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Reprint of the Week: Signifying Rappers

David Foster Wallace was a Boston grad student in 1990 when he and his roommate at the time, Mark Costello, co-wrote a slim book about rap music, called Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (Ecco Press, 140 pages, $11). It’s an odd book, a dialogue of sorts. Wallace and Costello wrote alternating chapters that don’t so much investigate rap music as they investigate the authors’ obsession with, involvement in, fear of, and fear of fear of rap music. Fans of Wallace’s maximalist fiction (the epic-length Infinite Jest) and so-called metajournalism (such as his instant classic essay from Harper’s about life on a cruise ship) will recognize the pop culture and medical references, the coy footnotes, and the fetishized academic glosses. The footnotes are rich as Public Enemy samples; dotting the bottoms of pages are media quotes (Sting: “This is the first black music I haven’t liked”), snippets of liner notes, mini essays, innumerable references to critic Stanley Crouch, and even the odd interjection from the other author. The theoretical flourishes, however, are merely a front, a highly self-conscious front meant to mask the personal nature of the writing; early on in the book, one of the two authors (their voices aren’t all that distinct) recounts their joint decision to not bring dates to an inner-city rap show — but instead of being assaulted, they were simply ignored by the audience. (Oh, and Signifying Rappers is dedicated to Lester Bangs, patron saint of all us self-indulgent music critics.) Ecco Press, which reissued the book last month following a long absence, deserves credit for not playing up Wallace’s recent fame. Costello retains top (that is, alphabetical) billing, and there’s no mention of any of Wallace’s recent books on the cover, only in the brief bio statement. (Costello’s bio is more interesting: “formerly an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, presently works as a federal prosecutor.”) And despite frequent references to outdated rap stars and political events (such as Tawana Brawley’s media hoax), the read is anything but untimely. What with Wallace’s newfound literary celebrity, the current turmoil in the rap community, and the lack of good writing on hip-hop, for all its rough edges and half-baked opinions (such as the utter dismissal of the Beastie Boys) Signifying Rappers is well worth picking up. Apparently everything comes full circle. Also-ran rapper Schoolly D. figures centrally in the discursive duo’s arguments, and the rapper also happens to have unwittingly contributed the central sample on the Chemical Brothers’ recent single, “Block Rockin’ Beats.”

Originally published in the May 16, 1997, edition of epulse (3.19).

By Marc Weidenbaum

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