Alex Ogg and David Upshall
The Hip Hop Years: A History of Rap

By Kate Butler

Ch-ching!  It’s all about the benjamins, and it looks like Channel 4 knows that best. This book is a spin off from the pretty phenomenal rockumentary that was aired on TV earlier this year. And if you went to a lot of trouble recording those programmes, I really wouldn’t bother too much about this book; it reads like a script. In fact, I think it is the script.

Written by Alex Ogg (a consultant to the series and also the author of the Guinness Book of Rap and the Guinness Book of Dance), and also David Upshall (the producer/director of the series and also a print journalist) the quality of their translation from audio/visual to print belies their previous experience. Of course, what was decidedly handy about bringing it to print life was the sheer quantity of interview material they had; and it seems to have been literally transcribed into the book, with a few fillers to keep the flow.

However, the interviews are also its main redeeming feature. You can't beat first hand recounting of events and they talked to such a vast array of playas, from Melle Mel right through to Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott that it does make intriguing reading. It’s an intriguing story. The self empowerment inspired by Afrika Bambaataa re-appropriation of gangs into hip hop cliques, starting with founding the Zulu Nation enclave. Native Tongues was another group, a loose coalition between the likes of Queen Latifah, the Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest. Afrika Baby Bambaataa (Jungle Brothers) believes that the ethos lives on in many contemporary artists such as the Roots or Pharcyde. These artists hail from Philadelphia and the West Coast respectively, so certainly there are strong seedlings growing out of the depravation caused by ghetto-isation and gang warfare, and it’s not just a geographical thing (though no doubt, those raised out in Brooklyn and those representing Queens will probably disagree).

However, this is a history. Here they excel, talking extensively to so many voices that definitely seemed to matter, Afrika Bambaamtaa himself and the original purveyors King Herc and Grandmaster Flash. But when it comes to evaluating hip hop's present state of affairs, they tend to fall short. No theory is offered to try and explain why Puff Daddy has become the most revered man in the industry, yet violent incidents seem to dog him. No one can explain exactly why Tupac and Biggie were killed. No one spoke to Dr Dre to find out why all of a sudden he’s become hip hop’s conscience, playing the fall guy to Eminem’s fucked up and pissed off Slim Shady. And while they acknowledge the increase of women’s activity in the previously masculine dominated areas of production, they could have talked to Missy Elliott a lot longer on this subject. There are still many conflicts in the world of hip hop, exacerbated by the monster amounts of money it generates today. And while you will always have your pioneers and your exploiters, this book gives you a pretty clear idea of whom was which back in the day.
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