subtitled “A Fresh Look at the Art of Hip-hop, from Old-School Beats to Freestyle Rap,” this book is truly that. It’s that rare book that’s both perfect for the beginner and essential for the veteran. As I said in my back-cover blurb,

Part oral history, part investigative nitty-gritty, Paul Edwards’ The Concise Guide to Hip-Hop Music fills the cracks left by the large and growing literature on the genre. From the very origins of the word to its worldwide word-up, this is the essential guide for both the hip-hop buff and the hopelessly baffled.

That’s real. No matter what you think you know about the history of hip-hop, this book will school you on some, if not all, aspects of the genre.

Chicago Hustle and FlowFrom the wide world of hip-hop history to its many regional influences, Chicago Hustle and Flow by Geoff Harkness (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) connects Chicago hip-hop to its subcultural context. His perspective is further from the theories and closer to the streets. When you think of Chicago hip-hop, perhaps you think of Common, Kanye West, or Lupe Fiasco, but, as Adeem states in the Introduction to Chicago Hustle and Flow, “that’s all fine and dandy, but that’s a Hollywood type of Chicago picture right there. You need to get to the underground, to the actual ‘hood, the heart of it. Then you’ll come to understand it” (p. 1). Harkness does just that. From the Xcons vs Bully Boyz to Chief Keef vs Lil Jojo, and from traditional appropriation to the inverting of gang signs, this is the first in-depth exploration of Chicago’s hip-hop underground. It’s a worthy read about a worthy region.

Just when you thought you knew everything about hip-hop, more great books come out. Getting this stuff situated in its proper context both historically and geographically is the work of book-length interrogations by knowledgeable, reverent writers like these.

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