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Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello

Book Club

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    Each month, our Aux.Out. Book Club reads and discusses either a canonical piece of music writing or something fresh off the presses. This month, we followed a young David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello into the Boston underground rap scene of the late ’80s. First published in 1990 and reprinted in late 2013 with a new preface penned by Costello, Signifying Rappers not only documents two Ivy League “white yuppies” exploring their shared enthusiasm for hard rap music, but also marks one of the first sincere, intellectual studies of the hip-hop phenomenon as a serious artistic movement. Read on to see the Book Club’s reaction to the classic Signifying Rappers.

    Book Club Members:
    — Matt Melis, Senior Editor
    — Paula Mejia, Staff Writer
    — Steven Arroyo, Staff Writer
    — Henry Hauser, Staff Writer

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    Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
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    For Next Month:
    Dinosaur Jr. by Dinosaur Jr.

    A “Closed Show”

    Wallace and Costello - Signifying Rappers

    Matt Melis (MM): From the first pages of Signifying Rappers, Costello and Wallace are cognizant of and adamant about being “outsiders”—that is, not Black—in a world of “Black music, of and for Blacks.” Wallace refers to rap as a “closed show.” That’s a far cry from the praise music often receives today for its ability to transcend race and unite all types of people.

    Henry Hauser (HH): Well, they certainly write from an outside, privileged, academic perspective. Right up front, they identify rap as a closed art form that’s not necessarily meant to be understood, dissected, or interpreted by white critics and intellectuals. The authors even suggest that rap can’t always be understood or even heard by white audiences. Now, that’s some pretty extreme stuff, and, I believe, fully tongue-in-cheek. What they’re doing is turning the tables on the imbedded rock critic establishment that refused to recognize rap as a legitimate art form. DFW and Costello are blasting back at these detractors by saying, “Well, you’re not legitimate critics because you’ve dismissed rap without every really hearing it.”

    Steven Arroyo (SA): It plays a huge part in that element of self-awareness—through which the entire book is laid out. They really poke fun at themselves throughout. “Hey, look at how white we are!” And it was that up-front acknowledgement that allowed them to be so self-indulgent and ridiculous. They never dropped the premise that this is a closed show, we are complete outsiders, and that allows us to be completely obsessive here.

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    It works on the other hand, too. The book, itself, is a closed show to anybody in that world. Wallace writes, “They were irrevocably outside Our scene, complete woods-babes when it came to the violent & debased world of creative writing/criticism; had not even a vision of such a world… except thru the window of pop media stereotype.”

    hip hop music Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark CostelloMM: Which reminds me of them going undercover and trying to talk to people within the scene. They dressed “mean”—scruffy, jeans, bowling shirts—and when that failed, they fell back into the pop stereotype of professors with tweed jackets and elbow patches, and that sort of worked because it was familiar to the people they were trying to get an “in” with. They’d seen it in a movie or on television.

    Paula Mejia (PM): At the end of the book, I still hadn’t arrived at a conclusion as to whether I agreed with them on rap being closed to whites. I’m inclined to believe that rap transcends sociocultural, political, and ethnic boundaries in the same way that they talk about rap—as inherently having no structure. It’s pretty much carried by a singular beat, and if you try to dissect it, like they talk about… it’s really easy to accept but almost impossible to dissect.

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    I love the section… I think it’s Mark Costello. He talks about vernacular and slang, and it’s my favorite chapter in the whole book. But that’s something you need explained to you. Some terms they listed I didn’t know, and I’ve been listening to hip-hop my whole life, but that’s because I didn’t grow up in that environment, and those types of linguistics were closed to me. But couldn’t you say the same for anyone who grew up elsewhere?

    MM: This “outsider” take made me think of the hip-hop-obsessed kids at the school I sometimes teach at. Most of my 9th grade students are poor Black kids, and it’s impossible not to notice that rap music resonates with them in a way that it just doesn’t with me—even when a track I love and they’ve never heard before comes on. It hits on a deeper level for them. Maybe it’s because rap can reflect so many aspects of Black culture: language, politics, social views, humor, fashion, resourcefulness out of necessity. There’s a lot of overlap there between genre and cultural identity, which also might be why my kids become very defensive when someone becomes overtly critical about the rap they listen to. When you attack their music, you’re, in a sense, attacking them.

