25 Jan 2011

JAY-Z: The Roots of Rap

[col. writ. 1/17/11] (c) '11 Mumia Abu-Jamal

For a rapper to write a book, a straight-ahead prose text, is unusual. For they think in rhymes, couplets, metaphors and beats.

When books do appear, they are often those dreadful 'as told to' pieces, less written than dictated, more hustle than work of art or deep thought.

Jay-Z has produced the former.

An MC of almost legendary skills and reputation in the rap world, his work traditionally mines the urban streets for tales of hustling, of survival, and often, wild parties. They can mime the highly polished art of braggadocio, of wealth and hedonism for which rap is renowned.

But Jay-Z's new book, DECODED, is an honest, sober, well written and surprisingly political work which chillingly recalls the era of rap's birth in Brooklyn and his struggle to find a place in it.

Remarkably, his attempts to get signed by label after label were repeatedly rebuffed, a measure of just how clueless record companies were in rap's crib days.

But he really soars when he writes of his generation's need to pick through the refuse of the past, to fill the aching spaces of fatherlessness, made worse by the ravages of the Reagan era and the drug scourge. He writes:

I feel like we-rappers, DJs, producers -- were able to smuggle some of the magic of that dying civilization out in our music and use it to build a new world. We were kids without fathers, so we found our fathers on wax and on the streets and in history, and in a way, that was a gift; we got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves.

That was part of the ethos of that time and place, and it got built into the culture we created. Our fathers were gone, usually because they just bounced, but we took their old records and used them to build something new. {p.255}

The book is richly supplemented with lyrics from Jay-Z's most famous raps, and even several collaborations. It is thus a treasure trove for rap and hip-hop heads.

Decoded is a map of an era that gave birth to one of the most influential musics of the 20th century. Jay-Z has contributed something remarkable as an historical document of the period.

--(c) '11 maj

[Source: Jay-Z, Decoded, {Spiegel & Grau: New York, 2010]

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