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July 25, 2007

Know What I Mean: Book Review

Know What I Mean

Know What I Mean?: Reflections on Hip-Hop
by Michael Eric Dyson

Perhaps you've heard of Michael Eric Dyson. In the past 10 years or so, he's put out about 15 books, including that one about Tupac Shakur that you could get for free if you picked up a copy of that god-awful Thug Angel documentary. I actually did pick one up, since the whole thing at Best Buy was probably a bit cheaper than you'd pay for the book by itself at a Barnes and Noble.

Up until just now it was the only Michael Eric Dyson book I've ever read. A couple of years ago, I meant to check out his book about how Bill Cosby is obviously batshit and would be one of these old black people you always hear about dying in house fires, except for the fact that he's worth roughly a gozillion dollars, but I figured I got the gist of it from his numerous appearances on TV talk shows over the years.

And really, a TV talk show is probably the best way to experience Michael Eric Dyson. I don't know if he sits around all day popping No Doz and poring over a thesaurus or what, but suffice it to say that he shows up to these damn things in full-on Cornholio mode. For a while now I've been convinced that a lot of the effect has to do with the ridonkulous level of speed and clarity with which he speaks, but still. I wouldn't want to take away too much from the guy. Lord knows I can barely order a pizza.

I can't remember too much about the 2Pac book - which I probably flipped through in the course of an afternoon five or so years ago - other than I found it somewhat disappointing. In general, it seemed like he used 'Pac's as a jumping off point to launch into a bunch of extra intellectual shit that really wasn't that interesting. What's more, I had a hard time buying that an intellectual of his stature could genuinely be that impressed with 2Pac as an artist or as a thinker or as a person in general.

I know one thing that's cited fairly often is a bit where MED stumbles upon a bookshelf at a place where 'Pac once lived, which just so happens to have a bunch of shit on it that would probably generally be considered above 'Pac's pay scale. And yet 'Pac is alleged to have read all of them (which is also weird since 'Pac was barely 25 when he died, and obviously spent quite a bit of time doing some of everything other than reading books), which MED offers up as evidence that 'Pac was really this genius-level thinker.

Retarded, right?

In Know What I Mean, MED uses a similarly fairly faulty logic to defend a few rappers - including Jay-Z and Nas, with whom he's apparently buddy-buddy - and, in effect, hip-hop itself. One of MED's main arguments is that many rappers who are often dismissed as being vulgar and semi-literate are actually rhetorical geniuses. As proof, he quotes a few bars from a couple of Jay-Z and Nas records and proves that they're works of genius by pointing to them and saying, "See, that's genius!" Oh, really?

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy Jay-Z and Nas, when they're actually good, the way Wesley Willis enjoyed a good milkshake. But at the same time, I guess my self-esteem doesn't require that I think either of them is the next Michel Foucault or whatever. The thing is, I think his goal in this is to help bridge the gap between the hip-hop community and the rest of society by showing that some hip-hop really is great art, which is certainly a noble pursuit. I just think the way he went about it was kinda half-assed.

Another thing that kinda rubbed me the wrong way was a bit having to do with Earl Graves, the guy who founded Black Enterprise magazine and also owns The Source. (Right?) I can't remember if he's the same guy who doesn't allow his interns to wear dreadlocks or not, but in Know What I Mean, MED takes exception to a comment he made about how no one with tattoos or low-slung pants can tell him anything with regard to business. MED counters that a few rappers such as Jay-Z have built multi-million dollar empires, which he offers as proof of their business acumen.

I got into a similar debate recently with a guy at XXL about how 50 Cent isn't really a visionary venture capitalist just because he allegedly made $400 million in one day from his part ownership of the company that makes Vitamin Water. Don't get me wrong, $400 million is $400 million, but obviously 50 Cent's relationship with the Vitamin Water people was forged primarily as a celebrity endorsement deal, because he's a famous rapper. And he only got to be a famous rapper in the first place by singing about selling crack and pimping hoes and what have you. Successful?  Hell yeah! Brilliant? Not so much.

Obviously the really big issue in hip-hop these days, and probably the reason this half-assed collection was rushed to print, is the debate on gender issues touched off by Don Imus, of all people. In case you were wondering, MED is against misogyny in rap music, though he'd like to counter that hip-hop, which has only been around for 30 years or so, can hardly be blamed for inventing misogyny and that the misogyny you do hear in hip-hop is hardly any more prevalent than it is in society at large or especially in the black church, which he has some sort of vendetta against. It's just more vulgar.

If he really wanted to take on the issue, I felt like this last portion of the book could have benefited from some actual textual analysis of the music. If he feels like the Snoop Doggs of the world are so wrong in their point of view, how hard could it be to quote some of the more egregious examples of their misogyny and show us why they're so wrong, other than the fact that old people and women find it offensive? Similarly, he seemed way to quick to dismiss Don Imus and the Duke lacrosse team as evil racists without getting too deep into what they did or didn't do. Especially the Duke lacrosse team, which has since been more or less vindicated.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. For the most part, I can appreciate MED's efforts to bridge the generation gap in the black community and to defend hip-hop against the people who live to criticize it and yet hardly even listen to it. On the other hand, I find MED's reading of hip-hop remarkably shallow for a man of his ability. Obviously part of it has to do with the fact that this is a fairly slim volume that consists of nothing but transcripts of conversations he's had with other intellectual types, but the shit still cost me the same as it would if he'd given this topic the amount of time and effort it deserved. He could've come a lot harder than he did here.

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Posted by Bol at 11:50 AM | Permalink

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