Hip-hop music and culture is (again) at a crossroads, we’re told: it can either redefine its legitimacy or continue to be a pawn in the corporate machine.
Watkins (Radio-TV-Film/Sociology/African-American Studies/Univ. of Texas, Austin) considers himself part of the hip-hop generation that grew up with the art form. This represents an important milestone in the society’s development, he believes, but his engaging shorthand guide to the issue never quite proves his point. There are any number of hip-hop histories, all going back to the fabled Bronx block parties of the late 1970s and the dueling raps over mixed-up and scratched records that created the genre. Fortunately, Watkins eschews the historical approach, instead favoring the novel technique of skipping about from one element of the genre’s growth to the next. For instance, when telling the story of the first hip-hop record, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang, he does not let hip-hop’s cult of “authenticity” keep him from pointing out that the record was the product of an experienced R&B producer who happened to get lucky. Later subjects range from the rise of clothing label FUBU, the endless feuds among rappers, Public Enemy’s decision to distribute their music on the Internet, P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die!” campaign and the advent of Eminem. Watkins aims to show that hip-hop is not just a massive moneymaking enterprise, but a vibrant, ever-changing culture that can’t be dealt with simplistically. His point is well taken, but, unfortunately, his very dry delivery and static, this-then-that prose style gets in the way of his arguments. It’s also no help that by the close, having dealt so much with the fight between pop rap and gangsta rap, those who want the money as opposed to those who don’t want anything to do with the major music labels, he fails to present much of an alternative.
Electrifying history told in a surprisingly unexciting fashion.