I may have one of the most developed hip-hop libraries of anyone I know, which is not saying much. I own three or four of the best books on hip-hop written, which puts me well ahead of the game. After two or three decades, writers are starting to write about hip-hop seriously. The problem is, after two or three decades, hip-hop has grown so big that those writers can only bite off little chunks at a time.
"Where You're At" (the title is taken from a Rakim lyric) is not a history book, or a study. It is more of a memoir than anything else. Its subject matter is hip-hop around the world. I have also read an academic treatise on the matter, Global Noise, but this book is quite different. It covers fewer locales: New York City, Tokyo, Capetown and Johannsburg, and instead of trying to focus on a comprehensive history or look at one subject rigoruously, the author, a Briton named Patrick Neate, mostly writes about his own interaction with people and places in these locales. Which I suppose, would be the more hip-hop way to do it. Not that he doesn't have a sense of history or is writing a facile book: in his section on Japan, for instance, covers post-war history and sociology quite nicely. The issues are different in each area: to the Japanese, hip-hop is a way beyond a closed culture. In South Africa and Brazil, hip-hop is used as both a coherent tool for political change, as well as being simple, and sometimes negative, party music. In the United States, the tension lies between hip-hop's original inception as street culture, and its current status as a multi-billion dollar business. There is much more that could be written about the fractalization of hip-hop in different times and places, but this book is a good starting guide.
The one question that remains unanswered, for me at least, is what does hip-hop have in common amongst all these places? Neate writes, in his conclusion: "hip-hop is now a key imaginative source for young people worldwide." This makes it sound like hip-hop is just a mixed storehouse of metaphors and symbols, to be used as needed. While this isn't untrue, it also seems to be that hip-hop also has a unified message, and is in some way, a Movement. But what is the unifying message of hip-hop? Some historians say that hip-hop was a concerted cultural movement to end the oppression of the Reagan-Bush Administrations (this seems to be the thesis of Can't Stop Won't Stop.) But even for the small core of hip-hop groups that made up the Golden Age of rap, there didn't appear to be a set political or social agenda. So what about hip-hop can unify economically satisfied but socially marginized Japanese youths, and also help soothe the chaos of post-Apartheid South Africa? What can it say about a United States that still has an underclass? What can it do to stop violence and racism in Brazil? Can all these cultures share hip-hop as something other than a facile symbol of "coolness"? I don't know if this book answers that question, but it is perhaps a nice introduction for the book that will.