On Lit Hop (1)
What I do, mostly, is write fiction. And as a hip hopper – someone who has participated in, observed, criticized, and championed the culture for twenty years -- the aesthetic techniques and political assumptions of my work derive from the foundational tenets of hip hop as I understand them. Other writers of my generation have been similarly affected, in ways more complex, profound and subtle than have generally been recognized by readers, critics or the market. I want to do two things in this essay: discuss my lit hop aesthetic, and explore some of the ways lit hop has been misunderstood thus far, in hopes of preventing future works from being dissed with the ease, ignorance and prejudice that currently pervade the public discourse. I still maintain the increasingly-antiquated belief that literature can be transformative, socially and spiritually, and thus I don’t want to see the work of the hip hop generation marginalized – not even for some probationary wait-outside-until-they-finally-get-it period. We don’t have time for that. The literary establishment grows ever more elitist and alienating, and threatens to exclude not just a generation of writers, but a generation of readers.
Any discussion of hip hop’s original impulses tends to veer toward rhapsody, dogma, or both. As a well-intentioned but problematic strand of hip hop originalism emerges (2), it becomes common to hear hip hop talked about as if it is a cosmic revelation, bestowed upon Herc, Flash and Bam atop some Bronx-rooftop equivalent of Mount Sinai. Hip hop becomes a single-narrative in the retelling, a child sprung full-grown from the womb, five-elements-indivisible-for-which-we-stand. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the ingenuity, beauty, or political significance of hip hop practices at their purest, but I’m wary of pretending hip hop aesthetics represent a radical departure from everything that came before them. The practices of b-boying, MCing, graffiti writing and deejaying had never been seen before, but the aesthetic concepts that underwrite them were updated, not invented. As with everything in hip hop, the key is how everything is put together, and the energy with which it is suffused.
For instance, one of the foundation elements I hold most dear, and try hardest to translate on the page, is the notion of intellectual democracy through collage: the idea that whatever’s hot is worthy of adoption regardless of its location or context: a dope Monkees drumbreak is not penalized for the corniness of its origins, any more than a lackluster James Brown jam gets any run on reputation alone. Hip hop – as dramatized by the crate-digging of DJs, by breakers’ assimilation of everything from Capoiera to cinema kung fu, by graff writers’ blend-happy attitudes toward color and style – values a free-ranging, studious, and critical-minded approach to source material and, by extension, life.
In and of itself, there is nothing about this concept that is unique to hip hop. (3) It is the way the influences are made to cohere, the way the collage is put together sonically or visually, kinetically or verbally, that is original. Hip hop introduces a specific sense of interplay in revealing and obscuring the layers of the collage, takes a specific kind of pleasure in the mash-up refreaking of technologies and texts, understands history as something to backspin and cut up and cover with fingerprints in a particular kind of way.
It is this energy that makes hip hop’s aesthetic principles its own: what’s unique is not the reclamation of public space on behalf of marginalized peoples and purposes, but the audacious brilliance of jimmying open lamp-posts to steal electricity to run sound systems, thus literally reclaiming power from a city that had denied it. Not the notion of public expression through guerilla art, but the specific genius of taking over the New York Transit System and engaging the same city that had cut school funding for arts programs in a $250 million subterranean war over art, ownership and access. Not just the impulse to think interdisciplinarily, but the instinct to do so, hardwired in hip hoppers in a way no previous generation can claim and made manifest in every hip hop artform. Not just innovation-as-mandate, a feature of many artistic movements, but the specific critical skills and frenetic learning curve that hip hoppers taught themselves -- the way train pieces and rhymes and musical productions became fodder for what was to come next at the exact moment of their completion, went from innovative to passe in the blink of an eye because of the sheer intellectual force of every kid clocking and biting and scheming on how to take it one step further, chop those wildstyle letter-segments or that rhyme scheme or that drum loop just a little bit… flyer.
