Andrew DuBois is none other than a U of T prof based out of the Scarborough campus. Originally from the Southern US and armed with a PhD from Harvard he breaks down thirty years of history into an accessible book that contains nearly 300 lyrics. The book is separated into four sections: The Old School, The Golden Era, Rap Goes Mainstream, and New Millennium Rap. Although a comparable volume of lyrics are found in each section, the authors focus heavily on the early history of rap music and the influence earlier artists had on the development of the genre. In the first section, the stage is set: it’s 1975 and DJ Kool Herc is spinning in the Bronx. The book is evokes strong visual images like this based on a rich historic timeline throughout making it captivating for interested parties.
One slight drawback to The New Millennium Rap chapter was that it felt a little lacking in terms of making the reader feel for the story during this time in raps history. This of course could just be a case of the novel stimulus. For most of us born in the 80s, we are all too familiar with current artists and their histories. Movies like Notorious let us peak into rap legends like Biggie giving us deeper understanding of the music as both a culture and art form. Nevertheless, when we have artists like Justin Bieber peddling Proactive acne cream and 50 Cent selling us our hangover remedies in the form of vitamin water, The Golden Age of Slick Rick and Run-DMC might seem more romantic.
Overall the book is a must for any reader interested in a comprehensive but approachable guide to the evolution of a genre that has had a massive impact of global popular culture in the past thirty years. It does an elegant job of balancing an impressive anthology of lyrics with a highly engaging history of an art form. Check out the interview below with Prof. Dubois for his thoughts on new rappers, his love of poetry and oh yeah, his book.
Q: Why did you choose to incorporate so many lyrics into the anthology rather than focusing more heavily on section introductions?
A: We really wanted to include excerpts from cultural history, certain tools for reading the lyrics as well as excerpts from other people’s critical writing and interviews that artists have done. But the main goal was to create a lyric anthology that would cover the more or less 30 plus year recorded history of the music. So it was a balancing act in terms of including too little or too much. Our original manuscript, intention, or wish list included many many more songs than we put in. At the same time we could have imagined a smaller book but we didn’t feel like it would be comprehensive enough.
Q: What do you think the history of rap in terms of its rise as an art form?
A: The history of rap music is absolutely fascinating from the perspective of the cultural history and the rise of an art form. I’m American, as you can probably tell from my accent.
Rap music is such an important American contribution. People all over the world have taken to this music that was born in a very specific time and place. Rap as an art form has grown very quickly and is important to modern American social and cultural history.
As a poetry critic and teacher, I’m interested in poetry in all of its manifestations. But in recent years I’m becoming more and more interested in popular poetry. So to find a form of poetry that speaks across all demographics and yet still maintains so much density, variety, and artistic integrity I think is pretty amazing. I would say it’s the most important form of popular poetry in my lifetime.
Q: How do you feel about the evolution of the genre in terms of its birthplace in Bronx and the political and social atmosphere at that time and how the ideals and messages that artists are rapping about has changed dramatically?
A: I would say in the earliest stage, there was a range of messages being expressed. Yes Afrika Bombattaa had a range of political messages, but even in his music there are songs that are just good times party music. I remember the first time I heard “Planet Rock” and “Looking for a Perfect Beat” when I was a little kid at the skating rink. For us that was something you could move around the rink to.
There are all kind of evolutionary movements that have been going on in the development of rap music but I wouldn’t say that these are movements away from the political and towards solely commercialization. In the early days, people were recording their shows, selling them on tapes and as soon as records were being sold in 1979, there were artists selling tracks from mainly independent labels but even major labels were in the mix early on. There is a commercial aspect to that. People are listening to what’s hot, trying to replicate it and put there own spin on it.
That aspect of commercially pushing music has a very important cultural aspect to it, that is a certain kind of cultural self-efficiency. For instance currently there is a lot of rapid commercialization in hip hop. But it seems to me that there has always been strong counter balance to that.
Q: What do you think would be an example of a rap artist today that transcends this need to endorse products [I’m looking at you vitamin water and 50cent] and the commercialization of an art form?
A: A certain version of trying to push your product does come often times with making art. It can be done in a way that diminished the art and can be done in a way that doesn’t but instead makes the art accessible so it’s out there for people to hear. I think there are lots of artists that maintain artistic integrity while their music is being pushed commercially. You know somebody like Jay Electronica is someone who is operating in a way that is totally independent and yet he is going to blow up. And because of the way in the distribution process is like on the Internet lots of people have heard of him. Let’s say somebody for a certain demographic is considered the hottest thing going and is not for another demographic. Take Drake for example, or even better Lil Wayne. No one could be more commercially pushed than Lil Wayne, but I love Lil Wayne. He’s got a lot of artistic integrity. He’s an example of someone who can operate both in a quasi-underground and mainstream artist. He’s flying below the radar putting out mixtapes that only insiders would know about and at the same time putting out tracks for the mainstream. Take something like the Carter II, I mean that is an unbelievable album, not just at the level of the individual song but the total sequencing of it. So that kind of commercial impact is not always detrimental to the aesthetics. I mean sometimes it is. Sometimes one song comes out that brings an original flavor and then next you know twenty different artists starting popping up trying to do the same thing. I mean I think the kind ubiquity of auto tune is an example of that.
