erasing clouds

Book Review: All Music Guide to Hip-Hop

by dave heaton

Flipping through the All-Music Guide to Hip-Hop for the first time was like a friendly jolt to my memory bank. "Man, I forgot about (fill in the blank)", was my reaction again and again. Seeing long-forgotten names like The Afros, Harmony, Kwame, No Face, Rodney-O & Joe Cooley, and Redhead Kingpin & the FBI brings me right back to the days when an hour of Yo MTV Raps! with Fab Five Freddy was a Saturday morning routine (plus the time after that when I'd come home from school to Dre and Ed Lover). A reference guide to the recorded output of rap music which covers its start through early this year, flipping through the book is like tripping through time for hip-hop fans. The book's scope is wide, too, as its definition of hip-hop is stretched enough to include experimental and commercial offshoots and variations. One succession of names is Mantronix, Christian Marclay, and Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch…which should give you an idea of how comprehensive the book tries to be. For each artist there is a brief description/biography, followed by a list of recordings, each with a brief review and a star ranking, so it's quite a repository of information. There's a few missing names, sure, but it's still the most comprehensive hip-hop reference guide I've seen. If you're trying to remember which Big Daddy Kane album came out which year, or figure out how many albums Schooly D put out, this is a great place for it.

Yet as enjoyable it is for a rap fan to flip through this book, the closer you look, the more you see cracks and blemishes, and the bigger they get. First off, the relationship between the reviews and the star rankings is quite tenuous and undefined. AMG's Bitch Betta Have My Money is "cautiously recommended…if you collect locker-room gangsta rap, and so long as you also have access to a shower nearby," yet the album gets 5 stars out of 5, the highest ranking. But then LL Cool J's 14 Shots to the Dome is described as "a solid effort finding LL Cool J maturing gracefully and strongly," with no negative comments given, yet it gets only 2 stars out of 5. It also often seems like commercial success automatically equals a certain star ranking, regardless of artistic merits. When DJ Skribble's Essential Spring Break 2000, Everlast's Forever Everlasting, Gerardo's Mo Ritmo (you know, "Rico Suave"), 10 different Insane Clown Posse albums, and all of Shaquille O'Neal's albums all get higher star rankings than KRS-One's Return of the Boom Bap or LL's classic Bigger and Deffer, you have to wonder what they're using as their criteria.

The star-ranking inconsistencies exist throughout, but they're only one of several things that will make you wonder what criteria they're using to judge these albums. Sometimes a review will be concerned almost entirely with how offensive the lyrical content is, but then other similarly sex-or-violence-obsessed musicians go by without any comments on the lyrics.

There's also an odd imbalance in the amount of coverage given to each musician. Some get short reviews and descriptions, others get surprisingly lengthy ones. When Brian Austin Green from Beverly Hills 90210 gets more words than Grandmixer DST or Kool DJ Herc, you know there's a problem. Plus, the group that gets the longest section is the Beastie Boys, of all people, a fact that really blows my mind and calls into question where the makers of this book are coming from (for as much as I love the Beastie Boys, they're by no means the most important group in hip-hop). Then there's albums that don't get reviewed at all, or albums that just get a sentence or two.

"Your complete, concise, and authoritative guide to hip-hop," reads the back of the book. It's the "authoritative" part that I have a problem with. When someone sets out to be "the authority" (or as the front of the book proclaims, "the definitive guide") they're setting themselves up to be knocked down. It's not just that I disagree with many of their assertions about particular albums, though I do (The Coming is Busta Rhymes' best album? De La Soul's AOI: Bionix is a 5-star masterpiece? Skull & Bones is 2 stars better than Temple of Boom? Da Lench Mob's Guerrillas in tha Mist gets 5 stars?). I have no problem accepting reviews I disagree with, if they're coming from someone who I think knows what he's talking about, who has a foundation of knowledge and experience to back up the opinions. There's too many statements and definitions here that make you wonder who these experts are and why I should care what they say. These moments especially come outside of the specific reviews, in the supplementary chapters that try to convey and categorize the history of rap music.

The book begins with "style descriptions" that break hip-hop into categories like "alternative rap," "dirty rap" and "G-funk." These are more silly than anything else; I can't imagine who finds these helpful. How ridiculous they are becomes clearer in the longer essays on a few of them that appear near the book's end. Though sometimes they stand as fairly accurate history lessons, in other places they sound like kindergarten lessons: "Alternative rap is an alternative to hardcore rap, gangsta rap, and dirty South; it also is an alternative to commercial pop-rap." Say what? Look at the "music maps," sort of family tress of each category, and it gets even sillier. In the "West Coast Rap" map, N.W.A. are considered "hardcore"; Dr. Dre and Above the Law are "G-funk", while Ice Cube and Eazy E are "gangsta rap." How helpful is that to anyone in understanding the music? The last section in the book, "Non-Rap Artists Who Influenced Rap," is where the book goes beyond ridiculous, into the surreal. To be fair, this section does give credit to some of the reggae pioneers and spoken-word artists that early hip-hop artists took from. But other than that, it's mostly filled with a diverse selection of artists who were clearly influenced by hip-hop, not the other way around, while most of the major influences on hip-hop are missing. So we have Beck, Mariah Carey, Cibo Matto, Imani Coppola, and Rage Against the Machine as non-rap influences on rap, but no James Brown, no Isaac Hayes, no P-Funk?!? It's so mind-boggling it makes me speechless, and makes me wonder why I've spent so much time with this book.

The thing is, any "definitive guide" is bound to fail, and I can't say that the All Music Guide is a failure on all counts. As a history of hip-hop, it's incomplete, and in places rather misguided. As a collection of writing about music, it doesn't offer any fresh insights, or any descriptions that will stick in your head. As a "buying guide" it's overly positive; if I ran out and bought every album that they call "essential," I'd have a decent number of disappointments to deal with. But as a source of fun and diversion, I advocate it wholeheartedly. I could spend hours flipping through it to find out what they have to say about so-and-so. There's no poetry here, but as a fairly complete index of hip-hop music, albeit with opinions that'll get you angry as often as not, it's worthwhile in its own way.

Issue 16, October 2003

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