I like to think of a novel in terms of a mix board. Harry Allen once claimed that Public Enemy’s seminal 1988 album It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was the first rap record to make use of all forty-eight channels: on any given song, layers of musical and vocal samples overlap and abutt each other, swirling in and out of the mix at the glide of a fader. The listener’s degree of appreciation for the collage is related (probably directly, possibly inversely (4), and maybe in some other way) to his or her degree of familiarity with the elements of the collage. Resonances, echoes, homages and subversions (5) bubble up: a Wattstax vocal sample evokes a historical moment of black unity in the aftermath of chaos; a James Brown break summons up not just the Godfather of Soul but the long history of the song’s hip hop usage; an old-school rap snippet throws a headnod to a forgotten predecessor; a Funkadelic loop reminds us that funkin’ on the one has always been a political statement. On top, Chuck D builds a vocal collage of his own, paraphrasing his contemporary Ced Gee before embarking on a bob-and-weave narrative that touches on racial profiling, the teachings of Farrakan, and Public Enemy’s mission, as well as laying down a double-entendre that he himself will mine as a sample later on this very album... and this is all in the first verse of “Bring the Noise.”
My goal is to write fiction that works the same way: that builds layers of reference and meaning and plot and dialogue and character, tweaks the levels of the mix for smooth reading but still allows you to dissect the individual elements and analyze them. If you read the three-page prologue of my novel Angry Black White Boy and you’re familiar with Kool Keith, Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, Winston Churchill, old GI Joe commercials, Martin Luther King, Jr., Amiri Baraka, The Doors, Brown vs. The Board of Education, Nation of Gods and Earths numerology, Native Son, Eyes on the Prize, Eldridge Cleaver, Red Rodney and Bernhard Goetz -- some of them mentioned, some referenced, others sampled -- you’ll appreciate the text (and the character speaking) on one level. If not, it should still work. But differently. If you were so inclined, you could drop out everything but the samples and graph their meanings and connections the same way you might drop everything on the PE mixboard but the drums, and just peep those. Some samples might be deliberately forefronted; others, in the tradition of DJs steaming off record labels to protect their secret weapons and producers making artful chops to avoid illegal-useage litigation, are obscured.
Sampling is more than an authorial technique in my work. It is also a way to reveal character, and map a novel’s worldview: because ABWB is populated by hip hoppers, conversations and actions are studded with a range of references and echoes, flips and homages. Conversant with race literature and real-life struggle, the characters are able to position themselves in relation to these traditons, both playfully and seriously. The events of their lives are bound together by the same internal logic, and with the same sense of tension, that binds a bunch of disparate sounds into a coherent musical composition. They make decisions to re-enact historical moments (like commandeering the corner of 125th and Lenox Avenue, a la Malcolm X and the title of Gil Scott-Heron’s first album), adopt and adapt and reject roles like abolitionist John Brown, Native Son’s Bigger Thomas and Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov, debate each other in shorthand because a shared culture has given them a common language. They act with the freewheeling, undisciplined vigor and all-embracing attitude of hip hop: natural historians, but only for eight bars at a time. Not the entire breadth and context: just the party-rocking shit. Lest I sound too celebratory about it, I should also say that this mindstate underwrites both their success and their failure. They face the same void in leadership that hip hoppers did as we came of age in the eighties, step into that void as best they can, and do just as brilliant and terrible a job of it.
Ultimately, the notion of literary hip hop aesthetics begs the question of form versus content. Can a novel whose plot has nothing to do with hip hop culture -- one that takes place a hundred years before Herc was born, or is populated by people with no relationship to hip hop whatsoever -- take up the aesthetic and political concerns of the culture and thus be lit hop? My answer would be yes; the jazz literature (6) of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka or Yusef Komunyaakaa does not have to take jazz as its subject, any more than the jazz painting of Romare Bearden or Jacob Lawrence. Rather, they share techniques with the music. They may have produced iconic images that, in turn, enhanced the popular understanding of jazz; they may even have lionized their musical muses. But such things are only an incidental part of their total work; their genius was not in writing about jazz, but in writing jazz.
