The Come Up details hip-hop’s birth and ultimate rise as the gravitational center of pop culture. We sat down with author Jonathan Abrams to talk about the book and doing the work of documenting a cultural history.
When hip-hop’s revolutionary energy first blossomed in New York City in the early 1970s, most would’ve been hard pressed to predict what the burgeoning subculture’s future would hold. Today, nearly 50 years after DJ Kool Herc’s watershed back to school jam at 1520 Sedgwick avenue in The Bronx, hip-hop’s dual status as a powerful cultural tradition and global commercial industry makes an accurate and meaningful accounting of its history, problematic at best. Cutting through the inherent contradictions that come along with documenting hip-hop history, author and New York Times staff writer Jonathan Abrams goes directly to the source(s), conducting over 300 interviews with key players throughout hip-hop’s five decade reign for his latest book, The Come Up: An Oral History Of The Rise of Hip-Hop, which was published on Tuesday (October 19th).
In it, Abrams presents an ambitious collection of firsthand accounts of hip-hop’s birth and ultimate rise as the gravitational center of pop culture. Throughout The Come Up, rap music industry legends like Grandmaster Caz, Ice Cube, Marley Marl, Faith Newman, Bun B, and many more check in to share key insights and stories that help flesh out our understanding of how hip-hop got to where it is today. We sat down with Abrams to talk about The Come Up, and doing the work of documenting a cultural history.
You open the book by stating that every hip-hop fan has an origin story. Could you talk about your origin story and explain how you came to have this relationship with hip-hop culture?
Jonathan Abrams: So, I grew up in Southern California in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, and I just missed that NWA explosion in real time. I caught a little bit of The Chronic and Doggystyle when it was just getting on the radio. But growing up, Tupac was my everything. I lived in one of those households where my mom would take one look at the parental advisory sticker and “Nope, get that outta my house.” She took back one of my Tupac CDs and I went to Circuit City or Radio Shack — whatever it was — and was able to finagle another one. But Tupac was one of those guys who, for me, just showed the full diversity of being Black.
He showed he could be scorched earth, he could be a poet, he could be crass, he could be cruel, he could be a lyricist with words. I knew that there was something out there. Some type of almost communal struggle with Black people that I couldn’t really put my finger on back then, because I didn’t have that education. And I didn’t feel like I got it until I really heard Tupac. Until I heard a song like “Changes” and “Brenda’s Got a Baby.” I feel like that’s where my love of fear with the genre began.
It’s interesting that you point to Tupac as a figure that sparked some things for you. I was 16 when Pac died, and I think that it’s hard to really impress upon young people how big and dynamic of a personality he was. Like you said, he embodied all of these things. The thug, the revolutionary — that whole Black radical tradition that his family came out of. It’s kind of hard to sum up how much of the Black experience Tupac embodied in his own contradictory ways.
Do you remember where you were when he died?
Yeah, absolutely. I was in the middle bedroom of my mom’s house, and I saw the news broadcast — Tupac Shakur shot in Las Vegas. When he passed away, I remember going to school that Monday after he had passed, and kids immediately saying that he had faked his death. So, almost immediately, that whole mythology around him still being alive and all the conspiracy stuff, I saw it immediately spring up right after he passed. I don’t think I’d ever witnessed something like that before.
I was 11 when he died. I think for people of our generation, it was like one of those men on the moon moments. Like, you’ll never forget where you were. One of my best friends came over and he knocked on our door and said that the Pac had been shot. Of course, that was after he had already been shot at Quad [Studios in NYC]. So, you really think that this guy’s invincible. Biggie has that whole line, like “He’s gonna rap about it again and he’ll be out of the hospital.” When Pac died, it was almost like the laws of physics aren’t supposed to apply to a guy like that.
I’m very curious about what compelled you to write The Come Up? What made you wanna do this?
So, I had written an oral history book on The Wire, my last book before this. I was trying to think of the next subject to do, and anytime you’re trying to figure out a book project, it’s something that you really, really need to be passionate about. Because writing books, it’s isolating. If you think about it, it’s too big of a concept to ever pull off in your head. So, you keep coming back to your passion, right? You’re like, “You wanna do this. You think this is important, you think it’s necessary.” You think people will enjoy it and be entertained and educated by it, and I kept coming back to that. I knew that we had been coming up on 50 or so years [since Kool Herc’s first party on August 11, 1973], and I felt like this was a history that hadn’t been studied and explored and excavated as much as it should be. There had been Jeff Chang’s book [Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop] and Dan Charnas’ The Big Payback, both of which are amazing. But I wanted to read a historical book and account in these people’s own words and thoughts without them being diluted at all.
