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Other People's Property: A Shadow History of Hip-Hop in White Americaby Jason Tanz
Synopses & Reviews
Over the last quarter-century hip-hop has grown from an esoteric form of African-American expression to become the dominant form of American popular culture. Today, Snoop Dogg shills for Chrysler and white kids wear Fubu, the black-owned label whose name stands for "For Us, By Us." This is not the first time that black music has been appreciated, adopted, and adapted by white audiences — think jazz, blues, and rock — but Jason Tanz, a white boy who grew up in the suburban Northwest, says that hip-hop's journey through white America provides a unique window to examine the racial dissonance that has become a fact of our national life. In such culture-sharing Tanz sees white Americans struggling with their identity, and wrestling (often unsuccessfully) with the legacy of race.
To support his anecdotally driven history of hip-hop's cross-over to white America, Tanz conducts dozens of interviews with fans, artists, producers, and promoters, including some of hip-hop's most legendary figures — such as Public Enemy's Chuck D; white rapper MC Serch; and former Yo! MTV Raps host Fab 5 Freddy. He travels across the country, visiting "nerdcore" rappers in Seattle, who rhyme about Star Wars conventions; a group of would-be gangstas in a suburb so insulated it's called "the bubble"; a break-dancing class at the upper-crusty New Canaan Tap Academy; and many more. Drawing on the author's personal experience as a white fan as well as his in-depth knowledge of hip-hop's history, Other People's Property provides a hard-edged, thought-provoking, and humorous snapshot of the particularly American intersection of race, commerce, culture, and identity.
"Suburban white kids' increasingly ubiquitous fascination with hip-hop culture is the subject of this thoughtful and often insightful work of long-form journalism. Tanz, a young white man himself and an editor at Fortune Small Business, is an apt chronicler of the racial and cultural obstacles that stand between the producers and consumers of rap. He has an obvious passion for the music at hand, and he demonstrates his connoisseurship through brilliant evocations of the power of the band N.W.A. and the often painful history of white rappers. Tanz is most successful when he lets himself get tangled up in the complicated tendons of mass culture: his chapter about hip-hop marketing and commercialization displays a keen understanding of the advertising forces at work without ever devolving into simplistic damnation. Other aspects of the book are less satisfying, most notably the framing devices for each chapter in which Tanz chooses seemingly arbitrary instances of white appropriations of hip-hop culture — such as a hipster dance party in Williamsburg — to illustrate larger points. Nevertheless, Tanz solidly displays his strong grasp of the broad cultural significance of the rise of hip-hop." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Hip-hop is dead. That's what rap legend Nas claims in the title of his latest album. He just might be right. According to Nielsen Soundscan, album sales in all genres declined by nearly 5 percent in 2006, largely attributable to the increasing popularity of digital downloads. Rap sales, however, plummeted by more than 20 percent, the most of any genre. Ironically, this downturn comes at a time when... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) hip-hop seems to be catering to commercial tastes as never before, often at the expense of artistic innovation. But don't write rap's obituary yet. Hip-hop still remains a dominant voice in youth culture, though it undoubtedly faces an identity crisis. Now 30 years old, hip-hop must reconcile the twin tensions of art and commerce — just as jazz did in the 1940s, when bebop supplanted swing and young lions such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie emerged as cultural icons capable of crossing the color line. And because the majority of rap artists are black and much of the audience is white, the genre bears both the promise and the peril of interracial encounter. Like jazz, hip-hop has the paradoxical potential to promote understanding and to reinforce stereotypes. Hip-hop's racial implications animate Jason Tanz's 'Other People's Property.' Tanz contends that hip-hop is the continuation of America's long-standing racial drama by other means, coded in beats and rhymes. He describes his book as 'an outsider's history, a look at how and why white people, and white culture at large, have consumed, interacted with, and used the narratives of young African American men.' Tanz travels across hip-hop's white American landscape, from a guided bus tour of hip-hop's birthplace in the South Bronx to a break-dancing class at a tony suburban dance academy to a convention of white 'nerdcore' rappers who rhyme about Microsoft and 'Star Wars,' recording these interactions with acuity. And while he calls attention to his subjects' idiosyncrasies, he is unfailingly empathetic in describing their attraction to hip-hop, be it as a passing fad or as a way of life. Hip-hop's transformative capacity is the book's most powerful theme, particularly when Tanz turns to his own experience as a white hip-hop fan. With often excruciating frankness, he recounts 'the palpable anxiety and self-doubt I felt so many times when I had to interact with a black person and I couldn't help but think, Is this working? Are they buying it? Am I a poser?' In these moments of racial anxiety, Tanz looks to hip-hop not only to escape the humdrum reality of white suburban life but, more tantalizingly, to experience blackness and all it has come to represent to him: passion, danger and a certain kind of freedom. 