In some ways, the mark of success for lit hop will be when a book that isn’t about hip hop is understood as beholden to the aesthetics of the culture. That will mean we’ve surgeoned lit hop from the crass market concerns that now define it, and enforced a fuller understanding of the expansive ways in which a literature of hip hop can exist, and flourish.
As it now stands, a ”hip hop novel” denotes any book in which words usually ending in -er instead terminate in -a, any book containing characters who are young, urban and black or at least two out of the three, any book aimed at a demographic group more notorious for purchasing CDs. As soon as the notion of using hip hop to market literature dawned, belatedly, on the publishing industry, the phrase started getting tossed around without much rigor – and thus, many writers I know cringe at the prospect of being termed “hip hop novelists.”
The literary world isn’t just late to the party in co-opting hip hop to move product; it is equally tardy in throwing off the institutional influence of old-guard critics (some of them quite young) determined to act as cultural gatekeepers. To them, literature is the last bastion of high culture, and hip hop a corrupting force. (7)
I should say what they think of as hip hop. Snobbery, racism and the sheer desire to maintain a position of cultural centrality are all factors in the critical resistance to lit hop, but benign ignorance is in play, too. If I understood hip hop not as a culture rooted in poetic, dexterous, inventive, courageous resistance to oppression, but rather only through its most visible, consumable, mysogynistic manifestations, I wouldn’t want that shit infesting literature either. (8)
Hip hop novelists don’t need a free pass, merely a critical infrastructure that approaches lit hop as it would any other genre: on its own terms, with an eye toward understanding what is being attempted. Some of the most pointed and common critical complaints about lit hop stem from resistance to hip hop paradigms. Ecstatic genre-crossing and cultural multi-literacy have been fundamental since the first time Herc blended a reggae record with a funk break, then threw a TV jingle over that, but literary mash-ups are still a surefire way to get dissed -- to say nothing of characters capable of both teaching the seminar and rocking the boulevard. The number of times I’ve been told some variation of “a drug dealer would never be as articulate as the one in your book” by writing teachers and reviewers alike is surpassed only by the number of young writing students who have contacted me to complain about being on the receiving end of the same kinds of comments. What is behind this incredulousness at the multiple literacies of the hip hop generation? And why are book reviewers hanging out with such inarticulate drug dealers?
For a compact seminar on pervasive anti-lit hop prejudices, peep this 1999 New York Times Book Review (9) of Victor Lavalle’s debut collection of stories, Slapboxing With Jesus. Reviewer Ray Sawhill begins by speculating that Lavalle’s ambition seems to be “to make the book approximate an hour or two of rap videos” (huh?), then describes the book as
“...full of peculiarities of punctuation and phrasing, creat[ing] effects impressively close to the scratch-and-sample effects of rap... A case could be made that LaValle has found a way to give linguistic form to the brain patterns of media-soaked, post-PC street youth. But readers less taken by the idea that literature should come out of a boombox are likely find the book tediously juvenile.”
Note, first, the laziness of Sawhill’s take on hip hop: his unexplicated video reference employs an obtuse critical shorthand, leaving the reader to speculate on just what goes on in an hour or two of rap videos, and how Lavalle might translate the sensibility of a three-minute clip into a collection of stories. The only thing clear about the sentence is that Sawhill thinks rap videos are all the same, and approximating them is a bad idea. The reader is expected to agree; at work here is a tacit disdain that necessitates no further explanation. Any evidence in support of the ridiculous assertion that video-versimilitude is Lavalle’s goal to begin with goes similarly uncited.
