On the back of Steven Stancell’s Rap Whoz Who: The World of Rap Music (Schirmer Books, 339 pp., $22.95) is a blurb from hiphop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa: “Our people have to always know our history. It’s…important to know our history in everything, in music, in culture, anything….” It’s standard black nationalist rhetoric, and a cliché, but one that warrants countless repeating, especially the part about music.
Music has always been integral to the culture of black Americans, yet it is also one of the areas where a large amount of study remains to be done. Consider the fact that it’s been almost 30 years since Otis Redding’s plane crashed into icy Wisconsin waters, yet no biography of Redding exists. Redding is part of a long list of soul luminaries, along with Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke, whose stories still have yet to be fully told. While there exists a good deal of writing on jazz and the blues, a lot of it was done by white writers, which shows how much we African-Americans treasure our music.
The scene isn’t much better when it comes to hiphop. It’s more excusable in this instance, given the relatively recent development of the music. But still, with so many black writers putting out cheap memoirs (The Story of My Life: Growing Up Biracial and Trisexual in a White Ghetto With a Few Hispanics), there’s got to be room for a biography of Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, or Melle Mel.
Rap Whoz Who is a good start. The book is an alphabetical listing of anybody anywhere who has impacted hiphop. Believe me when I say this: It’s all here. You want DJs? Stancell’s got ’em, Grand Wizard Theodore down to Premier. You want industry figures? He’s got ’em. You want MCs? Stancell’s got ’em coming out the rear. MC Rell, MC Twist, MC Trouble—the list goes on.
Stancell wisely stays away from overanalysis and just gives the hard facts. Given that there are only a few books on hiphop, Stancell must have put a lot of effort into research and interviews, and the fruits of his task are impressive, to say the least. Want to know how the beef between BDP and the Juice Crew started? Want to know what group Grand Puba originally belonged to? Who was the fourth original Jungle Brother (hint: He was X-Clan’s lead rapper)? Stancell’s got it all.
The best part of the book, however, is the introduction. It gives a history of hiphop from the music’s inception to the present, including an interesting look at the form’s Jamaican roots. The book’s only real flaws are the layout, which gives the book a cheesy, cartoonish feel, and the numerous typos, which stain an otherwise thorough book by giving, for example, DJ Premier’s birthdate as Oct. 4, 1979, which would mean he’s been rocking since he was about 10.
Rap Whoz Who the final word on hiphop? Of course not. But it is a nice beginning to a journey that more of us so-called writers need to take.