    PM: I’m struggling to think of another genre that’s as territorial as rap. It’s incredibly bound by location and time period. It was probably in a review of some pop album, like Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz or something, and someone wrote that while her point of reference her entire life has been hip-hop instead of pop music, it’s still not right that she’s appropriating this music because she’s a white girl.

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    Years ago, it wasn’t the same as it is now in the sense that now we can be lovers of all different types of music. Genres were very divisive then. In the ‘60s, when rock criticism was emerging… people, like Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, and Ellen Willis, had to defend rock music. Now, you can be a lover of all types of music, but people get very territorial when you’re calling it your own music, when you’re using the possessive.

    SA: So, what did you think about the “Walk This Way” passage? Costello colors it as Run-D.M.C. saying that it’s okay to try and merge these worlds, where, in reality, they’re just working with a band, Aerosmith, who is appropriating this style from a style that was appropriated from another style that was appropriated from Black music once again.

    PM:  It’s an entire cycle. You could dissect every genre and see how it appropriated something else. Like, rock would not be rock if it didn’t appropriate the blues. Hip-hop is so indebted to jazz and funk. I had an argument the other day with a friend who is a big hip-hop head, but he can’t listen to jazz music on its own. And I told him, “You do realize that so many of these samples are from Art Blakey and Miles Davis riffs, right?” The foundations of contemporary hip-hop music stem back to those artists who laid down the foundations of those earlier genres. 

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    MM: And notice Costello has no problem blasting Aerosmith—calling them a Zeppelin rip-off, I think it was. This goes back to Paula’s idea of ownership. He’s not as quick to dismiss Run-D.M.C., though he will say that they’re making music that’s not strictly for Black people. Costello’s careful about how he talks about another racial group’s music. You can think of that as an example of—rightly or wrongly—knowing your place and what’s yours to praise or criticize or, on the flip side, as showing respect to something outside your own experience—the opposite of the dismissal of rap by white rock critics that Henry spoke of earlier.

    Rap’s Appeal to Outsiders

    Staines to consider name change

    MM: Outsiders have been appropriating rap and hip-hop culture from day one. Wallace thinks fear may be rap’s appeal to non-Blacks. It’s a chance to access the authentic danger found in rap music without ever actually putting yourself in harm’s way.

    HH:  I think the appeal is multifaceted. On the one hand, there are simplistic explanations, like novelty. It’s something different, something unusual, and therefore something fresh that demands further investigation. In other ways, it’s horizon expanding because it allows us to access the plight and mood of a community on the edge of exploding, forcing us to view something we might otherwise ignore, something with a very hard, unfamiliar edge.

    And whether rap music is just a superficial peek or an actual meaningful experience depends on how you interact with it. Are you just listening to its surface and scoffing, or are you trying to dig deeper and ask, “I find this lyric offensive, but where does it come from?” Looking to the root of a statement sometimes can be more telling than its actual substance.

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    SA:  I don’t think you can ignore the fear element. It reminds me of a great Wallace line:  “Interested whites, in fortunate or unavoidable moments, can only stare through a window whose bulletproof glass reveals what makes us glad that glass is there. Hell hath no illogic like fear that makes us pay to feel it.” And I think that’s a huge aspect of the appeal. In this book, Costello and Wallace are acknowledging the harsh truth that the things that no one wants to say are what make us interested in rap music. Or the part where he basically says, “Hey, all you from Chicago and New York. Ever notice how when the train goes through the ghetto all the white people get really quiet and just look out the window?” I loved that. It was brutal. But I loved the harsh truths in this book.

    PM:  I’d echo Steven’s idea that they’re acknowledging truths that no one wants to say. A lot of hip-hop is about selling the experience of something to an audience, and maybe it’s difficult to make a distinction between artists who are bards from their neighborhood showing what they’ve lived through and experienced, as opposed to artists who are selling that experience commercially. I’m not sure how easy it is to map that distinction, but I think the experience and fear factors are definitely appeals.

