This week marks the two-year anniversary of the publication of my book Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future from Repeater Books! In celebration, here are some pictures from the book’s release, the Preface from the text, and some information on a related forthcoming project. Enjoy!
Ytasha and I went on to do a talk at the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park, and I spoke at SXSW again, this time specifically about the ideas in Dead Precedents.
A couple of months later, I ventured to my adopted home in the Pacific Northwest. I got to speak at Powell’s City of Books in Portland with Pecos B. Jett. I was even on TV!
Next up was a fun chat at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle with Charles Mudede.
I was also on my favorite Hip-hop podcast, Call Out Culture with my mans Alaska, Zilla Rocca, and Curly Castro.
I know Amazon is wack, but Dead Precedents was also a #1 New Release in both their Rap Music and Music History & Criticism categories.
Many thanks to all the people who bought the book, said nice things about it, came out to hear me talk about it, gave me rides, put me up at your home, or spread the word. There are too many people I owe to list here, but I appreciate all of you who have supported me and this book in any way.
If you’re interested in more about hip-hop, cyberpunk, and Afrofuturism, a bunch of my friends and colleagues and I have put together a new book called Boogie Down Predictions: Hip-Hop, Time, and Afrofuturism.
“How does hip-hop fold, spindle, or mutilate time?” Harry Allen, Hip-Hop Activist and Media Assassin asks. “In what ways does it treat technology as, merely, a foil? Are its notions of the future tensed…or are they tenseless? For Boogie Down Predictions, Roy Christopher's trenchant anthology, he's assembled a cluster of curious interlocutors. Here, in their hands, the culture has been intently examined, as though studying for microfractures in a fusion reactor. The result may not only be one of the most unique collections on hip-hop yet produced, but, even more, and of maximum value, a novel set of questions.”
Boogie Down Predictions comes out in October from Strange Attractor Press. You can preorder it now though!
What follows is the brief essay that serves as the Preface to Dead Precedents. If you don’t know, now you know.
“Space, that endless series of speculations and origins — of rebirths and electric spankings — is here not so much a metaphor as it is a series of fragmented selves, a place of possibilities and debris and explorations and atmosphere.”
— Kevin Young, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness
“Let us imagine these hip-hop principles as a blueprint for social resistance and affirmation: create sustain- ing narratives, accumulate them, layer, embellish, and transform them.”
— Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America
Several years ago, on one of my online profiles under “books” I listed only Donald Goines and Philip K. Dick. If you don’t know them, Donald Goines wrote about himself and his associates and their struggles as street hustlers, pimps, players, and dopefiends. Philip K. Dick wrote about the brittleness of reality, its wavy, funhouse perceptions through drugs and dreams. Goines wrote sixteen books in five years and Dick wrote forty-four in thirty. Both were heavy users of mind-altering substances (heroin and amphetamines, respectively), and both helped redefine the genres in which they wrote. They interrogated the nature of human identity, one through the inner city and the other through inner space.
While I am certainly a fan of both authors, I posted them together on my profile as kind of a gag. I thought their juxtaposition was weird enough to spark questions if you were familiar with their work, and if you weren’t, it wouldn’t matter. I had no idea that I would be writing about the overlapping layers of their legacies so many years later.
To retrofit a description, one could say that Goines’ books are gangster-rap literature. They’re referenced in rap songs by everyone from Tupac and Ice-T to Ludacris and Nas. In many instances, Dick’s work could be called proto- cyberpunk. The Philip K. Dick Award was launched the year after he died, and two of the first three were awarded to the premiere novels of cyberpunk: Software by Rudy Rucker in 1983 and Neuromancer by William Gibson in 1985.
[Ed note: If you’re interested, wrote a bit about the connections between hip-hop and literature for Literary Hub for the book’s release.]
