Hip-Hop Head: An Interview With Daniel Levin Becker
Scott Beale: Biggie Smalls aka Notorious B.I.G. “King of NY” mural in Bed-Stuy, 2021 (CC)
by Jeff Alessandrelli
Daniel Levin Becker’s What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language (City Lights, 2022) is that rare book that asks too many questions and, by dint of refusing to answer all of them, actually provides the reader with more illumination. What’s Good parses the particulars of where hip-hop — as an art form, as a sensibility, as an ever-evolving language — has been and is going. Such a task is impossible and Becker amplifies that lack in What’s Good, drawing out how hip-hop’s lyricality is an effervescent web of multitudinous meaning(s), one that extends well beyond the end of any one song or album. Over the course of several months I emailed with Becker about rap’s progression, the blessing and curse of the intellect vis-à-vis explicating hip-hop lyrics, and the nature of writing a book over ten years that, upon publication, is purposefully out of date.
I loved the book but its virtuosity is almost overwhelming, particularly due to the fact that most of the rap that I first encounter comes through skateboarding videos, so I’m constantly toggling between action and sound. I guess my initial question, then, is this: When you hear a song for the first time what do you hear exactly? (I suppose a rap song in particular, but maybe any song too.) And has that hearing changed over the course of time, or do you think that when you listened to your first song way back when you also heard that specific thing or some variation on it?
Daniel Levin Becker
I’d love to hear more about how you experience that toggle, because I think for me there is something kinetic happening in a similar way — as I say at one point in the book, I tend to see words as text when I hear them. A skateboarding video of language! With crappier production values!
Oddly, I’ve noticed that I can listen really intently to a song’s lyrics — their texture, syntax, register, wordplay, whatever — and still be unable to say in any practical way what the song is about. Like, I went to see Tomberlin last night and even in songs of hers that I’ve heard a hundred times I kept hearing new things — not even new layers of meaning, just lines I hadn’t paid any conscious attention to before. The interpretive equivalent of walking into your own living room and being like, “Has that couch always been there?” Which, to be fair, I could also see myself doing. And this does happen with rap, but maybe less so than with kinds of music that are less text-forward, so to speak, where there’s generally more going on to complement and/or distract from the lyrics.
I think that way of hearing has been pretty consistent over time, but what’s gotten layered in progressively is this awareness of the other songs that are implicitly present in the one I’m listening to, through quotation or signifying or more personal associations. That’s basically what I was trying to model with the marginal quotes in the book, this feeling that every line has the potential to dial up some other line from the corpus (or beyond), whether or not it was written with that intent. And that’s not really new for me, I don’t think, so much as the product of my being farther along on a certain continuum — my mind has always digested things that way, I’ve just accumulated more material for the margins as I leaned into my attraction to this specific thing.
A skateboarding video of language! I’m into it. I imagine a lot of low key technicolour fonts and some casually gripping editing. Maybe not that much different than the typical Palace Skateboards video, sans the actual skaters.
“Casually gripping editing” is such a good way of articulating what’s great about language in rap, and also of course about hip-hop production, which is so rigorous and attentive to our attention without being square about it. Well, okay, that’s not always true — RZA and Kanye West (now Ye) are extraordinary producers but also all right angles — but you know what I mean. I’ll also mention that the nexus between rap and skateboarding videos has only recently started to reveal itself to me, thanks both to this conversation and to Kyle Beachy’s The Most Fun Thing, which is very much a spiritual cousin to What’s Good.
It’s supremely interesting to me that aboutness and the framework of homage or collage is entrenched within your listening practice (it feels weird to call listening a practice, but I guess it kinda is), as that’s exactly what What’s Good does – it situates the reader within your personal neverending rap mix tape, only this one refuses cohesion. (I.e. a mix tape of love songs, etc.) Your background unto the deep depths of rap/hip-hop is, again, virtuosic, and now I’m going to ask a question that I’m sure you’ve answered elsewhere – but I’m curious. When did you start writing the book and how long did it take you? And, regardless, I wonder about the meander of the gestation along the way, or if there was one. Meaning that unlike certain other musical genres, hip hop seems to change rapidly and aggressively, with backpack giving way to drill giving way to hyphy giving way to trap giving way to mumble and ever onward in a thousand different branches. While writing did it ever seem like it was just too much? Or that by the time the book was actually published the broad genre of rap itself might have already changed so much as to make What’s Good insignificant in some small or large way/shape/form?
