Hip Hop Lit: A Review of Hip Hop America by Nelson George
by matthew webber
By 1998, few observers of American popular culture could deny that hip hop music had infiltrated the mainstream. MTV was playing music videos by hip hop artists such as Jay-Z, DMX, Puff Daddy, Wyclef Jean, and Busta Rhymes in heavy rotation, sandwiched between Madonna and Metallica and the Foo Fighters videos. Fans of these and other rappers were buying their albums in gold and multi-platinum amounts - and wearing their fashions, and speaking their slang. Malls in my suburban St. Louis sold FUBU apparel indiscriminately to blacks and whites; and by crossing the third and fourth fingers of our hands and repeatedly yelling "West Siiide!!!", nerdy and/or preppy white kids like myself paid homage to West Coast gangsta rappers such as Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg, proud that we hailed from the west side of the Mississippi River. Already, rock groups such as Limp Bizkit were counting turntablists among their ranks. Soft drink and shoe companies were using hip hop imagery to sell their products. In a climate such as this, even those who hated or had tried to dismiss hip hop were finding it hard to ignore its pervasive influence.
Despite the ubiquity of hip hop music and culture, the popular, political, academic, and journalistic communities were far from united in their discourse. The videos, lyrics, and stereotyped gangsta lifestyle proved to be problematic even for some of the music's most ardent supporters. While there was much to hate and/or dismiss regarding hip hop, there was even more to misunderstand. (I'm no expert now, and I realize how naïve I was then.) What hip hop needed was an apologist - or at least someone who could place such a phenomenon in its historical and cultural contexts. It needed a Nelson George.
Hip Hop America (Penguin, 1998) is noted hip hop journalist and author George's attempt to contextualize hip hop for fans, critics, and anybody with an interest in either hip hop or America. Part historical document, part journalistic exposé, part music review, part fan letter; the book - which won George an American Book Award in 1999 - is a roughly chronological, first-person account of the development of hip hop from its primitive, outsider origins in the late 1970s to its vibrant and complex assimilation by/into American popular culture in the late 1990s. From breakdancing to Grandmaster Flash to Run-DMC, to sampling to censorship to gangsta rap to Master P; with hundreds of indexed artists, songs, and topics in between; the scope of Hip Hop America is as all-encompassing as the culture itself. If you didn't already believe George's thesis, after reading Hip Hop America, you might be apt to agree: "The truth is that hip hop - in its many guises - has reflected (and internalized) our society's woes so evocatively that it has grown from minority expression to mainstream appreciation" (211).
George, whose face on the book jacket I was able to recognize from having seen it on VH1 documentaries, writes like a populist. If you are a fan of hip hop and want to explore the subject more deeply, his words are like those of your hipper, smarter, older brother whose record collection you envy. If you know little about the culture and wish to get your feet (ears?) wet, his insights should be noted and recalled the next time you go shopping for CDs. Even if you are of a more academic inclination, you should be able to admire the breadth of George's knowledge. His having written about hip hop for almost as long as it has existed has rendered him a trustworthy narrator. For the most part, he strikes a delicate balance between providing enough background information and explanation for the neophyte rap fans without insulting the intelligence of the hip hop heads.
Not only does George understand hip hop, he loves it. He goes so far as to title one of his chapters, "Hip Hop Wasn't Just Another Date," and to liken his fandom to a love affair. However, like in any love affair there are problems, and George, because he is in love, is angry or forgiving towards the culture at different times. He finds a parallel in hip hop's most violent forms (the late '80s/early '90s West Coast gangsta rap) to a battle royal in the 1930s, in which "young African-Americans step into an arena to… bash each other for the pleasure of predominantly white spectators worldwide" (vii). As strongly as he wishes to condemn this kind of rap, he can't. While the reality these rappers claim to be reflecting is a nihilistic worldview of crack dealers and gunplay, it is, sadly, one of the many worlds in which African-Americans have found themselves. Further, he knows that Americans have always been fascinated with bloody works of art, of which the widespread acceptance, acclaim, and love Americans have always shown gangster films is evidence. "Deep in the American soul," George writes, "it [gangsta rap] speaks to us and we like the sound of its voice" (49). Here and elsewhere in Hip Hop America, he refuses to draw rap in black and white. The complexity of hip hop will not allow him to.
Hip Hop America is a story of evolution. In the book's first chapter, "Post Soul," George examines the rise of disco music in the '1970s and the subsequent growth of black music divisions in the major record labels, along with the concurrent advancement of DJ skills and an increase in black popular performers. Some of these performers were so inauthentic that young blacks sought a realer representation. Disenchanted with their living conditions as well as with the popular music being served to them, blacks (and other minorities) sought alternate outlets of expression such as graffiti and rapping.
Perhaps George's most controversial claim is that hip hop, assumed to be a black art, owes much of its proliferation to whites. White record label executives and producers were quick to sense the commercial potential of hip hop, and, while the rappers and musicians themselves have been predominantly black, it is a poorly kept secret that white people (often Midwesterners) are the music's primary consumers. But the real history of hip hop is mixed. Of course, it would be naïve for anyone to suggest that hip hop did not arise from specific black conditions in this country in the later half of the twentieth century, in years that George labels the "post-soul" era. While the ghetto-ization of American cities has been documented elsewhere, George reminds us that rappers have often structured their narratives around tales of urban woe (as if a cursory listen to any rap album would suggest other stories).
However, as he writes in chapter 8, "Where My Eyes Can See," it wasn't until the mid-'80s, when music videos began to project the inner cities outward, that the culture was truly "made mythic" (97) and its most famous (and dangerous) superstars were unleashed upon America. Consequently, hip hop became more mainstream, and the mainstream became more hip hop. As much as the culture's artists; advertisers, clothing designers, and even the mentality of the NBA helped to elevate hip hop to its current plateau - wherein, in 1998, my three very white and very suburban little brothers owned more albums by the Notorious B.I.G. than they did by the Smashing Pumpkins.
Nelson George ends his book with a series of questions. He wonders how future generations will view his America. "They will find hip hop artifacts everywhere - videos, CDs, Web sites - and what will they think of them?" (212). Even if they are like every other generation of teenagers who thinks that any music older than they are is "boring," "whether they like it or not, they'll know there once was a hip hop America" (212). By extension, they will know of George. Like Frederick Douglass' autobiography and the tags of those early graffiti writers before him, these words are an attempt to write himself into history. And what will they think of George? Hip Hop America is not just a history of hip hop; in the introduction, George admits it is also a history of himself. This personalization is what makes this book enjoyable, and ultimately, memorable. The teenagers of 2020 won't just know there was a hip hop America. They'll also know it was something to be loved.
E-mail me your questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.