January 15, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
The Brooklyn Paper recently called Adam Mansbach's new novel Rage Is Back "the great American graffiti novel," and I have to agree, this book is both a richly detailed homage to New York City and highly imaginative coming-of-age story.
Rage Is Back was the most fun I've ever had writing a book, and that includes Go the Fuck to Sleep, which I wrote stark naked in thirty-seven minutes. Rage was a blast because of the voice I wrote it in: the narrator, Dondi, is a digressive, shit-talking eighteen-year-old who's recently been expelled from the prep school he attends on scholarship (and refers to only as Whoopty Whoo Ivy League We's A Comin' Academy) for selling weed. For years, I'd resisted writing a novel from a first person point of view, convinced it was too limiting, that I'd end up painting myself into a corner. Boy, was I wrong. That shit is like a get out of jail free card. If your narrator isn't present, guess what? You don't have to write the scene. You have no idea how many scenes I got out of writing this way.
Rage was also fun because it has mind-altering rainforest drugs, and minor incidents of time travel, and The Mole People. Plus old-school graffiti writers reuniting to paint every train in the New York City subway system at once, in order to bring down a cop who's running for mayor and may or may not be drawing political power from a demon dwelling deep within the bowels of the transit system. It definitely amortized all the time I've spent hanging out with crazy-ass graffiti grandpas over the years.
I basically write novels in the hopes that somebody will ask me to create playlists to go along with them. Anytime I go to a new city, I pretty much go record shopping first, and check out the Great Pyramids or the Louvre or whatever if there's time left over afterward. I don't DJ much anymore, but buying records was never really about playing out for me. It was always about the thrill of the hunt, the process of digging through crates in some grimy thrift store basement, pulling out a rare gem, paying a dollar for it, walking out into the sunlight and jumping into the air while pumping my fist, like the freezeframe ending of an ‘80s movie. I'm one cheap motherfucker, is what I'm trying to say here.
Rage Is Back is something of a love letter to New York City, or maybe a love/hate letter. Most of the songs below are in the book, others midwifed it, and some are just classic New York City joints my characters would dig. There are easily a hundred songs I'd love to discuss here, but I'm trying to be respectful of your time – and besides, mixtape king J. Period is doing a free, downloadable Rage Is Back joint (which puts this book in great company; if you haven't heard the mixes he's done for the likes of Lauryn Hill, The Roots and Q-Tip, do yourself a favor and change that). And on that note, let me stop running my mouth, and get into some key cuts.
Welton Irie, "Herbman Trafficking"
This is from a live dancehall session, recorded in Kingston in 1982. It's what Jamaicans would call a "ganja tune" and Mexicans might term a "narcocorrido." Welton Irie, one of the legends of the rub-a-dub deejay era, is chatting about the process of growing and transporting weed – via airplane – and the lavish purchases he'll make when the harvest is complete. As somebody who spent years MCing, I'm always eager to find music imbued with the raw, improvisatory energy of the "cipher," with rappers passing the mic as a DJ spins records behind them. Which is exactly what this is – and where hip-hop got it from, along with the whole notion of the mobile sound sytem and the concept of DJ-as-presiding-deity. In Rage Is Back, this song is played on loop for hours by a Jafakin drug dealer, Abraham Lazarus, while he systematically chalice-smokes a competitor under the table. As for Welton Irie, he's one of many Jamaican deejays who relocated to Brooklyn in the early eighties, at a time when Jamaicans were the rising power in the city's drug trade. He died shortly afterward, and not from natural motherfucking causes.
John Holt, "Police in Helicopter"
Also from '82, but while "Herbman Trafficking" is obscure, this is a huge tune – an anthem, and a highly militant one, directed at the cops searching for marijuana fields from choppers. In the book, a character named Cloud 9 throws himself a welcome-home-from-jail party on a rented yacht, and the officer who put him away shows up on a helicopter and has his goons teargas the event. Just before it happens, while the chopper is hovering menacingly over the boat, the DJ – real-life NYC legend Kid Capri – throws this jam on, and everybody rallies and sings along, in a shortlived but ecstatic moment of defiance. 90% of DJing is song selection, and Kid Capri knocks it out of the park with this one. Too bad his turntables get smashed to shit five minutes later. But he'll be back. You can't hold Kid Capri down.
Big Daddy Kane, "Set It Off"
Most of the book takes place in 2005, but the events are set in motion in '87-'89: the so-called "golden age" of hip-hop, and also, paradoxically, the period when subway graffiti was breathing its final, shuddery breath, about to be eradicated forever by new chemical buffing agents. To me, this song captures the energy of that time perfectly: it's a frenetic, virtuosic display of rhyme prowess by one of the greatest MCs ever, at the height of his powers. You'll find the DNA of many a modern MC's style here, as Kane goes for broke with dazzling breath control, timing, internal rhyme flurries, and punchlines galore – over a classic beat by Marley Marl, the first producer to master sampling technology. If I was a boxer, this would be my entry music. Hell, I might become a boxer just so I can use this as my entry music.
