Whether you’re looking for the best hip hop books, books by Black authors, or the best new music writing, you’ll find it on this list.
Thanksgiving was yesterday, turkey. Fall has fell and Holiday time is upon us. You know what that means. It means…Read A Book, ya illiterate bish. Seriously–beach reading is all well and fine, especially for guilty pleasures and trashy treasures. But there’s no time like snow time for cozying up with a good book (emphasis on a GOOD book) and expanding your mind, losing yourself in somebody else’s life (or record collection) and transporting yourself elsewhere on the cheapest vacation money can buy (just ask Levar Burton). It’s also an ideal time to purchase the ol’ physical objects so you have something to wrap and put under the Christmas tree besides a url. In that spirit, Okayplayer presents our Fall Reading List of essential books for fall semester (or 4th quarter, if you’re grown) 2014. These titles include fiction and non-fiction, word and image-driven tomes alike. As far as mental travel goes, the fiction will move you from Detroit to Lagos (Bridgett M. Davis‘ Into the Go Slow) and from Kingston circa 1976 to New York circa 1992 (A Brief History Of Seven Killings). The non-fiction, true to what people say about truth, will take you even stranger places, like: the mind of Prince (Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy: The Making of Purple Rain); the record collection of Questlove (the expanded edition of Eilon Paz‘s rogue’s gallery of obsessive diggers Dust & Grooves); that weird ’90s moment when Ice T and Jello Biafra were part of the same collision of rap, post-punk and angst that was called “alternative” (Glen E. Friedman‘s photo retrospective My Rules); and last but not least, The Mothership (Ben Greenman‘s George Clinton biography Brothas be Yo, Like, George Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?). The strangest trip of all, however, may be the journey into the mind of a white man…attempting to become a black man through “racial reassignment surgery” (Jess Row‘s brave and disturbing novel Your Face In Mine). All in all, there’s literary joints in here for every palate, style and orientation of Okayplayer so pick a book that’s right for you, one that’s right for someone on your holiday shopping list and bring us to warp speed, Mr. LaForge. [and if you’re participating in the #BlackFridayBoycott, buy black wax or a black OKP hoodie today instead, and Read A Book on CyberMonday – ed.]
1. Marlon James – A Brief History Of Seven Killings
Marlon James‘ fictional exploration of the vast conspiracies and the characters both noble and shady that surrounded the 1976 attempt on Bob Marley’s life (true story–the anniversary of the incident is this coming Wedneday, December 3rd) is without a doubt the book of the season in the reading clubs we move in. Beginning in the days before the free Smile Jamaica concert organized by then-Prime Minister Michael Manley the machinations which erupted into gunfire on Marley’s famous 56 Hope Road compound involve the Rastafarian Twelve Tribes sect, the C.I.A. and the Colombian drug cartels, just to name a few. In a lesser author’s hands, the treatment of this material could have been trashy and exploitative. James, however, uses it as frame on which to hang a panoramic, decades-spanning opus that does for Kingston roughly what City Of God did for Rio and The Wire did for Baltimore; a sweeping canvas peoples with unforgettable characters, from an errant Rolling Stone journalist to ultimate badman Josey Wales. – Eddie STATS
2. George Clinton x Ben Greenman – Brothas Be, Yo Like George Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You?
We have been waiting for this story to be told in full for decades–in fact some of us may have been waiting since the days of the pyramids and ancient astronauts! Novelist Ben Greenman (who also helmed Questlove’s memoir Mo’Meta Blues) is our tour guide on this essential bit of music history, which goes to the patriarch and source of the p-funk mythos in an attempt to answer the question, Mommy what is a Funkadelic? – Eddie STATS
3. Marcus Baram – Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of A Man
Though he may not rank with Prince or P-Funk in terms of chart impact, Gil Scott-Heron is nevertheless one of the key music figures of our time, from his role in pre-visioning the rhythmic urban poetry that would become known as rap to his unique talent for making music and activism work as two sides of the same humanistic practice. As with many recently passed musical legends, a few years on from his passing we are still just wrapping our collective head around his contribution to American culture, let alone black music–and Marcus Baram‘s biography Pieces Of A Man is an invaluable record of his sometimes tragic, ultimately inspiring, time on earth. – Eddie STATS
4. Brian Coleman – Check The Technique: Volume 2
If Brian Coleman’s 2007 Check The Technique was described as ‘invisible liner notes for hip-hop junkies’ then the long-awaited volume 2 is like Liner Notes 2: The Electric Boogaloo. Comprising 544 pages, 80+ interviews and 350 images of highly influential but criminally under-rated Okayplayer favorites like Black Star (Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey); MF DOOM; Company Flow and DJ Jazzy Jeff this massive tome tells the untold story behind some of the greatest rap LPs ever committed to wax, from The Cactus Album to AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. – Eddie STATS
