The Freelance Mentalists.
Friday, October 01, 2004
Where You At: Notes From the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet, by Patrick Neate (Riverhead Books)

I didn't know who Patrick Neate was before I read this book; apparently, he's an award-winning rap writer in England. But after I finished Where You At, I definitely know who he is. He is he whom but for the grace of God I'd be.

The journey of the book is Neate searching for what hip-hop really is, on a few different continents. But he's not searching for that. He's seeking to validate his theory.

He goes to America and talks to some dudes who stare his theory, but then he talks to real NYC teenagers and they don't seem to get it, so he's dissatisfied. Japan and decides that the b-boys are all just slavishly copying American rap styles, and that's not good enough for him, it goes against the theory. He goes to a couple of different places in Africa and that's better, because there's some blatant Americanization in the rap but there are a couple of people who back up his theory. He goes to Brazil and tells us all about the funk dances where kids rumble, but it's okay because he talks to MV Bill, who also backs up his theory. By the end, he's happier, kind of, because he's found others around the world who feel the same way he does. The theory is all, and has been validated.

What is the theory? The theory is that hip-hop (all together: it's four elements it's not just rap it's graffiti deejaying and breakdancing too) is primarily a vehicle for social betterment, for uplift and political motivation, for unity and stopping the violence and ending the self-destruction; the theory is also that Today's Rap Isn't Real Hip-Hop, it's a low debased kind of music that shares some of the form of the kind of music he loves but none of the soul, none of the street smarts and ghetto-CNN that he has decided hip-hop also is. (So I guess there are really supposed to be five elements to the form.)

When Neate is in New York he's astounded by how people can actually like Jay-Z. He's not a big fan of P.Diddy either, surprise surprise. (Actually, neither am I though, except as a producer, where he was kinda dope for quite a few years.) He likes Public Enemy and the Coup, Rakim and Common and 'Pac and Biggie and Cannibal Ox, but isn't so hip on a lot of other modern people who tend to flaunt the bling and fling the blag and flout the paradigm.

I used to be this guy. For me, I got into hip-hop at Harvard around the same time that I was working with teenagers through Philips Brooks House. I too saw it as a great vehicle, a tank with a beat, the dopest ride in the world. I borrowed albums from real live ghetto teens: EPMD and JVC Force and Ultramagnetic and Rakim and Big Daddy Kane and Stetsasonic. I memorized it and obsessed over it and read about it. I used rap songs in junior high classes I taught, and lyrics in poetry classes with our local uplift-the-kidz agency. I have freestyled and I have reviewed hip-hop and I have hung out with Chairman Mao.

And I bought the whole thing, hooks lines and cinque. I really believed a lot of this "hip-hop will change the social dynamic or die trying" thing for a long time. Until I didn't, anymore. Kids just like dope beats, or people who look like they have dope beats, or people who used to have dope beats. Kids just like clever lines, whether they're spat about George Bush or some fool who might have dissed you on a mixtape or a hoe or a punk or a snitch or Left Eye and Aaliyah or Canadian prescription drug prices. No one's lives were ever changed for real by music. Except maybe the people on the masthead of this site, or maybe millions around the world all the time every day.

So I should have a lot of cluck-cluck oh poor fellow sympathy for Patrick Neate as he goes on his quest. But I'm kind of pissed off at him, or at least at his authorial voice. This voice is so...well, it's so something, kind of a combination of superior and clueless and yet charming and optimistic at the same time. He hates the fact that people like music that he doesn't like, and I remember that time in my life. I'm over it now. Let people listen to whatever the hell they want, I say, it's all good, it's not worth losing your mind over.

But Neate has a book contract, so he has to travel around. He has been to more places in this world than me, maybe he knows better how to judge the sincerity of all Japanese b-boys than I would, maybe he has managed to speak to the two most powerful and all-seeing South Africans in the whole country, maybe his pages-long disquisitions into the history of baile funk and kwaito are more important than just history lessons that seem cut and pasted in like so many dreary lecture notes. But I don't know, it just doesn't go down right.

At one point, early on, it seems like Neate is going to make a breakthrough, that he's deciding that rap that doesn't push the societal envelope can also be good, that he's going to learn some tolerance for the world. But then he decides not to decide that, and we end with him saying that hip-hop has "stagnated" and that it's all the fault of the U.S. post-9/11 mentality. CAUCASIAN PLEASE. And don't say that all of us have flags in our windows, it's not true, no matter what your beatnik friends tell you. Eff that. I live in whitey Midwestern land and only the hard-core people on my block have anything but Packers flags out. (More than before 9/11, yes, but it's not affecting the hip-hop.)

Who else does Neate blame? Oh, yeah: Nelly, for having a big diamond chain. Can you not remember, Mr Neate, the big fat chains on about 99% of rappers' necks, even ones you can't praise more highly? Can you not put aside this whole "I know hip-hop better than those damn American young millionaires who never had anything in their lives and now they're massively successful but I know better than they do what they should be doing with the mic and with the money" thing? Like, way back in the drawer with the porn and the watch that doesn't work?

Does he write very well? Yes he does. Does he talk with some fascinating people? Yes he does. Do I agree with one of his central tenets, that hip-hop has become the black-America-rules global riposte to white American economic hegemony? Sure. Is this book worth reading? Yes it is. Does it make me slightly insane? Yes but I was already there.

Overall, a good thing but not a great thing, a book that replaces other people's stereotypes about hip-hop music with Patrick Neate's stereotypes about hip-hop music.
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