Tom Piazza, Devil Sent the Rain

DevilSentRain_PB_tile_ver6I think I have previously reported my habit of wandering the stacks in the library and randomly picking a book off the shelf to read. Often I won’t get out the door with it, and more often than not I won’t finish it or even get more than 50 pages in. I don’t finish books I don’t enjoy reading. Never did. Sometimes, I find a real gem on a subject I know nothing about.

Tom Piazza’s Devil Sent the Rain is not one of those real gems, but I did finish it. I don’t know why I grabbed it off the shelf, but it was with the books about music and when I leafed through it I saw that it had a piece on Jimmy Martin. That was enough for me to take the book. And, sure enough, by far to me the most interesting work in the book was the stuff about Martin. The main piece on Martin had a slightly pornographic quality to it, with, to be certain, nothing that would actually qualify as pornography. Piazza meets Martin, Martin drinks a lot, lives up to his reputation as “difficult,” raises hell at the Grand Ole Opry, Piazza watches, writes, makes money off it. Making money off someone else’s personal difficulty, just like the porn industry, but with clothes on.

In no way do I mean to dismiss popular music journalism, no matter how much I will get upset by it. Scholarly music writing for sure has its problems as well, though different ones. Above all, I appreciate music journalists because I like to read about music that I care about. That’s really all the justification a music journalist needs. While I love to read, though, about a musician I care for–and Jimmy Martin is for me far and away the best thing bluegrass has given us–when it gets down to it the Martin piece is really more about the personality than the music. This is interesting at some level but totally incomplete. Yes, the man was difficult, but the man was the music as well. Maybe you can do music journalism without really getting to the music itself in detail, but you can’t in my book do it well.

Piazza does, in pieces about Jimmie Rodgers, Charley Patton, and Bob Dylan, try to get to the music more particularly. Unfortunately, the conclusions he comes to aren’t particularly interesting. Rodgers is found to be a fox, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense. Patton is the deepest of real blues deeps you can get. Dylan tapped into some Great American Vagueness or Vague Americanness and expressed what was already there waiting to be said by someone who would say it. Two problems, the first the smaller. First, these are completely pedestrian opinions, right or wrong. You can’t spit 10 feet at this point without hitting that same line about Dylan. And Rodgers–the most interesting thing about his work, aside from how amazingly good it is, is how his music–I know nothing about the man, though I hope–is functionally anti-racist in a genre that often as not encourages redneckery. I love the music, but that’s how it is. Not Jimmy Rodgers’ music, though. But nothing about that.

The second, deeper problem, is that when dealing with the music, Piazza really doesn’t penetrate the sounds themselves. Penetrate, for lack of a better word. The best music criticism of which I know, like Amiri Baraka’s work or Lester Bangs‘ best stuff, gets one inside the music by providing a vocabulary with which we can experience the music more fully than we would otherwise.

I’d heard of Piazza for his timely Why New Orleans Matters. One large section of the book consists of pieces about New Orleans, post-Katrina. I agree with everything Piazza says, socio-politically, on the subject. As I said earlier, I finished this book, unlike many I randomly pick up off the shelf. Tell me something I didn’t already know? No, not really. Got a few new facts. But I am not sure that the function of journalism at this point is to tell a reader, like me, something he didn’t already know. It’s pretty clear it’s to tap into a market demographic of people who already agree with the premise.

Pascal Bussy, Kraftwerk: Man, Machine, and Music

093408193It comes as a shock to me that what is the most prominent popular book on one of the by this point unarguably most important musical groups of our time is one of the most poorly edited books I’ve read in years. I read the first edition, grabbed off the library stacks. Maybe subsequent editions are improved, but I’m shocked, shocked.

It has been some time since I’ve read a book of popular music journalism, and I have to say that the standard critique, that rock journalism is shallow and mercenary, seem to apply. To be certain, I loved reading the book, but while Bussy hinted at a breadth of understanding when he first name-checked Gilbert & George, his cultural context seems narrow when they’re name-checked for the tenth or so time.

Bussy posits a very tidy trajectory in the band’s development from openness to closed-ness. They began as part of a krautrock scene, one improvising group among many. Socially, part of a scene, they were open. Musically, improvisers, they were open. Gradually, Bussy tells us they applied greater and greater structure to their music, while at the same time, developing the Kraftwerk mensch-maschine aesthetic, the group withdrew socially to its Kling Klang studio and autonomous daily routine.

