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The Books of Rhyme Pages 

From Michael Eric Dyson to Darius James, black writers struggle to define hip-hop culture

Wednesday, May 8 1996
Ever since Chuck D bellowed that he wanted to reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard, the bourgeoisie has bellowed back. Though that can mean nothing more than wistful glances out the lecture room window at the street below, at best such writing digs into its milieu like Albert Murray does the blues or Ishmael Reed funk. Somehow that hasn't happened. Despite honorable exceptions like David Toop's classic Rap Attack 2, for the most part hip-hop culture befuddles critical sensibilities: Heavyweights ignore it (Henry Louis Gates Jr.), drop by for the afternoon (Houston Baker, Andrew Ross), or just plain can't stand it (Gerald Early).

Is it because in today's cultural climate you either defend Eazy-E as the true voice of the inner city or damn him as the end of Western civilization? Does rap music somehow resist analysis? Or do the intractable contradictions of being a black intellectual paralyze writing on rap? Though they don't provide any definite answers, several recent books on black culture offer some useful hints.

Consider Michael Eric Dyson's Between God and Gangsta Rap (Oxford). His third book, it's a collection of assorted pieces previously published everywhere from SPIN to the Christian Century. Now in his mid-30s, he's a prominent young scholar with a bluesman's life behind him -- teen-age fatherhood, three marriages -- and he was a preacher before he was a college graduate. When he's on, those personal and intellectual devotions combust, searing autobiography into history. The book's opening and closing chapters, letters to a brother in jail for murder and letters to his current wife revisiting the couple's painful romantic past, are the most powerful writing he's ever done. Elsewhere, Dyson's everything you could want in a public intellectual -- accessible, reasonable, a champion of complexity and hybridity, and a fan of gospel, N.W.A, and what's in between.

But he's simply, and inescapably, more memorable (because more natural) on God and the Motown and soul he grew up on than on gangsta rap, where his well-meant but hazy arguments dissolve as soon as you've finished reading them; mainly, he's against the demonization of hip hop and blandly reiterates his basic principles. He wears too many hats, tries to speak too many languages, and the confusion of tongues silences him. It would help if he let some thoughts mature rather than publishing everything that occurs to him, but given the current vogue of black intellectual thought, and Dyson's very preacherly regard for the sound of his own voice, that's probably not in the cards.

Armond White has a crucial lesson to teach Dyson. A regular critic for New York's black-run City Sun and journals like Film Comment, White suffers no shortage of opinions. In fact, his columns, collected in The Resistance (Overlook), relish swimming against the current. Though that gesture sometimes feels self-indulgent, like naysaying for its own sake -- hooray for The Color Purple! up with Marky Mark! -- usually it's the product of an aesthetic sensibility that's flexible yet solidly grounded: He knows what he likes, and why.

Shuffling his various selves (black, gay, film-loving) to escape the identity-politics prison that would prevent his liking, say, Metallica (which he does), White roams freely through the pop culture of the last decade. And it doesn't hurt that more often than not he's right. As early as 1988 he understood what made Public Enemy great and what would later make them irrelevant: "[G]rown-up talk about Armageddon and revolution doesn't disguise their ingenuous bluster. ... There's no sensible, practical outline," and "[It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back] is unique -- a triumph of innocent righteousness." Though you won't always agree with White (he wouldn't trust you if you did), he's continually rewarding -- for his bite, his sense of history, and his unswerving commitment to greater emotional amplitude throughout American culture.

Still, he could learn something from Darius James (Negrophobia), whose freewheeling That's Blaxploitation! (St. Martin's Griffin) is a homemade extravaganza, equal parts agitprop, sexist drool, sprint down memory lane, and stoned historiography. This self-admitted "psychotic blather" crams film synopses, comics, interviews with legends like Pam Grier and Iceberg Slim, and James' own taboo-insulting prose into less than 200 pages. Much of it doubtless sounded better while he tripped in the basement at 3 a.m., but there's also a real argument here.

At heart, James argues, '70s blaxploitation was a healthy cultural moment exploding with contradiction and possibility. Rooting itself in old communal practices, it stoked revolution, founded a new method of black expression (one that would have a profound effect on hip-hop culture), and just let folks go on with their bad selves. This is the kind of book rap should produce but hasn't, excepting the lamentable Signifying Rappers, which (white) co-author David Foster Wallace (the latest Pynchon wannabe) should eradicate from used-book store shelves as fast as he can.

Another sign that James is onto something is that his arguments tend to mesh with those of Robin Kelley, as espoused in Kelley's Race Rebels (Free Press). In every other respect, the two authors couldn't be more different. James admits to falling asleep during certain films; Kelley includes over 100 pages of notes. Still, this is no dull academic trudge but a lively study of what Kelley calls "infrapolitics": everyday resistances through which black Americans elbow out a little more space for themselves.

Tracing a history of talking shit on segregated streetcars, working black nationalism into communist polemics, and sticking it to The Man by wearing the zoot suit, Kelley ends his tale, ambivalently, in Ice-T's L.A. He draws convincing links between gangsta rap, the slave narrative, and traditionally masculinist black cultural politics -- which, he points out, help determine gangsta's "deeply ingrained" misogyny and homophobia -- but he's also saddened by the bleak world that made it necessary, and by the style's increasing descent into hardness for its own sake.

Though I wish he'd done more with rap's spatial politics (the way boomboxes claim a place on the street or public transit) and commodification (aren't there crucial differences between recording "F--- tha Police" and saying it on a bus in 1940s Birmingham?), this is powerful stuff -- loving, smart, troubled, a West Coast remix of Tricia Rose's difficult but rewarding Black Noise.

A few years back, the rush to Say Something Important, Now! produced a slew of mediocre quickies, and it's clear that the cachet of writing the definitive book on hip hop still lures thoughts into the open before they're full-grown. Perhaps over the next few years, though, as the generation that grew up with rap angles its way into book contracts, we'll finally see works in which the music is a natural language for their authors. By that time, of course, hip hop will be somewhere down the road now being broken by pop integrationists like the Fugees, Tricky, and Cibo Matto. But that is, or will be, another story.

About The Author

Jesse Berrett


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