'Somebody Scream!' Makes Noise About Rap

Notorious B.I.G. once rapped, “If I wasn’t in the rap game / I’d probably have a key knee deep in the crack game / Because the streets is a short stop / Either you’re slingin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jumpshot.” If those words of urban desperation don’t convey a political message, then nothing can. Contrary to the commonly held belief that rap is nothing more than an avenue for gangsters to obtain wealth and status, Marcus Reeves provides the necessary reminder in “Somebody Scream!” that hip-hop is much more: a potent political force that releases the latent energies of black poverty, violence, and frustration.

Reeves, a film and music critic who has worked for The Source magazine, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times, sees hip-hop as filling the void left by the collapse of the 1960s Black Power movement in defining black identity. The book makes the case, through biographical examination of certain representative artists, that Black Power has not died out but has merely been channeled through the new black musical form; artists such as Sugarhill Gang, Run-D.M.C., 2Pac, and DMX have replaced Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan as the new prophets of black anger and frustration, the definers of racial identity, and the proponents for social and political change.

Reeves provides a systematic chronicle that takes the reader from hip-hop’s origins its current manifestations. He charts how DJs’ isolation of the breakbeat at huge New York block parties in the late 1970s evolved into the musical form that burst into popular consciousness with the Sugarhill Gang and Run-D.M.C. He analyzes how the violence and rage of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” during the crack epidemic changed hip-hop dramatically, leading to the rise of G-funk and East Coast-West Coast rivalries, and ending with hip-hop selling to mostly white audiences. It’s an important story to tell, and Reeves enriches it with humorous, shocking, and awe-inspiring stories about the lives of those who carried the newborn hip-hop baby through its development years and into the modern age.

But the book’s strength in covering some of the largest hip-hop stars also proves a drawback. By choosing to focus upon such hip-hop icons as Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, and Jay-Z, Reeves is playing to the audience with the stories of the most familiar names in the musical genre. And if we have made these men into hip-hop moguls that are worth upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars, then certainly we should spend the time to understand their history, what has made them so famous. Yet by focusing on these well-known entities, Reeves is forced to pass over some of the lesser-known trends in hip-hop which are just as relevant to formulating a black power ideology and shaping popular culture. For example, there could have been an in-depth examination of the Nation of Gods and Earths (also known as the Five Percent Nation), a religion espoused by such artists as the Wu-Tang Clan and Brand Nubian. The Five Percenters, who split off from the Nation of Islam and hold their own beliefs on knowledge, mathematics, and black identity, are an important but lesser known presence in hip-hop. Reeves would have done well to integrate them in his argument that rap is the new black power movement, but they unfortunately go unmentioned.

Reeves also has a tendency overstretch his intellectual analysis of his subject. For example, Reeves says that Snoop Dogg’s obscenely misogynistic “Ain’t No Fun” “offers its acidic views towards women as a theme for merriment and building male camaraderie” when the song’s lyrics talk simply about running train. Moreover, his writing isn’t always straightforward and can at times be disorienting. Reeves sometimes wanders in and out of subject matter; a paragraph that starts off talking about Run-D.M.C. as the voice of a generation ends up abruptly discarding the group and to discuss Jesse Jackson’s political ambitions. Reeves’s overall themes are tangentially related, but the connections aren’t made clear.

Nevertheless, “Somebody Scream!” is a fun and engaging read for a hip-hop head, student of modern American history, or any person interested in a lesser-known narrative of our culture. Reeves certainly makes the fast-evolving world of hip-hop seem more comprehensive and understandable, and his succinct chronology covers the most important events, record labels, and figures involved. Despite being only 30 years old, hip-hop has proven itself important enought to make such knowledge indispensable. It’s more than just men speaking; it’s a movement of this nation’s people.