I'm definitely not going to profess to be an expert on the difference between hip hop and rap. In fact, I'm generally timid about making claims about any kind of music. There are so many people who know so much that I live in a kind trepidatious state where I worry about offending someone, mistaking one genre for another, misquoting a lyric, or simply being oblivious to a sample. If you're ever looking for someone who won't object to the music you play on a road trip, call me your passenger.
What I I do have firmer convictions about, though, are books about art. I've always loved reading about artists. When I was a kid, I collected biographies: I could tell you Claude Monet's wife had cataracts, Katharine Hepburn used the ef-word while gardening, and Audrey Hepburn's waist was so small she could wear a dog collar for a belt ( — and at that, presumably, given the latter Ms. Hepburn's stature, a rather diminutive dog). It's sort of ironic, then, that what put the brakes on reading-about-artists was my introduction to pop music. I grew up outside Chicago, where the station to listen to was B96. Playing a mix of rap, pop, hip hop, R&B, and--a genre that may or may not still exist--techno, B96 was my introduction to some of the 90s most cherished musicians: TLC, L.L. Cool J, Coolio.
So I grew up into someone who can still recite (it would be all kinds of wrong to call what I do rapping) most of "Gangsta's Paradise." And I've also continued to love hip hop... and rap. If you're like me, and you want to learn more about your favorite genre(s), these 7 titles are for you.
1. It's Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation by M.K. Asante Jr.
As the title suggests, It's Bigger Than Hip Hop situates this music and its associated cultural valency in a historical contest. Asante Jr. provides a compelling narrative that explores how hip hop fits into the African-American musical tradition as well as how it informs a shifting African-American identity. Along the way, he keeps his eyes on the future in a way that speaks to today's activism: “When you make an observation, you have an obligation.”
2. Yes Yes Y'all: The Experience Music Project Oral History Of Hip-hop's First Decade by Jim Fricke, Charlie Ahearn, and Experience Music Project
From the earliest hip hop parties of the '70s to the genesis of new school in the '80s, hip-hop's origins are told by a collection of the genre's key players, folks like Melle Mel, Grandmaster Caz, and Rahiem. Yes Yes Y'All is like paging through a pop-up photo album compiled by your coolest relatives: you'll find flyers, newspaper clippings, and never-before-told stories in this incredible oral history.
3. Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop by Jeff Chang
We all know that hip-hop is a culture and a lifestyle that's influenced dance, fashion, and even typography, which makes Chang's book a visual feast. It's also informative. Did you know about hip-hop novels? Hip-hop photography?
4. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop by Imani Perry
If you're a literature major and a hip-hop aficionado, Perry's book will be right up your alley. Her close readings of song lyrics remind you just how complex music like this is, packed with tropes and metaphors and other literary devices.
5. The Grey Album: Music, Shadows, Lies by Kevin Young
With a title alluding to an album by Danger Mouse (and, by extension, albums by Jay-Z and The Beatles), you know this book's got to be good. Young's text is a mash-up in the truest sense, a mix-up of a criticism and memoir and history, that scales numerous musical traditions and their many intersectionalities.
6. Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting
This book goes beyond examining depictions of women in hip hop. Interviewing female rappers like Trina and filmmaker Aisha Simmons, Shapley-Whiting asks how hip hop influences young women (and their expectations about sex, romance, self-image, celebrity and more), drawing on her own experience as a feminist who considers herself part of a generation accustomed to misogynistic depictions of women.
7. Signifying Rappers: Rap And Race In The Urban Present by Mark Costello And David Foster Wallace
One of the first books to train a critical eye on hip hop, this volume is co-authored by David Foster Wallace —and it's so infrequently spoken of it nearly constitutes juvenilia.