The Sounds of Black Music: Hip-Hop Stories

By NYPL Staff
June 29, 2021
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

To wrap up Black Music Month, we are highlighting recently published biographies and memoirs that tell the stories of some of the legendary figures, iconic personalities, and influential activists who have shaped hip-hop music and culture from its early years through the present day.

The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited the Soul of Black America by Marcus J. Moore

Music journalist Moore's in-depth biography celebrates the life, struggles, and accolades of Compton's own, rapper Kendrick Lamar. Labeled the "new king of hip-hop," the 13-time Grammy Award winner poetically expresses the pain of survivor's remorse and the experiences of being a young Black male in America. At age 33, he had already won a Pulitzer Prize for Music and was named one of Time magazine's 100 Influential People. Moore provides an authoritative account of Lamar's development as an artist, recounting how Lamar's pilgrimage to Cape Town empowered him to utilize his platform to shine a light on Black culture. South Africa also gave Kendrick the freedom to be himself, to be untethered from the nuanced racial and social restrictions of America. Sounds of South African beats mixed with hip-hop and jazz set the foundation for his album To Pimp a Butterfly, and later inspired Lamar to produce and curate the critically acclaimed music from and inspired by the blockbuster movie Black Panther. Moore's portrait of Lamar accounts for how one young man's mindful lyrics and sounds can have a profound and far-reaching impact. 

Changes: An Oral History of Tupac Shakur by Sheldon Pearce

In Changes, published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Tupac’s birth and twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, Sheldon Pearce offers one of the most thoughtful and comprehensive accounts yet of the artist’s life and legacy. Pearce, an editor and writer at The New Yorker, interviews dozens who knew Tupac throughout various phases of his life. While there are plenty of bold-faced names, the book focuses on the individuals who are lesser known and offer fresh stories and rare insight. Among these are the actor who costarred with him in a Harlem production of A Raisin in the Sun when he was twelve years old, the high school drama teacher who recognized and nurtured his talent, the music industry veteran who helped him develop a nonprofit devoted to helping young artists, the Death Row Records executive who has never before spoken on the record, and dozens of others. Meticulously woven together by Pearce, their voices combine to portray Tupac in all his complexity and contradiction.

Dapper Dan : Made in Harlem : A Memoir by Daniel R. Day with Mikael Awake

Anyone who was anywhere near hip-hop during the 1980s, especially if they loved Yo! MTV Raps, saw Dapper Dan's fashions sported by the likes of LL Cool J, Rakim, and Biz Markie. Daniel Day was born and raised in Harlem, one of seven children of parents who worked hard yet remained in poverty. Day learned the hustle early, starting with small-time theft and moving on to making real money in dice games with drug dealers. His insistence on always looking "fly" led him to the world of fashion, and his drive, street smarts, and knowledge made him a success. Learning textile printing, he opened his Harlem store in 1982 catering to dealers, rappers, and athletes with his own designs that went on to influence streetwear for generations. Day is a natural storyteller with a distinct point of view that clearly comes through in this enjoyable memoir. 

Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib

Poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib digs into the group's history and draws from his own experience to reflect on how its distinctive sound resonated among fans like himself. The result is as ambitious and genre bending as the rap group itself. Abdurraqib traces the Tribe's creative career, from their early days as part of the Afrocentric rap collective known as the Native Tongues, through their first three classic albums, to their eventual breakup and long hiatus. Their work is placed in the context of the broader rap landscape of the 1990s, one upended by sampling laws that forced a reinvention in production methods, the East Coast/West Coast rivalry that threatened to destroy the genre, and some record labels' shift from focusing on groups to individual MCs. Throughout the narrative Abdurraqib connects the music and cultural history to their street-level impact. Whether he's remembering The Source magazine cover announcing the Tribe's 1998 breakup or writing personal letters to the group after bandmate Phife Dawg's death, Abdurraqib seeks the deeper truths of A Tribe Called Quest; truths that, like the low end, the bass, are not simply heard in the head, but felt in the chest.

The Marathon Don't Stop: The Life and Times of Nipsey Hussle by  Rob Kenner

Kenner, founding editor of Vibe, writes a biography of hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle, who was murdered on March 31, 2019, leaving a lasting impact on the music industry and his South Los Angeles community. Kenner traces Hussle's life and work: More than a rapper, more than a businessman, Hussle was a cultural activist, a philanthropist, a role model and leader for young Black men seeking to overcome a troubled past and achieve greatness. Throughout the book, Kenner highlights conversations, quotes, and memories from many of Hussle's friends, family, and those he interacted with through his music. Kenner explores Hussle's upbringing as an Eritrean American, his youth in South L.A., his music and his fame, vision, values, and personal struggles. Readers interested in hip-hop history and biographies of business professionals, musicians, and activists will enjoy this insightful and engaging look at Nipsey Hussle's artistic legacy and the deep respect and admiration that he garnered from his community, his fellow artists, and his business circles.

Sweat the Technique : Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Geniusby Rakim with Bakari Kitwana

Lyricist and rapper supreme Rakim regales readers with creative insights in a mix of memoir and how-to, both emphasizing how to find and marshal inspiration. Sharing verses from his favorite singles, he shows how he became such a success, assembling an arsenal of words and performance strategies and drawing ideas and energy from the world around him, along with the work of such key figures as John Coltrane, James Brown, and Jesse Jackson. Chief among his suggestions is sticking to one's guns while maintaining openness to new concepts. While pertinent not only to rappers but to all creatives, Rakim's disclosures also speak to uniquely Black concerns. Readers will appreciate his depiction of Black families building each other up, as, for example, how his father helped him to achieve fluency and resourcefulness. Die-hard rap fans will appreciate the historic detail as Rakim places his upbringing and trajectory as a recording artist within the larger context of 1980s and '90s social upheaval. This joins the best of rap history and criticism and has the potential to inspire a new age of rap lyricism.

Vibrate Higher: A Rap Storyby Talib Kweli

Rapper, activist, and entrepreneur Kweli, a vital and culturally engaged artist who has been writing and recording for more than 20 years, has penned a compelling memoir of his life in hip-hop. His lyrics and personal drive are a direct result of his childhood connection to Black cultural nationalism and his social awareness, as embodied by his parents, both teachers, to whose work this book is a quiet testament. Kweli recounts his family's history in New York and their experiences and struggles during the 1960s and 1970s, then covers his career and personal life, including collaborations with Mos Def, Common, Kanye West, and other artists, and discusses his involvement in protests in Ferguson, MO, after the murder of Michael Brown. Kweli also explores his influences in this detailed and conversational work, conveying the focus and effort with which he has approached his career and life.

The Sounds of Black Music is a blog series featuring resources on music genres and influential artists from across the African Diaspora. This series is written and curated by Tracy Crawford and A.J. Muhammad.

Summaries provided via NYPL’s catalog, which draws from multiple sources. Click through to each book’s title for more.