Sawhill then belittles scratches and samples as ‘effects,’ when they are, rather, the musical bedrock of contemporary hip hop production. And note the phrase ‘peculiarities of punctuation and phrasing:’ Lavalle’s prose is being dissed for its departures from standard English. Although “a case could be made” that the author’s language is evocative of the brain patterns of ‘street youth’ (whatever that means -- none of Lavalle’s characters are homeless), Sawhill certainly can’t be bothered to make that case himself, or pretend he thinks Lavalle’s goal in presenting such characters is valuable. Sawhill’s problem is not with Lavalle’s execution (his scratch-and-sample effects, after all, come “impressively close” to the real thing), but with the unworthiness of speaking for, like, or about the hip hop generation.
The parting-shot image of literature spewing from a boombox makes this clear. Putting aside for a moment the utter inaccuracy of this description of Lavalle’s quiet, understated storytelling, what is the image intended to connote? Literature from a boombox -- abrasive, confrontational, noise pollution... rap. One can almost feel the wind as Sawhill shuts the gate in Lavalle’s face. This is literature -- there’s no place for boomboxes, street youth, or nonstandard phrasing. Go wait outside with your hoodlum friends, Lavalle.
Behind such gatekeeping is a deep discomfort not only with the amplification of marginalized voices (and what they might say if allowed to speak) but with the way hip hop drags American race-hypocrisy and class-complacency out of the catacombs, kicking and screaming, and throws them on the examination table. It’s true that the mainstream press rewards books that address race and class, but only if they do so within certain parameters.
Those parameters, to quote my editor, Chris Jackson (10) are “give us our lesson and go.” Tell us racism is tragic, or slavery was an inhumane institution, and then get the fuck outta here. Give it to us clean, simple, unambiguous, so we know how to feel: empathetic, indignant, disturbed. Don’t start mucking around with satire, don’t abandon gravitas or cross genres or switch tones on us. You start blurring right and wrong, budddy, and it’s all over.
The New York Times Book Review of Angry Black White Boy delineates the location of these parameters quite well. ABWB is a satire about an Afrocentric white hip hopper who starts robbing white people, becomes famous, and ends up orchestrating a disastrous National Day of Apology on which whites are supposed to follow Malcolm X’s rhetorical advice and apologize to blacks. The reviewer, Nathaniel Rich (Frank’s kid), really liked the most straight-forward parts of the book -- a series of chapters set in 1889 that detail the near-lynching of the last black player in about-to-be-segregated major league baseball. Those scenes, according to Rich “capture vividly the inhuman sadism inherent in racial violence,” just the kind of unambiguous “lesson” Race Novels are celebrated for imparting (it’s also a tiny part of what those chapters were intended to do, but lemme not get into all that).
ABWB’s modern-day storyline, meanwhile, Rich faults because “despite the complexity of his subject, Mansbach’s tone is distractingly breezy and frivolous,” and because it “unfolds in jarring bursts of fantasy... Mansbach's shrewd observations of race in America are too often obscured by... bizarrely whimsical excursions that are ultimately too fanciful to unnerve.”
I’m far from imapartial on this one, and it’s certainly possible that Rich is right. He seems unwilling, though, to accept the notion that a novel purporting to grapple with race can depart from the kind of earnestness he found so compelling in the 1889 sections. The breeziness Rich found so distracting is a narrative voice calibrated to reflect the young, intelligent hip hoppers who are ABWB’s main characters -- and who, as members of a generation whose race politics were forged equally in the flames of the Rodney King riots and the fiery funk of Chuck D’s voice, possess an instinctive, interdisciplinary comfort with both the absurdity and horror of race in America. Satire, surrealism, absurdity, dream-sequences in which Ol’ Dirty Bastard takes over Seinfeld, The Cosby Show and Beverly Hills 90210 -- such tactics comprise an attempt to make race approachable, to reflect its complexity, and to draw on the raucous, subversive legacy of race novels like George Schuyler’s Black No More, Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. If Angry Black White Boy doesn’t manage to pull that off, so be it. But Rich seems antagonistic to the very approach. This is race literature -- there’s no place for breeziness or satire. Take your jarring bursts of fantasy and wait outside with your homies until you learn to limit yourself to being unnerving, Mansbach.
I could run down a further litany of critical hostilities, misreads, and belittlements -- from the NYTBR’s characterization of Danyel Smith’s novel More Like Wrestling as “save-the-drama-for-mama fiction” (would they take that tone if a sixty-year-old white writer from Connecticut had penned the tale?) to Kirkus Reviews’ standard practice of adopting faux-ebonics when reviewing so-called “urban novels.” As I write this, the NYTBR has just published a review of T Cooper’s novel Lipshitz Six, which contains the following line, seemingly written just for this essay: “Would a published novelist, even one who has taken to impersonating a rap star, really write lines like ‘I know I can spit an ill rhyme’?”
But you get the point. And anyway, there is more at stake than simply offering critics a roadmap, or enfranchising hip hop writers. If lit hop bumrushes the show, it threatens to break apart one of the most psychotically hegemonic conversations in the literary world: The State of the Novel.
Right now, that conversation looks like this: every few years, a writer hungry for success and frustrated with his lack of popular acclaim publishes an essay (typically in the pages of Harpers’) lambasting whatever dominant set of aesthetics -- in stark contrast to his own -- seems to be capturing the hearts and minds of readers. In so doing, said writer (most recently Ben Marcus, and before that Jonathan Franzen) knocks down a figurehead or two, gets people buzzing for a couple of weeks, and sets high expectations for his own next work: with a framework in place, readers can now anticipate and later understand just how the writer will flip the paradigm upside-down. Ten years later, this writer, and this paradigm, will again be flipped.
This perpetual king-killing accounts for only two paradigm positions: rightside-up and upside-down. It enforces the notion of literary binaries -- experimental vs. mainstream, accessible vs. alienating -- and excludes from the conversation any writer or reader bored by the narrowness of such strictures. It also tends to privilege a set of concerns and aesthetics that dovetails neatly with a white, male, (over)educated writership. (11) In the tradition of the New York Times Magazine praising the new literary journal N+1 for being bold enough to editorialize that 'it's time to say what we mean,' (12) the writers who pen these essays are having a discussion about aesthetics and literary mores that excludes the people doing some of the bravest and boldest work.
Perhaps 'saying what we mean' is a revolutionary idea for a generation that, if you believe the New York Times, has grown up in the throes of cynicism, irony, and disaffection. But these are tremendous luxuries, and in truth, the dominant artforms of my generation have never embraced them. Hip hop is a lot of things, but it has never been ironic. Nihilistic, yes, but not cynical. It has always said what it means. The people who pioneered hip hop and chaperoned it to global prominence have been too affected -- by poverty, by discrimmination, by incarceration, by Reaganomics, by crack, by the struggle to survive and create -- to cultivate the disaffect for which our generation is unfairly known.
Self-awareness -- the oft-lamented paralyzing postmodern condition of knowing that one is producing art, knowing that it’s all been said and done before, fearing that in forging ahead you risk redundancy, irrelevance, pretention -- has not produced paralysis in hip hoppers. Perhaps our immunity from this generational malaise stems from hip hop’s love of collaging, sampling, dislocating and reconfiguring: the more that’s been said and done already, the more we have to play with. Where others see defeat, we find liberation, empowerment.
This is the high culture/low culture dichotomy in full effect: despite inventing one of the most brazen, earnest and political artforms on the books, my generation is defined by the tortured self-aware pomo aesthetic of a few writers, filmmakers and musicians. Then, when the camps that cultivated and embraced disaffection begin to reconsider it, they get props for doing so. This is the 21st century equivalent of coronating Paul Whiteman the King of Jazz while Armstrong and Ellington and Basie wait outside: you only find the Voice Of A Generation where you look for it.