This is one way to explain a band that put out a record a year for most of a decade, then two in the next, then one album of remixes at the start of the following. Bussy makes it sound, in his telling, more than a little dysfunctional on a social level and almost sinister. He–Bussy–gives the impression of being a stereotypical techno scenester, though I have no idea if he actually is. He doesn’t seem to understand that “scenes” are not universally appealing. There are non-dysfunctional reasons for not participating in scenes.

What is clear is that Kraftwerk, as time passed, both worked through their musical idea thoroughly–by Computer World–and developed a daily routine that suited Ralf Hutter and Florian Scheider, if not Bartos and Flur as much over the long-term. They slept, drank coffee, biked, made music, and danced. They could certainly have put out a record a year, but Electric Cafe, an inferior work by any measure, demonstrated, I have to hypothesize, the futility of that kind of work, unless the only goal is to make a lot of money.

I don’t think that retreating from a scene is at all the same as retreating from the world, as Bussy seems to paint it. In fact, I’d argue it’s precisely the contrary. Kraftwerk seem reclusive only if one takes the perspective of the journalist denied an interview.

Bussy suggests that improvisation declined in Kraftwerk’s working methods as time passed. It certainly is true that they moved from wholly-improvised to generally structured music over the course of their work. To that extent Bussy is right, but it misses a key point to Kraftwerk’s project.

In discussing The Mix, Bussy cites one of the members whose name escapes me at the moment, having returned the book to the library. That project, which more or less formed the basis of their performance work to this day, consisted of digitizing their earlier work to preserve the sounds, and then reprogramming the songs as sequenced events. The effort, though, was not in order to make the entire thing automatic, reproducing exact performances every time, but to facilitate improvisation. Many more specific sequenced patterns exist on Kraftwerk’s computers than actually get used in any particular performance. The members, it was noted, choose which patterns to play as the performance continues. I would also note, having seen them twice, that pedals and knobs also affect timbre, reverb, and other effects. The actual sound one hears in the audience is entirely dependent on the choices of the musicians in the moment of the performance.

At some level, the story that Bussy missed is the story of Kraftwerk’s accommodation to the sequencer. Their basic project has always been to develop some kind of symbiosis, for lack of a better word, between man and machine in the moment of performance. The sequencer, programmed ahead of time in an act of composition rather than performance, upsets this symbiosis. If electronic music is programmed rather than played, the machines win in the moment of performance. This explains the long wait between Electric Cafe and Tour de France Soundtracks. With a Moog, a musician plays notes. Kraftwerk opted, to integrate the sequencer into a performance environment in which the musician plays not notes but sequences. That’s a huge task in terms of man hours, but it squares the circle.

Richard Cook, Blue Note Records: the Biography

Richard Cook, in his Blue Note Records: the Biography, doesn’t consider the most important question about his subject: why did what was surely the best label in jazz sustain a long-term relationship with none of the music’s greatest practitioners and release none of its most important records?

To clarify a bit: when I say greatest, I’m talking about people like  Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk (more later), Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins.  When I say most important records, I mean things like Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Saxophone Colossus, and Brilliant Corners.  These are the crowning achievements of artists who were themselves at the top of their fields.   None of these major statements came out on the best jazz label there was.  That’s fairly astonishing.

I’ll go a little further in my astonishment, too.  Miles is one thing: he got a lucrative deal with Columbia which was something a small label like Blue Note couldn’t match.  Monk later went to Columbia for what was for most critics (myself included) the least interesting phase of his recording career, despite a number of good (by his standards, great by others’) records on the label.  What is interesting is something like Saxophone Colossus, on Prestige, or Brilliant Corners on Riverside.  These weren’t bigger labels than Blue Note, and they  didn’t pay for two days’ rehearsal like Blue Note did, either.  Miles has his great series of quintet records on Prestige, too.  The label as an operation seems to have been less of a quality operation than Blue Note, but the peaks were higher.  Leave Columbia out of it, but the comparison to Riverside and Prestige are on point.

Cook is hemmed in, I imagine, by marketing.  There’s not a huge audience for jazz books, and the obvious audience he’d aim at would be people who are Blue Note obsessives.  I imagine these people listen to Song for My Father (a fantastic record, no doubt) more than they do Mingus Ah Um, or something like that.  I don’t, but I respect it enough.  That said, you won’t sell to that crowd if your thesis is that while Blue Note had high valleys, it had low peaks.