    Actually, this reminds me of one of my favorite Wallace lines: “A lot of serious rap talks about the ends of things—illusions, lives, neighborhoods, rock ‘n’ roll, the World itself.” I think that it definitely adds to the apocalyptic edge that a lot of really serious hip-hop is trying to get at.

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    MM:  Well, they do talk about hip-hop as being apocalyptic. It has a very brief past but no future. It’s all about what you have today. It doesn’t really imagine a tomorrow for itself.

    PM:  It’s similar to punk in that way. Like, the Sex Pistols’ “No Future”, right?

    MM:  It’s funny you say that because Costello and Wallace talk about punk, too. They discard punk as inauthentic. Basically, they’re saying that “the punk” doesn’t actually exist in any context outside a record or a stage, but the rapper comes from a genuine and authentic experience.

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    PM:  Experience and authenticity are two huge words that come to mind when I think about this book. I’ve been thinking about how you create authenticity or what constitutes authenticity. People lose respect for rappers all the time when they rap about the streets if they don’t live on the streets anymore. If they become incredibly commercially successful—like Jay Z—is it still authentic if he’s performing the songs he wrote when he was living in the Brooklyn projects?

    public enemy 2012 Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello

    MM:  Getting back to appropriation, though. A few weeks ago, Chance the Rapper played a show here at DePaul University. After the gig, I noticed probably a half-dozen groups of four or five white college kids roaming campus and sporting hip-hop fashion. Sagging and all that. One even told me, “No problem, nigga” after I thanked him for holding a door for me. Now, I can’t speak to that type of appeal. What makes kids like that want to appropriate hip-hop culture? Maybe it’s a perceived coolness factor or it seems more authentic than the suburban lifestyle they’re coming from.

    For me, though, the appeal of hip-hop, as a teen, was that it could be political and angry. I was an affluent white kid who desperately wanted to be pissed off but had nothing to really be pissed off about. Enter Public Enemy. Problem solved. Granted, it was pissed-off music about white people, like me. But that’s not uncommon either. Public Enemy’s audiences are always full of former disgruntled, white teenage males. For me, it was embracing anger, not fear.

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    SA:  Enemy was the only hip-hop act at Riot Fest this year.

    MM:  What was it like having Public Enemy there?

    SA:  I saw two songs at the end of the set, but this certainly was not the first time they performed for an all-white crowd. That’s for sure.

    PM: Public Enemy was a big one for me as a teenager, too. I grew up in Texas—a third culture kid. My parents were immigrants, and I grew up in the United States. I’m Latina, but I don’t feel like I’m American or Latina. My little brother and I tread this weird ground where we have no real sense of identity because we’re pulling from our parents’ upbringing and trying to figure out what it means to grow up in the United States and what it means to be of color here.

    I remember when I was 16 or 17, I picked up Fear of a Black Planet. I was completely blown away, because these were political and jagged songs getting at finding a sense of identity within chaos, which spoke to me immensely. When you’re a teenager, you’re struggling to grasp where you fit into the folds of anything. And hip-hop is a great medium for that because it’s toying with all these elements of discrimination, questions of class and race.

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    MM: But there’s an element of fun in all that, too. The PSA can also be a party.

    PM: Socially conscious and danceable at the same time.

    MM: What more could you possibly ask for as a confused teen trying to figure out who you are and where you’re going?

    Not the Much Needed F-U

    nwa Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello

    MM: In his new 2013 preface, Costello notes a change in Wallace’s attitude towards hip-hop during the writing of Signifying Rappers—a change he now can’t help but connect to Wallace’s deteriorating mental health at the time. Costello writes, “By the time he wrote section 3H of the book—a sermon, really; lucid, brave, abrasive—he had swung around to the belief that rap was not the much-needed f-u to Reaganite America but rather a Trojan horse of heart and cerebellum, a “protest” so beset with muddy motives and hypocrisy that it could not help but fail. It was made to fail, born to be co-opted and subsumed into the junky ferrywake of media’s caching.”

    That line made me question whether rap is still dangerous and cutting edge… or maybe it has completely sold out, been corporatized, and lost its mettle.

