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To the Break of Dawn

To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    To the Break of Dawn
    Book Description:

    2007 Arts Club of Washington's National Award for Arts Writing - FinalistSEE ALSO: Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting.With roots that stretch from West Africa through the black pulpit, hip-hop emerged in the streets of the South Bronx in the 1970s and has spread to the farthest corners of the earth. To the Break of Dawn uniquely examines this freestyle verbal artistry on its own terms. A kid from Queens who spent his youth at the epicenter of this new art form, music critic William Jelani Cobb takes readers inside the beats, the lyrics, and the flow of hip-hop, separating mere corporate rappers from the creative MCs that forged the art in the crucible of the street jam.The four pillars of hip hop - break dancing, graffiti art, deejaying, and rapping - find their origins in traditions as diverse as the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira and Caribbean immigrants' turnstile artistry. Tracing hip-hop's relationship to ancestral forms of expression, Cobb explores the cultural and literary elements that are at its core. From KRS-One and Notorious B.I.G. to Tupac Shakur and Lauryn Hill, he profiles MCs who were pivotal to the rise of the genre, verbal artists whose lineage runs back to the black preacher and the bluesman.Unlike books that focus on hip-hop as a social movement or a commercial phenomenon, To the Break of Dawn tracks the music's aesthetic, stylistic, and thematic evolution from its inception to today's distinctly regional sub-divisions and styles. Written with an insider's ear, the book illuminates hip-hop's innovations in a freestyle form that speaks to both aficionados and newcomers to the art.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-9004-5
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Microphone Check: An Intro
    (pp. 1-12)

    That was us: the sweat-baptized, blue-light basement apostles of the breakbeat. We, the b-boy delegates of our five-borough universe, eyes hidden beneath baseball caps pulled low, uniformed in ?Guess, Kangol, and Adidas Olympic Team training gear. Our ranks cuedwaaayback to the subway lines that had delivered us to this place: Union Square, the nightspot deriving its name from the section of Manhattan where it was located. If you came from around our way, South Queens, specifically, then you gathered your tribe at 163rd Street and Hillside Ave and took the E to Lexington. Then you caught the downtown...

  4. 1 The Roots
    (pp. 13-40)

    For those still concerned with the terms laid down by Webster, art is defined as this: 1. Conscious arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movement, or other elements in a way that affects the aesthetic sense: 2. A specific skill in adept performance, held to require the exercise of intuitive faculties: 3. Production of the beautiful. The MC, despite the grumblings of various antique-aged gripers, is a modern incarnation of the black verbal artist, whose lineage runs way back to the black preacher, the bluesman, and the boulevard griot. Some critics, detractors, and, in the tongue of the boulevard,haters, would...

  5. 2 The Score
    (pp. 41-76)

    Categorizing art is as simple as holding a fist full of water. In hip hop, the standard dichotomies (old school vs. new school, commercial vs. underground, etc.) are as hazy as a Harlem August. As the music through which a new generation announced its aesthetic sensibilities, hip hop is tied to a particular point in history, but even then it is divided into sub-generations of its own. The Benetton-swathed, antiseptically white-Adidas-wearing b-boy who came to the Latin Quarter or Union Square in 1986 to catch Rakim or the Ultra Magnetic MCs, had an experience that was distinct from that of...

  6. 3 Word of Mouth
    (pp. 77-106)

    Hemingway defined courage as grace under pressure. In the black tradition, though, grace under pressure is the definition ofcool—which leads us to the understanding thatcoolness is a form of individual courage. No wonder, then, that in Yoruba art, the quality of mystic coolness (itutu) is often represented by the color blue—suggesting that existential calmness, and therefore courage, is at the heart of the blues tradition. In the hip hop arena, the battle, the ritual exchange of freestyle barbs, requires mental poise, grace under verbal fire, and composure—literally. Here we witness the rapid-fire calculation of speed...

  7. 4 Asphalt Chronicles: Hip Hop and the Storytelling Tradition
    (pp. 107-138)

    To hear it told in certain corners of his native hood, the Notorious B.I.G.’s crime epic “Niggas Bleed” was either a work of deft urban fiction or some sublime boulevard journalism with the names changed to protect those who plead innocent. In either case, it is not the kind of story that comes with that stamp of authenticity: Based on True Events. The MC, almost by musical necessity, comes down firmly on the art-imitating-life side of the equation. Had traditional fiction been his bag, there would be no question as to where the creator of the above tale was coming...

  8. 5 Seven MCs
    (pp. 139-166)

    I take seven MCs, put ‘em in a line. Speak these nine words to a true listener and see what happens. There are a handful of lines that have blazed their way into the collective memory and become shorthand for the works that contained them. It would be impossible, at this point, to separateThe GodfatherfromI made him an offer he couldn’t refuseorWhite HeatfromMade it, Ma, the top of the world. Rakim delivered that to hip hop with a single 12” released in 1986. “Eric B. Is President” and its bside, “Check Out My...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 167-170)

    One summer day in 2003, I stood in a slave castle and thought about Wu-Tang Clan. I was on Goree Island, in Senegal, West Africa, inside the stone holding pens where untold numbers of black human beings were stored before embarking upon the Middle Passage. The portal leading from the castle to the beach is called the “door of no return,” the last vision of home that those men, women, and children would ever witness. Before them lay the yawning blue void of the Atlantic. Wandering on the island that afternoon I had come across a home that was being...

  10. Shout Outs
    (pp. 171-174)

    This project grew out late night conversations with my colleagues Ayoka Chenzira and Beverly Guy-Sheftall on Goree Island that summer. I’m thankful to them for our meandering and contentious discussions of “their” music and “my” music (with the implicit understanding that it was really allourmusic). I am also thankful to the UNCF-Mellon Faculty Seminars for funding my participation in the seminar, on Pan-Africanist Aesthetics. Particular thanks go to Rudolph Byrd, Cynthia Spence, Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Manthia Diawara. This project also undoubtedly benefited from the attention my editor Eric Zinner at NYU Press who pushed me to develop...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 175-182)
  12. Index
    (pp. 183-199)
  13. About the Author
    (pp. 200-200)