'Blackness,' Tanz writes, 'provided the purest form of escape from mainstream society. And if hip-hop couldn't provide me with that same liberation by physically transporting me into that world, it gave me the next best thing: a window seat from which to observe it.' Viewed from this window seat, however, blackness appears an indistinguishable mass, rather than a loose collection of 35 million individuals. As a consequence, Tanz attributes too much mystical power to blackness and too much vanilla banality to whiteness. Seeking answers in the depths of some collective white psyche, he never considers the possibility that white kids might love hip-hop for much the same reasons black kids do: because it appeals to adolescent passions, because their friends like it and their parents don't, because it is sold to them and because some of it — though not all — is transcendent art. While Tanz is scrupulous, almost to a fault, in avoiding even the tincture of racism, he instead reveals another troubling reality of modern American life: the extent to which even those with the best intentions sometimes fail to see clearly across the color line. What makes William Jelani Cobb's 'To the Break of Dawn' so refreshing is that it centers on what hip-hop is, rather than on what it does. Eschewing the common practice of treating rap lyrics as just another way to talk about race, politics or the self, Cobb treats them as art. His aim is ambitious: to articulate hip-hop's aesthetic principles while tracing its roots back to the 'ancestral poetic and musical traditions' of black oral culture, from Sunday sermons to gut-bucket blues. 'To the Break of Dawn' celebrates lyrical invention, the artists and even the particular rhymes that make hip-hop great. For the uninitiated, it is Hip-Hop 101, offering a rich overview of rap's verbal artistry. For the aficionado, it alternately affirms and challenges deeply held beliefs of what is valuable in hip-hop. As a study of aesthetics, however, the book has its limitations. Cobb's own tastes run to old-school New York lyricists and the more recent cadre of socially conscious rappers such as Talib Kweli and Common. Accompanying Cobb's personal preferences, however, is an unhealthy disdain for the tastes of rap's popular audience. 'That there is a sonic distinction between the great MC and his wack counterpart is lost on most of the consuming public,' he writes. But popular taste, too, is an expression of aesthetic values — albeit different values than Cobb's. His narrow definition of excellence, embodied both in the artists he features and those he ignores, ultimately undercuts the very purpose of aesthetics, which is to find beauty no matter the form it takes. Such biases, however, are instructive: They call attention to the need for continued exploration of the subjects Cobb so fruitfully surveys. Is hip-hop great art? What does its future hold? Does it have room to grow as a genre, or is it destined to fall victim to commercialism and creative stagnation? These are some of the questions we must ask of hip-hop, decades after its birth and a long way from its final resting place. Adam Bradley is an assistant professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College." Reviewed by Adam Bradley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Readers looking for an inclusive study of the ways white fans have incorporated the art form into their lives will be disappointed and unenlightened. Honest and self-effacing, but too thin to make a lasting impression." Kirkus Reviews
"Tanz makes what sense can be made of such aspirations and affords an ironic, insightful look at how rap and hip-hop have permeated the media landscape even while large segments of society maintain a baffled disconnection from the music." Booklist
"Personal without being self-indulgent and well-researched but never stiff, Other People's Property is a thoughtful, clear-eyed look at a hot-button topic — it's a real contribution to the study of hip-hop." Alan Light, former editor in chief, Vibe magazine, and author of Vibe: History of Hip Hop and The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys
Drawing on his personal experience as a white fan as well as his in-depth knowledge of hip-hop's history, Tanz provides a hard-edged, thought-provoking, and humorous snapshot of the particularly American intersection of race, commerce, culture, and identity.
About the Author
Jason Tanz is a senior editor at Fortune Small Business. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Fortune, Spin, and Time Out New York, among other publications. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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