Review: Signifying Rappers, By David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello

A starter's guide to the rap of ages

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The Independent Culture

The United States of America, 1989, and the Bush administration has succeeded the Reagan one, but vows to keep fighting the same wars on drugs, gangs and inner-city crime. NWA have just come Straight Outta Compton. Rap music, despite a handful of cross-over hits, has yet to be assimilated into mainstream culture, and if it's written about at all, it is by the hand-wringing or the morally panicked. But in a second-floor shared apartment in Boston, two 26-year-old white postgrads and former college room-mates are excitedly deconstructing the meaning of rap.

One is Mark Costello, who will go on to write the rather good 2002 state-of-the-nation novel Big If. The other is David Foster Wallace, who will go on to be a voice of his generation, and as posthumously prolific as some rappers.

This essay collection, published for the first time in the UK (it appeared in the US in 1990 with the subtitle Race and Rap in the Urban Present), is not juvenilia, but exhibits a lot of youthful self-consciousness along with its of-the-moment exuberance. Time has not been kind to it. The authors define terms ("def", "kush grooves") that are now antiquated, while their address to the uninitiated ("The rapper offers lyrics that are spoken or bellowed in straight stressed rhymed verse") can sound as ludicrous as the voiceover on an old ethnographic documentary on native tribes.

Wallace's hyper-sensitivity to his position as ethnographer – a white observer of "black music, of and for blacks" – gives his analyses their tentative, looping, exhaustingly regressive quality. Costello, who contributes fewer chapters, is more entertaining. DFW overthinks rap's synecdochal representations and spies "a unique pop opportunity for the application of Marxist and post-structuralist principles to the cultural production, not just reception of texts". Costello, inspired by Jazzy Jeff's sampling of the I Dream of Jeanie theme, riffs on race, cultural disruption and re-appropriation, as black faces pop up in 1990s remakes of Sixties sitcoms. However, most of the collection will strike today's reader, even an ardent Wallace and hip hop fan, as self-serious and irrelevant.