Editor's Choice

Hip-Hop Is History

Dylan Schleicher

June 17, 2024


2023 marked the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. Questlove helped tell that story at the 2023 Grammys, but that event is just the Introduction to the fuller, more personal history told in his new book on the topic.

HipHopIsHistory.jpgHip-Hop Is History by Questlove, AUWA Books 

I can remember the moment my oldest brother gave me the Roots’ second album, Do You Want More. He dropped by my bedroom sometime in the summer of 1995 and said something quick and simple along the lines of “you’ll like this” as he handed it to me and walked off. I dropped it immediately into my little stereo, put my headphones on, laid back… and then shot bolt upright as the music started playing. I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and I was mesmerized. I rewound and listened to it until I felt like I knew it backward and forward. Nearly three decades later, a book from one of the band’s frontmen, Questlove, crossed my desk here at work that made me up straight again. There are some books you lean back to enjoy. This one has had me leaning in, rereading, relearning, reconsidering, and looking up things I missed the first time around—and by that, I mostly mean the music he is writing about that I was either too young to catch, or that I might have missed or dismissed when it originally came out. I don’t yet know the book backward and forward, either, but I’ve only read it one-and-a-half times. I’ll get there. 

Hip-hop has become a profound cultural force—really, a culture unto itself—in America and around the world over the past five decades. People have come to place the official beginning of the genre in 1973, when Kool Herc set up two turntables at a back-to-school party held in the Bronx by his sister. Using two turntables wasn’t new to DJing, but Herc added a key innovation: using two copies of the same record, one on each turntable, to juggle and extend the best drum breaks for people (see “breakdancers”) to dance to. Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson has some intelligent and thoroughly explained “quibbles with picking this … as a birth date” of hip-hop, but that didn’t stop him from signing on to produce a segment to honor the date for last year’s Grammys, and the story of what ensued provides a great opening to his new book, Hip-Hop is History 

It is a story with so much human history and drama in it, and so many twists and turns in the run-up to (and even during) the event, that it feels like it could be a book or documentary of its own, but it’s thankfully just the Introduction in this book. He breaks the rest of the book up into ten (mostly) five-year segments, starting in 1979 with the release of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and moving us up to the present day (and, in a poignant Epilogue, all the way to 2073). Why five-year intervals? Questlove explains: 

As I see it, change in the hip-hop world starts on the twos and sevens. What that means is that once rap was up and running, it tended to change every half decade or so, lagging slightly behind the cycle of decades. So hip-hop remade itself over the course of 1982, held steady for a little while, changed again in 1987, held steady, changed in 1992, and so on. In my mind, each half decade is a country unto itself, in many ways. 

The two chapters that don’t adhere to the five-year formula are the first—1979 to ‘82, which got rap “up and running”—and the last, which marks the (potentially apocryphal) 50th anniversary of hip-hop, 2023.  

Chapter One kicks off with Questlove hearing “Rapper’s Delight” on the radio in 1979 as an eight-year-old in Philadelphia and running for his tape recorder to preserve the song, learning the lyrics overnight, and finding that being able to recite them at school the next day earned him a level of social acceptance and some nice perks—a snack or a chance to talk to a girl. Soon enough, he had his own copy of the record after he convinced an older boy who was courting his high school-aged sister to buy him the full-length twelve-inch version (rather than the 45), which he miraculously retains to this day. From that moment on, he was present for the history of hip-hop in more ways than one. He not only heard and collected the best artists as they were changing history in his youth but eventually entered the arena with the Roots. (Like Jimi Hendrix, they had to move to London to break through, putting out Organix, which they recorded in Germany—in 1993.)  

So, there is no real way for him to take a hands-off, above-it-all approach. The book is a history of hip-hop, but it is a personal history, as well. He is deeply immersed in it all. You move with him from a youthful awe and enthusiasm for the music and its larger-than-life figures to an adolescent awareness of where he fits in, learning what artists influenced him the most as he formed his own ideas and identity, and what his own artistic process includes. Like most of us, he becomes more curmudgeonly as time passes and he knows more about the world. He takes a little longer to come around to certain ideas and sounds. As the book progresses, he talks increasingly often about how he dismissed this or that artist or didn’t quite appreciate the approach such-and-such was taking with their production. At one point, he writes: 

Like so much of hip-hop innovation, I had to catch up to it, to understand how to appreciate it. I did. 

I don’t claim to have the academic and nuanced understanding of the music and all its influences that Questlove has (he will give you backstory to almost every beat and sample), but I get it to some degree. I was so committed to the underground and to independent labels that I wouldn’t even fully listen to Jay-Z or Eminem albums that came out when I was in high school. I mean, I heard them, and often envied elements of what they were doing, but there was a line in all music at the time and I was firmly committed to the indie and underground side of that line. Which is to say I was a snob. I’ve rectified that slowly over time, but I was just a fan, so it didn't really matter outside of my own appreciation for music if I did or not. Questlove was, and is, a critical contributor to the evolution of the music and culture—and as the five-year intervals of the book attest, the evolution has moved quickly. It did and does matter what he listens to, and he didn't want to disappear, so he had to move faster. His critical dissection of the production and aesthetic qualities of the music, and what it is drawing on, displays his great musical intelligence. Being able to admit the merits of the music even when he missed them at first displays an emotional maturity and wisdom—and an ability to keep his own ego in check—that not all artists have, as evidenced by the aforementioned Introduction to the book and the story of the 2023 Grammys.  

