________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 6 . . . . October 9, 2009


Hip Hop World. (A Groundwork Guide).

Dalton Higgins.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2009.
144 pp., pbk. & hc., $11.00 (pbk.), $18.95 (hc.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-911-5 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-88899-910-8 (hc.).

Subject Heading:

Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

*** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.


It's a hip hop world, and you're just living in it. For most music-addicted earthlings, hip hop culture is the predominant global youth subculture of today. For the non-music initiated, hip hop has become the black, jewelry-laden elephant in a room filled with rock, country and classical music -- an attention-grabber whose influence is impossible to miss on the daily news, in school playgrounds, during water cooler conversations or in a political debate.

What is hip hop, and why should you care about it? Hip hop -- a term coined by pioneering rapper Space Cowboy in the early 1970s to mimic a scat and then popularized later by rapper Lovebug Starski -- is quite simply the world's leading counterculture, subculture and youth culture. Hip hop encompasses four distinct elements: deejaying (the manipulation of pre-recorded music), breakdancing (dance), rapping/emceeing (vocalizing) and graffiti (visual art).

For those of us whose musical allegiance lies with "rock, country [or] classical music," Higgins' statement about the dominance of hip hop probably comes as a bit of a shock. Isn't it just another one of those teen "fads"? Won't it just have its time and then become another chapter in musical history? (Of course, some of us remember that being said about The Beatles). Apparently not -- no less than Barack Obama is a fan of rapper Jay-Z, and the book opens with the President's stating "I love the art of hip hop, I don't always love the message of hip hop . . . The thing about hip hop today is that it's smart, it's insightful -- the way that they can communicate a complex message in a very short space is remarkable."

     Communicating a complex message in a very short space is what Dalton Higgs does in this book, and he does so very well. The eight chapters of Hip Hop World are not only a history of the movement (a movement that is almost 40 years old), but also an examination of the economics of hip hop, the controversial sexuality of rap and its often inflammatory lyrics (even Barack Obama has issues with the language typical of hip hop lyrics), hip hop's political and activist dimensions, and, of course, the ways in which hip hop is global, with uniquely local elements enlarging and enriching the genre. Truly, hip hop is a culture, with a distinct (but highly diverse) style, including gestures, language, and attitude.

     Even those of us who aren't hip hop fans have heard the mixes, mashes, and re-invention of music tracks which Higgins describes as the first key element in early hip hop culture and which now have become hip hop standards. He provides extensive detail about hip hop's early pioneers and their unique musical skills, the combative origins of break dancing, the development of rap (rhymed lyrics chanted or spoken to a musical accompaniment), and an explanation of how graffiti (the "tagging" which many of us consider to be a public annoyance) has become integral to hip hop culture. Names of artists, groups, singles and compilations, fly by with amazing speed, and it speaks to Higgins' skill as a writer that he packs so much information into such a small volume.

     Despite its origins amongst the poor and disenfranchised, hip hop is now a very big business: the hip hop world is "fixated" on money, "making it, spending it, flaunting it." Fashion, jewelry ("bling"), and, of course, the sales of music (in all of its varied formats), videos and all the electronic gadgetry needed to play and transport it are key elements of the hip hop world, and youth throughout the world buy in, literally. In spite of, or perhaps because of, hip hop's humble roots, conspicuous consumption is highly appealing.

     Dalton Higgins also looks at all those aspects of hip hop which provoke or outrage those within and outside of hip hop culture: the all-too-frequent use of profanity and racial epithets, hip hop terminology's being part of current mainstream language (even George W. Bush was known to have greeted another head of state with "Yo"), as well as lyrics and videos which appear misogynistic and rap music's continuing to "assault[s] gay community members with impunity". Higgins does not deny any of this, but he doesn't apologize for it, either.

     Like other books in the "Groundwork Guide" series, Hip Hop World contains content that makes it a highly-accessible information resource: interesting highlights (short interviews, lists of performers), an International Hip Hop Timeline (which begins in 1970), a comprehensive "Notes" pages, and lists of Essential Reading and Essential Viewing (film and video). It is well-researched, and well-written. But, as I read the book, I wondered just how likely it is that its target audience (students in grades 9-12) would pick up the book. Although language and lyric are a key element of hip hop culture, it is very much an electronic and digital culture. Undoubtedly, Hip Hop World is a worthwhile addition to a high school library collection, providing content into contemporary musical and cultural history. But, will the kids from ‘‘hood pick it up and read it? Buy it, and see what happens.


Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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