Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Best Books on Hip-Hop

A lot of people listen to hip-hop music. Not a lot of people read books about the genre. This is understandable. Music is an auditory medium that is difficult to translate into the written word, streaming "99 Problems" on Spotify is a lot less of a time investment than reading Decoded, and it's much harder to follow and learn about new and interesting hip-hop books than hip-hop records. 

I can't do anything about those first two issues, but can help a little bit with the latter. I've slogged through my fair share of hip-hop books, and while a good portion of them were complete dreck, some were actually rewarding. This list will highlight the hip-hop books worth the time of any fan of the genre. 

The list is ordered by broad theme (e.g. biographies/memoirs, analyses of rapping and production, etc.). Books denoted with a star (*) are especially recommended. In the unlikely event that you care about my all-time personal favorites (though reading through this list will likely dissuade you from that position) I list my top 10 hip-hop books at the end. 

I include basic (i.e. non-affiliate) Amazon links in case you want to learn more about a specific title, there is no kickback for me or anything. I hope you find something you like, but could care less by how you obtain such books. 

The Art of the Craft: On Rapping and Producing

These selections will provide readers with a stronger understanding of and greater appreciation for rappers and producers by delving into the complexities and craftsmanship of their work. 

There is a lot to take into account when it comes to analyzing rappers. Kool Moe Dee's rapper report card was mainly just an exercise in ego elevation (it's doubtful that anyone besides Kool Moe Dee can explain why he warrants an A+ while Rakim gets an A and Public Enemy somehow only earns a B) but the one/only thing he did get right was scoring on a ton of different categories. There is simply a lot to unpack when it comes to studying rappers. 

And who better to unpack that material than the rappers themselves? This is the basic premise of Paul Edwards' two outstanding "How to Rap" books. They feature a broad variety of emcees (everyone from Chuck D and Big Daddy Kane to Aesop Rock and E-40) offering insights and advice into their work. The content of "How to Rap" runs the gamut from rhyme schemes to vocal delivery to where to write and everything in between. Edwards writes quick introductions to each section and then sprinkles in some additional examples and context but he mainly lets the artists speak for themselves. Everything is well-organized and Edwards does an excellent job weaving in quotes so that they often build off of each other. Works like these are obviously contingent on the participants being open and eloquent, and most of the rappers interviewed, especially Murs and Evidence, had some legitimately interesting stuff to say. 

How to Rap 2 follows the same interview-heavy formula but with a specific focus on flow and delivery. Edwards takes a bit more active role, including a bunch of "flow diagrams" that help break down rappers' verses and some illuminating examples, such as the complex manner in which Nas linked rhyme schemes on "NY State of Mind." The interview list is just as impressive and interesting as the first book in the series. While the subject matter is far more limited than the first installment, there is more than enough meat to hold the reader's interest and the book goes into much greater depth on its topics. 

Again, don't be dissuaded by the instructional nature of the titles. There are no rapping exercises or drills in either book and as long as you are a fan of the genre you will get a lot out of reading them. 

You'll probably notice that there aren't a huge number of books on this list with an academia bent. In generally I find them to be dry and I also think that sometimes ivory tower denizens can read way too much into the rather inane. Like I don't think D4L was making any kind of grand political statement with "Laffy Taffy" and the rap group would probably think any eggheads stating otherwise to be incredibly foolish. 

Making Beats, by Baruch professor Joseph Schloss, thankfully avoids the usual pitfalls of academic books of being overly dry and reading too deeply into shallow things. It's definitely the best production-focused book I've read, period. The result of 10 years of research, the book examines a variety of topics around beatmaking, including the history of rap production, sampling ethics and aesthetics, and crate-digging. Schloss gets to sit down with some obscure producers as well as more familiar names like Prince Paul, Steinski, and Jake One, and all of his interviewees make valuable contributions.  

As an academic book it skews more towards informativeness than pure "beach-read" entertainment, but it's still a remarkably readable and enlightening read. You'll learn about some advanced production techniques as well as the unwritten code governing sampling (which includes not sampling "respected" records, eschewing breakbeat compilations, and not sampling too much from one record). Overall, Making Beats is highly recommended to anyone interested in better understanding rap production. 

