erasing clouds

Book Review: There's a God on the Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs by Kool Mo Dee

by dave heaton

"I hear a lot of passion and a lot of emotion but no expertise," Kool Mo Dee writes about hip-hop journalism in the introduction to his book There's a God on the Mic: The True 50 Greatest MCs. He makes his perspective clear from the start: Every list so far of the best MCs ever has been flawed--the people deciding who to include paid too much attention to trends and popularity, didn't look at the whole history of hip-hop (recorded and unrecorded), and didn't try to really break down what qualities a real MC must possess. The next step in Kool Mo Dee's line of thinking goes something like this: I know more than you, because I have lived hip-hop. You might think that's egotistical--especially when he puts himself at number 5 in his list of the greatest 50 MCs of all time--but it's so completely in character for an artist who built his career on battling and boasting, and so in line with the history of an artform that began with the artists coming up with whatever they knew would surprise and excite the audience (to impress them more than the next man) that he thoroughly convinces you to care about his opinion. It's much easier to trust someone who says "here's my opinion, here's why I'm right" and then filters everything he says through his own experiences and feelings, especially when it's someone with a life story like his, than boatloads of so-called experts who stress their "objectivity." There's a God on the Mic in no way represents a canon of hip-hop, but he never tries to act like it is. This book is just a start, a movement towards looking to the elder statesmen of hip-hop (still not that elderly, but it's a young music) for their words of wisdom.

Kool Mo Dee writes about each MC in such detail, giving scores and opinions on 17 different characteristics, from originality to battle skills, that ultimately the book comes off mostly as a celebration of what makes these musicians great. As Chuck D writes in the book's foreword, "This is an introduction to recognize the beauty of the genre, from the past twenty-five years." It's easy to quibble with his choices, but what list of the best anything doesn't make you react? As a list, his is way more respectable than any others that I've seen so far (on MTV or in magazines like the defunct Blaze, which tried a list like this after being around less than a year), because he isn't just looking at who's hot now. In fact, in the afterword he explains that recent MCs who aren't in the list, like Eminem or Mos Def, are talented enough to be included but get ruled out on the "longevity" rating. In other words, it's too soon to tell with someone who's only done a couple albums. So while he rightly includes Jay-Z, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., etc. in the list, he doesn't necessarily privlege them over artists with a longer track record just because they're held in higher esteem in the hip-hop community now. He deserves serious credit for celebrating Big Daddy Kane, Melle Mell, Grandmaster Caz, Just-Ice and others who have slipped off the radar of today's hip-hop media, and for looking at hip-hop as a whole, not just certain segments of it. There's a God celebrates everyone from Scarface to Queen Latifah, MC Shan to the GZA.

For each MC, Kool Mo Dee includes an example of a rhyme, his favorite LP and record by that MC, and what he perceives as overall strengths and weaknesses, along with ratings for each characteristic and his commentary. His perspective on each MC is given in blunt terms, but from time to time he has real insights into why the MC excels. He's no poet, you won't be blown away by his way with words, but any hip-hop fan will learn something from what he has to say. What he hears in an artist might not be what you hear-he's listening to more facets than you can imagine, and he breaks them all down here. His insights into the styles and careers of Jay-Z, KRS One and even his own longtime rival L.L. Cool J are impeccable, deeper and fairer than you'd expect. There's plenty of places where I disagree with him--that Will Smith's "one of the more well-rounded emcees," for example--but it doesn't matter because his judgments always come from from a real understanding of everything that goes into crafting and delivering a rhyme. Most significantly, he looks more carefully and thoroughly at delivery than studies like this usually do. Sure, he cares about lyrical substance, but it doesn't hold it up as a factor above others. He writes about phrasing and dynamics, about the way that an MC places his words in the track, the speed and style that he rhymes, and so on in a fuller way than any music journalist I've read.

Kool Mo Dee's assessment of his own skills is rather humorous ("No one in hip-hop builds a rhyme as intricately as Kool Mo Dee"), but also autobiographical enough that it helps show where he fits into the bigger picture. There's a God on the Mic's chief success might be how well-rounded an overview it provides of the art of being an MC. Hip-hop fans will find this entertaining and intriguing, but it also could serve as one of the best intro texts there is for people who are just starting to learn about hip-hop. Read this while listening to the records he writes about, and you have yourself Hip-Hop 101: The MC, the perfect introductory class.


Issue 17, November 2003

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