From the Book of Rhymes to the New York Times - Book Week


Photo by Mark Yuen.

The story of hip-hop as told by rappers, not in the form of verse but in the form of books, is becoming as natural a career move for aging emcees as it has been for apologetic or lunatic ex-politicians.

Within the story of hip-hop lies the current state of American success from the perspective of the non-elite. It is a success that has been deeply ingrained in self-sufficiency and the measured disregard for inefficient government structures by disenfranchised Americans. It is the rap coda to be on your own, to hold the mic for as long as listeners allow you to–put up or shut up. Think of this new wave of books by rappers as a new game in town for emcees who are past their prime to reinvigorate the competition, whether it be for money, pride, or both.

And who knows, they could be building a canon of hip-hop literature right now–Jay-Z on concept art and analysis, Wu-Tang on fantasy, lore and myth, KRS-ONE and Chuck D on social activism, 50 Cent on self-help scheming, and of course, Ghostface Killah on making fun of 50 Cent. It won’t be long before MF Doom writes something big, as his ex-best friend MF Grimm already released an award winning graphic novel a few years ago. Let’s not forget Kanye West, who must have an entire house filled with gold-plated manuscripts at this point.

Like 50 Cent, whose book The 50th Law will likely go down in history as just another shameless self-help book by a celebrity, Dr. Dre (those headphones…) and a few others make entrepreneurship look easy. While Big Daddy Kane continues to struggle with the difficulty of pimpin’-a job with a fairly steep learning curve (RIP jokes about ‘pimpin’ ain’t easy’), these rappers pitch just about anything with their name on it–books now being the latest.

Unfortunately when it comes to prose, not just anything goes. So as you browse through the offerings of emcees-turned-authors you find that a majority of their books have been “co-authored” by writers more familiar with the bookish vernacular. In other words, these masters of verbal expression apparently need to be translated into MLA in order to sell well and look fit for their New York Times book review (or so their agents and publishers think). Does this translation defeat the purpose of the hip-hop dialect as a form of activism against the establishment language, or is it just an example of another genre of music’s forefathers trying to end an era they can no longer partake in?

The AV Club locates Jay-Z’s attempt to grasp at the establishment with their review of Decoded:

“It would be disingenuous to deny that the book is at least partly intended as just another high-end Jay-Z lifestyle accoutrement; few other rappers are putting out books with a Warhol print on the cover…its combination of gorgeous layout, ambitious photo-montage, and line drawings are designed to appeal to an upscale, trendy crowd, but without fully abandoning the street sensibilities of hip-hop.”

The crossover of “upscale, trendy” and “street sensibilities of hip-hop” is the heart of hip-hop’s ascent to Barnes and Noble bookshelves, and it gives new meaning to Jay-Z’s chosen title: code-switching as an olive branch instead of a submission to the establishment media.

LA Times Evelyn McDonnell wrote that “Decoded is an elegantly designed, incisively written bid for cultural legitimacy by a man whose XXL ego is underscored by an equally outsized inferiority complex (as big egos so often are).”

Bidding for legitimacy sends a lot of mixed messages to audiences, but therein lies the paradox of the hip-hop success story: was making it to the top and getting accepted by all the same people who couldn’t stand or understand you 20 years ago worth it? In other words, who played whose game, and by whose rules?

Rap music has traveled far and wide to reach the point where books are written by its biggest contributors, and commercialism has been integral to its broad success over the likes of beat poets and even “socially conscious” rappers like Common and Talib Kweli. Gil-Scot Heron, the embodiment of what some hip-hop scholars might call the hip-hop consciousness, has almost no place in these mainstream accounts of the rap story despite being featured on a cryptic Kanye West song (“Who Will Survive in America”). However that’s not a bad thing for hip-hop; conflating poetry with hip-hop turns it’s lyrics into a derivative language that can’t be responsible for its own form of expression – which it already is and has been for some time. So take these books with a grain of salt when you flip through them, or be prepared to understand hip-hop through a lens that was never made for it.

Written by: Jakob Schnaidt