The basic premise of Book of Rhymes is that hip-hop lyrics (at least the more thoughtfully written verses) qualify as poetry and can be studied and scrutinized like anything by Whitman or Keats. Bradley is a literary scholar and more than capable guide through the advanced poetic techniques employed by rappers. Now I would reckon that many rappers aren't able to articulate or specifically describe concepts like broken or apocopated rhymes but that's just because they probably aren't familiar with arcane terminology. It just sounds and flows well to them and was still the result of deliberate thought and is worthy of scholarly scrutinizing. Bradley covers the major elements of hip-hop lyrics, including storytelling, rhythm, and rhyme. Written by a poetry expert, Book of Rhymes especially shines in those latter two sections, filled with insightful examples and detailed rhyme and flow diagrams. While penned by an academic, it is an easy read geared towards a mainstream, albeit hip-hop leaning, audience and Bradley does a tremendous job distilling high-level poetic techniques into layman-friendly explanations. 

One could contest that the "hip-hop isn't really poetry and the lyrics are simple and dumb" argument is a bit of a straw man at this point and feel that Bradley is essentially preaching to the choir. It's a valid claim, but I enjoyed Book of Rhymes because it broke down the lyrics of some of my favorite rappers (Pharoahe Monch, Nas and many, many, others) and provided additional tools to understand and appreciate hip-hop lyricism. 

I Am Hip Hop attempts to answer "What is Hip-Hop" through over twenty interviews with a diverse slice of the hip-hop community. I don't think Rausch really accomplishes this goal beyond showcasing that hip-hop is complicated and hard to define, which you probably were well aware of already. However, he does share candid and sometimes profound discussions with some major hip-hop luminaries. The participant list ranges from icons (Chuck D, Eric B) to more obscure members of the old school (Dres, Chip Fu), and more contemporary underground artists (Akrobatik). The interviews all begin with "What does hip-hop mean to you?" but then branch out all over the place, often to some fascinating avenues. You have sections with Big Daddy Kane reflecting on his biggest rap battles and 9th Wonder describing his biggest production influences and the college course he taught on hip-hop. The dialogues cover a nice mix between the culture and the music of hip-hop and you'll learn a decent amount about both topics. Rausch clearly did his homework and is able to ask probing questions and elicit some quality responses from his subjects. Though it doesn't seem like the most popular book, the interview list is outstanding and I Am Hip-Hop is a breezy and compelling read. 

Fat Pockets: The Big Business of Hip-Hop

As stated at the start, a lot of people listen to hip-hop music. The upshot is that hip-hop music has become a lucrative industry. 

When it comes to grasping how hip-hop went from a rhyme-biting pizza delivery guy and his friends complaining about the poor cooking skills of friends' parents (among many other things, "Rapper's Delight" meandered like crazy) to its current status as a global economic juggernaut, you only need one book (which is good because I didn't really like Steve Stoute's Tanning of America):

This is a hefty tome (my copy checks in a 645 pages, and that is without endnotes), but The Big Payback is an authoritative account of hip-hop's ascension to a humongous money-making machine. It traces the genre's roots in the late 1960's through the mid-2000's with the proliferation of hip-hop brand extensions like Rocawear as well as the continuing popularity of the music itself. Charnas chronicles this evolution through profiles of some of its bigger and more colorful characters, such as Sylvia Robinson, Rick Rubin, Lyor Cohen, and Jay-Z. The book never drags despite its length (it helps that figures like Rubin and Robinson are absolutely fascinating human beings who did some crazy things) and reveals some surprising discoveries from behind-the-scenes goings-on. 

Charnas is a hip-hop insider (he was a talent scout for Profile Records and was an early writer for The Source, among other things) and he does a superb job balancing his background as a serious journalist and Pulitzer Fellowship recipient with his obvious hip-hop fanaticism. Charnas clearly put boatloads of effort into The Big Payback and his encyclopedic book succeeds completely.  

Thisisme: Autobigraphies and Memoirs

The celebrity memoir/autobiography is one of the more common literary archetypes. A large amount are vapid near-drivel but there are also usually some gems if you're willing to look hard enough. The same goes for hip-hop versions of such books. 

This was a tough one to categorize because much of Decoded features Jay-Z analyzing his songs. But the important thing is just for the book to be included. I'm not a huge fan of Jay's post-Reasonable Doubt catalog, but you don't have to be to enjoy it. On the off chance you aren't familiar with it, Decoded features him reflecting on his career, hip-hop, politics, and his upbringing with some additional musings on success and how hip-hop has changed. He also breaks down over 35 of his songs throughout, following a Rap Genius (I wouldn't be surprised if this book had a lot of influence on how that site is laid out) format with heavily annotated lyrics. The notations are detailed, numerous, and thoughtful and it's a well put-together book, full of plenty of pictures and many from his childhood and neighborhood. Decoded works both as a frank and captivating autobiography and a breakdown of his lyrics and the stories behind some of his songs. 

