Adam Mansbach 2008

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The Hood Comes First:
Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop

by Murray Forman

When it comes to academic attention, hip hop is well ahead of the age curve. Barely thirty years old -- if it were jazz, Charlie Parker wouldn’t be inventing bebop for another whole decade, and scholarly texts would still be nonexistent -- the Bronx-born culture whose artistic vectors include rap music, breakdancing and graffiti has flourished as a subject for writers who understand that if one wishes to discuss youth culture in urban America, one must grapple with hip hop.

This accelerated embrace by the academy has itself engendered much grappling. Hip hop, a culture of self-representation pioneered by disenfranchised Black and Latino youth, has traditionally spoken from the margins. Thus, the issue of whose versions will reach the history books -- especially since most of hip hop’s pioneers are still alive, and eager to tell their own stories -- is also often an issue of race and privilege. In a culture obsessed with authenticity, the analysis of outsiders is often viewed with skepticism. And throughout hip hop’s history that skepticism has usually been justified; the mainstream press has frequently misconstructed, denigrated and villified rap music and the culture from which it springs.

The recent proliferation of texts, like Murray Forman’s The Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop, which provide a nuanced approach to the music, relying neither on uninformed dismissals or on overenthusiastic cheerleading, is an encouraging sign. So, too, is Forman’s attempt to write not merely another critical overview of hip hop’s history, but to focus specifically on how conceptions of locale (“space”) and the realities of physical terrain (“place”) have influenced hip hop’s development.

Unfortunately, an overview is more or less what Forman has produced. Even in a field with few exceptional works, he does not so much stand as crouch on the shoulders of his predecessors. Although Forman proves intermittently capable of solid analysis, The ‘Hood Comes First suffers from a paucity of original thought. In his mission to map hip hop from a spatial perspective, Forman relies heavily on the work of previous writers and on the contemporary reportage of Billboard magazine. He synthesizes aptly, but his own arguments are generic, many of them essentially givens at this point in the cultural discourse.

Much of The ‘Hood Comes First is spent narrating the semantic transition from “the ghetto” to “the ‘hood.” Forman contends that this shift signifies “an intentional, engaged process of cultural recuperation,” by the hip hop generation -- a basic claiming-of-space argument which is far from new; all Forman does is hang it on the words “ghetto” and “hood,” both of which remain relevant in hip hop’s lexicon and topological worldview. The larger notion of reclamation is certainly valid, but Forman has to contort himself to fit it into his spatial/linguistic framework.

Equally dubious is Forman’s assertion that the criminal subject matter of so-called “gangsta rap” (a term he rightly problematizes) is “almost always subordinate to the definitions of space and place within which [it is] set,” and thus spatiality itself is “ultimately deserving of discursive preeminence.” Forman fails to further support this statement, and thus it comes off as little more than an overreaching attempt to seize ground on behalf of a failing thesis. Certainly, the environment from which a lyrical narrative springs is important, as any listener can testify. But Forman’s assertion has the effect of erasing not only the other factors which contribute to a “gangsta” text, but also the text itself -- something he elsewhere shows no inclination to do.

Often, Forman ignores aspects of the culture which would actually benefit his thesis. Although he spends considerable time on hip hop’s early history, conspicuously absent from The ‘Hood Comes First is any substantive discussion of hip hop’s “park jams” -- illegal parties thrown in public places in the Bronx which relied on electricity appropriated from the city itself, and which comprised a bold challenge to notions of space and community. Nor does Forman spend any time on hip hop culture’s most ingenious reclaimers and transformers of space -- the graffiti artists who engaged New York City’s Mass Transit Authority in a fifteen-year, two-hundred-and-fifty-million dollar war, demomnstrating an unsurpassed mastery of urban terrain and introducing the planet to a new brand of guerilla art in the process.

Forman is at his best when discussing trends in the music industry. He does an admirable job of illuminating independent and major labels’ evolving relationships to rap through the eighties and nineties, and his overview of the burgeoning rap scenes in New Orleans, Atlanta and Texas in the book’s final chapter are concise and intelligent. The ‘Hood Comes First is heavily weighted toward the eighties and early nineties, however, and Forman’s discussion of post-1995 hip hop has a rushed feel to it. Once he reaches more recent territory, however, there is less existing scholarship for Forman to fall back on, and thus he quotes less and relies on his own ideas more, giving the reader an encouraging glimpse of what he can do when not weighed down by the fact that other people have already come up with most of his ideas.

To his credit, Forman’s most frequently cited sources are good ones; eight years after its publication, Tricia Rose’s Black Noise remains the most insightful academic text on hip hop, Paul Gilroy’s myriad observations are always trenchant, and David Toop’s Rap Attack is a popular classic of hip hop historicism.

It is worth noting that the success of Rose’s and Toop’s histories owe largely to their grounding in first-person interviews. The only time Forman even comes close to conducting one in The ‘Hood Comes First is when he relates the observation of a young black man which he overhears while exiting a movie theater. One cannot help but wish that Forman had supplemented his scholarship with some actual dialogue. The ‘Hood Comes First contains not one statement by an active participant in hip hop culture which has not been taken from a song, a movie, or another writer’s work.

Adam Mansbach is the author of the novel
Shackling Water and the poetry collection Genius B-Boy Cynics Getting Weeded in the Garden of Delights.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing