The Breaks of History

Ralph Ellison once suggested that “living with music” provides us with “an orientation in time.” Music, in other words, helps us locate and anchor ourselves within a history that exceeds us. Living ...

Ralph Ellison once suggested that “living with music” provides us with “an orientation in time.” Music, in other words, helps us locate and anchor ourselves within a history that exceeds us. Living with music might well allow us to listen to history itself, to listen for what history sounds like. What history can we hear in hip-hop? Two recent, genre-warping books, Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest and Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz’s Beastie Boys Book, are listening. Each, in its own way, is trying to understand what kind of history is in hip-hop, and to what history this music orients its listeners.

At the same time, each is also trying to determine its subjects’ own relation to that history. But translating cultural history into personal history—as well as converting music into language—is difficult. How are we to explain the ways we cleave to sounds made outside our immediate orbit? How exactly do we attach our myriad dramas onto the snap of a beat?

The answer to these questions, for hip-hop, is the sample. Built from the breaks of jazz and funk, soul and disco, hip-hop is forged by breaking open and repurposing—sampling—musical history. In the spirit of Ellison, hip-hop is a historical archive of reinvention: the assembly of samples in service of something else, of something new. As Abdurraqib puts it, a sample “can be extracted from the past and stretched over a sound reaching for the future,” allowing MCs to “rap about their own desires for [improving] a fractured world.” Samples spotlight the temporal character of the world; by pointing to the disjunction between past and present, they open a space for imagining the world otherwise. By breaking and remaking forms, hip-hop gives shape to desire, endeavoring to author a new world into being. For Abdurraqib, this new world is both index of and salve for the indignities of the present, a powerful counter-rhythm to the way things are.

Indeed, hip-hop emerges in both books as revelatory, revolutionary. “The shit was crazy,” Diamond writes, remembering early DJ Afrika Bambaataa: “Our world was forever changed.” And: “It never occurred to us that so much different music from so many different worlds could all live together, with the sum being (far) greater than the parts.” Here, hip-hop draws otherwise opposing elements together in a groove. For Diamond, it builds up new structures that signal the malleability of the world as it appears, the DJ’s ability to shape the world with music.

Both books are thus records of sonic worlds forming and coming apart: they narrate the ways listening makes and multiplies our understanding of the world. Perhaps because of this, familiar genre tags fall short. Memoir, autobiography, cultural history—such forms are placed under pressure and warped beyond recognition. Abdurraqib puts it nicely in one of his letters to the late Phife Dawg, of Tribe: “This isn’t about facts, but about memory.”

Memory, then. This is where the books begin to differ. Or, rather, this is where the books couldn’t help but differ. For even while Beastie Boys and Tribe were never far from each other—living in the same city, chasing down the same obscure Minnie Ripperton samples, releasing their landmark albums in the same years of hip-hop’s so-called golden age—their stories in so many crucial ways remain distinct. And this is because the stories are shaped by different racial, social, and political-economic forces and flows, in a radically uneven American society.

Put differently, the histories encoded here sound different. And they sound different because the ambition and intent of each book varies considerably. Abdurraqib is writing as someone enraptured by the movements of hip-hop; he is a fan, sure, but one with a keen ear for hip-hop’s historical weight and theoretical agility—its ability to discern and imagine different possibilities in the morass of an inadequate present. The world comes into sharper focus when set to music, and Abdurraqib deftly unfolds insight and meaning from the music he loves. Beastie Boys Book, on the other hand, is more obviously celebratory. It demonstrates the nourishing companionability that accompanies listening together. These accounts are distinct but not incompatible. Rather, they suggest the multiple rhythms along which history is plotted.

One of the central and most important stories Go Ahead in the Rain hears is that of blackness in America. Rooting hip-hop in the long history of stolen life and forced migration of chattel slavery, Abdurraqib begins his book: “In the beginning before the beginning, there were drums, and hymns, and a people carried here from another here, and a language stripped and a new one learned … the children of slaves made what sweet sounds they could and stole a small and precious thing after having a large and precious history stolen from them.” Hip-hop—and, perhaps, even the technique of sampling—here becomes a sonic index of what scholar Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of slavery”: “Skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.”1 Hip-hop emerges from this scene of language stolen and language repurposed: a world built with rhythm that is oriented beyond the unlivable fractures of its origin.

The book then tours Tribe’s discography by way of Rodney King, a history of Jet Magazine, a paean to the mid-’90s New York Knicks. These cultural touchstones appear in and among epistolary laments to the members of the group, allowing them to pass into the knotty paths of memory. Such digressive writing invites us to think about how culture never belong to or originates in a single person or place, but accrues over time and between communities.

So much of Rain hinges on the authorial voice reaching outward: in letters to his heroes; in a cultural history that is always collective; in Abdurraqib’s repeated, near-talismanic incantation, “It would behoove you to have a crew.”


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Beastie Boys Book, too, is a book of the crew. But, again, the meaning of this crew is different. Unlike Abdurraqib’s story of the complex aid music offers to those living through, among other things, a thoroughly racist history, the story Horovitz and Diamond want to tell is one of male friendship. It’s focused on those fraught and worried-over bonds, which move fitfully from beer-drenched frat-boy companionability to a more lasting and intimate rapture with others. Always and everywhere in the book, these bonds are constructed and maintained in sound. From record shops to studios, theaters to clubs, the Beasties and their affiliates find themselves chasing down sounds together.

