"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I can hear him, his voice pregnant with that inimitable timbre — a mixture of seductively syncopated cadence and bass, the perfect distillation of raw rhythm, charisma and rage — as clearly as if I were listening through stereo headphones.
Tupac Shakur, accused of assaulting the filmmaking brothers Allen and Albert Hughes during a music video shoot, waits outside of a Los Angeles County Municipal courtroom for the plaintiffs to exit the room. They do, and almost instantly, one of the brothers boldly calls him a female dog in the diminutive. Sharp words are exchanged, egos are puffed along with chests, and the Hughes brothers’ Nation of Islam security steps in to separate the warring parties. Pac responds accordingly, as only he can: “You gon’ need muthafuckin’ Farrakhan to calm me down! You got that? Farrakhan! You bean-pie-slingin’, bow-tie-wearing bitches. You wear bow ties, remember that!” The sheriff’s department then enters the fray, separating all antagonists. Pac acknowledges their arrival: “Officers. I’m glad you arrived. These men were trying to attack me! Can you believe that? They tried to attack me with the Nation of Islam. Those are Farrakhan’s boys, you know. I’m so glad you’re here. I have full confidence in the law’s ability to handle the situation.”
This moment is captured by dream hampton in her profile of Shakur titled “Hell-Raiser,” itself one of the standout pieces assembled by editor Raquel Cepeda in the new compilation “And It Don’t Stop: The Best American Hip-Hop Journalism of the Last 25 Years.” It is representative not only of Tupac’s remarkable persona, but also of the book’s ambitious project as a whole. At its best, “And It Don’t Stop” is a collection of hip-hop’s most vital moments — a historical documentation of the music’s evolution and the journalism that evolved along with that music. Nelson George, one of the pioneers of hip-hop journalism and author of such works as “Hip-Hop America” and “Post-Soul Nation,” writes in his foreword that the book serves as a record “not merely of artists and their records, but also a window into the popular dialogue that hip-hop has made possible.”
Cepeda, former editor in chief of Russell Simmons’ Oneworld and contributor to the Source, Vibe, the Village Voice and GQ, has her own agenda in compiling hip-hop journalism’s first chronicle. In her introduction, she writes, “Twenty-five years after the release of Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight,’ the first Billboard-charted rap single — but certainly not the first rap record — there is even an argument to be made for hip-hop writing’s adoption as a sixth element of the culture — behind deejaying, emceeing, dancing, graffiti, and fashion — due to its critical role in archiving and reporting the history, present, and undoubtedly the future of hip-hop. It would also be fair to say hip-hop journalism is, in fact, an extension of rap music.” It is an argument that aspires to place great journalism on the level of art — more specifically, on the level of the artists who produce hip-hop music. An elevation of hip-hop journalism to such artistic heights, however, would (and should) subject it to the same critique to which much of contemporary hip-hop is now subject: Like the music itself, hip-hop journalism has a penchant for crass commercialism, imaginative stagnation and sometimes even profound anti-intellectualism. Cepeda’s project seems to want to identify a canon of rap journalism, thereby insulating the better examples while leaving the sea of shiny but shallow prose pretenders — the literary wankstas, if you will — to fend for themselves.
Sally Baines’ 1981 article “Physical Graffiti” — the first ever published on break dancing in the Village Voice, and the first piece in the collection — captures the oft-ignored early component of hip-hop, “breaking.” What is startling here is both how vital and vibrant this aspect was to the burgeoning culture, and how far out of focus it had fallen in hip-hop’s modern, mainstream iteration, only to be recently resurrected — as an old-school novelty of sorts — in Missy Elliott music videos and elsewhere. Baines writes beautifully about her B Boys, “the Puerto Rican and black teenagers who invent and endlessly elaborate this exquisite, heady blend of dancing, acrobatics, and martial spectacle. Breaking is a way of using your body to inscribe your identity on streets and trains, in parks and high school gyms. It is a physical version of two favorite modes of street rhetoric: the taunt and the boast.”
Steven Hager’s 1982 piece on Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation is significant for its documentation of two revolutionary cultural moments in hip-hop history: the rise of the DJ and the innovations of scratching and sampling as the foundations of the music, and the DJ’s subsequent fall (or more appropriately, fade-out), having been eclipsed by the charismatic frontman, the MC. Part of the fun of these early articles is to listen to hip-hop’s forefathers — and their chroniclers — wax poetic on their intentions and expectations for the music. Bambaataa says, “In the future, I just hope all my groups keep pimping … See, George Clinton took the music of James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone and made a whole funk empire out of it. That’s what I’m trying to do with rap.” Hager follows, wondering, “Who knows? In another five years, hip-hop could be considered the most significant artistic achievement of the decade.” Say word.
Divided into three sections — ’80s, ’90s, and from 2000 onward — the book’s early articles are concerned with documenting and defining the emerging youth culture’s “fresh” yet disparate elements. There are many priceless moments: David Hershkovits on hip-hop in Europe, Bill Adler at Sal Abbatiello’s Disco Fever in the South Bronx, and Nelson George’s profile of rap mogul Russell Simmons, mouth-wateringly titled “Rappin’ With Russell: Eddie Murphying the Flak-Catchers.” But as hip-hop defined and distilled its components, so did hip-hop writing, keeping pace with the rapidly developing culture, and becoming — for better or worse — a unique brand of journalism. Along the way, the articles offer countless opportunities not only to revisit forgotten frozen personal, public and political moments, but also to make connections between past and present, to see precursors and progenitors and gauge their impact on hip-hop’s modern age.
Selwyn Seyfu Hinds and Hilton Als bring welcome measures of historicism, personal experience and eloquent, essayistic grace to their pieces on the Fugees’ Haitian homecoming and the state of soul music, respectively. Charles Aaron’s essay, “What the White Boy Means When He Says ‘Yo,’” deserves to be read by all devotees — and detractors — of hip-hop, if merely for his reformulation of W.E.B. Du Bois’ construction “double consciousness,” which suggests blacks in America are “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” In Aaron’s hands, this becomes “double unconsciousness,” a description of the white hip-hopper’s “failing to look at oneself through the eyes of others, the myth that if you, as an individual, don’t behave in an actively racist fashion, then you’re not shaped by racism.” And yes, there’s an article on Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs (love him or hate him, any such book would be incomplete without him).
Cepeda highlights a particular shift, discernible in both the focus and the language of the hip-hop writing in the 1990s: “On the one hand, the journalism of the era moved away from just documenting the phenomenon to a mode of critique, exploring hard-hitting issues that ranged from politics, censorship, misogyny, economics, class, gender, religion and spirituality, to other sociopolitical issues,” she writes. Notably, she does not fail to mention the “cross section of the journalism [that] sadly followed some of the artists down the Benjamin-paved road toward mainstreaming.” Cepeda is both shrewd and caustic in her appraisal of the perils of contemporary hip-hop journalism, observing that “today, coverage has more to do with staying relevant than an inherent zeal to critically document the genre,” a problem compounded by the fact that “the music now bumping from your Jeeps sounds, for the most part, like one seamless jingle for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.”
What is occasionally problematic about this collection, however, is that the most essential service many essays and articles provide — the elucidation of a particular moment in time — sometimes remains the only valuable part of the essay, the rest composed of either lax language and prosaic prose or a blurring of the line between celebrity profile and celebrity reverence. Greg Tate’s 1996 “Diatribe” against the perceived disappearance of “progressive hip-hop” (A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, etc.), while intelligently argued, is frustrating to read with all that slanguage that sounds infinitely better spoken (over a beat?) than written. The word “aiight” should rarely appear in print, apart from in song lyrics. Emil Wilbekin’s profile of Mary J. Blige sounds a slightly false note as a concluding piece; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliantly studied and stated piece, “Keepin’ It Unreal: $elling the Myth of Black Male Violence Long Past Its Expiration Date,” would have made a more thoughtful finale.
The book truly finds its center with the landmark profiles of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., by hampton and Cheo Hodari Coker, respectively. Hampton’s portrait is essestial reading for anyone wishing to better understand the enigma of Shakur’s life. (For those who believe that the definitive book on his life has not yet been written, perhaps this is a start.) Yet there is no moment more chilling or heart-rending than when Coker asks B.I.G. “where he wanted to be in life.” The thoughtful, lovable thug called Biggie responds — on what would turn out to be “his last night on earth” — “I think there are a lot more lessons that I need to learn. There are a lot more things I need to experience, a lot more places I need to go before I can finally say, ‘Okay, I had my days.’ A lot more shit have to go down, ’cause I want a lot more.”
Pop culture critic Touré states in his contribution, “To be a great MC you must have a hypnotizing flow — a cadence and delivery that get inside the drum and bass patterns and create their own rhythm line.” About this, he is absolutely correct, and the same is true of the hip-hop writer: Self-assurance and cool confidence, lyrical acumen and creative delivery are the hallmark of every good hip-hop journalist. Like all great writers, a hip-hop writer also needs that touch of the ineffable, that talent to sense the elegance and significance of every moment, from the earth-shattering to the quietly confessional. And like all the best rappers, the finest hip-hop journalists, at their very essence, are supremely gifted storytellers.
Peter L'Official is a writer living in New York.More Peter L'Official.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)