‘The Come Up’ is a riveting account of hip-hop’s rise from obscurity to ubiquity
Jonathan Abrams’ oral history features more than 300 interviews with creators of the culture
Open up practically any page in The Come Up: An Oral History of the Rise of Hip-Hop, and a gem drops into your lap.
Page 5: Kurtis Blow describing the vibe inside a party deejayed by Kool Herc – the man who birthed hip-hop. Page 82: tension between the Furious Five and an upstart Run-D.M.C. Page 162: Marley Marl dreaming of stardom in the Queensbridge housing projects, looking across the river at the Manhattan lights. Page 212: East Coast record executives laughing at Eazy-E’s demo tape because “he ain’t got no bass in his voice.” Page 376: Goodie Mob drinking Boone’s Farm outside a New York City bodega with Method Man, Raekwon and Ghostface. Page 399: Master P finishing a recording session at 4 in the morning, then telling his team to be back at 8 a.m. Page 434: Diddy making his Bad Boy artists rewrite lyrics so they would connect in Little Rock, Arkansas.
If you think that’s a lot of information, you ain’t read nothing yet. The Come Up is as jam-packed as a Twista song and as weighty as Slick Rick’s jewelry. It features interviews with more than 300 rappers, producers, promoters, record company executives and others, from obscure yet influential figures such as Dante Ross and DJ Spanish Fly to pioneers such as Ice Cube and Grandmaster Caz. The total package is a riveting account of how rap carried hip-hop culture from obscurity to ubiquity, from disrespected to winning the Pulitzer Prize – and how it should have been getting that respect all along.
The book arrives ahead of next year’s 50th anniversary of hip-hop, which began in 1973 with Kool Herc’s parties in the South Bronx neighborhood of New York City. Author Jonathan Abrams, 38, is a New York Times staff writer who grew up a Tupac Shakur fan in Southern California. I spoke with Abrams about his new book and how it was shaped by his own relationship with America’s most powerful form of cultural expression.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Three hundred-plus interviews is a huge task. Did you know it was going to be that many when you started?
It was something that I was prepared for. If it was up to me, it would’ve had even more interviews. If you think how hip-hop is about five decades old now, and how many people have impacted and propelled it and inspired people in it, you could have a book just listing names that would’ve been as big as the book I ended up doing. Almost the only guidelines I had coming into this was that if somebody who was impactful in hip-hop would be willing to talk to me, then I’d be down to talk to them.
That’s dope. What’s your earliest hip-hop memory?
I have a memory of ‘Boyz-n-the Hood’ being played on the radio when I was pretty young, probably on [the Los Angeles radio station] 92.3 The Beat.
What role has hip-hop played in your own life?
Growing up in Southern California in the late ’80s and early ’90s, hip-hop provided me with an education that I wasn’t getting in school or anywhere else as far as the Black experience. I specifically look at somebody like Tupac Shakur and his songs like ‘Brenda’s Got a Baby’ or ‘Changes,’ and I’m 11, 12, 13 years old at that time. Hearing the Black experience, hearing triumph through tragedy and things that I hadn’t encountered yet but felt like somehow would be part of my experience. It was something that really, really synced me in. Tupac was the first person who showed the whole range of the Black male experience for me.
One of the most exciting things to me about your book was seeing Grandmaster Caz in there. He’s such an underappreciated figure.
Caz was probably the first GOAT, right? Before him it was all party rap, the hip-hop-hippity-hop stuff. Grandmaster Caz was the first lyricist, penmanship-type artist to take it from party raps and really be a poet. Caz was in the group Cold Crush Brothers, who were really popular. Big Bank Hank was the manager for Cold Crush, and Hank ended up appropriating a lot of Caz’s stuff for ‘Rapper’s Delight’ [the 1980 hit and pioneering commercial rap single].When the record came out, everybody in the hip-hop scene was like, ‘What in the world is this? These are Caz’s lines!’ Hank even spells out Caz’s name in his lyrics.
What does it mean that the first big rap hit was stolen?