Mo' Meta Blues features some general hallmarks of the celebrity memoir. Questlove reminisces on his childhood and being raised by musicians and his early influences, how he met Black Thought and founded the Roots, and how the Roots became so successful. That said, there are also dialogues, emails from the editor, and extended digressions on musical minutiae and the timeline jumps around quite a bit. I usually found these devices as clever changes of pace and never thought that they veered into self-indulgent territory. At its core though, you have a music nerd and hip-hop star giving a detailed and compelling account of his life and geeking out over some of his favorite artists and songs along the way. Questlove is clearly an intelligent guy and his well-written memoir is rewarding even if you aren't incredibly familiar with his work (though you should really start on rectifying that). 

Books Listing Things

Hip-hop fans have always enjoyed ordering things and declaring winners and then arguing about how they ordered things and declared winners. Was Biggie better than Tupac? Who won the Jay-Z vs. Nas feud? What is the best album from 1994? We can debate about how long hip-hop music as we know it will endure, but I'm reasonably confident we'll be arguing about hip-hop music (including when it will ultimately dirtnap, if ever) forever. These next two books feed into the genres love of ordering, arguing, and riffing on random topics and sharing trivia. 

I'm going to spoil the beginning of my top 10 list: this one wins. Ego Trip was a short-lived hip-hop magazine that lasted from 1994 to 1998. I was too young to read it while it was active but I found some scans of old issues a few years ago and it seems like it was spectacular stuff. 

As the title would suggest, Ego Trip's Big Book of Rap Lists is a sizable volume that dispenses arcane and often-fascinating hip-hop tidbits and trivia through a random assortment of lists. You have MC Serch listing his favorite concert venues, 21 Little-Known Facts About Popular Hip-Hop Songs (Freddie Foxx was originally supposed to rap over "Eric B. is President" but didn't show up so Rakim stepped in, Ol' Dirty Bastard ended up on Pras' "Ghetto Superstar" because he stumbled into the wrong studio), "6 Seminal Hip-Hop Albums That Were Panned by Rolling Stone" (they once described People's Instinctive Travels... as "one of the least danceable rap albums ever"), a roster of all the artists on the three covers of Midnight Marauders, 12 Sports Lyrics that Lose (quoth the RZA on "Reunited:" "Talk strange like Bjork / Great hero Jim Thorpe") among a ton of others. Some lists have detailed descriptions and justifications for their orderings, some don't, all are engrossing. 

This is not Buzzfeed for rap fans. The book was published in 1999 and is just some insanely knowledgeable and opinionated writers (along with some special guest list-writers like Kool Keith, Dante Ross, MC Serch, RA the Rugged Man, Debi Mazar, and others) dropping science and some fascinating stories and trivia. 

The book has the added bonus of being an excellent source of music discovery. In addition to all the lists, the authors included their favorite 25 singles and albums from 1979 through 1998. While I quibble with some of their picks (there is no way Hell on Earth by Mobb Deep is the 3rd best album from 1996) I do acknowledge that the lists are a phenomenal resource that serve as a valuable guide for my music collecting. 

The Rap Yearbook looks at the most important rap song from every year from 1979 through 2014, dissecting each selection and also explaining its broader significance. Serrano was a former writer for Grantland and brings the wittiness, smarts, and copious footnotes that one would expect from Bill Simmons' sadly defunct website. Serrano uses this format as a springboard to comment on topics like Puff Daddy's legacy, the best rap love songs, and what Rakim has in common with Michael Jordan. While each chapter stands well enough on its own, the total package presents a comprehensive overview of the history and evolution of hip-hop. Catering to the aforementioned fact that hip-hop fans love to argue about everything, Serrano also brings in some of his writer friends to rebut and challenge his picks for each year by arguing for an alternative choice. 

The book is further enhanced by numerous illustrations from Arturo Torres. In addition to "style maps" that highlight the various techniques and themes touched upon in each song, chapters also have other graphs/diagrams and artist portraits. Whether it is imagining the Wu-Tang Clan as blood-drenched kung-fu warriors or a frequency distribution of swear words uttered by N.W.A. on Straight Outta Compton (somehow they only used "goddamn" 3 times over the entire album) the pictures are always outstanding and make the book even more irresistible to hip-hop nerds. 

Classic Material: Books About Seminal Albums

There are few higher compliments for hip-hop albums than "classic." Aficionados will still debate about which classic album is the best, but some albums are just unquestionable high points of the genre. These books explore and shed some more light into those classic albums. 

Did you ever read that article in XXL about the making of Nas' Illmatic? Basically everyone involved with the album (Nas, DJ Premier, Q-Tip, Large Professor, MC Serch, etc.) reviews their memories and shares insider stories about each track. As you might expect, it's rather compelling stuff.  