No history can be exhaustive, but this is as authoritative as they come, from one of the giants of the genre. I haven’t even gotten into any—let alone all—of the artists he covers in the book. To simply list all of them would take up more room than I have, and the way he connects and excavates the history of everything from a single song to the most influential regions and years in hip-hop would be tricky to unravel and do justice to. The book reminds me, at times, of Danyel Smith’s Shine Bright in the way he moves from one artist, producer, sample, song, album, or industry figure to another (and then another) to tease out the full human history and background of the music. It is not so much stream-of-consciousness as an almost biblical accounting of who begat whom and what and where and how it is all connected, documenting the collaborations and conflicts that have made hip-hop what it is today. But to get into individual artists just a little, it is in this way we get from a section about the Ultramagnetic MCs and Kool Keith to Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, and why the soundtrack for the movie Colors, set in Los Angeles, was dominated by East Coast acts—other than the Ice-T's theme song “Colors.” Questlove uses a lot of asides, digressions, and parentheses to pull this off. In one part he even begins a paragraph noting that it is in “Open parenthesis,” followed by another “Open parenthesis within parenthesis” and yet another “Open parenthesis within parenthesis within parenthesis.” These open parentheticals begin to end with: 

Rap broke from Polo and went solo, a sentence that could be a lyric. Close parenthesis.

The following two paragraphs end similarly, with “Close parenthesis.” It’s brilliantly playful and poetic. There are also stories only he can tell, like how he learned of Biggie’s death from a Source reporter when he called in to send in a response to Biggie taking offense at a Roots music video he thought was aimed at him (it wasn’t) or finding J. Cole’s cell phone at a gas station while they were out on tour and he was still trying to fully understand where J. Cole was coming from musically (which was, in part perhaps, hindered by where he came from). Most of all, Questlove offers entertainment and education on every page. And while the music and its history contain a lot of pain (more on that, especially, in the Epilogue) is also really funny. Referring to how the pop novelty of MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” wore off on him quickly, he writes:  

By the third week or so, I was no longer interested in hearing about how I could not touch it.  

Do You Want More wasn’t the first time I’d heard music that sounded something like it. I was omnivorous when it came to musical genres at the time, digesting everything I could, but my primary pursuit was digging as deep into underground hip-hop and hip-hop history as I could from a small tourist town in Southeastern Wisconsin. I loved De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, The Pharcyde, the Solesides and Hieroglyphics Crews, and so much more.  I had the Digable Planets’ second and final album Blowout Comb on heavy rotation around that time, and I'd find my way to the music of Aceyalone and the Project Blowed collective soon after. I clearly remember how my mind melted at the end of the Common (Sense at the time) song, "I Used to Love H.E.R.” when he rapped “'Cause who I'm talkin' about, y'all, is hip-hop" and realizing that the woman he was talking about was, in fact, the genre itself—then rewinding and replaying it over and over again until I knew it word for word. But the Roots quickly became a favorite, to the point where it felt necessary to follow everything in their orbit. And there was soon a lot in their orbit.  

Similarly, Hip-Hop Is History is not the first book from the Roots crew that I’ve read. Tariq Trotter—aka Black Thought, aka the other frontman of the Roots—released a great book last year called The Upcycled Self. I wrote about Questlove’s Creative Quest when it came out in 2018—and we even named it one of the best Innovation & Creativity books of that year—so I was already familiar with his writing. But Questlove is a man who puts things in orbit, so he wasn’t satisfied simply writing his own books. He needed a way to raise the voices of others alongside his own, which he now has in AUWA Books, an imprint from the legendary publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The imprint published Sly Stone’s Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) late last year, which seemed like a fitting follow-up to Sly and the Family Stone being one of the acts featured in Questlove’s brilliant, Oscar-winning documentary, Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). But Hip-Hop Is History brings it all together for me. It is the book I was looking for, and that couldn’t have been written, when I was delving into hip-hop and its history when I was a kid, trying to listen to and learn as much as I could from and about the music. And it is a book I didn’t know I was looking for right now, a time when I’ve been diving back into and finding new music after a decade-plus where I wasn’t paying much attention due to raising two kids of my own. I’d say it’s a fast read, but I’ve set it down so many times to listen to the music he is writing about that it has been joyously slow. (It might also end up being the most expensive book I’ve read in a while. I got a review copy from the publisher for free, but I have been hunting for records he mentions ever since I started reading it.)  

So, in addition to keeping this book close at hand even though I’ve read it all (and some of it twice), I am once again finding it necessary to follow everything in Questlove’s orbit—this time in books. I imagine there will soon be much more in orbit soon, and I am looking forward to it. 

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of Porchlight since 2003. After beginning in shipping and receiving, he moved through customer service (with some accounting on the side) before entering into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the marketing and editorial aspects of the company. Outside of work, you’ll find him volunteering or playing basketball at his kids’ school, catching the weekly summer concert at the Washington Park Bandshell, or strolling through one of the many other parks or green spaces around his home in Milwaukee (most likely his own gardens). He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.

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