(1) The jury’s still
out on whether this contraction of ‘hip hop literature’
is corny, but we’ll go with it for now, because it’s mad
(2) The hip hop version of Justice Scalia’s notorious judicial philosophy, hip hop originalism deifies the founding fathers, insists on strict fidelity to their supposed intentions, and treats dissenters as heretics.
(3) The notion of hip hop as a structural metaphor for democracy, for instance, has also been applied to jazz and baseball, two other quintessentially American inventions.
(4) For instance, if you’d never heard Diana Ross, you might hear “Mo Money, Mo Problems” and think Diddy was the greatest musical mind of his generation.
(5) My favorite example of sample-as-subversion is the Notorious B.I.G.’s first song, “Party and Bullshit,” in which a line from The Last Poets’ “When The Revolution Comes” is truncated in such a way that Jalal’s critique of folks too caught up in hedonism to fight for change becomes a celebration of that hedonism.
(6) If jazz were hip hop, (and it’s a common enough metaphor) it would be roughly 1935, and we’d be in the middle of the swing era. Charlie Parker would be a teenager in Kansas City, Miles Davis a nine-year-old in East St. Louis. John Coltrane wouldn’t be jamming with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot for another twenty years. Bebop, modal, free and fusion would all be things of the future. All this should be reassuring to those of us who worry that hip hop peaked in 1988 and has increasingly been on some bullshit ever since -- as should the fact that critics were pronouncing jazz dead as early as the 1930s. None of this is reassuring in the least, of course. But it should be.
(7) Do we need their approval, or would it be a death knell? That’s an eternal conversation, and I don’t want to spend too much time on it. My investment isn’t in winning over critics, per se, but on the mainstream audiences their support -- or even respect -- would help us access. Those audiences need to hear what we have to say, and through us understand hip hop as something deeper than what they flip past on MTV.
(8) This seems like a good time to mention so-called ‘street-lit,’ the usually self-published books available on your finer 125th St card tables, because so much of it seems intent on embodying this exact paradigm. While I’m down with anything that encourages kids to read, or allows folks to get paid for writing, it seems to me that the bulk of these books are – from a literary perspective – garbage. If we indulge the increasingly tired ‘hip hop vs. rap’ polarity, these books would be rap: chocked with brand names, populated by blinged out thugs and and video-vixen-style women, and plagued by shallow characters and bad storytelling.
(9) There are two reasons I’m drawing so heavily on the NTYBR. First, because as our national “newspaper of record,” it wields more influence on a book’s fate than any other review source. And second, because it publishes a lot of egregiously bigoted reviews.
(10) Who, in the interest of full disclosure, is also Victor Lavalle’s editor and Danyel Smith’s. He also holds the distinction of being the only hip hop generation black male Senior Editor in big publishing. Yes. The only one.
(11) On paper, I’m totally one of those guys -- a white Jewish novelist with an MFA from Columbia. I’ve never activated my membership in that club, though. Nor have I ever made a conscious decision not to; I’ve just always been a hip hopper, and the sensibilities, artistically and politically, that followed from that have dictated my path since I was eleven, memorizing Crinimal Minded and beginning to understand the subjectivity of whiteness, as hip hop was wont to make a whiteboy do back then. I’m relegating all this to a footnote because I think us white folks tend to centralize ourselves and our issues way too much when we do deign to talk about race or privilege or access. Is it the role of yet another overeducated white guy to point out the elitism of the State of the Novel convo? I think it can be, for the same reason I wrote Angry Black White Boy: because I can’t be labeled as just another complainer speaking from bitterness and self-interest, which is the way people of color are often tagged, and dismissed. To me, this is the proper use of privilege: to say things for which people with less privilege might face knee-jerk recrimination.
(12) The author of this editorial is Keith Gessen. Not only is Gessen my boy, but we co-edited the features section of our high school newspaper circa 1993. Whaddup, Gessen.