The Worst Book Ever Written About Hip-Hop

Many years ago I read a book about rap music called Signifying Rappers, which bragged about its status as the first scholarly book-length analysis of rap music. It annoyed me, it bored me, and I remember it getting certain facts wrong.

I was frustrated by every page, and I lost complete respect for the authors, two ivory-tower academics who made a big deal about how white they were and how uncomfortable they felt in the middle of their love for hip-hop.

At first I thought I would appreciate their perspective, since I grew up a nerdy white kid feeling very much like an ivory-tower egghead who could never really feel like a part of the community. But these guys wore their difference like a badge of honor, and droned endlessly about how they felt singled out for the color of their skin. (This distracted constantly from the points they were supposed to be making about the music and society.)

At one point they complained about how their tires got slashed by someone during a rap concert. They tied this incident into their racial identity for some reason, as if the perpetrator had singled them out for the property damage. Then, almost as an afterthought, they added something like: “Maybe it wasn’t just us. Turns out everyone else had their tires slashed too.”

I don’t stop reading books if I can help it, so I made it all the way through. Then I awarded it the title “Worst Book Ever Written About Hip-Hop” and threw it away.

Today I began writing a chapter about hip-hop for my new book The Six Animals. Imagine my shock and alarm when I realized that one of the authors was David Foster Wallace. Holy crap! There is no American writer for whom I have more respect. I won’t win any awards for social originality when I say it, but This Is Water changed my life and stands as one of my favorite nonfiction pieces ever written.

Have I been wrong about this book? Is it truly as terrible as I remember it? Is it possible that the great DFW wrote something so insipid and useless? Apparently the critics didn’t like it when it came out, and Wallace himself rarely spoke about it. Now, however, it’s been re-issued and celebrated by retrospective essays. I have to wonder, however, if this isn’t a case of idol worship instead of dispassionate consideration.

I need to find this book and read it again. I doubt I’ll be able to consume it objectively, but I’ll try. If nothing else, it will be a profound challenge to my brain’s capacity to reconcile extreme love for the writer and extreme hatred for my memory of the book.

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