Saturday, 29 July 2017

Advance Book Review: Wiggaz with Attitude by Andrew Emery

Release Date: August 21, 2017

The basic premise of Andrew Emery's new memoir Wiggaz With Attitude isn't particularly earth-shattering. The author chronicles his experiences growing up as a white hip-hop fan in an ethnically vanilla region where his music preferences were met with confusion and occasionally derision from his peers. He also goes into considerable depth on his dabblings as a rapper during his teenage years, which, as the "My Life As a Failed White Rapper" subtitle might suggest, resulted in little more than a few random recordings and performances at sparsely-attended shows. While Emery occasionally lapses into self-indulgence when he deeply examines his old recordings that even he acknowledges often aren't particularly high-quality, his writing chops and clear passion and knowledge for all things hip-hop caused Wiggaz With Attitude to exceed my expectations and made for a quite entertaining read.

Emery grew up in 1980s England and following the music was a dramatically difficult endeavor during its early years. He writes of scrounging for whatever bits of hip-hop he could find on obscure radio stations, immediately befriending the few schoolmates who had an interest in the music, and poring through the pages of Hip-Hop Connection, a British monthly that actually predates The Source as the world's first hip-hop magazine. The music had a huge impact on his worldview and eventually inspired ambitions of rap stardom. Emery began to write rhymes in his early teens and performed in a few local groups. The bulk of Wiggaz with Attitude centers around Emery's limited rap career, detailing his music evolution (Emery cycled through several different hip-hop lyrical personas, including an especially amusing period as an uber-conscious, albeit somewhat hypocritical and misguided, rapper) and attempts at making it big while balancing music with making money and school.

Emery combines wistful nostalgia with reflective embarrassment and is an engaging guide through his rap career, teenage years, and hip-hop music in general from the 1980s through the early 90s. He brings an encyclopedic knowledge on the subject, getting way into the weeds on hip hop arcana and trivia such as the legendary 1981 battle between the Cold Crush Brothers and the Fantastic Romantic Five at Harlem World and his favorite songs about cars in the book's frequent footnotes. My personal highlights while reading Wiggaz were the passages where Emery riffs on random hip-hop minutia or goes off on topics like why live rap is often so underwhelming. He's also a gifted writer, perceptively noting that rappers will often request the crowd to make substantial amounts of noise, preferably of "the 'motherfucking' variety" and taking KRS-One (Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everybody) to task for never specifying the few individuals who are above knowledge over his thirty-plus years as a recording artist. Wiggaz also benefits from the fact that U.K. hip-hop fans are rather underrepresented in the genre's limited literary canon, and it was interesting for me to read about how the music was received and followed in the country.

At times Wiggaz felt like it dwelled too much on Emery's rap career. This isn't a book like Hot Karl's Kanye West Owes Me $300 where he seemed on the precipice of fame and just had a few bad bounces that doomed him to relative obscurity. Outside of a brief flash of interest from Gee Street Records (who released P.M. Dawn's eclectic and critically-acclaimed 1992 album Of the Heart, Of the Soul, of the Cross: The Utopian Experience), Emery's rap groups never came anywhere close to making it big, medium, or small. Which is totally fine, and doesn't detract from his reflections on what the genre meant to him as a white kid growing up in Leeds and small-town England or his sense of wonder at finally traveling to the hip-hop mecca of New York City. And Emery is self-effacing and is always willing for the reader to have a laugh at his teenage rapper self's expense when sharing some of his old lyrics. Still, the book would occasionally drag when Emery would analyze seemingly every song put out by his rap crews. I liked Emery's review of his forays into didactic and super-political hip-hop and his posse cut about drinking tea was clever but a lot of his other songs were kinda bland (a fact that Emery willingly points out) and grew tiresome to read through.
 
One frustrating aspect of Wiggaz is that there are times it feels like Emery is holding back on the reader. Early on there is a footnote about a time when he punched Woody Harrelson at a party without much further context, and I understand why he didn't elaborate much on that (though as he tells it the True Detective star was in the wrong) in what is ostensibly a memoir about growing up as a hip-hop head. I'm more referring to how the book's narrative arc basically ends after Emery graduates university and gives up his rapping career. This would have been fine and understandable if he became an accountant or something similarly un-hip-hop, but Emery instead worked at the aforementioned Hip-Hop Connection magazine, eventually becoming its contributing editor. He teases the reader by mentioning in passing activities like playing pool with the Beatnuts, a disastrous interview with Method Man, Prodigy falling asleep on him, and conducting a phone interview with Lauryn Hill while she was in the shower. I would have loved for him to have elaborated on at least some of these and share some of his other adventures in hip-hop journalism. We can at least take solace in the fact that this isn't Emery's only book (he previously penned The Book of Hip-Hop Cover Art and is currently working on a book about hip-hop memorabilia.

