Review | Rhymin' and Stealin': Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop by Justin A. Williams

Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop.  By Justin A. Williams.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.  [viii, 256 p. ISBN 978-0-472-11892-2 $65.]

Reviewed by Sarah Lappas


Justin A. Williams brings a unique and worthwhile perspective to hip-hop’s “open-source” culture in his new book Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop. And while the foundational premise of Williams’ book —that “the fundamental element of hip-hop culture and aesthetics is the overt use of preexisting material to new ends,” —is well-worn scholarly territory, Williams brings refreshing and fruitful new insights to the practice of borrowing in hip-hop culture (1).

In his first chapter, titled “Historicizing the Breakbeat: Hip-Hop’s Origins and Authenticity,” Williams investigates the connections between hip-hop’s “self-conscious history and notions of authenticity” by considering the many ways that newer artists sample and borrow from previous hip-hop material. He describes his approach as a form of “intracultural hermeneutics,” focusing on the internal history of hip-hop rather than the broader historical influences on the genre (20-21). It is with great restraint that Williams conducts an almost exclusively genre-specific analysis in this chapter and throughout most of Rhymin’ and Stealin’. In largely foregoing the kind of in-depth analyses of the relationship between hip-hop and its generic predecessors so common in studies of musical borrowing, he creates the space necessary to substantively contextualize this practice in the highly self-referential culture of hip-hop. He also explicitly informs the reader that he is more interested in conveying how hip-hop music references and reworks its own history, rather than why its practitioners do so. Williams charts the history of hip-hop by summarizing its storied, non-commercial roots: beginning in 1975 and ending with the release of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979. He enumerates the many strategies that hip-hop artists use to construct authenticity by referencing hip-hop’s live (read: authentic) beginnings through image, sampling and borrowing, peer references, verbal quotation, stylistic allusion, and nostalgia.  Perhaps the most useful offering in the first chapter is Williams’ organizational chart on page 30, in which he presents these strategies in a broad “Typology of Intra-generic Borrowing and Historical Authenticity.” While Williams prodigiously illuminates the struggle for authenticity in hip-hop, I was left craving a deeper acknowledgement of the social and historical particularities of this quest. After all, isn’t the black experience of popular music in America uniquely entangled in questions of authenticity?

In chapter two, titled “The Construction of Jazz Rap as High Art in Hip-Hop Music,” and based largely on his 2010 Journal of Musicology article of the same name, Williams lays out the ways in which rap groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul distinguished themselves from their gangsta- and pop-oriented contemporaries by borrowing from jazz. He opens with a provocative quote from the late rapper Guru, who stated in 1994 that jazz was “taken away, made into some elite, sophisticated music,” and that the subgenre of jazz rap was about “bringing jazz back where it belongs.” Williams argues that despite Guru’s assertion, by this time, “the ideological damage had been done, so to speak—jazz aesthetics and imagery contributed to highbrow distinctions within the hip-hop world” (47). Williams justifies his use of the term “high art,” with admitted hesitation, by explaining that he is specifically referring to high art as it functions within hip-hop culture, as opposed to the term’s more general associations with Western classical music. Certainly, however, the “jazz art ideologies” that Williams outlines in his discussion of jazz and the 1980s are enmeshed in the notions of high art associated with western classical music. Williams’ inclusion of the media reception that termed jazz rap “more intellectual” and “more reflective” speaks vividly to the art-versus-commerce rhetoric that jazz rap artists aligned themselves with in the late 80s and early 90s (64). While many comparisons have been made between the disparate subgenres of hip-hop’s “Golden Age,” Williams’ spatial analysis of their intended listening environments is innovative and profound. He makes a compelling musical case that the very production techniques of jazz rap suggest a more private and contemplative listening space such as the bourgeois modern-day jazz club, or the hi-fi stereo system in one’s living room (71).

