Marcus Reeves, former editor of the the Source hip-hop magazine and contributor to such publications as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and Vibe magazine, recently had his book Somebody Scream! (Rap Music's Rise To Prominence In The Aftershock of Black Power published by Faber and Faber Inc.
Like Jeff Chang's critically acclaimed hip-hop history Can't Stop Won't Stop, Somebody Scream likewise takes an analytical look at hip-hop -- a musical form that, like rock before it, is now all grown up and going through its own kind of mid-life crisis. Cornel West called Reeves' book "a strong timely book for the new day in hip-hop" and he is right.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with the East Coast based author to talk about his new book, Somebody Scream, and its subject matter: hip-hop. Here is that dialog:
Amoeblog: First up, how hard is it writing a book on a topic that is still unfolding around you as you report on its subject matter?
Marcus Reeves: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that hard to write because before I even started I had a beginning, a middle and an end. I’d already picked out who were the most influential rap artists—the ones who lead their particular era—strung their stories together by chapter and let the narrative unfold. And the narrative was easy because, like so many who’d watched the story of commercial rap over the last 30 years, it was also the story of my life. All the history and events that the music reflected, and I talk about in the book, were things I lived through and impacted my life. The last chapter of the book, which discusses what events shape the music now, helped capture all those moments that were still unfolding.
Amoeblog: What unforeseen obstacles did you engage as you wrote Somebody Scream?
Marcus Reeves: Finding the importance of artists who weren’t that important to me—who I wasn’t particularly a fan of. Like Tupac. Not a fan of his. I have a tremendous amount of respect for his intelligence, his social awareness, the goodness in his heart and his compassion for working-class and poor people of color. But I wasn’t impressed with his music or his Thug Life philosophy. Sorry, I’m from an era of be-nice-with-a-lyric-or-die-tryin. ‘Pac wasn’t that nice in the skills department. And him trying to filter the ideals of black power through a love and glorification of thuggery sounded way too misguided for my taste. So I also wasn’t a fan of his Thug Life mantra. But in spending time with his music, his life and the times he impacted, I was blown away by the potential of what he wanted to do and the impact it could have had had he lived and gotten the guidance, both political and cultural, that he so needed.
Amoeblog: In the chapter "Ghetto Fab Rising" you write how "the seeds for America, especially black America, completely going the way of hip-hop's ghetto fabulous lay in a legislative victory by President Bill Clinton the year Ready to Die was released." How interrelated are the success of the democrats and the state of hip-hop, and what do you think will be the effect on hip-hop if Barack Obama is elected next president of the United States?
Marcus Reeves: Funny, I just wrote about this at anarchist-graffiti.blogspot.com. The state of hip hop music, like the state of black America, is always interrelated to whoever wins the White House, Democrats or Republicans. Presidents affect policies which affect the lives of the people which affects how they live which affects how they act and so on. The effect of Obama on rap music is already being felt with songs like Will I Am’s “Yes We Can” and Nas’ “Black President” and the coming of Jeezy’s “My President is Black.” The election of Obama will definitely be felt in rap because that, and the topics surrounding a win (race, class, and culture), will be the hot topics to discuss, possibly sell records and get headlines. And with record sales in the toilet, artists are gonna need all the edge in content they can get. Will it mean better and more meaningful rap music? Time will tell.
Amoeblog: I like that you included the fact about the New York City Police Dept.'s "Hip-Hop Task Force." For those who don't know, can you briefly explain what it was? And also is it or some other similar form of task force in NYC or anywhere in the US in existence today as far as you know?
Marcus Reeves: Basically, the task force was set up to monitor the movements of rap artists, specifically gangsta rappers, when they came to a particular city. It was started after the murder of the Notorious B.I.G. in 1997, when there was talk of a supposed East Coast/West Coast beef, and police began keeping files on specific artists. Some folks compared it to the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program, but I don’t exactly think so. While the taskforce started with the New York City police department, there were reports that other cities, like Miami, had similar programs. I don’t know if the task force continues.
Amoeblog: You chose 1998 as the year that hip-hop went mainstream, citing how on the October 17th 1998 Billboard Top Ten Albums chart that, "Not only were four of the six new albums in the Top Ten [hip hop] but those four discs sat atop the chart." But what other factors were at play?