As part of doing due diligence and adequately performing my duty as a book blogger, I perused Emery's website and found that he does in fact have plans to eventually release a book called Adventures with Rappers, and it's safe to say that I'll being pre-ordering (or better yet requesting a review copy) the first second I can. Wiggaz showcases Emery's wit and deep knowledge about hip-hop and his ability to entertain the reader. It's a funny and reflective paean to hip-hop that refreshingly doesn't take the genre (or Emery's limited contributions to it) all that seriously but does an excellent job at capturing how the music has captivated generations of fans from the Bronx to Bingham, Nottingshire.

8 / 10

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Advance Book Review: Truth Doesn't Have a Side by Dr. Bennet Omalu with Mark Tabb

Release Date: August 8, 2017

A 2016 poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found that only 19% of NFL fans had favorable opinions of Commissioner Roger Goodell. Less statistically-minded readers just need to tune into the NFL Draft when Goodell is met with a loud chorus of boos every time he steps on the stage, even when accompanied by the likes of NFL legends and sick children (though the booing fans are at least polite enough to make an effort to demonstrate that their sonic opprobrium is only intended for the commish). It wasn't always like this. Goodell was largely unknown among casual followers of the sport when he took the job in 2006 and there was a time where he could interact with fans without requiring the constant watch of a massive security team. There are a few factors behind Goodell's vilification, but perhaps the NFL's tremendously poor handling of the concussion issue is most responsible for his current unpopularity (at least outside of New England). Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who made the initial link between football and chronic tramautic encephalopathy, has been one of Goodell's biggest bugbears as he paved the way for further research into the dangers of football. In Truth Doesn't Have a Side, Omalu recounts his experiences working to uncover the relationship between football and CTE and the frightening health consequences of the sport, as well as his unlikely path from war-torn Nigeria to the United States and the the impact and outcomes of his findings both within his field and his personal life. Omalu's story is a remarkable one, but the book largely follows the general paint-by-numbers celebrity memoir and lacks enough depth or introspection for me to strongly recommend it, though it's a decent read in general. 

The first third of Truth Doesn't Have a Side cover Omalu's childhood and his winding route from an undernourished child in Nigeria to a doctor in America with a Will Smith movie based on his work.  Born in a refugee camp during the Nigerian Civil War, Omalu was born while his father recuperated from a bombing attack in the same hospital. Omalu's family lost all their savings in the conflict, but his parents were able to provide for him after the war and instill into Omalu the value of education. After earning his degree in Nigeria he was able to secure a fellowship at the University of Washington and eventually ended up as a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh.

Omalu's interest in exploring the health impact of football after the death of former Steelers Center Mike Webster. Webster, a local favorite who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997, had struggled with depression and a host of other psychological issues that sprang up after his retirement from the game. Omalu had his own personal struggles with depression and sought to understand how Webster's personality had changed so dramatically, eventually leading him to discover the link between playing football and CTE. Since Webster had conclusively passed from a massive heart attack, Omalu's pursuit of probing deeper into Webster's health woes was completely a pet project that was done on his outside time, out of his desire to set the record straight on Webster. Omalu conducted further research and was able to link many other former football players to CTE, drawing the ire of the NFL. Truth Doesn't Have a Side describes the ramifications of going up against a sporting behemoth, including claims that he was trailed on several occasions and having his credentials and research challenged and contending with roadblocks on getting his results published. The NFL doesn't come out looking very good in this, but none of Omalu's claims in the book are particularly new. This highlights one of the biggest problems of the book for me: it's an interesting story and covers a huge topic with ridiculously important implications for the long-term health (literally and financially) of one of the biggest sports leagues in the world and a long-running institution, but the book itself doesn't cover much new ground. I wish Omalu went into more insider detail on his research and battles with the NFL rather than providing a surface-level summary and moving on to the next chapter in his life. There just simply isn't enough depth or new information given that his work has been chronicled before in magazines, books, and movies.

Truth Doesn't Have a Side is more of a memoir than an anti-football manifesto, but Omalu does make his opinions on the safety of the sport known. His medical advice seems completely sound (not that I'd ever be in a position to quibble with him on such matters) and his more philosophical and ethical arguments seem reasonable. Omalu contends that, due to a variety of factors including the fact that the brain is one of the few human organs incapable of healing itself, humans really shouldn't play football, and if they do they should wait until they are 18 and responsible enough to decide for themselves. Seems fair enough, and Omalu answers a plethora of questions about the safety of contact sports at the end of the book outlining the various risks and why he takes such positions. Still, it's a bit naive to think that this would ever fly in football-mad states like Texas, and assuming that some parents and kids are willing to skirt any restrictions, it would be quite difficult for any player to try to make a college team without any prior football experience given the technical nature of the game.

Overall, Truth Doesn't Have a Side is a pleasant and quick read and a worthwhile read for anyone interested in CTE research and/or who enjoyed the Concussion movie. It never really transcends the celebrity memoir genre though and is unfortunately a bit shallow. Outside of his childhood and his thoughts about how it felt to have a Will Smith movie based on his life (spoiler alert: he thinks it's pretty cool), Omalu doesn't bring much new insight into his research on CTE that hasn't been covered elsewhere.

6/ 10