Off The Books: Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace & Mark Costello

Dweez confesses that he initially pavlovs from the Zeppelin “Kashmere” sample not from the original or the Schoolly D song but from Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me” off the Godzilla soundtrack....
By    September 24, 2013


Dweez confesses that he initially pavlovs from the Zeppelin “Kashmere” sample not from the original or the Schoolly D song but from Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me” off the Godzilla soundtrack.

“Rap’s here-and-now is always here-and-now: a music without a future tense can’t but be immortal.” – David Foster Wallace (Page 144).

I’d tried to order this book exactly six months ago, in a moment when my own personal David Foster Wallace madness was first setting in. Yet I could only find it for around $100 down dark, online alleyways.

People highly recommend not reading IJ first if you do choose to chase DFW’s gone-too-soon ghost down his hysterical realism. Those same people suggest a solid month of dedicated reading time and mental real estate. In November 2012 I had that and didn’t know if I’d get it again before old age. I was in a place that sounds make believe (Chongqing, China) on a two-year bid for voluntary career slaughter. That particular month I had dubbed No Spend November, both out of economic necessity and a genuine curiosity to see how cheaply one could live in a city where prices seem as invented as the city’s name. It turned out to be $187 dollars, the cheapest month I’ve had on earth. If had followed those initial impulses to purchase Signifying Rappers, last November would have been called No Eat November.

So I made a note of it back then, lost that note (yeah, I didn’t know Evernote did that either), and randomly saw it on the new releases table in the decidedly well-lit Skylight bookstore on Vermont Ave in Los Feliz a month ago. I snatched it up with the quickness. Together with a membership and a few other titles, I spent another Chongqing month’s budget (or, L.A. weekend out, as it were) and went home to reread the IJ passages that discuss how Don Gately handled his time at the halfway house. Some inspiration, you know, for fighting a burgeoning hardcover addiction.

So about this book.

Anyone who is either: A.) a DFW criticism fan, or B.) a certified rap-words nerd, or C.) a member of the high-brow, “rap ain’t art, dammit” club — should read this book. I doubt many C’s remain. The New Yorker’s Earl piece was sort of the spike through the lit-crit coffin.
You probably don’t need any convincing to read a word-mind of DFW’s caliber go in on a word-art like rap, but in true DFW style, he’s swinging for the fence here. Signifying Rappers finds Wallace at his most dangerous: overly ambitious.

That ambition leads these two authors to swap sometimes painstakingly academic (theme, hagiography, diachronic) and culturally random (I Dream of Jeannie, Jesse Jackson’s turtleneck, Lionel Richie) on and off the paragraphs parsing rap lyrics in pursuit of answering the jacket-posed question: “Could the new street beats of 1989 set us free, as rock had always promised?” The dense 151 pages pack thrice their length (occasionally spastically) but what about freedom?

Referring to the book’s title track “Signifying Rappers,” Schoolly D’s 1988 remake of Rudy Ray Moore’s rendition of a West African Yoruba story, Wallace introduces his blueprint for ‘Outsiders’ looking to understand rap:

“The “S.R.” story itself is not exactly Dante, but the mix of cruel wit and silly pride is vintage Legba. And rapper-as-imp-hero conduces nicely to rap-as-ballad, the ancient mode that is quite likely rap music’s destined best.” (Page 88)

A friend once mentioned that getting rap was akin to getting comic books. It wasn’t profound but poignant enough for me to keep turning rap’s pages as a teenager. Understanding it as a story is where it starts for Wallace as it did for many Outsiders, but, for him, a story with nothing less than American freedom at stake:

“Little wonder that in rap the constitutional watchwords of white public discourse detach, emptify, float: oh Jesus surely freedom can’t be just the wherewithal to buy and display. If it is, then the whole country’s been lied to by itself, and if the impending millennium turns out Millennial it’ll be hard to fucking care. But if true freedom’s still meant to be more than this, more than the Pursuit of Yuppiness, then these are some really pathetic, infuriating times — especially among the Marginal, on whom freedom’s unjust absence has imposed the conviction that freedom’s just presents.” (Pages 136-137)

My Creole, comic book comparing pal was from Port Arthur, Texas. He’s now getting his medical degree at Harvard, alongside folks studying under a Nasir Jones Hip-Hop Fellowship. If Signifying Rappers means anything today it’s that no one can intellectually hover over what this art form has to say about those marginal and that the consequences for acting above rap’s story remain dire for this country’s chances to stay (or get) free.