    HH:  I think both are true, as is the case with any art form that’s been around long enough to be co-opted. The commercialized aspect of rap music is still something that’s being debated, and one of the more clever references comes up in Kanye’s last album on his song “New Slaves”. The track contemplates whether the ultimate goal of freedom is to purchase and amass goods we desire, or something more, like the power to point our lives in the direction we choose.

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    chuckd Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark CostelloSA: Sure, I still think it can be cutting edge. I’d look toward hip-hip acts that could not be further removed from Schoolly D, for instance. It just seems today that those at the forefront of conscious rap—people like Common, Lupe Fiasco—have just been left behind.

    When I was a senior in college, Chuck D actually gave a lecture at the Black Cultural Center at Indiana. Couple hundred people, small auditorium. He did a Q&A, but before that he gave a speech that was basically one long, rambling indictment of non-street-conscious rap music, which really seemed out of touch. Certainly in 1990, when Signifying Rappers came out, it would have been more compelling. But he had this awful pun. Watch the Throne had just come out, and he said, “Anybody can watch the throne, but who’s gonna catch the thrown?” T-H-R-O-W-N. Maybe it’s a classic Chuck D-type line, but he seemed pretty stuck in his Fear of a Black Planet days.

    PM:  Like any genre of music, rap is privy to generational shifts. So, somebody like Chuck D, who has been in the game a long time, might be a little disappointed with modern hip-hop acts. He’s not necessarily shit-talking contemporary rap, but today’s hip-hop and the hip-hop of, say, the ‘80s and ‘90s are getting at different things. Marginalization, yes, but I think the stakes have changed. I can think of countless examples: blatant injustices perpetuated by social media. I think that you get so many of these references in contemporary hip-hop. Rappers talk about Instagram and Twitter in their rhymes, and I think that’s something very different… I’ve lost my train of thought.

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    MM: So did Costello and Wallace quite a bit, I think, especially Wallace.

    PM: I can see why, though. It’s very convoluted. Rap was riddled with chaos, and to try to create some semblance of order within that seems a bit impossible. Especially with major labels, I just don’t know how to approach that. Because there are great artists who are on major labels, and there are great artists who are completely tossed into the underground. But I wish that the artists who have those platforms—Kanye West, especially—would use them for something other than ranting about something?

    MM: I was thinking about Kanye West, too. I don’t listen to his music, but I like listening to him. It’s a guilty pleasure. And I couldn’t help but think of that in-concert diatribe that went viral over the past week or so. This guy’s arguably the biggest name in hip-hop—definitely commercially successful—but by all accounts, he’d certainly fall under that category of “serious” or “hard” rapper—that is, he’s got something legitimate to say. But then if you go to one of his shows, at some point, maybe it’s before or after he tries to sell you that designer t-shirt, he’s going to pout onstage for 20 minutes about being a millionaire who can’t get billionaires to fund his sneakers.

    kanye west yeezus tour by joshua mellin 11447148603 l Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello

    Photo by Joshua Mellin

    PM: Yeah, at the show he was ranting about a shoe deal or something that didn’t go through, and I just remember being so put off by that.

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    MM: There’s always been that sort of brash, vulgar, “look what I have now” element of hip-hop. That’s always been there—in the old school and in the new school. But, to me, he’s made it boring instead of entertaining or inspiring. Is rap still dangerous and cutting edge if this is the message being driven home by the biggest name in hip-hop? Or maybe the game’s shifted to a different place, where freedom and expression are more tied to marketing. Diddy, Jay Z, Dre, and Kanye all are businessmen as much as rappers. Maybe the game has changed fields. Maybe this is what it is to have something to say in hip-hop now. Maybe you talk about corporations now instead of what life was like where you came from.

    PM: Maybe the materiality that you’re getting at stems from the fact that rap is about building yourself up, as opposed to indie rock, which is about completely deconstructing yourself. In that sense, maybe having the cars or the Nike deals are a sign of “Look. I’ve made it. Screw the haters.” But how do you say that without sounding incredibly condescending to your fans, who are the ones who helped you get there in the first place?

