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Signifying Rappers, by David Foster Wallace - review

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

14 September 2013

9:00 AM

Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello

Penguin, pp.154, £8.99

Since his suicide, David Foster Wallace has made the transition from major writer to major industry. Hence this UK issue of a slender work of music history got up for a small US press in 1990 by a young Wallace and his college friend Mark Costello. The premise: it’s the early days of rap, and two overeducated white kids who like it produce a sampler considering What It’s All About.

That it’s dated doesn’t matter much. That it’s juvenilia does. Its cleverness is that of a writer in possession of an immense talent but not yet remotely in control of it: a learner driver doing doughnuts in a powerful car. Almost every sentence is arch or overwrought. Here is a tame example (in the course of a discussion of the dope, the def and the fly):

The def rapper MCs a def rap, which rap def-ly tells of its own (and the rapper’s) def-ness — so def, as MC/manager/entrepreneur Russell Rush Simmons brags, that it had to be on a label called Def Jam.

In addition — as its dedication and Costello’s preface make clear — it’s badly in thrall to the overheated prose of Lester Bangs. The Bangs influence later emerged in Wallace to advantage — his refusal of irony and embrace of feeling — but here it’s allied to a defensive touting of his intellectual credentials. Plus, as you can infer from the text — particularly a rambling fantasy about what would happen if the 1967 Tampa riots were incorporated into an episode of I Dream of Jeannie — this dates from a period when Wallace was smoking a very large amount of grass.

The authors have interesting things to say about rap’s sonic dynamics, its co-option by the mainstream, its racial politics and its culture of appropriation and sampling. But they’re swamped by the showing off. I love DFW and I’m a sucker for nostalgia (Kool Herc! Schoolly D! Early Beasties!). Still, I found this barely readable.

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