That this book was written 25 years ago is inspiring and maddening and more than worth its weight in pavlovs.

Rating 9/10*

*For every review in the Off the Books column, the score is given in the form of well-taken points from the book. This book scoring 9/10, means 9 worthwhile takeaways are provided.

9 Takeaways:

1. UNCOMFORTABLE SUBJECTS: Wallace started out writing that summer about porn but gravitated to rap instead.

2. BULLETS FLY: Wallace and his coauthor Mark Costello wrote the book during 1989’s summer in Boston. That summer, like the last one in the Acid Rapper’s hometown of Chiraq, was a particularly bloody one. It’s a ripe backdrop for the mixbook these two roommates put together.

3. MISSED OUT: Both Robert Christgau’s 1990s fact-checking tisk-tisk and Spin’s 2010 dismissal of it being merely “a very strange rap book,” entirely prove one of the book’s theses — to document the gulf in serious artistic analysis of rap words and the social implications for doing so. Or in Wallace’s words, “Especially today, the unsubtle does not necessarily mean the simple or crude.” (Page 113)

4. COSTELLO CONTRIBUTION: Not everyone who wrote a book about rap in 1989 went on to become the literary voice of their generation, but that doesn’t mean Costello doesn’t smack you and DFW (as somewhat of a freestyle battle opponent at times in the text) over the head with evergreen one-liners like: “Ironies abound, of course, as ironies must when cash and art do lunch.” (Page 74)

5. BANGING INSPIRATION: It’s dedicated to legendary critic Lester Bangs, portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous. Bangs, like Wallace, saw “Isolation, solipsism, the dying of connection” as the great enemies, Costello points out. War against those foes permeates Signifying Rappers and much of Wallace’s later writing.

6. EXPERIMENTAL STRUCTURE: It features the footnotes Wallace would later became famous for (having only written the footnote-less Broom of The System and Girl With Curious Hair at this point) and a three-chapter structure with hole-poking counterpoints from Costello, attempts to salt-grain Wallace’s rap enthusiasm.

7. OUTSIDER ADVICE: Questions of being on what Wallace calls the ‘Outside’ still apply today, we’ve just sort of stopped trying to answer them. In ‘post-racial’ America these observations feel akin to turning over deadwood to look at creepy crawlies we’d rather assume weren’t there. DFW can’t answer these questions but he suggests that anyone on the Outside “will and must” look for aesthetic access by reading rap as story.

8. DROOL REDUX: Costello re-appropriates and widens the use of psychology’s best friend in a footnote stretching from page 103-104…

“These ‘nodes of associations’ we call ‘pavlovs’ — a unit of measure of everything we feel or think while hearing music we’ve heard before.”

“Pavlovs can be formed in many different ways as we can come to love anything. Fucking to an album make you love that album forevermore (unless of course the woman you were with later breaks your heart into many small pieces, in which case you’l; come to pavlov — yes, it’s also a verb — the album with pain and hate it for all time). Aesthetically, pavlovling shouldn’t happen, but in experience it does.”

“Pavlovs are everything we come to associate with music—and can re-experience in listening again — that isn’t ‘in’ the music. They’re what we bring to bear, when rightly cued. Pavlovs are the saliva that flows when the bells ring.”

9. CATCHING UP: Costello’s July 2013 preface wonders how applicable their observations are almost a quarter-century later. Lines like this from Wallace should answer that question: “A major impediment to sampling this Scene is the kaleidoscopic fury with which the Scene itself’ changing. I.E., if you’re reading this in print it’s already dated.” (Page 78)

**Page numbers are taken from David Foster Wallace & Mark Costello – Signifying Rappers, July 2013 Edition, Back Bay Books. That was the edition reviewed.

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