5. Glen E. Friedman – My Rules
Seminal music photographer Glen E. Friedman was on hand to capture the incredible mix of hip-hop and skate-punk that defined American youth culture in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Laid out by longtime collaborator and graphic design superstar Shepherd Fairey, My Rules from respected publisher of oversize art and photography folios Rizzoli Books is the definitive monograph of his work, featuring some 100 never before published images of Bad Brains, The Beastie Boys, Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, Fugazi, Black Flag and Ice T, among others. – Eddie STATS
6. Bridgett M. Davis – Into The Go Slow
It has become unfashionable in some intellectual circles to explore the connections between Africa and African-America, an area increasingly marked off with cultural hazard cones as too fraught with the pitfalls of romanticized and essentialist narratives of that most-essentialized of continents. Which is why Bridgett M. Davis‘ novel Into The Go-Slow is a welcome and highly readable swim against the flow. Following the journey of Angie, a Detroit native who travels to Lagos, Nigeria in an attempt to retrace her deceased sister’s footsteps, The Go-Slow explores the sometimes romantic but never romanticized interactions between African-Americans and West Africans, a tapestry of cool and coup de’tat that feels much more like the world we live in–a world where the Black Panthers influenced Fela Kuti, who in turn influenced the Soulquarians in ways none of them ever intended–than most ‘realistic’ accounts of modern Africa. But honestly, she had us at ‘Detroit-to-Lagos’. – Eddie STATS
7. Alan Light – Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and The Making of Purple Rain
If Check The Technique is “invisible liner notes” for your favorite rap albums, Let’s Go Crazy is the ultimate DVD Extraz of the film that may be the ultimate pop culture milestone for ’80s babies: Prince’s rocku-drama Purple Rain. From tensions with director Albert Magnoli to the adaptions of Prince’s autobiographical conceits to the sex, to of course, the music (not to mention, of course, more sex) Let’s Go Crazy tells it all, a book-length indulgence on that most favorite of Okayplayer pastimes, a game called: Let’s Talk About Prince. – Eddie STATS
8. Herbie Hancock (w/ Lisa Dickey) – Possibilities
At 74, Herbie Hancock still shows no signs of letting up or slowing down. This fall he made waves in the electronic and hip-hop worlds by collaborating with Flying Lotus, and re-upped his status as scholar of jazz’s lineage by giving lectures at Harvard University. He was also getting busy penning his memoirs and now Possibilities has hit bookshelves worldwide. In it, Herbie recounts stories of a musical life that only he could tell, from his childhood days playing Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to his love of Oscar Peterson, working with Stevie Wonder and just how much “Maiden Voyage” means to him. But the book isn’t just nonstop rosy reminiscing–Herbie also bears all on his personal struggles with an ’80s crack addiction (read an excerpt here) and is forthright about his work to keep in line with his Buddhist principles. The book’s prose (which comes assisted by co-author Lisa Dickey) is conversational and clever; now’s your chance to get the dirt on Headhunters, the early days of jazz-funk and (of course) “Rockit.” – Scott Heins
9. Eilon Paz – Dust & Grooves: Adventures In Record Collecting (Expanded Edition)
When photographer and music blogger Eilon Paz dropped the first edition of his brilliant (and giant) coffee table book Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting, it was almost impossible for us to put it down. It was an in-depth trip into the world of record collecting and vinyl adoration made more beautiful and intelligent than anything similar that came before it. Now Paz and his publishers are gearing up for the late November release of the book’s second printing.
The new edition will feature 20 additional pages of features, photos, and record collector wisdom. Amidst the new material you’ll find Okayplayer’s own CEO Questlove speaking at length about his Philadelphia vinyl horde and the reasons why he keeps his best vinyl in the bathroom. Questlove is one of many hip-hop junkies that reside within the tome, but Dust & Grooves also sheds light on collectors of rockabilly, old country singles, foreign soundtrack LPs and African highlife aficionados. Simply put, it’s a beautifully-made cross section of how immersive music can be–a must for anyone who takes their listening seriously. – Scott Heins
10. Jess Row – Your Face In Mine
Jess Row‘s unnerving foray into the highly specialized genre of racial speculative fiction, Your Face In Mine is both easy and incredibly difficult to describe. On the one hand, the premise kind of tells you everything you need to know: two friends meet on a Baltimore street, one white, black. The last time they met however, both were white. On the other hand, try to tell a friend what it’s like or what it’s about or whether it gets “it” right…and you could talk about it all day. In fact we did talk about it all day, in this review and extensive Read A Book interview with Row. Read it here and then go, ahem, Read A Book. – Eddie STATS