This limitation, that of marketing, we can forgive Cook.  His own limitations, however, are his own.  His judgement often left me alternately shaking my head in confusion or simply aghast.  It’s beyond me, but he goes in on Dexter Gordon, of all people:

Mannerism invades much of even Gordon’s best work…Gordon’s taste for quoting from other melodies in the course of an improvisation could become tiresome and often he would seem to doze on his undeniably impressive tone…(140)

I couldn’t disagree more.  Mannerism is not how I would describe Gordon’s undoubted orthodoxy.  His Blue Note records are the ones that most typify, to my ears, the sound of the label, and indeed its significance.  Gordon was no Rollins, to be sure, but this was a man with much to say.  A student could take a course on Marxism and have a wonderful, even life-changing experience with a fantastic prof who wasn’t Marx.  Gordon is like that, to me.  Few musicians who work through others’ developments have made statements as enduring as Gordon’s.

Cook then indulges–same topic–a habit of what we might call orthodox contrarianism:

…next to, say, Hank Mobley, [Gordon’s] Blue Note work has not worn so well as many would have it. (141)

and

Next to [Ike] Quebec‘s own sessions for the label, Gordon’s albums can sound almost tame. (141)

I am all about giving Hank Mobley his due, who more than any musician I know of was poorly served by his association with Miles Davis, something almost no-one else can claim.  Coltrane was a hard act to follow, etc.  I’ll say that you do score some hipster points with me by pointing that out: if you praise Mobley, you obviously are scratching below jazz’s surface.  That said, it’s not such an uncommon position to be profound in any way.  Worse, as an exercise in judgement, using Gordon as a foil to praise Mobley and Quebec comes off as willful perversity.

This tendency shows more broadly in Cook’s consistent, if subtle, attempts to rewrite hard bop’s place in the broader narrative of jazz history.  To rehearse it for the non-obsessives (no shame in being a non-obsessive), bebop exploded on the scene in the 1940’s.  The 1950’s saw a number of trends, none of which had the feeling of radical newness that the original bop had, despite all kinds of great music made.  Hard bop of the 1950’s, the general line goes, made for a lot of great music but in its solidification of bebop norms was somewhat antithetical to bop’s spirit, which was not about norms.

Making a case for the value of hard bop, Blue Note’s stock-in-trade, at least until the mid-1960’s, is a very legit enterprise, but Cook’s poor judgment kicks in.  Describing a Freddie Hubbard session:

‘Birdlike,’ from that date, shows the telling difference between original bebop and hard bop’s sublimation of the form: over two extended solos, both Hubbard and [Wayne] Shorter annihilate the licks-based improvising of bebop routine…(153)

If it’s routine, it’s not bebop.  It was the hardening of bebop into the hard bop that was Blue Note’s niche that brought routine, though I wouldn’t use the word myself.  Licks are not the source of bop, they became in lesser practitioners the outcome.  Hard bop was not a sublimation of the form, it was the formalization of the sublime, so to speak.  Cook’s problem is that by even engaging in this type of terminology, and more so by getting the stuff wrong, to be blunt, he distracts from the actual music.  I swear to you, I can listen to Grant Green any day of the week, on his own terms, and be very happy.  Trying to pretend he’s Charlie Christian will kill it for me.

It was, to move into Blue Note’s 1960’s output, precisely the formalism of hard bop that got people digging Ornette.  I will here qualify the premise of the question I posed in the first paragraph.  Blue Note did put out one record that stands as one of the true peaks of jazz, and that’s Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures.  Of Taylor’s two Blue Note releases, I’ll note that I actually prefer Conquistador!, but I’m interested in the pantheon, and Unit Structures is the one in the pantheon.  The problem here is twofold: first, Cecil Taylor is I think without doubt the least popular major innovator in jazz, and second, more importantly, from outside Blue Note’s actual norm.  Alfred Lion recognized the importance of both Ornette and Taylor, and gave them contracts on terms they could take.  Lion was in it for the music, but neither was what we think of as a “Blue Note artist.”

Blue Note didn’t do unadulterated free jazz.  They went in for people who were influenced by it but began from more conventional assumptions, like Andrew Hill–worthy of all accolades, no doubt–or Eric Dolphy, who was the one Blue Note regular (unfortunately, just that one record, Out to Lunch, under his own name) who might have developed to that top level through Blue Note.  Noting this, we have to conclude, though, that Hill was not the equal of Taylor, and Dolphy not of Coltrane.