I think rap goes in different stages where sometimes authenticity is really appreciated, but other times, you know, people are paid to ghostwrite, which is a very, very lucrative industry these days. So it does say something that the very, very, very first megahit was basically appropriated, especially in those foundational early stages when being original, being authentic, being different meant everything. Maybe it sort of validates the whole idea of ghostwriting for an artist, which once was considered taboo amongst the purists. But I mean, it’s been part of hip-hop since the very beginning. Caz was the first ghostwriter, although an unwilling one.
What were some of your favorite interviews?
One is Edward ‘Duke Bootee’ Fletcher. He was in the Sugar Hill Gang’s house band, and he kind of unwittingly helped write ‘The Message.’ He used to tell people, and this was in the party rap era, ‘You better hope that I never do this s— because y’all ain’t talking about nothing.’ Duke Bootee was somebody who read a lot of different newspapers and he just decided to write this rhyme. He says it wasn’t political, but social – I’m just trying to show what people are going through, trying to mirror what I’m seeing around me. He unfortunately passed away last year, and I don’t feel he got the recognition he deserved when he was alive for the role that ‘The Message’ played in basically birthing conscious hip-hop. And he came up with the music.
Another one is DMC, he was great in talking about the rise of Run-D.M.C. and them crossing over into the mainstream. But one of the components that caught my eye was him talking about their fashion and streetwear and how that came out. At the time, a lot of star rappers were dressing in these almost outlandish costumes, trying to follow the stars that came before them in disco and funk. For DMC it was almost sacrilegious to dress like that. He wanted to dress like how he imagined his hero Grandmaster Caz was stepping out of his front door.
Yep, and look fresh. Ice Cube was another one. I don’t know if he had said this before, but he told me that he had originally thrown out the lyrics he wrote to N.W.A.’s ‘F— the Police’ because he didn’t think the group wanted to do it. One of his friends like, pulled it out the trash and said, ‘No, keep it,’ and Cube put it back in his notebook. He also said that Dr. Dre was going to the sheriff or the police on weekends and serving some sort of sentence, and Dre didn’t want to have to deal with the police and have that song out. So ‘F— the Police’ got sidelined for a long time. It was really interesting to me that the song almost never got made.
The other thing I don’t think people realize is how much of an influence Public Enemy had on N.W.A., because you wouldn’t think those two groups necessarily align. But Ice Cube talked a lot about how Chuck D and Public Enemy inspired them and they were trying to create the same type of songs with the same energy as something with like ‘Rebel Without a Pause.’
I heard someone ask Cube his top 5 recently and Chuck D was in there. We’ll get to your top 5 later. The book is full of so many stories behind stories – which were the biggest surprises for you personally?
I don’t know if there was like one big surprise, but what I really loved was this overarching story that kept coming up again and again, just this creative artistry of making something out of nothing. That’s how hip-hop started in the Bronx, with this neglected population where these kids literally had nothing to do and ended up creating this genre that now permeates all of the mainstream, all of culture, not just in this country but around the world.
Is there anything else you discovered about hip-hop during this process?
Yeah, there’s this grand debate about who should be credited with the origin of G-Funk, whether it was Dr. Dre or whether Dre kind of appropriated it from Above The Law. It also was meaningful to me talking with people who worked with Tupac, who knew Tupac and could illuminate how he was as a person away from the limelight and away from the Tupac I grew up listening to. It just personified him even more as a human being, somebody who was on this planet with a mission and able to do a lot of things in the short time he was here. Also talking to somebody like MC Sha-Rock, she was considered one of the first, if not the first female MC, and hearing how she carved her legacy and was able to propel it forward for countless other women. It was really important for me to include her voice in the book.
Maybe for the 75th anniversary of hip-hop we can get your version of Nas’ The Lost Tapes.
That would be something. But the 75-year anniversary, who knows what hip-hop will be by then? A cool thing about hip-hop is that it’s driven by the youth, so it can all shift and change and morph and evolve so quickly. I’m not up on what’s hot right now, but I can also appreciate that these are the hits for youth who will be bumping them 20 years down the road.
Word. So who are your top 5 MCs?
See, I have the most non-debatable top 5 ever. (Laughs.) I don’t even think it’s controversial. ’Pac, Biggie, Nas, Jay-Z and Rakim.
You got nobody from the West Coast on there.
I got Tupac.
He’s born in New York, man.
As an MC?
As an MC.