Book Review

Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace & Mark Costello

Photo on 25-09-2013 at 21.21 #3

When I learnt about the recent republication of David Foster Wallace’s 1990 academic text about hip-hop only days after falling in love with Infinite Jest, I knew that I had to read it. And today I did.

Co-authored with his student house/flat/roommate when they resumed cohabitation in their mid-to-late-twenties, DFW writes verbosely, intellectually and with a genuine passion about rap, rappers and hip-hop. A lot of the performers he names are not people I am familiar with, a lot of the lyrics he and Mark Costello quote are not from songs I know, but many of them are. Many familiar, iconic, long-lasting, influential beats, DJs, MCs and albums are discussed and analysed in frivolous academese. Many social issues, other critical (though less intellectual, less appreciative) opinions are considered and dismissed… It is an enthusiastic book, a fun, thought-provoking and informative text looking with serious eyes at the myriad problematic associations of hip-hop, particularly its use as a racial signifier, “gangsta” lyrics denoting and encouraging a stereotypical or synecdochic reading of black America.*

The two writers also discuss the familiar guilt that comes with enjoying hip-hop as white, middle class and (in the writers’ cases, not my own) well-educated, perhaps the polar opposite of the target demographic. It is analytical, it is dense in places, but it is also frequently funny, light, tho does occasionally exhibit a somewhat po-faced need to seem to be talking about popular music in a serious, wordy manner.

But what, I suppose, does come out through is the joy, the fun, the pleasure that can be had, can be found, that DFW and his buddy Costello found, in the hot new rap scene at the end of the ’80s. It’s short, it’s typical DFW, tbf, it’s interesting, and I feel a bit better informed about the world of rap than I did before.

NB: The title comes from a song by Schoolly D, a spoken word piece over a looped Led Zeppelin riff. Worth a listen:


*That was a failed attempt to write like Mr Wallace.

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