THE title of Brian Cross's fascinating and scrupulous history of LA rap is actually borrowed from a New York rapper, KRS1, and his 1988 single 'My Philosophy'. This is not an anomaly. One of the most interesting features of It's Not About a Salary is the way it traces cultural flight paths from East Coast to West and back again.
In the time the book took to write, LA hip-hop shrugged off its poor-relation tag and confirmed itself as rap's brutal, vulgar, rich uncle. It is much to Cross's credit that he doesn't get caught up in this moment, but sets it firmly in its social and historical context; he opens his story in 1946, with the Charlie Parker Septet. That title does beg a couple of questions, though. There is an annoyingly self-conscious swagger about the word 'resistance': for Cross to imply that being an Irishman abroad gives him an instinctive grasp of what LA rappers are on about is as fatuous as for me to boast an intuitive understanding of Ice-T on the grounds that both our second names begin with the same letter; whatever else rap might be, it is not a music of exile. Second, and more
important, when you fill in the second part of the KRS1 quote - 'It's not about a salary, it's all about reality' - you get a paradox. The reality of rap, and LA rap in particular, is that a salary is exactly what it almost always is about.
Cross's unapologetic and knowledgeable partiality makes a welcome change, though, from the ill-informed sermonising to which this music is often subject. Proceeding from the controversial assumption that 'the people with the best understanding of hip-hop are those who produce it', Cross aims to balance the disapproving Marxist 'false consciousness' view of LA rap found in Mike Davis's City of Quartz. (Davis, formerly Cross's college tutor, commissioned this book.)
Cross combines in-depth background - from general patterns of US migration in the Fifties to the growth of a specific infrastructure of club and radio station promotion three decades later - with some intriguing foreground detail. He interviews all his story's main players, from unsung pioneers such as the Watts Prophets to today's lords of infamy, Ice-T and Dr Dre. Their words are supplemented with photos: of parties, clubs and (best of all) 16 rappers' and DJs' bedrooms. Now that's what I call access.
There are telling glimpses into the ethnic complexity of LA rap - particularly in the excellent section on Latin hip-hop - and the deep-rooted historic antipathy between non-white Angelenos and the LAPD. Some of the most valuable insights in It's Not About a Salary are deceptively simple. Maverick jazzman Horace Tapscott and his son-in-law, rapper JMD, address the musical generation gap. 'In school they used to give you instruments like they'd give you books,' says JMD. 'Rap started getting bigger because kids didn't have instruments.' And Ice Cube lays bare the roots of the sexual animosity which his music taps into so profitably: 'The system won't hire a black man but they will hire his woman - it breaks down that the only way that you can show you're a man is through your penis.'
There is a funny, old-fashioned air about
Ice-T's The Ice Opinion. For all its self-conscious shows of devilry - the book boasts the rather adolescent subtitle 'Who gives a fuck?', an expostulation which is repeated at the end of each chapter - this is actually a hopeful and optimistic survey of Ice's career and ideas, which both seem to be grounded in a belief in the essential goodness of humanity. The book it most reminds me of is Pat Boone's essential book of advice for teenagers, Twixt Twelve and Twenty, only Mr T is much less cynical.
Heidi Sigismund of the Los Angeles Times is wise enough not to mess with his supple and persuasive syntax. The Ice Opinion turns out to be three parts utopian common sense - sending the US prison population to college, redistributing wealth via 'urban capitalist guerrillas', destroying white supremacy by inter-racial intercourse - to one part outrageous sexism. Ice's formative experiences as gang member, hustler and jewel- thief give his views on crime and punishment real moral authority, but when he claims that 'It is a woman's nature to covet, it is man's nature to conquer', even Camille Paglia might find it hard to agree with him.
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