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Back in the Day
By Erik Hage

Yes Yes Y’all: The Experience Music Project Oral History of Hip-Hop’s First Decade
Edited by Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn • Da Capo Press, 224 pages, $25

In the canon of hiphop books, Yes Yes Y’all assumes the role of Old Testament—or more precisely, the book of Genesis. Depending on how you look at it, the Bronx in the mid-’70s was either the least likely or the most likely place for the seeds of a musical revolution. (Perhaps as likely a breeding ground for hiphop as late ‘60s Detroit was for the proto-punk fury of the Stooges and the MC5.) The borough, the condition of which was immortalized in the film Fort Apache: The Bronx, had all the devastating proportions of Dickens’ London, and then some. High infant-mortality rates, malnutrition, abandoned buildings, rampant violence, drug abuse, civic corruption, and ludicrously high concentrations of residential fires were facts of life.

Into this landscape crept the first shadows of a movement that has thoroughly saturated our culture and become, in fact, a global phenomenon. Yes Yes Y’all deals only with the earliest formative years. In fact, it ends where old-school begins, with the advent of Def Jam Records and artists such as Run-DMC and LL Cool J. (To put it more succinctly: The artists covered in these pages were in the game before there was money to be made at it.) The volume is an oral history, with such important innovators as Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Kool DJ Herc and countless others giving voice to the movement. This format works well: Hiphop is, after all, an intensely verbal idiom. (In an oft-quoted statement in the late ‘80s, Public Enemy’s Chuck D predicted it would become “a Black CNN,” and while current artists such as Nelly and Eminem may have diverged from that blueprint, socially conscious groups like the Roots have certainly kept the mission afoot.)

In dealing so thoroughly with a period that is largely unfamiliar to the commercial public, and by allowing those who rose up from the street with the movement to narrate that history, Yes Yes Y’all fulfills a valuable need in hiphop scholarship. And it’s not unreasonable to say that there has been a dearth of decent books about hiphop. David Wallace and Mark Costello made an early stab at it with 1990’s Signifying Rappers, a highly academic tome in which two ultra-educated white guys explored their own affinity for the genre. The volume, set up as a “sampler,” offered such pithy insights as “The MC’s Alice Toklas-esque DJ hovers ever nearby over his buffet of connected turntables.” (So would Run be Gertrude Stein?) It also gloried in such ham-fisted observations cloaked in deconstructionist gobbledygook as “The rhetorical relation of Part to Whole symbolizes (and so captures!) all too well rap’s multileveled superiority to late-70s Punk. A synecdoche is a part so powerful symbolically as to be eligible for the conceptual absorption, containment, and representation of what it’s Part of.” Next.

For 1999’s The Vibe History of Hip-Hop, editor Alan Light yoked together a bunch of decent essays from a variety of writers. That volume, while insightful, wasn’t cohesive enough to serve as a proper “history.” Not surprisingly, the best work of its ilk was 1999’s Hip-Hop America by Nelson George, who has remained the finest hiphop writer across three decades. In that book, George, who actually provides the intro to Yes Yes Y’all, serves up frank and insightful analysis along with history, often wrestling with his own mixed feelings about hiphop culture.

To its credit, Yes Yes Y’all doesn’t try to match that accomplishment. In fact, there’s nary a mention of the artists that dominated the genre from the late ’80s on. Editor Jim Fricke, who is curator of the Experience Music Project’s Hip-Hop Nation exhibit, has sculpted the commentary from a vast array of players into a compelling narrative, allowing juxtapositions and contradictions in memory or opinion to remain in place and fuel the conversation. Many of the people giving voice to the history were obscure and commercially unsuccessful; in fact, many weren’t even rappers or MCs, but graffiti artists and b-boys. In this way, the old adage about victors writing history crumbles, as does the idea of a written history and its problematical relationship to “Truth.” The multiple views in Yes Yes Y’all are its prime strength: It is a single history that emerges from numerous contexts.

Reading the book, one can feel the urgency in the voices. These folks have had 20 to 30 years to think about their early roles and to observe hiphop’s subsequent permutations and growth into a corporate behemoth. And they have a lot to say, much of it downright astute. (With occasional exceptions, such as Grandmaster Flash on the mechanics of early rapping: “I’ll take a sentence that hopefully the whole world knows: ‘Eeny meeny miny mo, catch a piggy by the toe.’ So they devised it where Cowboy might say ‘Eeny Meeny’ and then Creole would say, ‘Miny,’ and then Mel would say ‘Mo.’”)

For those unfamiliar with hiphop’s infancy, there is much to be learned in these pages. For instance, the movement’s initial focus was the DJ, and it took a while before MCs were added and then, eventually, brought out front. Many may also be surprised to learn that female MCs were prominent as early as the late ’70s, with the Funky 4 + 1’s Sha-Rock an early pioneer. DJs also rapidly developed during this time. Grandmaster Flash was the first to cut a breakbeat back and forth, while his protégé Grand Wizard Theodore invented scratching and perfected the craft of dropping the record needle directly on the breakbeat. One of Bambaataa’s major contributions was his unrestricted approach to record collecting; his use of early Kraftwerk albums not only kicked off his well-known Planet Rock phase, it anticipated subsequent developments in techno music.

A collection of remarkable photos and artwork rounds out the story. Photo editor Charlie Ahearn has the volume bursting at the seams with previously unseen photographs and flyers. All of this amounts to one of the better hiphop books to emerge in recent memory, with the publication’s narrow scope actually one of its greatest attributes. I’ll take this one over the recently released and much-publicized Hip-Hoptionary.

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