Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Hip-Hop's First Christmas

When he got his first check for “Christmas Rappin’” is when Russell Simmons finally moved out of his parents’ house. Kurtis Blow had done the actual Christmas rappin’, but Simmons had brokered the deal. It was the first rap song ever released by a major label, only the third released by any kind of label at all. That alone made it a novelty; that it was also about Christmas made it novelty cubed. Thirty-five years later, that’s the status it retains. Christmas raps are still a novelty, and this, of course, is still the first. But what it opened the way for was something so much larger and more substantial.

Today he’s renowned as the co-founder of the Def Jam empire, but back in 1978, when he first met the Billboard writer Robert “Rocky” Ford, Simmons was nothing more than a local party promoter from out of Queens, looked down upon by hip-hop insiders from rap’s red-hot centers of Harlem and the Bronx. This meeting—which Simmons in his memoir Life and Def calls “[m]y first positive encounter with the recording industry,” as well as “my most important”—occurred when Ford got curious about all the “Rush Productions” stickers he’d been seeing on his commute home to Queens.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Hope-Less: How Different Would Stand-Up Be Without Bob Hope?

The truth is, Bob Hope actually dug Lenny Bruce, he really did — even considered him “brilliant,” according to Richard Zoglin in his new biography Hope: Entertainer of the Century. Zoglin tells the story of Hope dropping in on a Florida nightclub to check out Bruce’s act. “Bruce introduced Hope in the audience and after the show,” writes Zoglin, “ran into the parking lot to flag him down, asking Hope if he would give Bruce a guest spot on one of his TV shows. Hope laughed him off: ‘Lenny, you’re for educational TV.’”
Whether there was more sharpness or self-deprecation in Hope’s remark, it’s a tender moment between two comedians who couldn’t possibly have been more different. In Hope, however, Zoglin is determined to make the case that there’s less difference than we perceive between Bob Hope and those comedians of Bruce’s generation and later — and, what’s more, that without Bob Hope, none of those comedians would have been possible.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Cosby Mysteries

Ten years ago, a woman named Andrea Constand, an official with the athletic department of Bill Cosby’s alma mater Temple University, may or may not have met with Cosby in his home, whereupon Cosby may or may not have offered her pills of “herbal medication” for her anxiety, whereupon she may or may not have started to lose consciousness, whereupon Cosby may or may not have given her another drug, and whereupon, finally, he may or may not have felt her up, rubbed his dick against her, and finger-fucked her.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Escapes and Escapades of Rick James

There's no logical reason Rick James should have lived as long as he did. That he didn’t die in prison, overdose on crack, commit suicide, or get shot by a jealous husband or lover is a secular kind of miracle. Instead, he kept on living. And the life he lived, 56 years of it, makes for a preposterously peripatetic picaresque of squalor, madness, success, obscenity, heartbreak, fortune, and fame. The tale is now told in Glow: The Autobiography of Rick James, which has been shepherded posthumously into print by the biographer David Ritz, who conducted the interviews on which the book is based and who has performed a similar role on behalf of Ray Charles and Smokey Robinson.
By the end of his life in 2004, James was a long-running joke. Chappelle’s Show had kept the joke alive with its “True Hollywood Stories” segments, Charlie Murphy telling tales of James’s spaced-out antics — often violent, always obnoxious and arrogant — from back when Charlie and his brother, Eddie, were running around with James in the rarefied world of 1980s backstage excess. Dave Chappelle would play James in the reenactments while Murphy did the narration. But the whole conceit could never have cohered without the cooperation of James himself, whose talking-head interview segments about the events in question always produced some of the deepest laughs, while showing that James himself was in on the joke.
Read the rest at the L.A. Review

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Creator of 'Hip Hop Family Tree' Talks Rap History and Comics

Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree is an astonishing feat of cultural archaeology, in both ambition and execution. The project somehow doesn’t seem quite real: a comic-book history of hip-hop going back to the very beginning—the late 70s—where lore is thick and documentation scarce. To tell this story in any language would be a challenge; to tell it in the language of comics feels like a magical summoning.

The very first panel takes place at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, believed to be rap’s birthplace, a community center where DJ Kool Herc first got the idea to talk in rhymes over the records he spun. From those beginnings emerged a local culture that became a global empire.
Piskor’s preparation for this historiographical undertaking is limited to his comic history of computer hacking, Whizzywig (2012), as well as the drawings he contributed to Harvey Pekar’s The Beats: A Graphic History (2009). So far, he’s published two volumes of Hip Hop Family Tree—out of the six he’s contracted for—with new pages serialized weekly at Boing Boing.

Piskor manages to make his history live by isolating key moments in the culture’s development—some of them obscure but crucial, others nearly as well-known as they should be—and extracting from these moments a few key anecdotes which are then dramatized and made humorous through illustration. He’s able to employ this methodology in telling about everything from rap’s first appearance on Soul Train to the definitive battle between Kool Moe Dee and Busy Bee to hip-hop’s acquisition of a socio-political consciousness, to the making of Wild Style (1983), to the formation of Run DMC. The characters he draws are animated and nuanced, with affectionate attention paid to period detail. The whole concept works, on every single page, and, taken in its totality, the book is allowed to become as epic in its variety and dimensions as the story it tells. 

I spoke with Piskor about the hip-hop community's response to the series, how he finds most nonfiction graphic illustration to be "garbage," and how tall and wide he'd like to grow his rap Family Tree.