David Foster Wallace Tried to Write About Hip-Hop. It Didn’t Go Well.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 9 2013 11:20 AM

My Metonym for Self-Reference Weighs a Ton

When the “resoundingly and in all ways white” David Foster Wallace tried to write about hip-hop.

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Wallace and Costello were writing at the tail end of the ’80s, at a time when hip-hop’s position in pop culture was just starting to become truly major—when Public Enemy, Gang Starr, Eric B. and Rakim, N.W.A., and De La Soul were all asserting their presences in the mainstream. Because the two white guys are implicitly addressing an audience that needs convincing of rap’s seriousness as art, there’s quite a lot of explaining being done here, very little of which now makes for edifying or interesting reading. “The rapper,” writes Wallace, “offers lyrics that are spoken or bellowed in straight stressed rhymed verse, the verse’s syntax and meter often tortured for rhythmic gain or the kind of limboing-for-rhyme we tend to associate with doggerel about men from Nantucket.” The DJ, we are told, “is responsible for the song behind and around the rap––the backbeat, krush groove, and the ‘sound carpet,’ i.e. a kind of electric aural environment.” It’s interesting, from the vantage point of 2013, to see exactly who and what Wallace and Costello take seriously, and in what ways. The Beastie Boys are dismissed, several times over, as “execrable,” “godawful,” and essentially talentless—an assessment which, on the basis of their pre-1989 output, is understandable if harsh. Public Enemy, as you’d expect, are given much more consideration. Wallace has a riff, for instance, on the line “I show you my gun/ My Uzi weighs a ton,” and, specifically, the fact that Chuck D’s talking here about the weight and firepower of his lyrics, as opposed to any literal weapon. Wallace points out that this is an inversion of the usual way in which, historically, pop lyrics substituted innocuous terms for controversial signifieds (where something like “Baby, here is my love” would be an obvious euphemism for “Baby, here is my dick”). Chuck’s Uzi, he argues, serves in the lyrics as “nothing more than a metonym for self-reference” whereby “the song itself becomes the true deep referent in the meaning-layered lyrics of any music that wishes to enjoy the favors of outrage-hungry pop audience and conservative entertainment industry alike.”

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Mark Costello (left) and David Foster Wallace, Boston, 1989

Photo by N.C. Larson

Like much of the critical treatment given to rap lyrics in the book, it’s clever, but not much more than that. As an introduction to late ’80s rap, the whole thing is pretty idiosyncratic all round. Eric B. and Rakim, for instance, are barely given the time of day, while the authors are convinced of—and largely convincing on—Schoolly D’s greatness as a kind of postmodern troubadour. His trash-talk epic “Signifying Rapper” is, Wallace writes, “a new type of cut that opens up Hard rap’s artistic possibilities even further, effecting an historical closure by which this high-tech genre insiders define as ‘any rhythmic rhymes spoken over a strong beat’ can perform its best-rooted and probably strongest function: storytelling.”

Of course, as the cover makes clear, Wallace is not the only author of this book. In fact, the layout keeps reminding us that we’re dealing with two distinct authorial presences: Wallace’s sections are headed “D.” and Costello’s “M.” This back and forth is possibly more in the spirit of Chuck and Flavor than, say, Deleuze and Guattari; Wallace’s sections tend to close with explicit segues into Costello’s, often with actual colons, or partial sentences (one section ends with the words “As in,” a small example of Wallace’s tendency to aestheticize incompletion). Costello’s presence is secondary, although by no means incidental. A lot of the material he covers in his sections draws on his background as a lawyer—there’s a fair amount of discussion of the civil rights movement, on the growing problem of gang violence in Boston, and some mildly interesting stuff on the legal issues around sampling and copyright infringement. There’s also a long disquisition on Jesse Jackson’s claim that he was at MLK’s side when he died, which is interesting on its own terms, but never quite gets around to being relevant.

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The heavy critical lifting, though, is mostly Wallace’s work. Costello’s involvement seems to have grown out of the fact that he happened to be living with Wallace at the time he was writing it. Because of their shared enthusiasm for rap, Wallace asked Costello to read what he was writing, and their conversations on the essay evolved into a kind of informal two-dude symposium. “On occasions when we did not overlap in the apartment or take a drive together,” says Costello in the preface, “I sometimes wrote my reply to parts of his rap essay. A yeah-but or a what-if, left on his desk. It was Dave’s idea to incorporate my responses and turn the essay into a co-authored book with intercut voices.”

The idea for the book, Costello says, came out of a panel Wallace was part of. “A fellow panelist launched a rote attack on rap as violent, anti-white, anti-women, bling-obsessed. Dave defended the artists he knew, praising the dexterity, the wordplay, the raucous, raw assault on the sententious Babbittry of the Age of Reagan.” An editor who attended the panel suggested that Wallace write an essay in defense of the form—an essay, says Costello, “that might have carried the title ‘How Rap, Which You Hate, Is Not What You Think, And Is Interesting as Hell, and, If Offensive, a Useful Sort of Offensive Given What Is Happening Today.’ ” That projected title, for all its familiarly performative loquaciousness, actually gives a pretty succinct idea of what Wallace is up to in the project that eventually became Signifying Rappers. The “You” being addressed is an implied readership of white intellectuals with a sketchy and dismissive view of rap. (A fact which accounts for, but makes no less retrospectively awkward, the spectacle of two white intellectuals lengthily defining terms like “ill” and “def.”) The book, in this sense, is a sort of critical diplomatic mission on behalf of a hip-hop culture Wallace is explicitly doubtful he has any real business speaking about, let alone for. Although it’s sometimes interesting on the experience of being a white fan of a predominantly black art form, there’s a relentless fetishization of rap’s “Otherness,” its difference, its closure against outsiders; and this, eventually, comes to seem like a way of concealing a scarcity of real insight into the music itself.

But while we’re on the topic of critical self-consciousness, it’s probably a bit obtuse to insist on reading this book as though its arguments about the cultural consequence of late ’80s hip-hop, and its analysis of the complexities of the white fan experience, were the main grounds on which it should be considered. It is in one sense, as Costello puts it in his preface, “a deeply dorked-out artifact of 1989.” But it’s also an artifact in the ongoing exhibition of Wallace’s intellectual omnivorousness. The book is a failure, but one that can only really be seen within the overall context of a dramatically successful career. “A major impediment to sampling this Scene,” writes Wallace at one point, “is the kaleidoscopic fury with which the Scene itself’s changing. I.e., if you’re reading this in print it’s already dated.”  This is true now in ways Wallace probably couldn’t have predicted when he wrote it. The cultural landscape of the book’s original significance has receded, and given way to an entirely different context—the magnitude of its co-author’s subsequent achievement. Which is another way of saying that it is, essentially, that most DFW-ish of things: a footnote.

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Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello. Back Bay Books.