    SA: I’ll defend Yeezus forever, though I guess I see where you guys are coming from. Yeah, we’re talking about how he’s got problems and can’t break into the fashion industry, and who gives a shit, especially given where hip-hop was when Signifying Rappers came out. But if the question is whether or not rap is still cutting edge or has it deteriorated to lesser issues, like Nike shoe deals. And your answer seems to suggest, yes, it has deteriorated or failed, because Kanye West is at the forefront of the scene right now and fashion is his main endgame. But I don’t think it was made to fail. I think it was made to evolve.

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    I think Kanye’s just pushed it to a level that we really haven’t expected. And, yeah, we may not really care whether he gets his Nike shoe deal or fashion endorsement. But if he’s already that far—talking about breaking down racial barriers in the fashion industry—then hasn’t it succeeded? I don’t think rap was made to fail. It’s just where rap has gotten to. And it’s not at all what it used to be, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

    Wallace and Costello

    david foster wallace Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello

    David Foster Wallace

    SA:  I was surprised by how indistinguishable I found Costello and Wallace. Thinking back to my favorite passages, I couldn’t remember who wrote them. But the few I highlighted were almost all David Foster Wallace. At a certain point, I really only began appreciating this book for the language and this endgame of basically stroking their own eloquent streams of consciousness. Foster Wallace’s writing arrested me a bit more than Costello’s.

    PM:  That’s so interesting you say that because I found that David Foster Wallace’s voice was so distinguishable; I didn’t even have to look at who wrote the chapter because he has such an angular way of expressing himself.

    SA:  Have you read a lot of Foster Wallace before? Because I have not.

    PM:  I have not, actually. I’m like everybody in that I started Infinite Jest and didn’t finish it. And I have a book of his stories sitting on my nightstand right now. Still haven’t cracked that open either.

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    I think that his voice is incredibly compelling in this book. And it’s skewed a little bit more towards him than Mark Costello, but I love the idea of these two narratives alongside each other and then responding to each other. I love that approach.

    HH:  To me, what they were going for in trading off narratives was trying to emulate the effect of two emcees handing off the mic back and forth. When that happens, emcees need to have distinct tones, but the voice has to be cohesive as well. You can’t have an extremely critical, angry voice countered by mellifluous, ingratiating fluff on the other end. They needed that cohesiveness, and that was achieved.

    In terms of David Foster Wallace or Mark Costello, this was the first piece by Costello that I’ve read. I’ve read almost everything David Foster Wallace has written, and I’m a huge fan.  But this is among my least favorite of his works. It’s Costello, as Wallace’s writing partner, who reins him in a bit and pulls DFW away from that extremely academic, highbrow jargon. But I don’t think Costello really has the ability to fully rein in Wallace; Costello responds to the substance of what DFW is saying, but he leaves the style relatively untouched, raw, and, at times, over the top.

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    Wallace and Costello

    MM:  I’m seeing the dynamic in a similar way. Wallace, to me, writes like the philosopher he was preparing to become at Harvard. His sentences are tortured; you can feel them grappling with and contradicting themselves—what Costello calls Wallace’s “drama of the head.” Costello is a much more concrete writer—actually taking you into that four-car garage being used as a small-time rap label’s headquarters. He can riff, too, but he does it within the confines of something like an I Dream of Jeanie episode. It’s corporal, tangible; you never feel like you’re just floating off like you do with Wallace at times.

    Originally, it was just a Wallace project. And I think Costello’s sections keep Wallace somewhat grounded—giving him some firmer footing. And from the little that Costello hints at in his preface, I get the sense that he was trying to do the same for Wallace via their friendship. So, on one hand, this book is about rap, but on the other hand, how the project came together may have been just as much about Costello reaching out to a struggling Wallace.

    You may know a bit more about this, Henry.

    HH: Costello saying that Wallace soured on rap is unsurprising, and not terribly reflective of its merit as an art form. Wallace tended to sour on just about anything given enough time, and it usually didn’t even take him very long. For instances, in grad school he was a disciple of postmodernism; Pynchon was his idol. But very quickly he decided that postmodernism was bankrupt. His mind worked so fast that he could exhaust an entire school of thought, get to the core of it, then and by the time he had it all worked out he’d discover some fundamental flaw. He’s seeking an answer, some ultimate truth. And when it’s not there he rejects it and turns to something else.

