Triksta: life and death and New Orleans rap, by Nik Cohn

Rap dreams in a city of music
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Just after the first printing of this iconic writer's account of his cultural and musical misadventures in an iconic city, the situation changed almost beyond recognition. Among the many incarnations of New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina were the fantasy city Nik Cohn had first imagined as a pre-adolescent infatuated with African-American music; the real, living city he had been revisiting since his twenties, and the site of his recent, quixotic project of reinventing himself as the producer/entrepreneur who would make the Big Easy's idiosyncratic hip-hop scene go global.

This isn't the sort of idea that would occur to the average white Brit knocking 60, but then Nik Cohn is no ordinary superannuated wigga. The son of the historian Norman Cohn, he became the first great British whizzkid rock journalist while still in his teens. By the age of 22, he had written the hugely influential rock history Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, inspiring a generation of critics (including Nick Kent, Tony Parsons and the present writer) and inventing the term "boring old fart" in the process.

Pete Townshend was so desperate for the pinball-loving Cohn to endorse The Who's Tommy that he wrote "Pinball Wizard" specifically to please him. In the 1970s, it was Cohn's magazine piece (fiction disguised as reportage) that eventually became Saturday Night Fever, helping to bring a worldwide subculture into being. In the same decade, he wrote the text for Rock Dreams, a groundbreaking collaboration with the Belgian artist Guy Peellaert; a 1999 sequel, 20th Century Dreams, is arguably even more impressive.

Cohn's musical fixation has always been the Flash McTrash eruptions of Superpop rather than the sober artsiness of prog-rock. So it should come as no surprise that the only pop phenomena to have even intrigued him since he signed off on rock at the end of the Sixties have been the earliest and rawest forms of punk and rap. The tale told in Triksta is of how a perennial outsider - a London-born Jew of Russian-German extraction raised in South Africa and Northern Ireland and based in New York - attempted to exorcise his lingering fears about the negritude which fascinated him, and his distress at the pointless slaying of the rising rapper Soulja Slim, by placing himself at the centre of the city's rap scene.

Cohn confronted two insuperable obstacles. One was the utter insularity of a scene so defiantly local that it could barely get out of the city, let alone the state or the region. The other was his own inability to reach more than the most superficial rapport with his would-be protégés Choppa, Junie B and Che Muse. Cohn-the-narrator makes clear what Cohn-the-protagonist is heart-breakingly unwilling to realise. It would be a stoic reader indeed who could restrain a flinch when Cohn casually reveals that he had invested the advance for this book in yet another doomed project.

To suggest that this is the best book ever written on rap would be manifestly unfair to Armond White's Tupac Shakur biography Rebel For The Hell of It and Ronin Ro's scarifying history of Death Row Records, Have Gun Will Travel. But it does contain some of the best writing extant on the subject.

Triksta is a triple elegy: for the New Orleans the author loved, which even before Katrina struck had begun to erode under the pressures of grinding poverty and the demands of the tourism industry; for "real" hip-hop, its promise and vitality compromised by the demands of suburban white kids for ever more melodramatic gangsta rap to fuel their fantasies, and for Cohn's departed youth, embodied in this last restless quest for the perfect beat.

It is tempting to recommend waiting for a second edition, incorporating what will undoubtedly be an enlightening epilogue. But Triksta, even in this inadvertently incomplete form, is one man's saddening, exhilarating, pungent and poignant account of his attempt to find a place for himself in a corner of his world where there would never be room for him, and of how the Triksta ultimately tricked himself.

Charles Shaar Murray's 'Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and postwar pop' is published by Faber