Words by Martin Connor
Catcher In The Rye…Of Mice And Men…The Old Man And The Sea. All great books, but when it’s 80 degrees and sunny out, sometimes you rather be outside at the beach with the sea than working on your summer reading assignment inside, with air-conditioning that is somehow never quite adequate.
But when you don’t have that option because it’s a rainy June day, or all of your friends are trapped at summer school, feel free to kick back with some of these Hip-Hop-oriented books. With perspectives on rap that vary from the philosophical to the poetic or historical, one of them is sure to help you enjoy some of that glorious summer free-time.
1. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop — by Jeff Chang
By now, most of us have probably read the tweets from Q-Tip to Iggy Azalea that read like a short “Intro To Hip-Hop History” class. But to readers of Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop book, a whole lot of what Q-Tip had to say likely sounded very familiar. That’s because Chang’s book is an incisive look at rap’s origins in the late 60s and early 70s Bronx that could have been written by rap’s pioneers themselves. Q-Tip lived that history, and it’s a credit to Chang that his observations on the political underpinnings of Hip-Hop’s foundations so closely align with Q-Tip’s own comments: “HipHop is a artistic and socio-political movement/culture that sprang from the disparate ghettos of NY in the early 70’s.”
The striking thing about the historical events in this book is just how delightfully vibrant and lively they show our favorite genre to always have been. Block parties give birth to new musical genres; blackouts create waves of new musicians. It’s all there, and for those of us who might feel like rap has lost that special, un-nameable something, as manifest in controversies over Iggy Azalea’s popularity, this book might restore some of that now lost optimism that has really always been a part of Hip-Hop.
2.The Wu-Tang Manual— by The RZA
You might hear the word “manual” and think “tedious instructions,” but it’s not just every manual that has stories of drugs and crime like this one does. For years, Wu-Tang fans were left to their own devices to piece together the dense web of references and allusions that the Wu are prone to use like no other Hip-Hop group. But in 2005, supergroup leader The RZA wrote the definitive guide to seeing the world through the eyes of a Wu-Tang Clan member.
Ever wondered where that “suuue” call on “Protect Ya Neck” comes from? Which exact kung-fu movies RZA loves to sample? Look no further than this manual for all the answers. What makes this book so accessible is that it’s easy enough to pick up and put down as you have free time. Whether you’ve only got 5-minutes to kill, or want to waste away a few hours before one of those supremely satisfying summertime naps, this book makes it easier for you by dividing itself into short chapters and snippets.
3. The Big Payback: The History of The Business Of Hip-Hop — by Dan Charnas
On the 1991 A Tribe Called Quest track “Check The Rhyme,” Q-Tip gave us Industry Rule Number 4,080. n his own 2011 project The Big Payback, industry vet Dan Charnas might be giving us Industry Rules Number 1 through 4,079.
This book can make a nice companion to Jeff Chang’s own historical survey, as it also takes a look at Hip-Hop history, but from the more specific perspective of finances. Certainly, few things are a bigger contrast in music now than between Hip-Hop’s humble beginnings, as detailed by Chang, and where it stands in 2015, when a rapper like Dr. Dre can take home a record amount of money for any musician from any genre ever in a single year: a cool $620,000,000.
Thinking about where you’re going after these summer reading assignments? Thinking business? Then you’ll want to make this book your own personal summer reading assignment.
4. How To Rap: The Art And Science Of The Hip Hop MC — by Paul Edwards
For the aspiring rappers out there, summer is a perfect time to be honing your craft. We’re not saying you should take Kanye’s College Dropout route, but in between trips to the movie or the ball courts, try always having your notepad on you, along with a limitless supply of No. 2 pencils. Add this book to your arsenal, and you’ll be firing away on the mic. The strength of this particular book is that it’s advice from the best of rappers — Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, Schoolly D all included — as translated by a music writer, Paul Edwards, who knows exactly what questions to ask rappers to get them to be the most revealing. This book isn’t just about writing longer rhymes, or better stories; it’s a comprehensive look at being a better musician, including ways to deal with writer’s block, how to make your live shows better, and even more. Don’t be afraid to sink all your hours into writing. Hell, Chance The Rapper himself dropped his first major project during a 10-day school suspension, so don’t hesitate to take full advantage of the time off. Then maybe one day, like 50 Cent, you’ll be bragging in your rhymes about how you “made more money than the teachers.”
5. Book Of Rhymes: The Poetics Of Hip Hop — by Dr. Adam Bradley
At this point, you could do 2 things: complain about the boring reading assignment you got from Mr. Smith for the summer, or simply change up your style and go to a school where they give out really dope assignments. Such a school is the University of Pennsylvania, who in 2013 assigned this particular book as a collaborative conversation topic for incoming freshmen. Book Of Rhymes is a look at Hip-Hop through the lens of the traditional literary considerations of English poetry. Using the vocabulary of poetic meter, foot, and accent, Dr. Adam Bradley, a professor at Colorado State University at Boulder, reveals how rappers don’t just make music that sounds awesome, but also interacts with an artistic tradition that triumphantly stretches back over the long centuries to writers as great as Shakespeare. This will give you yet another way to enjoy rap, and if you’ve been looking for a way to wow your friends by using phrases like ‘iambic pentameter,’ well, then this is it.
6. Check The Technique: Volume 2 More Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies — by Brian Coleman
This last book is for the true Hip-Hop Heads out there, as Coleman (with a forward by Adam Mansbach) bring a penetrating look at no less than 25 legendary albums from the 1980s and 1990s. In-depth lyrics annotations are supplemented and bolstered by interviews and explanations right from the mouths of the artist themselves: Ice Cube, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Raekwon, and Kool G Rap all get their quotes in. If you’re a fan of websites like RapGenius.com, with its troves of new information, then you’ll definitely love this paper version, whose first volume helped launch a new trend of super-deep lyrical analysis back in 2007. A foreword in that first text from a Hip-Hop godfather like The Roots drummer ?uestlove should be enough to vouch for Coleman’s general expertise. A collection of over 350 black and white photos (color in the Apple Book version) rounds out this series’ unique type of genre art exhibition, and beyond the new stuff you’re bound to learn, makes it a cool collector’s item as well.