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    MM: So, he was probably never going to make it through a book on one topic.

    HH: Never going to make it through a book on one topic. Never going to have an influence that he put on a pedestal without ripping it down very quickly.

    1990 vs. 2014

    Signifying-rappers-1st-edition-cover

    1990 First Edition Cover

    MM: Costello worries that Signifying Rappers may come across as painfully dated—that the many cultural references won’t register with readers younger than 40. I also think it’s worth considering that a lot of the time spent breaking down the jargon and technical aspects of rap might seem tedious to an audience who now has ready access to that type of information.

    HH: In certain instances, it really does stand up over time, particularly when they contextualize rap within the context of larger historical movements, like school desegregation and civil rights. People still criticize rap as anti-music, “as complex as five idle fingers on a waiting room table,” Costello says. You still hear the antisocial criticism of rap music, which Costello analogizes to the criticisms of Elvis back in the day.

    PM: I don’t think it’s an artifact at all. I’d like to bestow this book upon all my friends who are huge hip-hop fans. As we mentioned earlier, it’s really gesturing towards a lot of themes that people don’t want to talk about, maybe are taboo, but are still fearlessly explicated here. This book spoke to me in a number of ways, maybe just trying to contextualize a relationship to hip-hop. Why we’re attracted to it is fascinating on its own, but the analysis that they do towards the smaller labels… And even though this was written more than 20 years ago, it’s still a valuable blueprint for thinking about how hip-hop has progressed.

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    SA:  I think it’s still valuable, too. For me, though, I’d say that if there was anybody who I would be recommending this book to, aside from hardcore David Foster Wallace fans, it would be people who are not huge hip-hop fans. There’s just one more passage I want to read. I think it’s a great example of this. And it’s a moment where Foster Wallace finally gets away from that circular questioning and actually posits something concrete. “So a thesis: the theme, energy, wit, and formal ingenuity of the rap are where any meanly dressed, unMarginal spectator outside the window will and must look for aesthetic access to a music self-defined as not for him. That is, the outside listener must not only take the rap ‘on authority’; he must read that rap as story.”

    To me, that’s actually a valuable access point today, just as much as it was in 1990 for people who don’t really get it. David Foster Wallace thinks himself into sheer fatigue in this book, but here he manages to actually give us a bottom line.

    Report Card

    book club approved

    SA: Again, just so self-indulgent in their streams of consciousness, but I really, really appreciated how they were totally up-front and self-aware about the whole thing. If you can appreciate that, and if you’re not completely put off by the winding language, there are definitely nuggets in here that will spark your interest. But still a total chore to get through. For 150 pages, this felt much longer than anything we’ve read for the Book Club. GRADE: C

    HH: Signifying Rappers is a rambling, frustratingly pedantic, arguably brilliant joke that goes on for about 150 pages. The whole book is really just DFW and Costello thumbing their noses at the white, tenured, middle-class rock critic establishment, which, in ‘90, refused to recognize rap as a fresh and insightful musical expression. They’re heeding Lester Bangs’ call to rise up against the commercializing ballyhoo of mass music and marketing, and they identify rap as a culturally significant phenomenon relatively early on in its history. The journalistic essays, to me, were the strongest. The co-authors were great when focusing on specifics but tended to overreach in regards to broad generalizations. GRADE: B-

    PM:  I enjoyed this book, even though at times—many a time, actually—they derail from something they’re talking about and go into something completely different. But they do contextualize so many different things that I had not seen or read before. I think you have to go into this book recognizing that it is going to be self-indulgent, but I’d still recommend it. GRADE: B

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    MM:  I give it a solid B, but I don’t know who the hell I could recommend it to. I admire that it uses the prism of rap music to contemplate how Blacks and whites exist and co-exist in our country—a topic that never loses relevance. And I appreciate that it was one of the earliest works to treat rap as a subject worthy of serious study and consideration. GRADE: B

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