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A scholarly look at the maligned world of hip-hop

"Hip-hop just died this morning, and she's dead, she's dead." -- Nas,


Is hip-hop dead?

Whatever your opinion, or lack thereof, Tricia Rose's scholarly, well-researched, and a tad dry "The Hip Hop Wars" could not come at a better time. The genre finds itself in an odd place, as a new school of more pop-oriented stars -- L'il Wayne, Kanye West, and T.I. chief among them -- have recently released bold, epic genre-crossing albums that achieved both commercial success and critical praise. Meanwhile, Jay-Z is as big as he's ever been, P. Diddy is a mogul, and the bio-pic of Notorious B.I.G. is a modest box-office hit.

And yet, hip-hop still finds itself an embattled genre. As Rose herself puts it in her opening (paraphrasing Nas), "Hip-hop is not dead, but it is gravely ill." Much has changed since Rose wrote her first book, "Black Noise," in 1994. "At the time," she writes, "hip hop served as a rich alternative space for multicultural, male and female, culturally relevant, anti-racist community building -- but the world on which 'Black Noise' was based is not what dominates the U.S. airwaves and recording industry today."

Modern hip-hop, to Rose, "has increasingly become a playground for caricatures of black gangstas, pimps and hoes. Hyper-sexism had increased dramatically, and homophobia along with distorted, antisocial, self-destructive, and violent portraits of black masculinity have become rap's calling cards." All of this is certainly true, and troubling, but is it surprising? Does Rose's "Hip Hop Wars" have anything particularly fresh to say on an already oft-debated topic?

Well, that depends. For me, the book's clear strength is Rose's strong voice and tight research. Her exploration of the infamous Imus-gate, the effect of governmental policies such as incarceration over rehabilitation, and the question of what to expect from "role models" are all sound and compelling.

But, be warned -- the tone is stern throughout, and often "Hip Hop Wars" feels like an extended doctoral dissertation. Take a gander at some chapter titles: "Hip Hop Causes Violence," "Hip Hop is Destroying America's Values," "Hip Hop Demeans Women." (Lest anyone think both sides are not heard here, it should be noted that other chapter titles include "Hip Hop is Not Responsible for Sexism" and "Nobody Talks About the Positive in Hip Hop." Rose is definitely a fair critic.)

At the book's close is a fantastic chapter titled "Progressive Voices, Energies, and Visions," and it includes a list of who Rose believes can be labeled "progressive artists." Some are usual suspects -- Common, Outkast, Mos Def, Jurassic 5, De La Soul -- but others are a nice surprise. It's great, for example, to see Saul Williams mentioned, as his 2007, Trent Reznor-produced album "The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!" was a jaw-droppingly strong melding of Williams' poetry and hip hop. (The album's Wikipedia page refers to the genre as "industrial hip hop," which, shockingly -- I mean, we're talking Wikipedia, here -- might be an ideal description.)

But I think many readers will find flaw with her list's reliance on veteran acts. Sure, Williams and a few other newbies are mentioned, but are there no hip-hop artists who have broken through in the last two or three years who belong on the list? I have a fear that Rose might be shouting in a wind tunnel here, and that the only folks who will pay attention to her text are those already in agreement with her. It's scary, too, to think that some may misrepresent Rose's findings to embolden the same stale criticisms of hip-hop that the right has been peddling for years.

Hopefully, I'm wrong. But if not, then the hip-hop wars might be beyond winning.

Christopher Schobert is a freelance Western New York critic.


The Hip Hop Wars

By Tricia Rose

Basic Books

304 pages, $15.95

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