There's a moment in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove when Ben Greenman (the book's co-writer and the co-manager of Questlove’s the Roots) makes the observation that the Roots is one of the few bands – perhaps the only band – left in hiphop.
it seems strange, like yellow smoke
pushin' up against the window panes
and ain't a damn thing changed
i know, cause i been trying to find an antidote
while women come and go
talking of michelangelo
What! These lyrics wafted past me this weekend during a family gathering, and stopped me in my tracks. Has somebody finally turned my favorite poem ever into a hiphop track? And if so, what the hell took them so long? The track is Homework by Yak Ballz, a rapper from Flushing, Queens. The mermaids are slinging crack, and it's all good.
(Rock star memoirs are a hot book trend these days. But many readers may not realize that the rock memoir format has deep, twisted roots. Rock musicians have been writing memoirs for decades, often without receiving the publicity that new books by the likes of Keith Richards and Neil Young have recently received. These include many worthy or surprising works published by small presses that are out of print or nearly forgotten today. I've recently launched a new series on Litkicks, "The Great Lost Rock Memoir", which will mine the rich archives of neglected rock memoirs. Today, let's look at the revealing confessions of Mr. Douglas Colvin of Forest Hills, Queens, better known as Dee Dee Ramone.)
Dee Dee Ramone was an unhappy child. He often watched his drunken father beat up his mother, and after she left him to raise Dee Dee alone he quickly adopted patterns of severe substance abuse and found himself wanting to beat his mother up himself. These scenes appear in the early chapters in Poison Heart: Surviving the Ramones, which was edited by Veronica Kofman and published by a small outfit called Fire Fly in England in 1997, five years before Dee Dee died.
It's hard for me to describe how big an influence the Beastie Boys have had on my life. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found lifesaving inspiration in records like Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head that I could not have found anywhere else. If it were not for the Beastie Boys, I'm pretty sure there would have never been a Literary Kicks.
I know a bit about the Beastie Boys. I've seen them in concert several times, though the live format didn't play to their strengths. The best way to listen to the Beastie Boys is with earbuds in, the world shut out. Their recordings were dense, complex and sophisticated, their rhymes expertly crafted for maximum effect. Each of the three had a highly distinct voice; you can listen to any line in any Beastie Boys song and immediately know whose voice you're hearing:
Ahh, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg! They must be the best hiphop duo of all time (or, at least, they're tied with these guys), although both rappers refuse to call themselves a duo and insist that A Tribe Called Quest has always been four people: Q-Tip the Abstract, Phife Diggy, mixmaster Ali Shaheed Muhammamed, and not-quite-into-it but real-good-buddy Jarobi, who may or may not be in the group at any time (nobody ever seems to know for sure).
The Tribe circle has also included De La Soul, Queen Latifah, Jungle Brothers, Afrika Bambataa, Charlie Brown and Busta Rhymes (who was introduced to the world on "Scenario", from Tribe's second album). It was a social movement for sure, with clear political and spiritual intent. "That's why they call it a tribe", somebody says in a superb new movie about A Tribe Called Quest, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, which I recently caught in a New York City theater.
I was concerned, when I first heard about this film, that it might focus on dull music-industry hype or downward-spiral drama, instead of simply celebrating the sense of sheer fun and artistic freedom that this Queens hiphop outfit represented during the old-school days. I needn't have worried: director Jonathan Rapaport gets the Tribe, and gets why they called it a tribe.
My Infamous Life, the new memoir by classic rapper Prodigy of Mobb Deep, kicks off with a surprise: Albert "Prodigy" Johnson carries an amazing musical legacy in his genes. His grandfather Budd Johnson was a bebop saxophonist who worked with Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Ruth Brown, Gil Evans, Count Basie and Quincy Jones. His grandmother Bernice Johnson created an influential dance school in Jamaica, Queens and hung out with Lena Horne, Ben Vereen and Diana Ross. Prodigy's mother Frances Collins was a replacement member of the 60s girl group the Crystals. This gangsta rapper has some major musical roots.