Beastie Boys Book thus takes shape as a musical geography, moving between New York City and Los Angeles; a musical architecture, demonstrating the foundational importance of clubs like Danceteria and Area and their comparable punk iterations (Maxwell’s, the Mudd Club, CBGB’s); and a particular musical history, asserting punk and hip-hop’s coevolution and kinship (a matter of shared but, until recently, rarely tracked strands of social, historical, and aesthetic DNA).

The book is also a material history of the beat: a love letter to the 808, SP-1200, and MPC, to listening to such music together. This devotion to the physical act of listening in common appears throughout as the load-bearing structure of relationships. When, early in the book, Diamond and the late Beastie Adam Yauch attend Black Flag’s first New York show, we get a sense of the capacity of music to bind friendship: for everyone in the audience, Diamond recalls, “that night in March changed what we thought was possible.”

Including essays from peers, Beastie Boys Book’s story takes shape much in the manner of Rain, where historical collage arranges past and present, global and local. We are returned, again, to the sample: the book is a transgenerational, multivoiced narrative, drawing from unlikely sources and stories, developing along bizarre contrapuntal rhythms.

Read in tandem, these books demonstrate how history comes together unevenly, in fits and starts, by way of singular stories and fractured circumstance.

Following an introduction from Horovitz, the critic Luc Sante offers a second-person Dickensian panorama of early ’80s New York, a vast survey of the culture that would incubate what he calls (after the B side of their inaugural single) “Beastie Revolution.” Later, erstwhile Beastie Kate Schellenbach details her cruel dismissal from the band (then under the influence/management of “that meathead,” Rick Rubin). Schellenbach traces the deeply gendered toxicity of both hip-hop and punk from outside of the often insular band, all while maintaining her affection for her erstwhile friends and what they all shared. This is joyous, messy work; putting together an inventory of friendship takes care, and Diamond and Horowitz’s expressions of regret appear genuinely felt.

Then there is the story the book doesn’t tell—doesn’t want to tell, perhaps, but also couldn’t tell. It’s not that Beastie Boys Book is inattentive to race (Horovitz and Diamond make copious, near-compulsive references to their own whiteness), but one is left wondering what, exactly, they think of that whiteness beyond its strange outlier status in the world of hip-hop.

In Sante’s essay, for example, the second person “you” is white: “The [Reggae] dance clubs aren’t especially meant for your kind.” But this is never subjected to analysis; whiteness instead appears as a strange leitmotif, a hovering presence, something taken for granted. The essay by brothers Blake and Jonathan Lethem is titled “White Boy Bouillabaisse: An Archeology” and tells an origin story of the group with whiteness (at least nominally) at its center. Future Beastie Adam Yauch appears with his “Caucasoid” friends at a Quaker summer camp in the woods of Pennsylvania, and Lethem is careful to premise the piece with the understanding that “It is a white man’s world, they say. No sane white man would dispute it.” But these nods appear decorative: as though hip-hop could just as easily have emerged at a Pennsylvania summer camp as in the Bronx. The book is missing a more robust account of what Jennifer Stoever calls the “sonic color line”: the long, sounded history of color in American life.2 (Surely, the last thing anyone needed in 2018 was an archeology of whiteness by the brothers Lethem).


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But we also hear about Horovitz’s and Diamond’s admiration for Def Jam affiliates Run-DMC, their retrospective shame of toxic dudeliness, their deep knowledge of hip-hop’s sonic origins. While their mostly Manhattan journey through the middle class seems to understand the foundations of hip-hop as a simple matter of taking the train uptown, their ruthless self-critique elsewhere offers compelling reasons to take their story—however incomplete—seriously.

Go Ahead in the Rain and Beastie Boys Book end up dramatizing how aesthetic works emerge from—and become entangled in—history. The sort of history readers are after will ultimately determine the relative merits of each book. Rain is more satisfying at the level of narrative and concept. One need not be a fan of Tribe in order for the book to do its work, and this is because Abdurraqib elegantly underpins his personal investment in Tribe with the long history of race, culture, and aesthetics in American life. Beastie Boys Book, despite its forbidding length, tells a more modest—because more specific—story. Beastie Boys Book is about three kids who grew up making things together, who came to inhabit and shape a world in gratifying union.

Read in tandem, though, these books demonstrate how history comes together unevenly, in fits and starts, by way of singular stories and fractured circumstance. They demonstrate how hip-hop tells all manner of irreconcilable stories, and how these stories radiate from the shared sounds of collective life. These books thus invite us to think about where history gets enciphered—in our songs, through particular breaks, on our stereos—and the ways we can find ourselves together listening to its frequencies. Go Ahead in the Rain and Beastie Boys Book powerfully grant us an image of how music holds us across the fractures of living in a world unfit for human life.

More simply, though, we might say that these books are recording a life with music, and that they are worth listening to.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), p. 6.
  2. Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (NYU Press, 2016).
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