Real rap words

Recommending the very best hip hop books, about the business, the music and the legends, from Def Jam to Paul’s Boutique to Public Enemy + five shows you need to see this week

Watch how smart books make me: if you’re seeing this, it’s because you either like hip hop, or reading, or both. Eh? Eh? Logic.

So now that’s got me thinking maybe you’d like some pointers on where else to read about hip hop. With a little seasonal downtime hopefully headed your way, I’ve got a whole list of titles that should speak to heads and lovers of intelligently written music biography alike. I’ve mentioned a couple of these before, but as with all devoted students, I know shit can take a while to sink in.

I’ll start on purpose with Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (2005). Sure, it’s been out for a sec, but as its title declares, the story of the socio-architectural blueprint for rap culture goes on an’ on, and the nexus points for what we call hip hop’s elements are engagingly examined by Bay Area music journalist Chang.

The story of hip hop is the story of everyday people, but it took exceptional circumstances and extraordinary behind-the-scenes characters to turn it into a household commodity. Author Dan Charnas’s 600-plus page opus The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (2010) chronicles hip hop’s odyssey from the borough to the boardroom. Partly entertainment and partly industry bible, The Big Payback is entirely compelling reading and a must for anyone from music junkies to MBA students.

In terms of straight-up musical matters, Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies (2007) breaks down 36 styles of danger with meticulously arranged artist recollections of the making of their classics. Among those featured are Cypress, Onyx, the Roots, the Beasties, De La, BDK, Mobb Deep, the Wu and, well, 28 others (what did I say before about rap culture goin’ on-an’-on-an’-on?). With a sequel on the way next year, cross two off the list for that hard-to-shop-for rap fanatic sibling of yours.

In a similar-ish vein, you know those generic-looking little pocket books on the wall at Chapters with record names for titles? They’re all part of something called the 33 1/3 series, and some of them are amazing. Granted, I’ve only read the rap ones, and I am told that in other genres, as was my experience, the collection is hit-and-miss. For example, I read the one about Illmatic where the author basically just marvels at how white he is compared to Nas, and another about Tribe’s People’s Instinctive Travels where the writer literally inserts his high school journal about his own despondency as a young black male. While neither was without merit, I wasn’t fond of the narrative tones taken. If you like critiques and personal essays more than how-it-was-done-type lit, these may be for you.

By contrast, Christopher R. Weingarten’s research on the recording history of Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is probably my favourite piece of music journalism ever. PE’s second album is often cited as the greatest rap record of all time, and Weingarten spared no effort in capturing its significance as a landmark historical document and cultural artifact. If you’ve got the will to read 25 pages at a time about the stretching and sequencing of single drum loops and horn samples, then you love hip hop and I know ya’ gonna dig this.

I can pretty much say the same for Dan LeRoy’s possibly tougher-to-find essay on the legend that is Paul’s Boutique. How did the Beasties leap from drunken dumbasses to psychedelic gurus in a single bound? I tell you, it is a thrilling tale of marvel, starring enthusiastic junior execs, ignorant label suits, at least three broken egos, a weirdo recluse producer and a strange old German couple among its cast. Some records achieve levels of greatness that at a certain point go beyond speaking for themselves, and LeRoy definitively documents this particular game-changer.

This last one is a real treat, and I’m recommending it with the hope that someone else lucks out like I did. Last year during Boxing Week, I scored Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label for just over $30 with tax, and I bet that if you go hunting a little, you might find one, too. Stunning photography and candid narration from the voices that fought for our right to party and partied for our right to fight make this the absolute perfect companion to more or less every other title mentioned here; it’s also a stand-alone masterpiece of hip hop anthropology.

Do you have a book you think I might like to read over the holidays? Let me know.

Now, setting aside book smarts, here’s what’s street smart this week.

Friday – It’s class-in-session with the Franco Proietti Morph-Tet at the BBAM! Gallery from 9 till 11 p.m, seven notes at the door. Mr. Proietti, Professor Jon Emile and the rest of the Morph-faculty-family open up the books on brassy, bass-y funk, soul and hip hop for the last time in 2012.

TO’s sample-lacerating Keys N Krates stitch it up live at le Belmont as well, with openers Dirty Gold and Henward.

Saturday – In a decidedly un-Christmas-y move, some soulless creep or creeps robbed our city’s Nomadic Massive last September, and this as the group gears up for a major release. Ever the positive and resilient representation of the best human qualities, the Nomadic band is now reaching out with a fundraiser jam at les Bobards, asking fans 10 bucks or so of support, as we see fit, to help them get back to business.

For a potentially more self-indulgent, hedonistic endeavour, head to SAT for the body-rockin’ rumbles of Jacques Greene and Doldrums live, with sets from Prison Garde and Seb Diamond.

Monday – Local mic veteran and indie rap globetrotter BluRum13 brings it home to Casa in time for Xmas. Ottawa rap overlord Atherton and Montreal’s only acceptable Bad Weather set the mood. ■

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