On one side I hear John McWhorter, and on the other side I hear Michael Eric Dyson. In this book their voices come together because McWhorter has put forth his hip-hop apolitical argument in sharp contrast to the many political ones. In fact, Dyson provided the title of the book from a debate when he said hip-hop was “all about the beat.” In All About the Beat, McWhorter prepares rip-roaring arguments against Dyson, the very guru of hip-hop as politics.
I found John McWhorter directly through his groundbreaking Losing the Race. He was a linguistics professor at Stanford when he wrote it. Currently he is senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and was recently highlighted on Book TV. I have been reading and collecting his books for years - even an arcane one by the name of The Missing Spanish Creoles. I have done this because, 20 years ago, as a grad student, I worked as an editor's assistant on The Journal of Pidgin and Creole languages. I have loved linguistics and anthropology ever since.
During the Book TV segment, he was not a buttoned-down, GOP, conservative darling, but an open, talented, piano-playing professor (now fellow) who treasures his privacy and has found a public voice often heard on radio and television. When asked about his politics, he said simply, “For me, it’s an Obama year.”
The Real Prose of Politics VS. The Beat Poetry of Hip-Hop
I find McWhorter the embodiment of a ghetto nerd turned generational guru for the sandal wearing, clean cut (or beatnik), coffeehouse intellectual. He’s a true crowd pleaser. In All About the Beat, one gets a clear sense of what McWhorter thinks. It’s a great read to be sure by a master of the pen. I laughed out loud many times and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. He does not mince words nor protract his argument. He knows his subject well, and loves and collects the music he critiques.
You listen to the beat, dance, and love to it. You think you know hip-hop as a unique American art form, but did you know it had a political message? That it was a politico in disguise? That it was really a revolution waiting in the wings? This and much more is what Dyson would have consumers and rappers believe. McWhorter argues that Dyson’s position does not pass the smell test. Hip-hop is a feel-good, sound-good phenom, period.
Hip-hop (or rap) is a black narcissist game evoking the sensate in all men. The hippocampus has hip-hop entombed, subsumed, and linked to the lizard brain - inescapable. Sensual, yes. Fun, yes. Rhythm and beat, yes. Heat and no light, yes. Politics, hell no! That is McWhorter’s powerful message, but the hip-hop makers and producers aren’t feeling it. He is almost apologetic about not getting the hip-hop cum politic nexus. The truth is that he does get it and compiles his arguments in a cogent, academic, witty, and logical manner.