Eddie Palmieri, "Comparse De Los Locos"
I listened to a lot of salsa while writing this book, in much the way I've used dub as a writing soundtrack in the past. I need to listen to stuff that doesn't have English lyrics or wild fluctuations in energy: it has to be in the pocket without being distracting. In particular, I fell in love with the ‘70s work of Nuroyican bandleaders like Palmieri and Ray Barretto, guys whose work simmers with funk and jazz influences, and just flat-out feels like New York City. This track, with its echoing chorus and syncopated percussion, straddles about seven distinct kinds of funkiness. I can never listen to it without bringing the needle back and running it again.
Elvin Jones, "EJ's Blues"
There's a scene in Rage in which Dondi runs into John Coltrane's son Ravi while eating a slice of pizza at Ben's, across the block from the Blue Note; Ravi is playing there with his father's old drummer, Elvin Jones. Dondi (stoned as usual), approaches him to discuss what it's like to grow up with a famous, absent father (John died when Ravi was two, and Billy disappeared when Dondi was the same age), and Ravi invites him back to the club to check out the next set. This scene is based on a real conversation I had with Ravi; I was a roadie for Elvin from 1997 through 2002, and he was a close friend and a mentor until his death in 2004. This is a song I saw Veen play countless times, in clubs all over the world. The man was a titan; he revolutionized the way the drums were played—not just in jazz, but in every form of American music – and his belief in the healing power of music was profound and humbling. I wish everyone had the opportunity to spend time with someone so connected to his calling, so centered by it.
King Doe V, "Shamalama"
A rowdy, playful, infectious, and totally obscure New York rap track from 1987, by a guy who, to my knowledge, never recorded again. This just screams, "Tuck your chain and hide your money in your sock, because those Brooklyn kids are going to rob you on the train, and possibly hit you with a hammer, like dude says in the song." To be clear, I'm again hitting people with hammers, and I'm definitely against being hit with hammers. By no means am I one of those "the city was better when it was a violent cesspool" guys. But there's an alertness – a mindfulness, to jack the current buzzword – that comes with being attuned to the constant possibility of danger, and that can make you sharper, and New York City used to provoke that in you, and now it mostly doesn't. A lot of my characters are from that era, and it's why they keep their wits about them when others might not.
The Incredible Bongo Band, "Apache"
The ultimate, foundational b-boy song – the one you save your nastiest moves for, wait all night to hear – and also my four-year-old daughter's favorite song right now. The build-up to the minutes-long drum break is an agonizing lesson in the systematic elevation of tension, and when the instruments finally drop out and leave only the percussion rocking, the release is epic. If I can get this kind of energy and dynamics into anything I write, I'm happy. And if you can hear this without wanting to uprock and/or fight, you ain't hip-hop.
Thelonious Monk, "Straight, No Chaser"
A blind, glue-sniffing graffiti genius by the name of Ambassador Dengue Fever bangs this tune out on a broken grand piano located in a (real) abandoned underground luxury train station in the book; it's the only song he can play. I've always loved the jaggedness, the angularity, of Monk's compositions – the off-kilter way they progress, the way they always threaten not to resolve, and yet somehow do, all the more satisfying for the feint toward dissonance. Only as I write this am I realizing how much like Monk the dude in the book who plays his song is. Wow. I'm a fuckin' genius.
Steve Miller Band, "Fly Like An Eagle"
When Dondi has to explain a mysterious staircase that transports you one day into the future to Cloud 9, he invokes this bit of slinky spaced out rock, with its "time keeps on slippin', slippin', into the fuuuture" refrain, and the thugged-out Cloud replies that Steve Miller is his dude. Of course he is. One of the things I love about hip-hop is the notion of intellectual democracy through collage: whatever's hot is taken up – sampled, flipped, riffed on – regardless of its origins. Nothing succeeds or fails on rep; only utility matters, whether it's a drum break, a dance move, or a color combination. Which is why a song like this, or hair-rocker Billy Squire's "Big Beat," or "The Mickey Mouse Club March," or the Bette Midler record with the break, is an unimpeachable piece of the hip-hop canon.
Adam Mansbach and Rage Is Back links:
Austin American-Statesman review
The Brooklyn Paper review
Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
San Jose Mercury News review
Wall Street Journal review
Washington Post review
also at Largehearted Boy:
100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists