Currently Reading:

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Hip Hop Underground

Hip Hop Underground

Anthony Kwame Harrison

The usual full disclosure: Kwame is a friend of mine, and he gave me a copy of the book as a comp for proofreading some of the galleys for him and hashing through some of the ideas with him during the authorship.  So you won’t get an impartial review out of me.  Search the Internet if you want that; I’m sure it has plenty to say on the subject.

What I will say is that the book is at its best when Kwame is just storytelling.  The theoretical stuff is almost all framed in first-person participant-observation ethnography, which is fancy sociologist speak for saying that Kwame rapped as Mad Squirrel in the San Francisco based Forest Fires Collective and then wrote about it.  So, among all of the general and specific postulations about race and class and gender in The Scene are a lot of stories: stories about battles between white and black emcees at house parties, stories about Filipino youth finding a national identity through hip-hop, stories about what happens when a woman tries to participate in a male-dominated open mic.  Like the best underground hip-hop itself, it’s the art of storytelling that makes the message shine.

And at least for me, it is the storytelling that draws me to some of my favorite hip-hop.  Love or hate Slick Rick, but you can’t deny that he spins a good yarn.  Even for acts as popular as Public Enemy, it’s the songs like Black Steel In The Hour of Chaos that people remember.  El-P’s Stepfather Factory is by far the most memorable cut from Fantastic Damage.  And even in the genre of gangster rap, touchstone songs like Ice-T’s 6 in the Mornin’ and N.W.A.’s Fuck Tha Police are built around narratives.  There’s just a lot more to that vein of rapping than there is to some fool shouting rhymed couplets about bitches and ice.

It’s probably not far off the mark to say that we, as a species, are wired for storytelling.  I’m sure that a hundred anthropologists have written a book on that very subject.  Storytelling seems to be a foundation of culture.  Would it be possible to have anything that we could call a “culture” that didn’t include some type of common narrative?  I’m not sure.  When we say the word “culture”, it’s one of the first things that comes to mind.  When we imagine our stereotype of “primitive peoples”, we imagine them sitting around the communal fire, the elders telling stories.  Stories about the creation of the world, stories about the origin of humanity, stories about right and wrong and the consequences of each.  There’s something fundamentally human about participating in that.

Hip-hop, as a culture, is no exception.  It has its creation myths — poor urban kids stealing power from the streetlights to run turntables, switching back and forth between records, making beat breaks for people to dance.  It has its pantheon of primal gods — DJ Red Alert, The Sugar Hill Gang, MC Busy Bee, Kool Herc, etc.  Like every culture, it has its charlatans who try to claim direct lineage from those gods.  And it has its modern-day chroniclers, people like Kwame, who retell (and relive) the old stories and create new ones to keep the culture alive.  Hip Hop Underground is a contribution to that storytelling tradition.




There’s a lot to love and a lot to hate in Evasion, and I’m quite certain that the author wouldn’t want it any other way.  He squats, shoplifts, train hops, dumpster dives, and scams his way around the country without apology.  The main targets of his ire are consumerism and corporate waste, and some of his best methods are using corporate policies against the corporations that make them.  Things like pulling receipts from the Barnes & Noble trash can, grabbing the corresponding books from the shelves, and then taking them to the service desk to return them.  The clerk knows that he didn’t buy the book, the clerk knows that he should throw the bum out, but Corporate Policy says that they need to honor the return with receipt, and the clerk’s common sense is subservient to Corporate Policy, so they have no choice but to hand over the cash.

So, on the one hand, I find it easy to love the prodding at the weak spots of consumer capitalism, as they so often richly deserve that prodding.  On the other hand, there are things to hate.  The first is the fundamentalist perspective.  We always give the conservative fundamentalists a hard time, but I think the ‘liberal’ fundamentalists get off too easy.  Being a free-range anarchist punk is a great thing; looking down your nose at everyone who isn’t is just silly.  Every 19 year old thinks they have everything figured out — I certainly did.  Not every 19 year old manages to write a book about it, and on that count the author is one-up on most of us.  But the attitude that ‘everybody who isn’t like me is ignorant and wrong’ is exactly what the religious fascists peddle, and it’s unfortunately also what the author of Evasion peddles.

It’s that sort of fundamentalism that encourages us to poke about for hypocrisy and revel in it when we find it.  If the guy down the block gets busted for some transgression involving drugs or sex, we’re maybe embarrassed for him, maybe even feel bad for him.  But when fundamentalist pastor Ted Haggard gets caught doing crystal meth with a gay hooker, then goes through a three week program and emerges “completely heterosexual”, we have a field day with it.  It’s because he’s been condemning the rest of us for what he would have us believe are our sins, while cooking up with teenage boys after church.  Evasion has me looking for similar falls.  Like, if you’re stealing all of this stuff from Barnes and Noble to buy punk records, then what are you doing with the records? Not carrying them around on trains, I know that.  Mailing them home to Mom in the suburbs?  It’s not crystal meth with hookers, but neither is it the property-free, consumption-free ideal that the book puts forth.  As for me, I don’t give a damn if you have a thousand records or seven big-screen televisions.  You’re still the guy who owns a bunch of property, and trying to make a big deal of not being that guy makes you look foolish.

But arrogance and hypocrisy aside, Evasion is a hell of a book for a kid to write, and it gets respect for that.  It’s about a guy who’s not afraid to live big stories, and not too lazy to write about them and put them out there to inspire other people to live big stories, too.  In that sense, it’s a success.  It reminds me of every time I passed by a hotel to go sleep in the woods, every time I scored enough food or flowers from the dumpster to eat for a month or decorate my entire house, every time I caught a lift from a stranger instead of shelling out for a bus ticket.  Not because any of those things make me morally superior (or maybe they do, but that’s not why they’re interesting), but because they just make for better stories than checking into the Best Western, buying grocery store food under bright fluorescent lights, or sitting on a bus with headphones trying not to make eye contact with anyone.  If our life is the stories we make, then the author of Evasion has lived more life than most Americans ever will, and for that he is to be commended.

As a strange aside, I just realized that this book is for sale at Barnes and Noble online.  According to the page, “Customers who bought this also bought: Going Rogue by Sarah Palin.”  I just… I don’t even know where to begin…