Hip Hip Hooray

Is it cool to write a book about being cool in America?

John Leland
Hip: The History
Ecco

John Leland did for hip-hop journalism in the late 1980s what Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions did for hip hop--he blew the conversation open. Writing in Spin, he gave rappers a new platform and called them on their bullshit, offering broader appreciation in return. At Newsweek in 1992, he used the Sister Souljah controversy as an opportunity to tell white readers what rap fans already knew: that the racial divide in America was deepening, and kids of every color were consuming the divide as entertainment.

Leland is one of the few white guys who writes about race as someone who moves freely between cultures. In Hip: The History, his first book, he describes a man who might be his precursor: Carl Van Vechten, a onetime music critic for the New York Times, where Leland contributes today. Van Vechten's "ubiquity above 110th Street in the 1920s inspired the Harlem songwriter Andy Razaf to pen the lyric, 'Go inspectin'/Like Van Vechten,'" writes Leland. The parties that Van Vechten used to throw on West 55th Street were great meetings of high and low culture, black and white New York. At one bash, Bessie Smith "collared the opera singer Marguerite D'Alvarez, who had just charmed the room with an aria, and advised, 'Don't let nobody tell you you can't sing.'"

Leland himself provided inspiration for (hostile) lyrics in Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise," and he has a prickly relationship to black music, a consuming passion I share. His Hip is the history of an ideology I didn't know I had. It begins by citing slang expert Clarence Major to trace the origins of "hip" to the verbs hepi ("to see") or hipi ("to open one's eyes") from the West African Wolof language. Looking to slave narratives, the book finds evidence that hipping was a language of covert enlightenment among Africans, a code that fascinated their European captors. In-the-know attitudes had existed as long as humans had been aware of knowing anything. But "hip" was something new: Staying one step ahead of whites meant speeding up the process of adaptation and reinvention, renewing the code continually. The same dynamic persists as a global capitalist phenomenon we call "youth culture."

Leland tracks the development of hip with attentiveness and range, weaving Jewishness, the Stonewall riots, and grrrl power into his bohemian rhapsody. He describes six "hipster convergences," beginning with the literary supergroup Whitman/Emerson/Thoreau/Melville in the 1850s--the "O.G.s" who championed individualism and the beauty of the American vernacular. The Harlem Renaissance, the Beats, bebop, drugs, punk, and dot-coms follow. Along the way, the book traces the long history of blacks and whites holding up mirrors to each other in the blues and in minstrelsy, in rock 'n' roll and in hip hop. That communication across the abyss, Leland says, is the story of America.

Ultimately, Leland seems to regard hip much the way an easygoing hipster might observe the "squares": with sympathy, but from the side. Unlike Ann Powers's Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, Leland's book is no kind of memoir. It's no how-to guide, either: Hip has been mistaken for a hipster handbook, but any American history that begins with Mark Twain and Jelly Roll Morton and ends with Ray Kroc and Ashton Kutcher can hardly be romancing the stoned.

Hip's greatest limitation is its refusal to engage, Leland argues. For Hip, the '60s are represented by Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan--tricksters who stood apart from the movements they spoke to. Yet Leland sees progress in hip's whorish flexibility--hip as the official ideology of mass entertainment. Kurt Cobain's rage at high school jocks evaporated on impact when those jocks became his audience. But punk rock didn't become a car just because it advertised one. Some part of the message sailed through.

Hip didn't free the slaves. It won't win basic freedoms in North Korea. But when freedom is won anywhere, the same sensibilities of American blues take hold--the romance of the open road, the rejection of domestic life, the hybrid culture of the city. Hip guides us toward the thrill of the unfamiliar. That's where we should be.

 
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