Several years ago, British novelist Patrick Neate stumbled into a Tokyo dance club called Harlem, where you might say up was down and down was up. African men posing as black Americans danced with Japanese girls who had tanned their skin the color of charcoal -- to look black, of course. It goes without saying that the music they were listening to was American hip-hop.
As Neate discovers in Where You're At, hip-hop often leads to cultural cross-dressing such as this. Neate should know. A white Londoner who studied at Cambridge University and learned to be a DJ in Africa, Neate is a walking example of why authenticity is a slippery term in the hip-hop world.
Neate, recently nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Where You're At, chronicles his travels to Tokyo, Rio, New York, Johannesburg and Cape Town, talking to emcees named Herb and bopping his head to South African bubblegum (early '90s disco pop), all in search of an authentic definition of hip-hop. Like it or not, hip-hop is America's best-selling music, and here is a book that shows what the world has done with America's flashiest export.
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 to his credit, Neate knows his stuff. He has a firm grasp of hip-hop's evolution from the break beat all the way up to Eminem, and one needn't have spent their youth listening to Run-DMC to appreciate this understanding.
But his knowledge turns positively delicious where cultures cross over. Rather than describe this, Neate shows us. Over the course of Where You're At, Neate visits a record label in Manhattan called Bronx Science, which ships most of its music to white Europeans overseas. He tests the pulse of old-time gangsters in South Africa, who signify themselves by wearing Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Neate even makes a brief foray into the Italian rap scene, which is mostly left wing and mostly political. Imagine if Public Enemy shouted less and drank cappuccinos, and you get the idea.
If all this makes your head spin, that's OK, because every reference in the book gets a footnote or two. And there's a discography that spans several continents and languages. It's hard not to wish Neate's publisher had sprung for an enclosed CD, though. Even when Neate talks about how an emcee is "pulling words apart and reassembling them like plasticine shapes," it's difficult to grasp just how good the music can sound.
In the end, Neate has the good sense to laugh at his desire to display his knowledge. Where You're At is a journey of sorts, and Neate actually does change in the process. He starts off with some clear ideas -- that hip-hop is urban, that it's been co-opted by commercialism -- and winds up with a more vibrant, fluid appreciation for how different cultures have interpreted the music he loves. In Tokyo, for example, he initially comes down hard on that city's bizarre mimicry of U.S. hip-hop. Japanese girls who spend thousands of dollars to have their hair thickened into dread locks? Rich Tokyo teens rapping about the thug life?
After a few days in the city, though, Neate loosens up and realizes that the Japanese have simply taken hip-hop culture in a new direction. 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 that means the people loving his favorite music might occasionally seem, well, a little wack.
Where You're At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet by Patrick Neate (Riverhead Books: New York) $14/paperback