Building on his spatial analysis of listening environments, Williams’ third chapter, “Dr. Dre’s ‘Jeep Beats’ and Musical Borrowing for the Automotive Space,” is his strongest. Here, Williams begins with a brief but thoroughly satisfying summary of the prominence of the automobile in hip-hop culture, and indeed its particular importance within the African American experience. His sole focus on Dr. Dre and his innovative “G-Funk” production style is warranted by the paradigm shift that Dre’s 1992 album The Chronic represents in hip-hop culture. Willams offers a comprehensive study of Dre’s inventive method of studio sampling—which in the early 1990s included hiring musicians to rerecord riffs from 1970s records before putting the sounds through a sampler to achieve a funk-inflected style while avoiding high copyright costs. Williams describes these innovations while contextualizing Dre’s sound in the “playback space” of the souped-up car and its “after-market” sound system, complete with subwoofers and iconic of the wide-open spaces of the West Coast. Here, Williams extends the practice of borrowing beyond the usual references to lyrical and musical practices toward an acknowledgement of a kind of spatial borrowing. In other words, he frames the aesthetic features of Dr. Dre’s “Jeep Beats” as an innovative production style that borrowed from the physical and imagined space of the automobile. He refines this analogy with a dazzling concluding sentence that is worth quoting in full here:

Perhaps car audio, like the streamlined outer appearance of many automobiles, provides the illusion of unity, sonically suturing the inconsistencies or ruptures in the fragmented bodies of culture, ideology, and subjectivity; like hip-hop music, the automobile is a unique, almost paradoxical hybrid: both public (on the road) and private (owned), a site of mastery and womblike comfort, of human and machine, symbolizing freedom and dependence (on petrol), at times transcendent and at other times suffocating, a fantasy object and the cause of trauma and nightmare, an object-cause of desire and a cause of stress (traffic jams and road rage), a “symbolic sanctuary” and the cause of numerous fatalities (101-102).

Williams’ fourth chapter, “The Martyr Industry: Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., and Postmortem Sampling” interrogates the emergence of a variety of posthumous identities for hip-hop’s two most famous martyrs. Musically, Williams focuses here on instances of postmortem sampling, which he defines as “the borrowing of the voice of a deceased hip-hop artist.” Certainly this is a necessary focus, for any attempt to catalogue the interminable lyrical, musical, and stylistic references to 2Pac and Biggie within hip-hop culture would be outside of the scope of any single book. By focusing on the postmortem sampling of 2Pac and Biggie by contemporary artists like Jay-Z and Nas, Williams compellingly illustrates how artists use these voices from beyond the grave to bolster their own legitimacy and pay homage to their musical predecessors. 

Building on his analysis of postmortem sampling, Williams extends the borrowing of deceased hip-hop voices to an analysis of lineage construction in the more recent music of Eminem and 50 Cent. Williams describes Eminem’s highly visible affiliations with Dr. Dre as a strategy meant to imbue the white rapper’s controversial career with a sense of credibility. Eminem’s career as an MC and as a producer has been enormously influenced by Dr. Dre, and Williams provides a thorough and insightful musical analysis of the “sonic signature” of Eminem’s resulting production style. This analysis sets the stage for a very compelling study of the sonically conveyed hip-hop heritage of rapper 50 Cent. Early in this chapter, Williams detours somewhat from his largely intracultural approach in a superfluous overview of the construction of musical lineage dating back to the fifteenth century (141-144). His expounding on the perception of Beethoven as the musical heir to Mozart, and the student-mentor lineage of Johannes Ockeghem adds little to his discussion of musical lineage in contemporary hip-hop. To be sure, Williams more than adequately illuminates the creative musical ways that Eminem positions himself and his “musical heir” 50 Cent within a lineage of hip-hop “ancestors” without the broad historical summary.

One of the most useful aspects of this book is that each chapter stands alone as a comprehensive scholarly work, making it an ideal text for a hip-hop course. I certainly plan to use his chapters on jazz rap as high art and Dr. Dre’s production style as two of the more challenging readings in my undergraduate course on Hip-Hop in Urban America. The academic rigor and theoretical grounding of this text also make it a fantastic option for any graduate seminar in popular music theory.  Overall, Rhymin’ and Stealin’ is a very welcome addition to the canon of hip-hop scholarship. Williams’ innovative contribution is his ability to broaden theories of borrowing beyond their typical scope of lyrical content and musical samples to include figurative borrowings of spatial and temporal concepts. The book is well researched and brilliantly written, a powerful offering of new ways to consider and contextualize the practice of borrowing in hip-hop.

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