Does the prospect of reading more articles like that appeal to you? If so (and it really should) Brian Coleman's Check the Technique books are for you. They follow the same oral history-ish format for a handful of old school (primarily late '80s and early '90s) albums. 

Coleman writes 2-3 page introductions for each chapter, outlining each album's significance and drawing heavily from artist interviews talking about the record in general. Each chapter then proceeds with a track-by-track breakdown made up of comments from the artists as well as label execs, producers, and other involved parties. Think of this as Song Exploder for classic old-school hip hop albums. And here let me specify that by "old-school" I'm talking about mainly late '80s through the mid '90s.

The brunt of the work is handled by the artists and thus the quality is contingent on how open and engaging they feel like being. Thankfully, almost all of the contributors follow through with quality insights. I was only really disappointed with Slick Rick's take on The Great Adventures of Slick Rick in the first book as he was stingy with his comments and spent too much time complaining about beats he wasn't credited for  If you're familiar with any of the Roots' absurdly detailed liner notes from their old albums you'll know that Questlove and Black Thought goes above and beyond with their chapter on Do You Want More?!!!??! and Evil Dee explaining his production techniques on Black Moon's Enta Da Stage was another highlight. 

Both books feature an incredible lineup of albums. You have De La Soul on 3 Feet High and Rising, Mobb Deep on The Infamous, Mos Def and Talib Kweli on Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Company Flow on Funcrusher Plus, and many others. 

If for some reason you still aren't convinced, read this excerpt featuring DJ Premier reflecting on Gang Starr's Step Into the Arena. 

33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books that basically serve as liner notes on steroids. Each volume features a music writer focusing on a classic album with an in-depth exploration of the music as well as some biographical information on the artist. I've read several 33 1/3 hip-hop entries and the Donuts and Endtroducing books were my favorites. 

The Endtroducing book is primarily made up of a series of extended interviews with DJ Shadow. Most of the interviews center around how Shadow got into hip-hop and his initial efforts as a producer working with rappers like Paris. The book is more about DJ Shadow rather than Endtroducing but Wilder does pose some album-specific questions and glean some insights from Shadow on that subject. 

Donuts was a meticulously-crafted LP and Jordan Ferguson does J Dilla's masterful album justice with his book on the album. Ferguson's extensively-researched book reveals plenty of details of Dilla's life and producing philosophy that will likely be new to even the producer's biggest fans. The book also dissects the album and elucidates the complex techniques and flourishes Dilla crammed into the album. 

Miscellaneous Books That Didn't Fit Anywhere Else But Are Still Good Despite Being Hard to Categorize

The section title speaks for itself. 

Given the fact that so many rappers appear to be comic book devotees, it is only natural for there to be a comic series chronicling the history of hip-hop. Piksor is an artist and former Harvey Pekar collaborator who is also a huge hip-hop fan. In Hip-Hop Family Tree Piksor tells the story of the music from the late '70s onward. So far he has made it through 1985 and each of the four volumes released thus far have been exceptional, with stunning artwork and perfect and thorough historical accuracy. The books are fun and breezy reads and this is clearly a result of a labor of love on Piksor's part, as his passion is evident on every remarkably-detailed panel. Piksor is gradually working his way through the genre's timeline and it is worth following this project. The late '80s and early '90s volumes should be especially enjoyable for most readers. 

RZA and the Wu-Tang Clan don't have a flawless musical record (just listen to A Better Tomorrow, or re-read RZA's Jim Thorpe line in the Ego Trip book section earlier in this post) but they have been pretty consistently ambitious. The Wu-Tang Manual is literary proof of this ambition: an authoritative tome on the mythology, members and guiding principles of everyone's favorite kung-fu-influenced rap group from Staten Island with over 5 members. The manual is split into four "books," with books reviewing the members and their lyrical and delivery quirks and innumerable nicknames, exploring primary influences (including sections on chess, capitalism, and martial arts), annotating lyrics Decoded-style (sadly in a somewhat shallower fashion), and RZA conducting a deep dive on his personal philosophies around beatmaking and life in general. It can be a bit messy and not every section is equally entertaining but there is more than enough substance here to greatly please any Wu-Tang enthusiast.

Personal Top 10 Favorite Hip-Hop Books

1. Ego Trip's Big Book of Rap Lists 
2. Check the Technique
3. The Big Payback
4. Check the Technique 2
5. How to Rap
6. The Rap Yearbook
7. Decoded
8. How to Rap 2
9. 33 1/3: J Dilla's Donuts
10. Book of Rymes

No comments:

Post a Comment