Speaking of that, you interview a lot of people in this book. Could you walk me through the process of selecting interview subjects?
The first thing I did was read as many historical hip-hop books I could get my hands on. I created this big list, and I didn’t try to tie myself to any type of number or exclude anybody. I went into this mindset that if you played a role in hip-hop history, if you did something for this genre, for this culture, I want to talk to you. And I went into this knowing that I possibly wasn’t gonna get the Nas’ or the JAY-Z’s to open up about the Rakim’s. But I also feel like their stories had been really, really well told and well documented. Rakim has his memoir, Nas has a documentary that he helped produce. In my mind I was like, “OK, those guys’ stories have been really, really well told. But I can tell the story of the Cold Crush Brothers, or Duke Bootee with ‘The Message,’ or I could tell Monica Lynch and Tommy Boy’s story, and I’d be able to get to them.” So, that thought carried it through. But at the beginning I just said, “I’m gonna try to get to everybody that I possibly can.”
I was thinking about the narrative and how this book is laid out. You’re dealing with so many decades of history. Could you tell me a little bit about how you approached structuring this story?
Well, if you look at hip-hop like a big tree, that root is planted in New York, right? It sprouts and grows there, and it’s in there for the first few years. Then, it starts developing branches, and the branches start spreading out everywhere. So, I knew that the book was gonna start and remain in New York for a little while as it’s kind of percolating and developing. Then, as it spreads, I wanted to capture it as it goes to Los Angeles, or the South, or to Philadelphia. And I knew that even knowing that I’d return back to New York. If you look at hip-hop, everything is really influenced by one another. So, you have Schoolly D who starts in Philadelphia, and then you quickly have ICE-T doing what he was doing, and then you have NWA doing what they were doing. So, it also helps that one thing springs off one another.
In recent years, there have been some pretty intense social media debates around Kool Herc and that whole origin story. I noticed that in The Come Up, you make mention of Disco King Mario and some earlier figures who may not get the same acknowledgement for laying the foundation for this culture. Could you talk a little bit about this idea of challenging the established hip-hop origin story that we all know?
I think it’s tough with hip-hop, right? Because the people who were there at the beginning, they didn’t know that they were gonna make a musical genre that would take over the world. So, it wasn’t really being chronicled or documented like it should. Kool Herc, his story is a foundational piece, and I think that you want to give him credit where credit is due. In that same breath, there’s also the ingredients that are going on in hip-hop that allowed Kool Herc to do what he does. There’s Disco King Mario, Pete, DJ Jones — there are DJs in Brooklyn who are all kind of doing what’s gonna set the table for what Herc does, and they also need to be acknowledged.
Reading through The Come Up, I noticed that there’s a lot of focus on regional stories. You focus on boroughs, cities, neighborhoods, all of that. What does studying these different locations show how hip-hop has developed?
One thing I love about hip-hop is that you can hear how it was first birthed in New York and had that New York-centric sound, but how different regions interpret it and come up with their different sub-genres. What’s popular in certain regions is really, really amazing to me. You have something like slowed down music coming out of Houston, or mob music in Oakland, or gangster rap in LA. It’s just this collection of talented people. They’re speaking the same language, and then it comes out differently depending on your region. I think how people interpret hip-hop is due to their geography.
I like that idea. Last question — throughout this whole process of researching and writing this book and interviewing folks, what was your ultimate takeaway? What did you learn about our history and culture?
I knew this going in but I think it was something that was hammered over and over again. This is the greatest American tale of perseverance. This was something that started out of the decay, desolation, and neglect in the Bronx, by kids who had never been given anything to have any type of self-esteem. They were discounted and looked over, and they came up with this musical genre out of literally having nothing. Then, it goes on to permeate every strand of not just American culture, but worldwide culture, to become the most widely listened to and consumed musical genre. I don’t know if there’s ever been another example of something like this, and I don’t think that there ever will be.
John Morrison is a writer, DJ, and sample-flipper based in Philadelphia.