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Rock & Roll Books

Beat Box

By Graham Reynolds, Fri., June 1, 2007

Rock & Roll Books

Third Coast: Outkast, Timbaland, & How Hip Hop Became a Southern Thing

by Roni Sarig

Da Capo, 336 pp., $16.95 (paper)

Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women

by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting

New York University Press, 200 pp., $22.95

To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic

by William Jelani Cobb

New York University Press, 200 pp., $22.95

Hip-hop is history, a cultural institution. The all-father of DJs, Kool Herc, is trying to get the South Bronx apartment complex where it all started turned into a historical monument, colleges around the country offer courses in its study, and the books have started pouring out. These three new offerings are part of a burgeoning collection, and while each has something to offer, they also exhibit the growing pains of a new body of academic research. All three authors consider the basic history of hip-hop to be well-trodden literary ground and seek to find niche subjects to make their own.

Third Coast is solid, an enjoyable read that's thoroughly researched by an author clearly in command of his subject. Each chapter features a specific city, and this geographical structure facilitates going straight to chapters of the most interest, be it Outkast, Timbaland, or DJ Screw. One of the bonuses of the book comes immediately, in the introduction: a thoughtful and well-written history of hip-hop that explains the deep links the South had to the genre before it ever came to be. By coming south, hip-hop was essentially coming home.

At its best, the book is a sequence of colorful characters, their adventures and inventions. At its worst, the text starts to read like an annotated catalog. In trying to not leave anything out, Sarig goes overboard, and the sheer number of players and songs starts to overwhelm. Then again, a connect-the-dots historical analysis may need all those dots to make sense. For Dirty South hip-hop, this is the book, the first of what will surely be many, and it's a worthy start.

Hip-hop and women is a complex and thorny issue, and though Sarig handles it well, it's obviously not his focus, and the subject calls out for a book (or books) all its own. Pimps Up, Ho's Down is one attempt. Sadly, it's a disappointment. The focus is justifiably narrowed, taking on the relationship between hip-hop and young African-American women, but the too-frequent anecdotal evidence is dominated by stories of college women, an unrepresentational group armed with the necessary tools needed to question and defend itself from the misogyny and sexism that comes with so much hip-hop. The harder evidence lacks depth and enlightening details.

Of these three volumes, To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic is the most "street," author Cobb a first-person witness to the early evolution of the music at ground zero in New York. His is the only one of the three to incorporate rap vernacular, using words like "illest" and "sista." Cobb is also the most concerned with the loftier aim of analyzing, contextualizing, and validating hip-hop as "art." He even splits the field into rappers, commercially driven frauds, and MCs, the true artists. "The difference between a rapper and an MC is the difference between smooth jazz and John Coltrane." Though occasionally arrogant and consistently opinionated, Break of Dawn is smart, funny, conversational, a book to touch off serious study of the modern MC.

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