Blue Note generally didn’t do work with the real innovators.  The exceptions to that rule were that Blue Note would work with people considered commercial poison by more mercenary labels, viz. the early Monk (and they blew it on the marketing) and then, later, Ornette and Cecil Taylor.  Coltrane cut his first fantastic album on Blue Note, but it by no means is on the level of his later, real masterpieces.  Ornette and Taylor had already made their reputations before their arrival on the label, and only Taylor made his signature album on Blue Note.

That said, best label in the business, hands down.  Intuitively obvious, I’d say, almost a categorically imperative obviousness.  No Saxophone Colossus, though.  Cook missed the story.

Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound

I was a bit down one afternoon but found myself in the library, and to be constructive about my emotions I figured I’d check out to see if there were any new jazz biographies on the shelf.  I don’t read any books more quickly than biographies of jazz musicians I love, and Coltrane is near the top of the list.

I had heard the name Ben Ratliff or more likely read it, as he writes for the New York Times.  The book seemed promising enough: not a biography per se but more of a biography of Coltrane’s “sound,” both as it evolved during his lifetime and, in the second part of the book, in its reception after his death.  I will point out that I read the whole thing, something I do not bind myself to do as a rule with books I lose interest in or which upset me.  I read for pleasure, above all.  That said, the only thing that got me through was that I was reading about Coltrane.  In the process, I have cultivated a great antipathy for Ben Ratliff, on par with that I feel for Jon Krakauer.  This is a man who knows a moderate amount, understands little, and apparently makes his living writing for people who know and understand even less.  Like the great standard puts it: “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

I have no idea where Ratliff went to school, but his references are those of someone educated at a second-rate prep school (just like I was) who has deluded himself that he’s become more real because he quotes Amiri Baraka and Eldridge Cleaver but has, in fact, never questioned the fundamental categories of a canonical Western-Civ. approach to the liberal arts.  He quotes Cleaver, but frames ideas in terms of the opposition between Enlightenment and nineteenth century (see “people who know and understand less,” above) Romanticism:

the rawest, most basic, wildest version of Coltrane, like the decadent stage of the Romantic movement.  (109)

and

“He was a deep, great artist, even if he was a rather sententious man, D. H. Lawrence wrote of Melville in Studies in Classic American Literature.  Lawrence might have been describing the Coltrane of late 1965.  (101)

Gratuitous references are hard for me to take.  I will go on record and say that, despite having gone to a second-rate prep school (as most prep schools are), I have read neither Lawrence nor Melville.  I have a greater desire to read Melville, but I’ve never quite gotten there.  Nor is there anything in the least wrong with reading either one.  The problem here is that Ratliff shows his hand, as if his day job wasn’t enough.  He situates Coltrane’s jazz, that most precious of Black American cultural properties, using white cultural points of reference.  I can’t imagine that Coltrane was ignorant of the details of the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Lawrence or Melville, because one thing the book makes fairly clear and which is also clear from the other biography I’ve read of Coltrane or the cool book I read about A Love Supreme, there was very little of which Coltrane was ignorant.  Equally, and to my point, I can’t imagine that Coltrane would think that Ratliff’s choices facilitate either an intellectual understanding of Trane’s music or an improved experience of the actual music itself.

That said, I am certain that Ratliff’s references facilitate consumption by the type of white people–those with enough disposable income so that they buy his book rather than go about it the socialist way: getting it at the public library–his publishers and he want to target.  This is not to say that one should avoid European cultural points of reference when writing about or discussing jazz.  To be sure, jazz musicians used them all the time.  They did not and do not do so, generally speaking, do so within a strictly European/white American intellectual framework, as does Ratliff.  It’s a demographically forbidding enterprise.

To take it a step further: I get the distinct impression that Ratliff respects Black people as much as he can make money off of their culture, which is to say, not very much, and which is different too than saying he respects Black culture but not, particularly, Black people.  It’s a tangled web he weaves (and there!  I’ve done it myself).

