From detailed analyses of the Wu-Tang Clan’s legacy to memoirs from legendary MCs, 2019 was a great year for books centered around hip-hop. Here are 15 great hip-hop books published this year.
In the span of 46 years — since DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy Campbell staged the infamous Back To School party in the rec room at 1520 Sedgwick ave. — hip-hop has grown into a global culture, practiced on every continent. Coupled with this growth has come an ever-increasing market demand for book-length studies of hip-hop, in general, and rap music, specifically.
Twenty Nineteen was a strong year for hip-hop books. From detailed analyses of the Wu-Tang Clan’s legacy to memoirs from legendary MCs to first-hand accounts of rap’s Golden Era, 2019 saw a wealth of quality writing on hip-hop culture, it’s history and the broader social dynamics that inform it.
As the year wraps up, we’ve decided to gather 15 of the best hip-hop books released this year. Check out our list below.
Will Ashon’s brilliant Chamber Music: Wu-Tang And America is a winding, expansive deep dive into the spiritual, social, musical, and visual elements that the Wu-Tang Clan combined to form the richest aesthetic in popular music. Touching on everything from Supreme Mathematics to the work of Hong Kong film legends The Shaw Brothers, Chamber Music gives readers a detailed look into the disparate influences that make Wu-Tang Clan so unique.
Comprised of more than 30 interviews, Ben Merlis’ Goin’ Off: The Story Of The Juice Crew & Cold Chillin’ Records examines the history of rap’s first superstar crew — The Juice Crew — and the label that propelled them, Cold Chillin’ Records. Whether it’s detailing the early days of rap on NYC radio or the story of Masta Ace leaving a bullet on Len Fitchelburg’s desk with his initials engraved in it, Merlis’ book is an essential oral history of hip-hop’s golden era.
From MC Sha-Rock to Lady B to Sweet Tee Sparky D, women have played an integral role in hip-hop from the beginning. Despite this, women’s contributions continue to be grossly under-recognized. With God Save The Queens: The Essential History Of Women In Hip Hop, writer Kathy Iandoli sheds some much needed historical light on the contributions of women in hip-hop. It’s one of the most important hip-hop books to release this year.
Roy Christopher bills 2019’s Dead Precedents: How Hip Hop Defines The Future as “a counter-cultural history of the twenty-first century, showcasing hip-hop’s role in the creation of the world in which we now live.”What that means is that Dead Precedents aims to define the future we live in by connecting it with the musical, technological and conceptual innovations of hip-hop culture. Christopher makes his case by examining the work of future-minded luminaries like Grandmaster Flash, RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ, Public Enemy, Shabazz Palaces, and more.
Poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib’s Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest details A Tribe Called Quest’s personal lives and music, expanding on the group’s legacy with unparalleled poetic fire, insight, and tenderness. Whether or not rap music is “worthy” of a work of such emotional weight is not a question even worth asking.
In the 1980s, Harlem-born designer Daniel R. Day — aka Dapper Dan — gained fame by crafting clothing items that fused street fashion with the look of pricey design houses like Gucci and Louis Vuitton. Popular amongst rappers and drug dealers, Dapper Dan’s memoir Made In Harlem tells the story of how one man set the visual tone of hip-hop’s first golden era.
Since the genre’s beginnings, rap music has had a contentious relationship with the police and the American legal system at large. With the legal precedent established in several cases, the use of rap lyrics being used in the prosecution of crimes has become increasingly common. Rap On Trial looks into the ways in which rap music is used in legal proceedings and the moral implications involved.
In his 22nd book, American cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson attempts to come to terms with both the musical and social legacy of JAY-Z. With a fresh eye for the nuances of Jay’s writing and a broader understanding of the historical context in which hip-hop exists, Dyson’s analysis is weighty and tinged with both an insider and outsider’s perspective. As complex and contradictory as it’s subject, Made In America uses JAY-Z’s life and career as a template to reconcile Black self-determination and American capitalism.
“Album-making, beat-picking, lyricism, story-telling and straight incredible rapping.” These components describe Staten Island’s own Ghostface Killah. In Iron Age: The Art of Ghostface Killah, author Dean Van Nguyen Nguyen gives an in-depth analysis of Ghost’s career and the defining factors that make him one of the best.
Independent record promoter Chris Schwartz met West Philly rapper Schoolly D in the mid-‘80s. The two would go on to forge one of the most fruitful partnerships in rap history. The sound that Schoolly laid down on his early records, like “Gucci Time” and “P.S.K. (Parkside Killers),” would provide a blueprint that West Coast rappers like Ice-T and N.W.A. While managing Schoolly, Schwartz would found Ruffhouse Records, the label that would introduce The Fugees, Cypress Hill, and others to the masses. Schwartz’s memoir, Ruffhouse, is full of funny, wild and insightful anecdotes detailing his years building one of the world’s biggest rap labels.
In the summer of 1987, two of rap’s biggest groups, Run-DMC and The Beastie Boys, would embark on the Together Forever tour. Photographer Glen E. Friedman’s gorgeous book, Together Forever: The Run-DMC and Beastie Boys Photographs, compiles images from the tour and gives us a look at a time when rap was solidifying its footing in American popular culture. Definitely a must-own for lovers of hip-hop books.
Common has always approached the art of MCing with a degree of honesty and introspection. His latest book, Let Love Have The Last Word, continues this practice. From ruminations on fatherhood and spirituality to his experiences being sexually abused as a child, Common’s memoir gives a prime example of a B-boy who has walked into manhood with openness and vulnerability.
From the government-sanctioned crackdowns on pirate radio stations to Form 696 — a risk-assessment document that effectively prevented promoters from booking events in London —Inner City Pressure tells the story of U.K. Grime, which has thrived in the face of intense racial scrutiny. Culled from over a decade worth of interviews, Dan Hancox’s book takes a deep look into the politics and complex social dynamics behind England’s most visceral contemporary music scene.
In the video for Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s landmark collaboration “Walk This Way,” Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler smashes a mic stand into the shared wall that separates the two groups. Released at a time in the ‘80s when Black and White radio and music video programming remained segregated, Tyler breaks through the wall and joins the Kings from Hollis Queens in song — a not so subtle visual metaphor. Journalist Geoff Edgers’ book Walk This Way explores the racial and aesthetic boundaries that Run-DMC and Aerosmith’s song broke through and the musical future that it predicted.
Upon the release of their debut 12,” “Eric B. Is President/My Melody,” Long Island, New York duo Eric B. & Rakim put the rap world on notice. When Ra delivered the classic opening line “I came in the door, I said it before, I’ll never let the mic magnetize me no more…” he threw the gauntlet down and opened the artform up to a world of new possibilities. Authored by Rakim, alongside journalist Bakari Kitwana, Sweat The Technique: Revelations On Creativity From The Lyrical Genius, distills The God MC’s process and philosophy into “5 pillars of creativity.” It is through these pillars that we the reader gain insight into how one man changed the course of Rap.
John Morrison is a writer, DJ, and sample-flipper based in Philadelphia.