In 2005, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop did for hip-hop scholarship what Hercules did for the Augean stables: flushed out all the bullshit by redirecting the flow. Throughout the previous decade, most hip-hop writers had not so much stood as crouched on the shoulders of their predecessors, revisiting the same points on a well-worn timeline and mouthing the same reductive formulations. Chang’s history was broader, more incisive; it replaced uninterrogated truisms with hardnosed research, big-picture analysis, poetic philosophizing. Just as importantly, it freed other writers to specialize. Summarizing the culture suddenly seemed ridiculous: you weren’t going to do a better job than Chang, and even his book, at five-hundred-plus pages, had to flit from one tipping point to the next. Instead, a spate of excellent, tightly focused books emerged, on topics like hip-hop dance (Joseph G. Schloss’s Foundation), hip-hop as a political football (Tricia Rose’s Hip Hop Wars), even individual albums (Born To Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic, edited by Michael Eric Dyson and Sohail Daulatzai) and the notion of a hip-hop aesthetic (Jelani Cobb’s To The Break of Dawn).
Dan Charnas’s massive and meticulous new book, The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop, synthesizes these two approaches to great effect. Chang-like in scope but intent on following the money trail, it reframes the culture by trading philosophy for structure, why for how. Charnas chronicles every aspect of hip-hop’s march, from the rise of independent labels to the complexities of pop radio incursion, the genesis of hip-hop print media to the nuts and bolts of distribution chains and the politics of corporate buy-in. The drama is constant, the corporate beef just as consuming and compelling as the artistic. Not only does Charnas move elegantly from one critical moment to the next, he manages to make the story entirely character-driven, whether the moment’s protagonist is a pioneering radio programmer you’ve never heard of, or a mogul you thought you never needed to read another word about.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason—that book was awesome. It came out in 2007 from a tiny publisher (tinier even than the others) and was republished by FSG last year, at which point my esteemed friend Mansbach gave it a review in the Times. I think he was less enthusiastic than I have since become. The book is not just a game with the Odyssey, though it’s that too, but a genuine rewriting of it. For what was the thing about Odysseus? He was crafty; he was smarter than everyone else. But what did it mean to be smarter than a bunch of peasants; what did it mean to be a logician six hundred years before the birth of Pythagoras? Mason puts the ingeniousness, the cleverness, and the math back into Odysseus and back also into contemporary literature. It’s interesting that, according to the jacket copy, Mason in his day-to-day life works on artificial intelligence: Computers too are pre-logical, full of force but lacking reason. Working with computers all those years, Mason must himself have come to feel like Odysseus among the Agamemnon-era Greeks.
The Passions and The Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph is a slim, unintimidating book of intellectual history, good for English majors who like their economic histories prosy and Foucault-inflected. Albert O. Hirschman recalls the theses of 17th and 18th-century thinkers who believed man’s base and wicked “passions” could be tamed by his economic “interests”—the old “doux-commerce”—and his book offers a convincing case for how capitalism first got traction on promises of political stability and social control. He also spends some time quoting the theses’ detractors—mainly Adam Smith—sparing you the drier swaths of Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments with a sampling of their tastier quotes. Still, Hirschman is kind to the reader’s intelligence, and mentions the “invisible hand” only once.
Before Richard and Rana Florida incorporated the Creative Class Group to make commercials for BMW, before a Whole Foods opened on the Bowery, Sharon Zukin wrote Loft Living (1982), a landmark analysis of what she called “the artistic mode of production.” Zukin details how inner-city industry was targeted for eradication by patrician interests tired of the activist politics and strange accents that accompanied it. Once manufacturing had left, artists were actively deployed in a struggle over the racial and class composition of the urban fabric. As the strategy proved increasingly successful, the laws and ordinances fueling the process changed, the definition of who qualified as an artist expanded. Here one can almost see the distance between the artist-producer and hipster-consumer shrinking. Beset almost thirty years later by a postcrisis revival of the creative class thesis, Zukin’s book struck me as a still-urgent and desperately needed corrective.