Well, I'd like to explain why I think this is true, and why I find Jay-Z's work so exciting from a literary point of view. It's not that I think Jay's the best poet in the hiphop world. That title probably goes to the late Biggie Smalls, who could effortlessly toss out lines like "there's gonna be a lot of slow-singing and flower-bringing if my burglar alarm starts ringing", or "Poppa's been smooth since the days of Underoos". What I admire about Jay, on the other hand, is his single-minded dedication to a truth-telling mission. His entire body of work is a mirror gaze -- he has never written about anything but himself.
However, I can't approve of a short essay in which he tells us he is tired of rock music. He unwittingly reveals the real problem when he cites Sonic Youth and Nels Cline as the kind of music he approves of. Forget that critically-acclaimed college-radio fancy stuff, which was never very exciting in the first place. I took my son to see System of a Down last month, and based on that evidence alone: yes, there are still excellent new bands doing excellent new things. Rick just has to stop trying to be all cool.
We haven't seen any of these books yet, but one rapper just kept his mouth shut and quietly got a serious new book out on the shelves: From Pieces to Weight : Once Upon a Time in Southside Queens by the crafty Queens native 50 Cent.
I've written elsewhere on LitKicks about 50 Cent's lyrics. Some find him controversial, but he's undoubtedly one of the funniest and most vivid writers in all of hiphop. I'm not sure if I'm going to love this book like a fat kid loves cake or not, but I'm definitely going to read it and find out.
Not many people were paying attention to the new phenomenon known as the World Wide Web on the morning of August 9, 1995. A young computer programmer at the University of Urbana-Champaign in Illinois, Marc Andreesen, had invented the web browser (called "Mosaic") a couple of years before. Some venture capitalists partnered with Andreesen to create a company based on web technology (which was considered a wacky idea at the time). They initially called the company Mosaic Communications, but Mosaic was already well-known as the name of the free, open-source browser, so the company changed its name to Netscape. Ten years ago today, this company went public on the stock market. It was the first internet IPO, and a big financial success. The dot-com craze was born.
Since Levi's been reading Richard Hell and Johnny Temple's letting us all in on his punk indie publishing philosophy over at The Book Standard, it seems like a good time to let you know about another important punk literary event, the opening of CBGBs: A Place that Matters, a collection of statements and photographs of and by musicians. The collection will be on exhibit today through Wednesday, September 14, 2005 at Urban Center Gallery, 457 Madison Avenue at 51st St in NYC. The opening coincides with a reception and book signing for CBGB and OMFUG: Thirty Years from the Home of Underground Rock.
This is good news, although we're still waiting for the rumored Black Book by Jay-Z and Nas's mythical autobiography, so I wouldn't bet money on any of these seven books actually existing at any point soon. And I'm kinda confused about this statement that he wants these books to set a good example for kids. Snoop thinks he's got seven volumes worth of good example in him? We are mystified but curious.
A couple of months ago my 14-year-old son asked me about the Armenian genocide that took place during the first World War. He was interested because of the band System of a Down, a really good thrash-metal outfit that often uses Middle Eastern musical themes and sings some songs about the Armenian people and their history (it's amazing what a kid can learn from a good metal band).
I tried to find a good book, and I ended up ordering a first-person memoir called "Vergeen". This story of a young teenage girl living through the total destruction of her family and community is in many ways a "Diary of Anne Frank" of the Armenian holocaust, the main difference being that Vergeen Meghrouni lived to tell the tale.
As in the Nazi massacre of the Jews and the Rwandan massacre of the Tutsis, the Armenians were systematically segregated, dehumanized, humiliated and finally destroyed by their own government, the Ottomans of Turkey. Vergeen (the name is translated as Virginia) is 13 years old when her entire village is ordered to give up everything they own and walk across the desert to Syria. Vergeen watches as every member of her family is killed. The last to die is her brave mother, who put Vergeen's needs first and is the real hero of this story.
Vergeen survives by attaching herself to a Bedouin family, but she is brutally raped by the head of the family. The author is not a professional writer, and when she describes the rape with an aching and inarticulate "Oh GOD" her pain and anger are easy to feel.
Why isn't this book better known? The Armenian holocaust took at least 1.5 million lives, but it's somehow remained a quiet holocaust. I respect the band System of a Down for spreading awareness of this forgotten piece of world history.
It's weird how some historical periods are well-represented by books, while others aren't. I think there are about 1,473,629 World War II books published each year, and approximately 12 about World War I. Why is this? I guess it's the same reason there are 2,337,810 books published each year about the Civil War and 3 about the American Revolution. And there has never been a book published about the Spanish-American War.
Okay, I'm exaggerating, and I made up these numbers. But I think my point stands: there are big incidents in world history that the publishing industry doesn't cover. I don't think there's any censorship going on here; the major publishers simply follow successful formulas. The Civil War sells, and so do D-Day, Anne Frank and Iwo Jima. Armenia? Not a proven formula.
"Vergeen" is published by a small company called Atmus Press, and you're not likely to find it in your local bookstore unless you specifically order it. I recommend doing so, or buying it on Amazon. "Vergeen" offers a unique first-person story you won't forget.
Kanye West disappoints me sometimes. Sure, he's a godsend for any literate hiphop fan, with his appearances on Def Poetry Jam and his confrontational lyrical style. Musically, though, the guy can't sing (a little pitchy, as they say on American Idol) and he relies way too much on that catchy high-pitched backing track gimmick. Enough with the squeaky dolphin voices. However, his new song is about Diamonds in the Sky, and it's at least better than some of those Kanye tracks that got played way too much on the radio last year.
Finally, Compton's The Game is taking hiphop's metafictional streak to new heights with Dreams, which quotes from at least twenty other hiphop classics from the near or distant past. Has there ever been any art form as insular and self-referential as gangsta rap? The Game takes the metaphysical metafictional to new heights with this song. It's like watching comic strip artist Art Spiegelman quote from Krazy Kat, Peanuts and the Katzenjammer Kids in his jumbled comic frames, or like Neal Pollack rampaging through the history of literature naming every name in the book. This song is itself based on a Jay-Z song, "A Dream", which was originally based on Biggie Smalls' song "A Dream". Does all this self-referentiality amount to postmodernism in practice? I can feel it in the air.
I think it's great that Bob Dylan's "Chronicles: Volume 1" was nominated for a National Book Award, listed by the New York Times as one of the top five books of 2004, and awarded many other honors. In fact, the old guy has written an amazingly breezy, funny and original book, and he deserves the recognition.
But I'm a little annoyed when I read reviews depicting this book as Dylan's long-awaited "true story". Sure, the book is billed as an autobiography, but Bob Dylan has been hiding behind masks longer than the four members of KISS put together, and I find it hard to believe he's dropped all of them now.
Deception, identity and disguise is absolutely central to the work of Bob Dylan, who has been in the course of his career an earnest protest singer, an amphetamine-popping rock star, a country-western refugee, a glitter-suited superstar, a born-again Christian, a sloppy has-been drunk, a mellowed-out jamster and a resurgent elder statesman of rock. It's exactly this neverending game of hide-and-seek that makes his work so compelling to his fans -- you never know where he'll jump out at you from next, always with the straightest of faces. But you can't become a completely different artist every three years and then suddenly drop the artifice and tell the truth. For the artist currently known as Bob Dylan, artifice is truer than truth, and this is how it must be.