Here are the money quotes:

What was taking shape here was an ugly circle of irritation, based on reductive white-listener notions and reductive black notions of the white notions and reductive white notions of the black-listener notions. (165)

It’s a dead giveaway, for the white liberal “I’m not a racist” racist, to pretend that racism or racially related disagreements are somehow merely based on differing perspectives, a he-said, she-said, or, as they say in Russian, “on skazal, ona skazala”.  You don’t want to make your target demographic uncomfortable in, literally, their own skin, so the New York Times jazz critic has to take this approach, for the job’s sake.  Unfortunately, reality is a different matter.  Nothing related to race is merely the matter of two differing, yet equivalent perspectives.  Nor, not as an aside but as a central point, is it ever a matter of only two perspectives.  But, hey, what better way to get white hipster cred than to feel free to critique Black radical responses–responses!–to white ignorance.  “Those people are so…so…extreme…but I’m really into early ’60’s Blue Note recordings by Rudy Van Gelder.”

Yes, Ratliff has it in for those Black Radicals.  Noting the creation of different community-based organizations for the performance of the new jazz–free jazz, “the new thing,” etc.–Ratliff points to the Collective Black Artists:

…included a biographical sketch of Coltrane which neatly encapsulates the rhetoric of that period vis-a-vis Coltrane, with its righteous, uncompromising tone, its trenchant anger toward critics, its capitalization of the word “Black.” (187)

So, to Ratliff, radical Black critique of the 1960’s and 1970’s is a matter of rhetoric.  I understand that it is rhetorically (in the literal sense of the word) incorrect to dismiss one’s adversary as a mere idiot.  I will say, then, that this approach is idiocy.  Look at the Panthers’ 10-Point Program.  One gets a clear impression from it that, indeed, there are real problems that real Black people faced at the time.  Moreover, and at least as telling, Ratliff takes a to-me-not-at-all-subtle snotty tone toward the capitalization of Black.  We at One Book After Another are in agreement with Diversity, Inc. on the subject.  The capitalization question is an interesting litmus test.  Ratliff wants “black” and “white,” following the same rules, as if in reality Black people (and anyone else who is not white) and white people follow the same rules in the United States.  They don’t.  Hence, for among other reasons, the appropriateness of differing syntax.

Ratliff takes it further and impugns radicals’ motives:

…The members of the CBA [Collective Black Artists] were looking out for themselves…(187)

Since when could Black people in America afford to not look out for themselves?  And since when was looking out for oneself a bad thing, when, in this case, musicians had been systematically shut out by the music industry?  I’m a folkie at heart, and for my money music comes out best when it is as popular–of the people rather than the industry–as can be.  Ratliff, though, disapproves of these Black people who have the gall to take matters into their own hands and produce culture that doesn’t need the approval of white critics like him.  So, like a petulant child, he witholds his approval and passive-aggressively suggests that they, the CBA in particular but by insinuation radicals in general, were at best impure in their motives and at worst were hustling.  Ratliff, to be clear, is wrong, however.  The radicals were the good guys, and Ratliff’s forebears in the industry and media who shut out the radicals were moldy figs.

It is telling, as a final pot-shot, that Ratliff references white musicians to explain the technical aspects of the music, viz.:

Coltrane’s phrasing, [Conrad] Herwig explains, was asymmetrical within an even number of bars…(192)

There are three possible explanations for this tendency, none of them flattering:

  1. Ratliff doesn’t know any Black musicians.
  2. Ratliff thinks that Black musicians intuit jazz because they’re naturally good at it, whereas white musicians have a rational, technical understanding of the music.
  3. Both 1 and 2.

Very, very not cool.

There, I’m done.  To regain my sanity, I read Amiri Baraka’s Black Music after this.  It helped.  Coming soon.

Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop

Despite frequent editorials to the contrary, hip-hop is not dead, nor is it dying.  Hip-hop is as dead as jazz is: that is to say, there’s still great music being made, even if mainstream media ignores said music.  It’s also true that I won’t hold my breath for the next Bird, Monk, Ornette, or Trane to lay down a style-wide marker for before and after artist x, and just the same I am not expecting a new Chuck D or Rakim to make everyone in hip-hop pay attention and re-evaluate.  Hip-hop is either commercialized or underground, the former pernicious, the latter often as great as the Greats but rarely known outside of a tiny group of fans and, one has to think, not making a great living at it.

My wife borrowed this book from the library and then, half-way through or something, bought it.  Jeff Chang‘s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop was indeed worth the money, I discover, particularly when one buys a used copy.  It’s subtitled “a History of the Hip-Hop Generation,” rather than of hip-hop, and this it is, all for the better.

