Hip-Hop, So Far
I’m getting big props, with this thing called hip hop
Where you can either get paid or get shot…Don’t gas yourself ock
The industry just a better built cellblock
A long way from the shell tops
And the bells that L rocked…
Mos Def, “Hip Hop”
Too bad for this new anthology that I was fresh from reading Michael Azerrad’s book, Our Band Can Be Your Life, when I picked it up. What I liked so much about Azerrad’s book about American indie music in the 1980s—the comprehensive, cohesive narrative of a musical era; the explanations of the sound of each of the bands profiled; the extensive interviews with and insight into main figures of the movement—doesn’t happen in And It Don’t Stop.
Part of the problem lies in poor planning. The book is split into decade-long sections, of which, of course, there are only three (the 1980s, 1990s, and after 2000). This means that Cepeda, who surely hoped to provide connective tissue for the project in the intros to each section, only has three chances to try to create a trajectory. These intros are full of generalizations (“early in the 1990s, it became evident that hip-hop was not only going to stand around, it was going to go POP!”). The generalizations are trying to perform this narrative function, but only end up sounding repetitive and obvious.
There are pieces in here that I, as a relatively new hip-hop fan (“since 1995” counts for nothin’), had always heard about but never had a chance to read. Danyel Smith’s interview with Foxy Brown for Vibe, the one that led to Foxy trying to physically assault Smith, is here. (By the way, what was the big deal?) Nelson George’s early profile of Russell Simmons is a piece of history, now that Simmons has built up a multi-million dollar empire around himself. The description of a twenty-seven-year-old Simmons (“Russell is hyped for the meeting. He’s puffing on a Kool, bouncing around in shiny black penny loafers, and rubbing his bald spot comically for me. Russell’s about five feet ten and 165 pounds, with the complexion of a ripe squash”) is priceless.
I also enjoyed the piece about C. Delores Tucker, the anti-gangster-rap crusader, by Kierna Mayo, if only for its funny evisceration of the weirdly fanatic Tucker. “Oil paintings of lilies (or was it cherry blossoms?) decorate the waiting-room walls, and a huge brass eagle is permanently perched on a stand,” Mayo describes Tucker’s office. “I really can’t tell that this office has much to do with women or blacks. But it does. Ah yes, a better look around reveals ten Jet magazines spread out neatly on a coffee table.”
Another of the funny and well-written pieces that make “And Ya Don’t Stop” worth reading, the piece about Ice Cube that Joan Morgan wrote for the Village Voice, offers a way out of the smotheringly large project that this anthology has laid out for itself. “The Nigga You Hate To Love”, which explores the apparent conflict between Morgan’s feminist beliefs and her deep-rooted attraction to Mr. Cube’s angry, misogynistic songs, is hilarious, mildly self-deprecating, and angry. Morgan’s very personal take on the subject—she talks about listening to Cube in the car while traveling to Martha’s Vineyard—makes it clear that she’s not only stretching across gender lines to listen to Cube, but also socioeconomic and cultural ones. By bringing herself into the piece, she subtly brings up the fact that upper-class black people, not just women, have their own set of issues with hip-hop.
A much more interesting anthology might have scrapped the omnibus approach in favor of a different overarching idea taken from Morgan’s piece: “Women Write About Hip-Hop” or “Black Writers Wrestle with Hip-Hop.” Perhaps in a couple of years we’ll see these next steps taken. In the meantime, Cepeda’s anthology is a very basic start.