PRINT May 1985


The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip-Hop

Of all the books generated by hip-hop this is the first to address rap music and music-as art. That says a good deal about the dynamics of fads, the power of internal colonialism, and the practice of rock criticism. Still, worthy as Britisher David Toop’s efforts are, his sensibility and his methods remain elementary. A clumsy writer, Toop spends a good bit of his text detailing rap antecedents: the praise songs of African griots, Afro-American “dozens,” Jamaican dub and DJing—even lily-white Cliff Richard’s bongo solo on the UK Shadows’ 1960 version of “Apache.” But because Toop can’t really write about music, he can’t give the reader any sense of what these antecedents felt or sounded like—of what, beyond cliché, they were about. Thus he can offer little sense of how, within the domain of black or simply popular music, rap is radically new: how it does not sound like anything that came before it. Toop’s account of the development of New York rap is technical, and he’s clear and gripping on the discovery of techniques, but he has little idea of what sort of cultural imperatives produce the need to find new techniques, let alone what the shift from record collage to record scratching might mean. A rap criticism that matches its subject would need a recognition of African and Afro-American oral traditions—but also of Marxism (the fetishization of commodities and tools trickling down to the proletariat), current art-cant (appropriation as creation), precursors coded in Western culture far more weird than Cliff Richard (Rammellzee’s appeal to Gnosticism), and of the dynamics of Modernism per se: rap is nothing if not (among other things) South Bronx dada, and Rammell zees theories about his graffiti art at once speak for the imperatives of rap music and recapitulate the theory and practice of the Lettrists, Isidore Isou’s postwar Paris neo-Dada group. Toops book is lively but light; I recommend it without qualm. But the story is infinitely complex, which is why it is a real story, as yet unwritten.

Greil Marcus


David Toop, The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip-Hop (Boston: South End Press, and London: Pluto Press, Ltd., 1984), 168 pages, 92 black and white photographs.