It took about ten years door to door. Let’s say a third of that was knowing it was the book I wanted to write next and taking notes toward it, another third trying to wrestle those notes into some coherent shape (a big milestone, it should be noted, coming when I realised a mixtape could be that shape, or at least a metaphor for it), and the final third waiting out publishing-industry limbo and compulsively redrafting the manuscript to tighten it up and scrub out everything that didn’t fit within the scope of my discussion or voice. So yeah, plenty of meander and second-guessing, much as there would be with any project that takes that long, plus the anxiety of assuming that every new cultural artifact on the same topic would reveal my project as redundant and idiotic. But, as you rightly identify, there was a second drift unique to this subject matter, as rap kept merrily tangenting off in different directions, which for the decade in question encompassed everything from the ascendancy of the Drake-style singing rapper to the importation of drill from the UK to New York via Chicago, from the bubbling up of emo- and metal-adjacent Soundcloud rap to the contagion of kids from Detroit rhyming — barely — about elaborate internet scams. It was a lot to keep abreast of, for sure, and I don’t think I ever really felt like I was equal to the task.
Here’s my dirty secret, though: I never did in the first place. I chose the book’s epigraph — “& in the way nets cannot hold water, nor could I paint the sea”, from Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, pretty early on, which is to say I think an acceptance of the project’s impossibility on some level was built into it from the beginning. And so I was actually relieved when the time came to stop redrafting and get it ready for publication with City Lights, not just for all the standard reasons, but also because it meant I could stop trying to keep my reference base current and instead write a preface, looking back from the end of 2020, that sort of formalised that obsolescence. And doing that revealed to me just how preoccupied I am, in the book, with the passage of time, not just in a hearing-Slug-quoting-Ice-Cube-as-Ice-Cube-quoting-Slug kind of way but much more deeply, much more personally.
A shorter way to put all of this would be to say I found it weirdly heartening, and still do, to think of What’s Good as insignificant. It’s hugely important to me, of course, and it bears the weight of all the years I spent working on it, but I’ve never had much illusion about the impact it’ll make on rap itself or the way it exists in the world, and it’s been pretty liberating to think of that insignificance as not a liability but somehow the book’s essence, maybe even its purpose.
One of the defining features of What’s Good is your tantalising lyrical parses of rappers both well known (Biggie, Ye, etc.) and lesser known (Mick Jenkins, Lil Ugly Mane, etc.). In the “Intelligences” chapter of the text you write how most rappers “don’t appear to have much interest in the terminological and taxonomic metadata” (74) of their own lyrics. Later in “Intelligences” you revel in the beauty of that fact, delineating the difference/importance between artist and critic. My question, then, is whether that divide ever tires you out. Not that you’re going to start rapping tomorrow (although, back in the day, did that ever happen?), but do you ever wish a thing heard and enjoyed was simply a thing heard and enjoyed and nothing beyond that? This maybe ties back to my initial question in a way. I don’t know how else to say it, so I’ll take the direct route: Does your intellect ever seem like a burden?
My Uzi weighs a ton and all that. (I never did rap back in the day, and I’m still not sure why. Could still happen, but don’t hold your breath.) I do wrestle a lot with the desire — or let’s call it an aspiration — to simply hear a thing and let it be a thing heard, without trying to instrumentalise it. As I say in the chapter about the T-shirtification of rap lyrics, I recognise that this is in a sense what I’m up to in the book as well. And then I wonder whether I’m just fetishising the grass on the other side because I assume it’s greener, when the fact is there’s plenty I hear and don’t engage with, and what I do engage with is almost always for pleasurable reasons, and if the pleasure hasn’t dried up yet then maybe it won’t and I’m not hurting anybody. Then I wonder if it’s really true that I’m not hurting anybody, and then I roll my eyes at myself for wondering something like that, and then I realise I’ve missed the last 45 seconds of whatever I was doing. So yes, in a way, but not with specific respect to rap. In fact, for as much as I wish I could switch my brain to sleep mode and give the playing and parsing and problematising a rest — and for as much as I experience not being able to as a burden — rap is one of those places where I can set it loose and let it exhaust itself in a way that feels wholesome and consistently rewarding. Does that answer your question? Am I hedging? Is everyone mad at me? You see where this is going.