But he struggled as a kid with sickle-cell anemia, a painful condition that helped him develop a stoic sense of life and a fervent, straight-edged drive. He and his high school buddy Havoc were still teenagers in 1993 when they put out the first Mobb Deep album. They were unknowingly at the vanguard of hiphop's greatest age, born in Queensbridge and the Lefrak projects, where Prodigy crossed paths with A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, the Large Professor, Onyx, Cormega and Capone-N-Noriega. The new gangsta sound spread through New York City, where the Queens rappers were joined by Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls, Lil Kim, Busta Rhymes and M.O.P. from Brooklyn, Mase, Big L and Cam'ron from Manhattan, Big Pun and Fat Joe from the Bronx, DMX and the L.O.X. from Yonkers. Mobb Deep fans, all of them.
1. Billy Joel had a contract to write a memoir, but got cold feet. Too bad. We know this Long Island boy can write, and I bet he had some stories to tell. The alleged book (my personal guess is that he never began it, though the cover artwork was finished and released) was supposed to have been called The Book of Joel.
2. You know I've been wanting to read this Long Island boy's life story. Jay-Z's recent semi-memoir Decoded had its moments, but Jay hardly dug deep. Good hiphop memoirs or biographies are rare, but I eagerly snapped up Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office, a new unauthorized biography by business writer Zack O'Malley Greenburg, who has covered hip-hop culture and money for Forbes magazine. I suppose it works as a business book, but I found it very disappointing. This white boy, unfortunately, does not know hiphop. The author also seems to think Jay-Z's best years must be right now (naturally, because this is when he's making the most money) which proves, once again, that he doesn't know anything about hiphop.
1. This rather remarkable painting, titled Hansel and Gretel, was painted by Zelda Fitzgerald in 1947.
2. Speaking of difficult literary ex-wives: earlier this year I wrote an article about T. S. Eliot's Possum's Book of Practical Cats and the Broadway show Cats in which I suggested that the authors must have invented the character of Grizabella to represent Vivienne Eliot, the great poet and critic's first wife, whose life ended in a quiet mental institution. A strongly-worded comment has been posted to my blog article by an anonymous person who appears to be familiar with the T. S. Eliot estate. This person agrees with my conjecture about Grizabella, and points out that a controversy remains over the Eliot estate's attitude towards Vivienne Eliot's legacy. If you're interested in this topic, please read the long comment by "Coerulescent" and judge for yourself.
3. The Moth, an excellent literary storytelling revue, wanted to hear stories about "transformations". I don't think they could have chosen a much better participant for this challenge than Laura Albert, who delivered a moving piece about becoming and unbecoming J. T. Leroy, and about the ridiculous hassles that followed her "exposure". I'm proud to say I stood by Laura even when few others did. Congrats to Laura for finding her way back as a writer; watch the video!
Jay-Z puts out one major release every year, most often in November. Usually it's a record, another installment in the lyrical autobiography that has made up his life's work. This year it's a book, Decoded, and Jay showed up at the New York Public Library last night to talk about it.
Decoded rocks a golden Andy Warhol Rorschach image on its front cover, hinting at the psychological self-exploration that has always been Jay-Z's specialty. The book's heft, dramatic packaging and thematic chapter structure indicate a serious work, and a highly deliberate encounter with the literary form. I was hoping to hear Jay talk about his writing process and his literary inspirations at the NYPL, but the onstage interview with Paul Holdengraber and Cornel West was such a high-energy affair that, after an hour and three quarters of intense conversation, we never even got around to that topic.
Sometime during the crazy mid-1990s, young graffiti artist and Chicago activist William "Upski" Wimsatt wrote Bomb the Suburbs, one of the quintessential early Soft Skull books. The title was an attention grabber, though of course to "bomb" a place is to spray-paint your tag on a wall, and no call to violence was ever intended.
But a few more crazy years have passed since the mid-90s, and some places around the world really have gotten bombed -- Oklahoma City, New York City and the Pentagon, Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the title of Wimsatt's new book Please Don't Bomb The Suburbs (published, this time around, by Akashic) deals with these changes head-on. The author's introduction explains the conundrums he's faced:
I had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing. It was 180 degrees opposite of my values and worldview. Yet suddenly, the title of my book wasn't so cute anymore. After September 11, it became even less cute.
Fast-forward to 2008. A lot of my friends were involved in the Obama campaign. I had been campaigning for social change for twenty years. This was the most exciting and important campaign of my lifetime. I was already volunteering. And one of my friends asked me to be on an advisory committee. Exciting. *Just send me your resume, you'll be vetted and then* --
Whoa, vetted. Forgot that part.