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To wack and back

A hip-hop scholar’s round-the-world tour

Several years ago, British novelist Patrick Neate stumbled into a Tokyo dance club called Harlem where up was down and down was up. African men posing as black Americans were dancing with Japanese girls who’d tanned their skin the color of charcoal and had their hair done up in $1,000 dreadlock haystacks—all to look black, of course. It goes without saying that the music they were listening to was American hip-hop.

As Neate discovers in Where You’re At, hip-hop often inspires cultural cross-dressing like this. Neate should know. A white Londoner who studied at Cambridge University and learned how to DJ in Africa, Neate is a walking example of why authenticity is such a slippery term in the hip-hop world.

Neate finds all kinds of definitions for what hip-hop truly is in Where You’re At, which chronicles his travels to Tokyo, Rio, New York, Johannesburg and Cape Town. Along the way, he talks to emcees named Herb and bops his head to South African bubblegum (early ’90s disco pop). One thing is clear: Hip-hop is America’s bestselling music, and here is a book that shows what the world has done with this flashiest of exports.

Neate grew up listening to rap in suburban London when other kids were fans of Wham! All it took was one taste and he was hooked: “I will always remember that first night,” Neate recalls, describing his encounter with Street Sounds Electro Volume 9, which featured a Jheri-curled incarnation of future N.W.A. member DJ Yella. “It was the night I vowed to be the first B-boy in London.”

Although he wasn’t the first, Neate was certainly early on the scene. He moved from Street Sounds into more and more rarefied circles, to the point where the discography appended here looks like a Ph.D. student’s citation list. Like any expert in a genre that’s gone from marginal to mainstream, Neate has a hard time giving a simple introduction. He’s forever clocking how five minutes ago a scene is, or measuring its purity with a gemologist’s precision.

His knowledge becomes much more accessible when he goes out reporting in the world, looking for the frontier, so to speak, of the hip-hop planet. Time and again Neate stumbles upon odd contradictions. For example, even though New York is often considered the birthplace of hip-hop, Neate finds that young artists there have a terrible time breaking out. Gone are the days when a talented emcee with no backing in Brooklyn could climb his way to the top.

Recently, the best new acts have come out of the South and the Midwest, garnering commercial attention because of their intense local followings. Neate points to Nellie’s explosion from St. Louis and the emergence of Ludacris in Atlanta, both of whom had strong support from local radio stations. As an American, it’s hard not to wish that Neate had spent less time in the far corners of the globe, and rather had visited the parts of the rural South and Midwest where new rappers are popping up like spring corn these days. Still, part of what makes this book such an amusing read is to see how the globalization of hip-hop has led to some unusual cultural crossovers. While in New York, Neate visits a record label in Manhattan called Bronx Science, which ships most of its music to white Europeans overseas. He tests the pulse of old-time gangsters in South Africa, who signify by wearing Converse All-Stars. Neate even makes a brief foray into the Italian rap scene, which is mostly leftish and mostly political. Imagine Public Enemy shouting less and drinking cappuccinos and you get the idea.

If all these field reports are enough to make your head spin, that’s OK, because every reference in the book gets a footnote or two. And there’s the discography, which spans several continents and as many languages—if only Neate’s publisher had sprung for a companion CD compilation. Even when Neate talks about how an emcee is “pulling words apart and reassembling them like plasticine shapes,” it’s difficult to grasp just how good the music can sound. In an effort to be both specific and authentic, Neate occasionally flirts with the language of connoisseurship that makes rock and jazz criticism so insular. He refers to emcees as B-boys and B-girls, talks about their flow and hangs out with crews who front and those who really throw it down. There isn’t a city or scene Neate hasn’t seen, and he’s cool enough to use the word “wack” (uncool) without irony. In the end, Neate has the good sense to laugh at his desire to display his knowledge. Where You’re At is a journey of sorts, and Neate actually does change in the process. He starts off with some clear ideas—that hip-hop is urban, that it’s been co-opted by commercialism—and winds up with a fluid appreciation for how different cultures have interpreted the music he loves. In Tokyo, for example, he initially comes down hard on that city’s bizarre mimicry of American hip-hop. Japanese girls who spend thousands of dollars to have their hair thickened into dreadlocks? Rich Tokyo teens rapping about the thug life?

After a few days in the city, though, Neate loosens up and realizes that the Japanese have simply taken hip-hop culture in a new direction. Neate looks for a lyrical expression of issues; the Japanese turn to hip-hop for lyrical stylization. Period. By the end of this vivid and amusing book, Neate has learned how to embrace this multiplicity, even if it that means the people loving his favorite music might occasionally seem, well, a little wack.

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