What do you value most in a rapper? What do you value least? And why? Have those valueings changed over time or have they stayed steady?
In a word, I value fun — the sense that a rapper is enjoying their own skill rather than just telling me about it, that they’re in the process of discovering, as I listen along, something in terms of narrative or figuration or rhyme or cadence or any of the other themes I talk about in the book. Not even necessarily something new, just something unique and idiosyncratic in the way their voice and brain interact with those things. Least? Probably preaching. Rap is as good a vehicle for capital-T truth as any other art form, for passionate engagement with the big issues of our time and place, but I find personally that a little bit goes a long way, and that it’s very possible to focus on the message to the detriment of the medium. The message being anything from economic inequality and police brutality and reproductive rights to, like, how to use a bunch of gift cards to defraud Bed Bath & Beyond. That said, to your question about change over time, I think I came to rap needing it to be a little preachy now and then. Not that I’ve ever wanted to only mainline KRS-One or dead prez or whatever, but it was the rappers who took those big issues seriously and leaned into addressing them that most helped me appreciate the importance of looking beyond rap for more concrete ways of understanding them. They made me curious about the right things, I’d say — the serious ones along with the frivolous.
Since its publication What’s Good has received write ups at numerous high profile venues, The New Yorker and The New York Times among them. And, of course, your book has been excerpted in this very magazine. Is that something you anticipated or hoped for and, regardless, how have you received it? From the outside it appears like all the attention has been laudatory, but also from folks who don’t necessarily know Lil Yachty from Lil Peep from Lil Boosie from Lil Wayne.
Ha, well put. I had no idea what to expect in terms of critical response, and obviously I’m delighted that such august venues have deemed the book worthy of covering, because connecting with their readerships ultimately is a big part of what I wanted What’s Good to do — if not teach them how to distinguish the aforementioned Lils (only one of whom I actually discuss, how embarrassing), then at least make them interested in finding out. But I am excited for feedback, if and when it comes, from rappers themselves or lifelong hip-hop heads, even if their main take is that I’m a dweeb and a charlatan with terrible opinions and no appreciation for the subtle artistry of Guru’s enjambments.
Having spent ten years on What’s Good is it a relief to be able to move on now? And what are you currently working on/ what’s planned for the next decade?
Oh man, massive relief. I’m not done listening to or thinking about rap by any stretch, maybe not writing about it either, but it was a long decade carrying around this shapeshifting complex of impressions and concatenations, trying to keep them straight and worrying about their getting scooped or losing relevance, and for whatever imperfections time will reveal the book to have at least it’s a fixed and finite document of that complex that exists in the world so I can make a little more room in my brain. What goes in that room in the next decade? There are some exciting things in the offing with the press my wife and I started a couple years ago, Fern Books, whose second title just came out in November. I’ve also been enjoying translating, and have a few projects that should come out next year, starting with Laurent Mauvignier’s slo-mo thriller The Birthday Party in January. And writing-wise, I feel like it’s time for me to try a project where my central goal isn’t to transparently explain myself and my thoughts, to which end I’m starting to draw up blueprints for an oulipian novel about municipal waterfowl.
About the Authors
Daniel Levin Becker is a critic, editor and translator from Chicago. An early contributing editor to Rap Genius, he has written about music for The Believer, NPR, SF Weekly, and Dusted Magazine, among others. His first book, Many Subtle Channels, recounts his induction into the French literary collective Oulipo.
Jeff Alessandrelli is most recently the author of the book-length fictional essay And Yet (PANK, 2022). He’s at jeffalessandrelli.net. In addition to his writing Jeff also directs the nonprofit book press/record label Fonograf Editions.