Marcus Reeves:: What other factors? Well, there was the death of rock and roll as the sole vehicle to express white teen angst. Rock no longer had the edge, and rap music stepped in its place. And hip-hop’s nature of inclusion (the idea that ALL can be down as long as you’re funky) fit right into America’s growing poly-cultural and post-white landscape (author Jeff Chang hits this point well in his book Can’t Stop Won’t Stop). And it didn’t hurt that the loose attitude folks, specifically older white folks, began to have about rap were facilitated by their kids and a record-breaking economy. Ah, the Clinton era…the days when even old white women were getting jiggy with it.
Amoeblog: In your history you (naturally) include the deaths/murders of Tupac and Biggie -- two names that seem destined to go together forever -- and you write (p 226) of how the "hip-hop landscape [was] being critically reshaped by the deaths" of these two important figures. If these two were so crucial to hip-hop, I wonder how hip-hop would be had they never existed on the rap radar?
Marcus Reeves: It’s hard to say how hip hop would be without Biggie because he was so influenced, industry-wise, by what was going on in the West with Dre and Snoop. He was New York’s answer to the question: what would a Brooklyn cat look and sound like if he did what Snoop and, to a large degree, Tupac was doing? Now, without Tupac, rap artists today would be powerless within the overwhelming presence of their own power. Tupac was one of those 5000 black leaders Chuck D talked about creating through Public Enemy. (Don’t get me wrong: Tupac was not a political leader. He was a cultural leader, a.k.a a pop star.) But Tupac, through his music, his fame, and publicized infamy, etched in stone the role of hardcore rap artists as spokesperson for working-class and poor urban youth of color.
And, ultimately, he laid down the blueprint for how to become a mega-rap star: the look, the mission, the publicity, the attitude, the use of film and news to reinforce an image and build your icon status. All that was pioneered by Run-DMC, Public Enemy, NWA and, hell, Salt-N-Pepa, crystallized into Tupac. And everyone, from DMX to Jay-Z to Eminem to 50 Cent and so on have built their millions off of Tupac’s Thug Life blueprint.
Amoeblog: You write at length about DMX and compare him to Tupac at one stage (p 232) and I understand that you most likely wrote this book some years ago even though it is only coming out in 2008 -- but how important is DMX today in the big scheme of things in the hip-hop history books and why?
Marcus Reeves: DMX, hands down, became the voice of the post-Tupac era of commercial rap music. People have never looked for the next so-and-so rapper like they looked for the next Tupac. But DMX was it. And, when he picked up the mantle, of all the artists doing Tupac (like Master P or Ja Rule), he had the most impact because, not only did he sound great, he knew how to pour his heart out—angrily or passionately—into a rhyme. And the connection was immediate: album after album hitting number one on the Billboard charts and going platinum.
Excuse my language, but niggas loved DMX and, for a second, hung on his word like it was law. DMX didn’t have Pac’s knowledge of history or politics or social awareness, but he matched Pac’s compassion and honesty and his desire to speak for the unspoken-for. And it was an honesty and compassion that connected with the times. The best example I could give would be the debut of the single “Who We Be” around the time of 9/11. We’d just come off the conference on racism in South Africa, which stood to put the issue on a global stage. The World Trade Center is hit. This ultra-patriotism and war on terrorism sets in. And, for a second, it seems that the issues of poverty and race and, within all this talk of stopping terrorists, the fact that America has terrorized black folks for years, seems to be getting rubbed away by a pseudo-patriotism. “Who We Be” sounded as if it was reminding America of who’d really been living in terror.
Amoeblog: In the closing paragraphs of your book you pose the question about the future of hip-hop and its role as a vehicle for social change. You wonder if it will continue to incite change or if "hip-hop music, like rock before it, [will] simply run its course as a relevant agent for social change?" Now, in July 2008, with Lil Wayne's new album ruling the charts and radio airwaves, do you think hip-hop has run its course or is simply further mutating into various styles?
Marcus Reeves: It’s hard to tell because hip-hop, like rock, always has some young whipper-snapper in his basement or garage or, in the case of this century, on his computer coming up with some new ish for the genre. The days ahead, politically, look interesting, indeed. The same might be for rap music.
Amoeblog: And where or how do you see hip-hop's role ten years from now?
Marcus Reeves: I can’t really predict. But I can say that since the music and culture are so adaptable to whatever environment they are in, it’ll still be an outlet for working-class and poor folks of color but it won’t look or sound the same. What will it look and sound like in the future? To answer that, I’ll borrow an answer given by writer Greg Tate: get thee to a nursery!
Amoeblog: Anything to add that needs saying or shout outs, etc.?
Marcus Reeves:: A shout-out to everyone who has supported Somebody Scream!, whether you bought the real-deal or the bootleg (laughs), thank you.