Where You're At: Notes From the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet
By Patrick Neate (Riverhead, 274 pages)
Several years ago, British novelist Patrick Neate found himself in a Tokyo hip-hop club called Harlem where up was down and down was up. African men posing as black Americans danced with Japanese girls who'd tanned their skin almost charcoal. As Neate discovers in Where You're At, hip-hop often leads to cultural cross-dressing like this. And he should know.
A white Londoner who studied at Cambridge and learned to DJ in Africa, Neate is a walking example of why authenticity is a slippery term in the hip-hop world. In fact, he finds all kinds of definitions for it in this lively travelogue, which chronicles visits to Rio, New York and Cape Town, talking to MCs named Herb and bopping his head to South African bubblegum (early '90s disco pop).
Like any expert in a marginalized genre that's gone mainstream, Neate has a hard time giving a simple introduction. He's forever clocking how five minutes ago a scene is, or measuring its purity with a gemologist's precision. But Neate knows his stuff. He has a firm grasp of hip-hop's evolution from the breakbeat to Eminem, and his knowledge turns positively delicious where cultures cross over. Over the course of his travels, he visits a record label in Manhattan called Bronx Science, which sells most of its discs overseas, and tests the pulse of old-time gangsters in South Africa who signify by wearing Chuck Taylor All Stars.
Every reference in the book gets a footnote, which leads to a discography that spans several continents and as many languages. Neate occasionally flirts with the lingo of connoisseurship so pungent in jazz criticism, using terminology "word," "B-boy," etc. to prove he is, actually, one of the big dogs. In the end, though, he has the good sense to keep things casual. In Tokyo, for example, he initially comes down hard on that city's bizarre mimicry of American hip-hop. Japanese girls in dreadlocks? Tokyo teens rapping about the thug life?
After a few days, though, Neate realizes the Japanese simply interpret hip-hop culture differently than he does. Neate looks for a lyrical expression of issues; the Japanese turn to hip-hop for lyrical stylization. Period. By the end of this vivid and amusing book, Neate has learned how to embrace this multiplicity, even if it that means the people loving his favorite music might occasionally seem, well, a little wack.