Hip-Hop Planet

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I saw a review of ‘Where You’re At: Notes From the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet‘ in the AJC last week and had to add it to my list of books to read. I’ve always been fascinated by how popular hip-hop is in other countries so this should be a fun read for me. The AJC’s review follow:

BOOKS: Global tour of hip-hop changes outlook
John Freeman – For the Journal-Constitution
Sunday, August 29, 2004


Where You’re At: Notes From the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet. By Patrick Neate. Riverhead Books. $14 paperback. 274 pages.

The verdict: A hip, lively travelogue across cultures.

Several years ago British novelist Patrick Neate (“Twelve Bar Blues”) stumbled into a Tokyo dance club called Harlem, where African men posing as black Americans danced with Japanese girls who had tanned their skin almost charcoal — to look black, of course. The music they were listening to was American hip-hop.

As Neate discovers in “Where You’re At,” hip-hop often leads to such cultural cross-dressing. Neate, a white Londoner who studied at Cambridge University and learned to spin tracks in Africa, 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 lively travelogue, which chronicles his travels to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; New York; Johannesburg and Cape Town, talking to DJs named Herb and bopping his head to South African bubble gum (early ’90s disco pop).

Like any expert in a marginalized genre that’s gone mainstream, Neate has a hard time giving a simple introduction. He’s forever clocking how five minutes ago a scene is, or measuring its purity with a gemologist’s precision. But to his credit, Neate knows his stuff. After graduating from Cambridge, Neate lived in Harare, Zimbabwe, where he taught during the day and worked as a DJ at night. He has a firm grasp of hip-hop’s evolution all the way up to Eminem, and readers needn’t have spent their youth listening to Run-DMC to appreciate this understanding.

But his knowledge turns positively delicious where cultures cross over. Over the course of this intensely stimulating book, Neate 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 wear Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers.

Neate even makes a foray into the Italian rap scene, which is mostly left-wing and mostly political. Imagine if Public Enemy shouted less and drank cappuccinos, and you get the idea.

If all this makes your head spin, that’s OK, because every reference in the book gets a footnote or two. And there’s a discography that spans several continents and as many languages. It’s hard not to wish Neate’s publisher had sprung for an enclosed CD so we could hear some of the best tracks. Even when Neate talks about how a DJ is “pulling words apart and reassembling them like plasticine shapes,” it’s difficult to grasp just how good the music can sound.

In an effort to be both specific and authentic, Neate flirts with the aroma of connoisseurship so pungent in jazz criticism. He refers to DJs as B-boys and B-girls, talks about their flow and hangs out with all kinds of crews, from ones who front to ones who really throw it down. There isn’t a city or scene Neate hasn’t seen, and he’s cool enough to use the word “wack” (uncool) without irony.

In the end, Neate has the good sense to laugh at his desire to display his knowledge. “Where You’re At” is a journey of sorts, and Neate actually does change in the process. He starts off with some clear ideas — that hip-hop is urban, that it’s been co-opted by commercialism — and he winds up with a more vibrant, fluid understanding and a new appreciation for how different cultures have interpreted the music he loves.

In Tokyo, for example, he initially comes down hard on that city’s bizarre mimicry of American hip-hop. Japanese girls who spend thousands of dollars to have their hair thickened into dreadlocks? Suburban Tokyo kids rapping about the thug life?

After a few days in the city, though, Neate loosens up and realizes that the Japanese have simply taken hip-hop culture in a new direction. Neate looks for a lyrical expression of issues; the Japanese turn to hip-hop for lyrical stylization. Period.

By the end of this vivid and amusing book, Neate has learned how to embrace this multiplicity, even if that means the people loving his favorite music might occasionally be, well, rather wack.

John Freeman is a writer in New York.

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