Patrick Neate Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet Riverhead
Several years ago British novelist Patrick Neate stumbled upon a Tokyo hip-hop club called Harlem. African men posing as black Americans were dancing with Japanese girls who'd tanned their skin almost charcoal--to look black, of course. Some of them, Neate learned, were spending thousands of dollars to have their hair thickened into dreadlocks. Elsewhere in suburban Tokyo, kids in this crime-free culture were rapping about the thug life. It goes without saying that the music they were listening to was American.
As Neate discovers in his lively travelogue Where You're At, hip hop often leads to such cultural cross-dressing. Neate should know. A white Londoner who studied at Cambridge University and learned to spin tracks in Africa, Neate is a walking example of why authenticity is a slippery term in the hip-hop world. He finds all kinds of definitions for it in this provocative book, which chronicles his travels to Rio, New York, and Cape Town. Along this road, he talks to MCs named Herb and bops his head to South African bubblegum (early '90s disco pop).
Like any expert in a marginalized genre that's gone mainstream, Neate has a hard time giving simple description. He's forever clocking how five minutes ago a scene is, or measuring its purity with a gemologist's precision. But then, Neate does seem to know his stuff: After graduating from university, Neate lived in Harare, where he taught during the day and worked as a DJ at night. He has a firm grasp of hip hop's evolution from break beats all the way up to Eminem's sampling, and he's effective at conveying this history to folks who may not have spent their youth doing head spins to Run-D.M.C.
The intrigue of this book, though, lies where cultures cross over, which has become the rule as opposed to the exception on our hip-hop planet. Rather than pontificating from a set of headphones, Neate launches his own fact-finding tour. He visits a record label in Manhattan called Bronx Science, which sells most of its discs overseas, and tests the pulse of old-time gangsters in South Africa who signify by wearing Chuck Taylor All-Stars. He even makes a brief foray into the Italian rap scene, which is mostly left-wing and mostly political. Picture a Public Enemy that shouted less and drank cappuccinos and you sort of get the idea.
One suspects, naturally, that the heads already know about this Italian scene, and have probably launched bulletin board debates about the third-best Trotskyite DJ in Naples. Yet even these specialists are likely to find something new amidst the bevy of useful footnotes and a discography that spans several continents and as many languages. Still, it's hard not to wish that Neate's publisher had sprung for an enclosed CD. Even when Neate talks about one NYC MC "pulling words apart and reassembling them like plasticene shapes," it's the actual sound of the stuff that remains half a world away.