Best of Music: African American Book Picks
As this year comes to a close, how many “Best of” lists have you scoured? Online, I’m usually in search of African American related book finds. Sometimes the lists are a reminder to add something to my reading list and other times I find something new. NPR’s staff (whoever they may be) created “The Best Music Books of 2011” list and surprisingly it included a few titles of African American interest.:
“Work is the prayer,” writes Russell Simmons in a preface to the book documenting 25 years of his record label, Def Jam. Lyor Cohen, who began with Def Jam by managing Run DMC and is now the CEO of Warner Music Group, says he never thought he’d see the day — a coffee table book was never the goal. The first purpose of Def Jam Recordings was to put early 1980s New York City street culture on wax; the purpose of Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label is to put the community of and around Def Jam (the execs, the publicists, managers, musicians, fans, promoters, photographers) in print. As hip-hop approaches middle age, the urge to tell the culture’s story in its own words, on paper, has been irresistible. Everybody knows Jay-Z wrote an autobiography, but this year so did Prodigy of Mobb Deep, Ice-T and Common. Def Jam went the oral history route, supplemented by photos, design, memorabilia, poster art and album covers that make the lore come alive. You will lose all track of time. The company has bet that the work that’s gone into making its portion of hip-hop culture — most of which is what Simmons calls “disruptive” music — was fun enough, excellent enough, paradigm-shifting enough, that we’d take 6 1/2 pounds of office gossip and party snapshots with us every time we move.
Today’s pop music—genre-crossing, gender-bending, racially mixed, visually stylish, and dominated by dance music with global appeal—is the world that Nile Rodgers created. In the 1970s and 1980s, he wrote and produced the songs that defined that era and everything that came after: “Le Freak,” “Good Times,” “We Are Family,” “Like a Virgin,” “Modern Love,” “I’m Coming Out,” “The Reflex,” “Rapper’s Delight.” During pop’s most glamorous and decadent age, Nile Rodgers wrote the biggest records and lived behind the velvet rope—whether he was holding court in the bathroom stalls at Studio 54, club hopping with Madonna, or scarfing down White Castle burgers with Diana Ross. Le Freak is the fascinating inside story of pop and its tangled roots, narrated by the man who absorbed everything in his topsy-turvy life—the pain and euphoria and fear and love—and turned it into some of the most sparklingly ebullient pop music ever recorded. Nile Rodgers is a brilliant storyteller who gives readers the surprising behind-the-scenes tales of the songs we all know, and lovingly re-creates the lost outsider subcultures—from the backstreets of 1950s Greenwich Village to the hills of 1960s Southern California to the demimonde of New York’s 1970s and 1980s discos and clubs—that live on in his music and in the throbbing, thriving world of pop he helped to set in motion.
A definitive account of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in black America, this book establishes the Chitlin’ Circuit as a major force in American musical history. Combining terrific firsthand reporting with deep historical research, Preston Lauterbach uncovers characters like Chicago Defender columnist Walter Barnes, who pioneered the circuit in the 1930s, and larger-than-life promoters such as Denver Ferguson, the Indianapolis gambling chieftain who consolidated it in the 1940s. Charging from Memphis to Houston and now-obscure points in between, The Chitlin’ Circuit brings us into the sweaty back rooms where such stars as James Brown, B. B. King, and Little Richard got their start. With his unforgettable portraits of unsung heroes including King Kolax, Sax Kari, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Lauterbach writes of a world of clubs and con men that has managed to avoid much examination despite its wealth of brash characters, intriguing plotlines, and vulgar glory, and gives us an excavation of an underground musical America.
So, keep an eye out for other 2011 book lists that feature African Americans (and other minorities, too). Happy reading y’all!