Hood Comes First:
Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop
by Murray Formanach
When it comes
to academic attention, hip hop is well ahead of the age curve. Barely
thirty years old -- if it were jazz, Charlie Parker wouldn’t be
inventing bebop for another whole decade, and scholarly texts would
still be nonexistent -- the Bronx-born culture whose artistic vectors
include rap music, breakdancing and graffiti has flourished as a subject
for writers who understand that if one wishes to discuss youth culture
in urban America, one must grapple with hip hop.
This accelerated embrace by the academy has itself engendered much grappling.
Hip hop, a culture of self-representation pioneered by disenfranchised
Black and Latino youth, has traditionally spoken from the margins. Thus,
the issue of whose versions will reach the history books -- especially
since most of hip hop’s pioneers are still alive, and eager to
tell their own stories -- is also often an issue of race and privilege.
In a culture obsessed with authenticity, the analysis of outsiders is
often viewed with skepticism. And throughout hip hop’s history
that skepticism has usually been justified; the mainstream press has
frequently misconstructed, denigrated and villified rap music and the
culture from which it springs.
The recent proliferation of texts, like Murray Forman’s The
Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop, which
provide a nuanced approach to the music, relying neither on uninformed
dismissals or on overenthusiastic cheerleading, is an encouraging sign.
So, too, is Forman’s attempt to write not merely another critical
overview of hip hop’s history, but to focus specifically on how
conceptions of locale (“space”) and the realities of physical
terrain (“place”) have influenced hip hop’s development.
Unfortunately, an overview is more or less what Forman has produced.
Even in a field with few exceptional works, he does not so much stand
as crouch on the shoulders of his predecessors. Although Forman proves
intermittently capable of solid analysis, The ‘Hood Comes
First suffers from a paucity of original thought. In his mission
to map hip hop from a spatial perspective, Forman relies heavily on
the work of previous writers and on the contemporary reportage of Billboard magazine. He synthesizes aptly, but his own arguments are generic, many
of them essentially givens at this point in the cultural discourse.
Much of The ‘Hood Comes First is spent narrating the
semantic transition from “the ghetto” to “the ‘hood.”
Forman contends that this shift signifies “an intentional, engaged
process of cultural recuperation,” by the hip hop generation --
a basic claiming-of-space argument which is far from new; all Forman
does is hang it on the words “ghetto” and “hood,”
both of which remain relevant in hip hop’s lexicon and topological
worldview. The larger notion of reclamation is certainly valid, but
Forman has to contort himself to fit it into his spatial/linguistic
Equally dubious is Forman’s assertion that the criminal subject
matter of so-called “gangsta rap” (a term he rightly problematizes)
is “almost always subordinate to the definitions of space and
place within which [it is] set,” and thus spatiality itself is
“ultimately deserving of discursive preeminence.” Forman
fails to further support this statement, and thus it comes off as little
more than an overreaching attempt to seize ground on behalf of a failing
thesis. Certainly, the environment from which a lyrical narrative springs
is important, as any listener can testify. But Forman’s assertion
has the effect of erasing not only the other factors which contribute
to a “gangsta” text, but also the text itself -- something
he elsewhere shows no inclination to do.
Often, Forman ignores aspects of the culture which would actually benefit
his thesis. Although he spends considerable time on hip hop’s
early history, conspicuously absent from The ‘Hood Comes First is any substantive discussion of hip hop’s “park jams”
-- illegal parties thrown in public places in the Bronx which relied
on electricity appropriated from the city itself, and which comprised
a bold challenge to notions of space and community. Nor does Forman
spend any time on hip hop culture’s most ingenious reclaimers
and transformers of space -- the graffiti artists who engaged New York
City’s Mass Transit Authority in a fifteen-year, two-hundred-and-fifty-million
dollar war, demomnstrating an unsurpassed mastery of urban terrain and
introducing the planet to a new brand of guerilla art in the process.
Forman is at his best when discussing trends in the music industry.
He does an admirable job of illuminating independent and major labels’
evolving relationships to rap through the eighties and nineties, and
his overview of the burgeoning rap scenes in New Orleans, Atlanta and
Texas in the book’s final chapter are concise and intelligent. The ‘Hood Comes First is heavily weighted toward the
eighties and early nineties, however, and Forman’s discussion
of post-1995 hip hop has a rushed feel to it. Once he reaches more recent
territory, however, there is less existing scholarship for Forman to
fall back on, and thus he quotes less and relies on his own ideas more,
giving the reader an encouraging glimpse of what he can do when not
weighed down by the fact that other people have already come up with
most of his ideas.
To his credit, Forman’s most frequently cited sources are good
ones; eight years after its publication, Tricia Rose’s Black Noise
remains the most insightful academic text on hip hop, Paul Gilroy’s
myriad observations are always trenchant, and David Toop’s Rap
Attack is a popular classic of hip hop historicism.
It is worth noting that the success of Rose’s and Toop’s
histories owe largely to their grounding in first-person interviews.
The only time Forman even comes close to conducting one in The ‘Hood
Comes First is when he relates the observation of a young black
man which he overhears while exiting a movie theater. One cannot help
but wish that Forman had supplemented his scholarship with some actual
dialogue. The ‘Hood Comes First contains not one statement
by an active participant in hip hop culture which has not been taken
from a song, a movie, or another writer’s work.
Adam Mansbach is the author of the novel Shackling Water and
the poetry collection Genius B-Boy Cynics Getting Weeded in the
Garden of Delights.