Rapping, DJ-ing, graffiti and breaking round out the four essential elements of hip-hop culture. Knowledge, an essential element in its own right, is seen as that which binds all the other pillars together. Over the past few years, as early youths of the hip-hop generation have grown up to become journalists and scholars, a host of new books have hit the shelves over the past few years exploring everything from the art form of rapping, hip-hop's history, and the socio-economic crucible from which it emerged. The contributions expand on the element of knowledge offering their own respective insights.
Here are five books, listed in no particular order, to up your game!
1. Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
For readers who want a better understanding of the history of hip-hop beyond some decade-specific countdown on VH1 and its accompanying irreverent commentary, than Jeff Chang's critically heralded book is a good place to start. The music journalist assembled the ambitious and weighty book by way of important interviews with DJs, graffiti artists and b-boys, as well as profiles of prominent rappers. Chang places the rise of hip-hop in the United States within the political economy of Reaganomics. The emphasis of that analytical frame led to cheap criticism from some reviewers, but Can't Stop Won't Stop never pretended to be the definitive go-to book, just another contribution from a certain vantage point. The introduction is written by DJ Kool Herc, and if you don't know who he is and why he is important to the history of hip-hop, all the reason more for you to pick up a copy — and soon!
2. Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation by Sujatha Fernandes
With hip-hop now spanning across the lands far and wide, sociology professor Sujatha Fernandes seeks to answer if the culture can truly change the world in Close to the Edge, released last month by Verso. Readers are taken to four axis points in travelogue style, and introduced to rappers in Australia, Cuba, Venezuela and Chicago. All along the way, Fernandes continually looks at the interrelationship between the internationalism of hip-hop, as exemplified by Afrika Bambaataa's call for a "Universal Zulu Nation" and how it is shaped by local realities as illustrated by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's classic cut "The Message." The politically minded inquiry illustrates the dynamics of Chicago's underground scene, the tensions laid bare in a visit to Cuba by U.S.-conscious hip-hop acts, the voice of aboriginal MCs in Sydney, and concludes with an empty auditorium in Caracas, Venezuela.
3. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop by Adam Bradley
Taking its title from a Nas track, professor of literature and rap aficionado Adam Bradley has written one of the most insightful books on the language and techniques of rhyming. Dr. Cornel West called it "subtle, sophisticated and soulful," as well as "a marvelous exploration into the poetic genius of rap and the cultural gravity of hip-hop." When I reviewed Book of Rhymes for the Weekly in 2009, I wrote, "The fundamental concept Bradley sets forth is the 'dual rhythmic relationship' of rap that allows for creative variations in an MC's delivery. In this, the consistency of hip-hop's 4/4 beats allows for a rapper's verbalizing to become a dynamic instrument." Within that relationship, he cites an array of rappers, analyzing their uses of storytelling, metaphors and similes.
4. The Real HipHop: Battling for Knowledge, Power and Respect In the LA Underground by Marcyliena Morgan
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With a focus close to home, Marcyliena Morgan, a Harvard professor of African and African-American studies, tells the story of Project Blowed in Los Angeles with The Real HipHop. Founder and executive director of the HipHop Archive, she centers her examination on Leimert Park, where youths in 1994 moved open-mic nights from the Good Life health-food store to the Kaos Network. The moment was one in which the media gaze was transfixed on West Coast "gangsta rap," all the while Project Blowed founders, such as rapper Aceyalone, helped to spur a compelling cultural revolution. Having spent seven years observing workshops, Morgan charts its history using interviews with principal players who were present from the onset and lyrical transcripts of the legendary freestyle battles that honed the skills of many LA underground MCs.
5. Chicano Rap: Gender and Violence In the Postindustrial Barrio by Pancho McFarland
In the realm of Chicano studies, sociology professor Pancho McFarland has dropped a one-of-a-kind contribution onto the academic field. A laboring task that entailed researching more than 500 songs from 70 rap artists, the author looks at what the rhymes of Chicano youth are expressing about violence, sexual agency, gender stereotypes and life in the "post-industrial barrio" and what larger context they emerge from. With the subject matter of rap being McFarland's own form of rebellion with academia, he lays out ways in which Chicana feminists, conscious rappers and others offer a counternarrative to negative trends to yield an emancipatory potential. Krazy Race, Psycho Relam, JV, Ms. Sancha and the Funky Aztecs are just some of those analyzed in the book that, in speaking to the culture and language of young brown people, is well-positioned to reach and teach.