Chang excels at context, which to me is both the mark of a clear thinker and, completely related to this, the most important consideration in understanding anything in its social aspect.  Indeed the book, as much as documenting hip-hop itself documents the broadening context of the movement (of which I am prone to follow in its musical form, rap) which to my read can almost entirely explain hip-hop’s changing form and content.

The book begins in the 1970’s Bronx and Jamaica–the island nation, not Jamaica, Queens–and clearly documents that hip-hop’s originators were people totally abandoned by their governments and societies.  Particularly of value for the reader in the United States is the material on the Bronx, simply because public discussion of poverty in the United States has not really happened for some long time, certainly since Johnson’s Presidency.  As an aside, there is much talk under Obama and a real measure of action to shore up the beleaguered middle classes of which I am a part, all well and good, but totally ignoring the growing number of people this country has all but left for dead.  Chang documents how thoroughly the Bronx was targeted–not hyperbole–for destruction.  Urban planners, police chiefs, and the racist swine Daniel Moynihan are correctly fingered for the crime.

I was one of the white kids who got really turned on to hip-hop when Public Enemy put out It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.  I was a freshman in college when it came out, and I bought it that summer.  It’s hard for me to overstate how important Public Enemy was and continues to be for me.  I had grown up a massive Beatles fan, and had always wanted to know the feeling I’d read about, when Sgt. Pepper’s came out, when everybody was listening to it and talking about it, and when it seemed to lay down one of those cultural markers, like those of Bird and Ornette, of before and after.  It Takes a Nation was precisely that.  I had long discussions about it and, particularly the “Fight the Power” 12″ (which was the greatest single record I could remember being released) with my friends Greg and Ross.  I took Chuck’s advice and listened to Farrakhan, and like Chuck I took what was valuable and discarded that which was not.  I was a good white kid with good intentions before PE, but Chuck D put me on a better road than that.

I say this because I came to the book with opinions and expectations about N.W.A. in particular and “gangsta rap” in general.  I appreciated Chang’s depiction of the controversy Straight Outta Compton engendered, not so much in the mainstream media but within hip-hop itself.  I participated in these discussions, very much on the fringe of a tiny group, in college.  I wasn’t really one of the hip-hop crowd, but was close with some people who were (as problematic as that sounds) and I was indeed obsessed with Public Enemy.  That said, I remember feeling that N.W.A. was a betrayal, and voicing this to a friend who was himself from Compton and truly one of the hip-hop crowd.  I leveled all the appropriate criticisms, and my friend, while agreeing with all of my substantive points, said, “yes, but it’s real,” meaning simply that Ice Cube depicted things that were part of his world, though by no means things he was close to personally involved with.

Chang more or less takes the line my friend took, and that’s fair enough.  In recent years I will admit that my thoughts on “gangsta rap” have taken on a conspiratorial tone.  I think it was after reading Mike Davis’ City of Quartz years ago–don’t blame Davis for my errors–and digesting how thoroughly the various powers that were and continue to be in L.A. used gang violence as a pretext to implement genuinely genocidal policy in working-class black and brown neighborhoods, I over-conflated the beginnings of “gansta rap” with those policies.  Chang clearly demonstrates how thoroughly grass-roots N.W.A. were in their beginnings, and indeed I found myself having some sympathy for them and Eazy-E in particular as people who had dreams of doing something big but who were, because of where they were from, total underdogs.  Compton–and Chang makes this point explicitly–and South Central L.A. in general were left for dead in the 1980’s just like the Bronx was 10 years before.

What Chang misses in this, the only part of the book that I had any real prior knowledge about, or rather what he leaves out, is a contextual critique of “gangsta rap.”  I remember being furious at Rolling Stone’s one-star review of Public Enemy’s Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age, in which the idiot reviewer (significantly, I can’t find a link to the review online) called PE out of touch, because things had moved forward–not my opinion–with “gangsta rap.”  I did not have the language for a critique at the time, but in hindsight I do, and I wish Chang had pursued this line: we know that the big market for hyper-violent rap is white.  N.W.A. may have themselves, at least to begin with, been truly D.I.Y., but we have to put ourselves in the shoes of white media execs and ambitious white journalists with no personal stake in the future of positive hip-hop.  It doesn’t take an idiot to know that you will have an easier time selling a black musician who confirms white racist stereotypes to white people than you will a black musician who confounds them.  That is the contextual story of “gangsta rap,” and Chang doesn’t really pursue it.

That said, great read, and as far as I can tell indispensable if one wishes to understand the last quarter of the 20th century in the United States.

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