When cyberpunk and hip-hop were both entering their Golden Age, I was in high school. One day I was walking up my friend Thomas Durdin’s driveway. By the volume of the AC/DC sample that forms the backbone of Boogie Down Productions’ “Dope Beat,” I knew his mom wasn’t home. Along with the decibel level, I was also struck by how the uncanny pairing of Australian hard rock and New York street slang sounded. It was gritty. It was brash. It rocked. De La Soul’s 1996 record, Stakes is High, opens with the question, “Where were you when you first heard Criminal Minded?” That moment was a door opening to a new world.
I didn’t realize it then, but that new world was the twenty- first century, and hip-hop was its blueprint.
I distinctly remember that the label on the record spinning around on Thomas’s turntable incorrectly named the song “Hope Beats.” An interesting mistake given that DJ Scott La Rock was killed just months after the record came out, prompting KRS-One to start the Stop the Violence movement. Where Criminal Minded is often cited as a forerunner of gangster rap, KRS-One was thereafter dedicated to peace. I’d heard hip-hop before, but the unfamiliar familiarity of the “Back in Black” guitar samples in that song make that particular day stick in my head.
Long before hip-hop went digital, mixtapes—those floppy discs of the boombox and car stereo—facilitated the spread of underground music. The first time I heard hip-hop, it was on such a tape. Hiss and pop were as much a part of the experience of those mixes as the scratching and rapping. We didn’t even know what to call it, but we stayed up late to listen. We copied and traded those tapes until they were barely listenable. As soon as I figured out how, I started making my own. We watched hip-hop go from those scratchy mixtapes to compact discs to shiny-suit videos on MTV, from Fab 5 Freddy to Public Enemy to P. Diddy, from Run-DMC to N.W.A. to Notorious B.I.G. Others lost interest along the way. I never did.
A lot of people all over the world heard those early tapes and were impacted as well. Having spread from New York City to parts unknown, hip-hop became a global phenomenon. Every school has aspiring emcees, rapping to beats banged out on lunchroom tables. Every city has kids rhyming on the corner, trying to outdo each other with adept attacks and clever comebacks. The cipher circles the planet. In a lot of other places, hip-hop culture is American culture.
Though their roots go back much further, the subcultures of hip-hop and cyberpunk emerged in the mass mind during the 1980s. Sometimes they’re both self-consciously of the era, but digging through their artifacts and narratives, we will see the seeds of our times sprouting. We will view hip-hop not only as a genre of music and a vibrant subculture but also as a set of cultural practices that transcend both of those. We will explore cyberpunk not only as a subgenre of science fiction but also as the rise of computer culture, the tectonic shifting of all things to digital forms and formats, and the making and hacking thereof. If we take hip-hop as a community of practice, then its cultural practices inform the new century in new ways. “I didn’t see a subculture,” Rammellzee once said, “I saw a culture in development.”
The subtitle of this book could just as easily be “How Hip-Hop Defies the Future.” As one of hip-hop culture’s pioneers, Grandmaster Caz, is fond of saying, “Hip-hop didn’t invent anything. Hip-hop reinvented everything.” To establish this foundation, we will start with a few views of hip-hop culture (Endangered Theses), followed by a brief look at the origins of cyberpunk and hip-hop (Margin Prophets). We will then look at four specific areas of hip-hop music: recording, archiving, sampling, and intertextuality (Fruit of the Loot); the appropriating of pop culture and hacking of language (Spoken Windows); and graffiti and other visual aspects of the culture (The Process of Illumination). From there we will go ghost hunting through the willful haunting of hip-hop and cyberculture (Let Bygones Be Icons). All of this in the service of remapping hip-hop’s spread from around the way to around the world and what that means for the culture of the now and the future (Return to Cinder).
The aim of this book is to illustrate how hip-hop culture defines twenty-first-century culture. With its infinitely recombinant and revisable history, the music represents futures without pasts. The heroes of this book are the architects of those futures: emcees, DJs, poets, artists, writers. If they didn’t invent anything but reinvented everything, then that everything is where we live now. Forget what you know about time and causation. This is a new fossil record with all new futures.
As always, thanks for reading, responding, and sharing.
Hope you’re well,