Q: You’ve broken down the book into four sections. In the “New Millennium Rap” chapter you talk about how suddenly rap goes mainstream and its popularity became fueled by young Caucasian males and people like Eminem coming out of the woodwork. In the first section of the book “The Old School”, the history is deeply attached to African American culture. Is the music now perpetuated based on different ideals by people who maybe don’t understand the foundation of where it comes from?
A: I think in terms of percentages of people that strike the listening audiences as viable artists that there may be more Caucasian rappers now than in the past. But I mean Eminem is a kind of special case really. The thing about hiphop is that to a large degree it has an internal critical mechanism whereby the culture determines what’s listenable. It determines which artists have put enough work in to be part of that lineage. So a guy like Eminem couldn’t be used as an example of someone who doesn’t understand the history of the culture for that matter. I mean there are a lot of aspects to the culture. If the determining factor in the historical foundation of the culture is that it was made by African American people in New York. You could say that anyone who isn’t African American or even not from New York can’t access that culture. I mean it’s not a big debate now, but earlier there was a real regional vibe. But you could also say that a guy like Eminem, with his background, could very much identify with the themes, which would be things like marginalization because of poverty or growing up in a single parent home. There are a lot of different ways to think about how an artist like Eminem could contribute to a genre that as you say comes from a very specific time and place and was made by people that are not on the surface like Eminem. But there have been rappers that have not fit into what traditionally constitutes a rapper, such as the Beastie Boys, who made some headway. The same case is often made against women rappers irrespective of their background or color. But the culture isn’t static and as it changes the people who contribute to it also changes.
Q: I was mostly interested in the early chapters because I knew less about the birth of rap and more about the last twenty years. The book focuses very heavily on the early years and the foundation of rap, why the choice to focus less on “New Millennium Rap” and more on the guys who really laid the foundation of the genre.
A: That’s a good question. The disparity isn’t based on actual page allocation, each of the four sections have more or less the same pages and number of lyrics. I don’t think anyone else has noticed this so I’m glad you mentioned it. This was very deliberate. We wanted to try to draw out more history from earlier artists that a lot of our readers might not have heard about. If we had just put the raw lyrics on the page people might start to zone out, at least I think so. So we tried to draw out some of the stories of some of the early artists and I think that explanatory material gets less verbose in chronologically because of methods of dissemination. The fact that rappers and hiphop artists are constantly in the news, magazines and are especially accessible with the internet leading to substantial exposure. So I don’t sense that people now, like you, need or want to hear about the story of Jay-Z because you probably know it. Buy you may not know about Funky Four + 1 even if they’re on your radar. This is also a labor of love so for me personally it was really fun. I first started listening to the music in the early 80’s so it was like going back to my childhood.
Q: What are your thoughts on new rap? Kanye West? Nicki Minaj?
A: I love Kanye West first of all. I love anything Kayne does. I think the guy is very impressive, what can I say? I go by albums. I like the way he sequences his albums. I like the way they are coherent projects. I mean I was listening to his new album. Man I don’t even remember what it’s called but that one track. Track number 9.
A: Yeah! I just tossed the booklet to the side, played the track over and over, until apparently I was told I that I was singing it in my sleep! Nicki Minaj from what I’m hearing is doing something really interesting. She brings a very interesting kind of monstrosity to some of her manipulations of voice, which I think is both meant as an aggressive tactic but also an ironic response to some of the more aggressive posturing that might go on. So I’m very interested so far. But I’m listening to a lot of things these days.
Q: Last question. You’re from the south, what do you think of Yelawolf?
A: I was reading about Yelawolf on hiphopcanada.com before I even picked up that album. I mean I thought it was pretty tight. It’s interesting that the white southern rapper is in a certain sense going to operation out of strokes of let’s say kind of a little rough neck from the rougher side of the track. I think that’s part and parcel with certain tendencies that you see in even southern literature. I mean I think he’s got something going on but I’ll tell ya there are some guys from Huntsville Alabama called the Paper Route Gangstaz that are pretty good. They’ve got an EP called “Fear and Loathing in Hunts Vegas” with a song that uses a real nice sample from Slick Ricks “La Di Da Di.”