Sunday, August 28, 2022

Book Review: The Come Up - An Oral History of the Rise of Hip-Hop

The music that would come to be known as hip-hop was born at a party in the Bronx in the summer of 1973. Now, fifty years later, it’s the most popular music genre in America. Just as jazz did in the first half of the twentieth century, hip-hop and its groundbreaking DJs and artists—nearly all of them people of color from some of America’s most overlooked communities—pushed the boundaries of music to new frontiers, while transfixing the country’s youth and reshaping fashion, art, and even language.

And yet, the stories of many hip-hop pioneers and their individual contributions in the pre-Internet days of mixtapes and word of mouth are rarely heard—and some are at risk of being lost forever. Now, in The Come Up, the New York Times bestselling author Jonathan Abrams offers the most comprehensive account so far of hip-hop’s rise, a multi-decade chronicle told in the voices of the people who made it happen.

In more than three hundred interviews conducted over three years, Abrams has captured the stories of the DJs, executives, producers, and artists who both witnessed and themselves forged the history of hip-hop. Masterfully combining these voices into a seamless symphonic narrative, Abrams traces how the genre grew out of the resourcefulness of a neglected population in the South Bronx, and from there how it flowed into New York City’s other boroughs, and beyond—from electrifying live gatherings, then on to radio and vinyl, below to the Mason-Dixon Line, west to Los Angeles through gangster rap and G-funk, and then across generations.

The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip-Hop will be released on October 18, 2022. Crown Publishing provided an early galley for review.

Some of my earliest exposure to those early rap records was local college radio in the early 80's. I owned the 45 of Blondie's "Rapture" in 1980. By the time I got to college in 1983, I would hear tracks like "Rapper's Delight" and "The Message" at parties on campus. I was very much a fan of this new music genre even though I had no idea of the stories behind its roots (which I would learn years later). Abraham's book does an outstanding job detailing all of those stories in one place along with the history of East Coast, West Coast and all points in between.

I really like the format that this book takes. I encountered this style of taking many interviews and weaving them into a seamless narrative previously in Dylan Jones' 2020 book Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics. I think this works incredibly well, especially when discussing the cultural changes in music. It allows for many facets to be touched upon and placed together to form a cohesive picture.

I kept a scratch page handy so I could jot down the titles and artists of some mentioned tracks with which I was not so familiar. Being able to pull those up to listen to really enhanced my reading experience.

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