I Don’t Know What You Mean: A Review
by Dax-Devlon Ross
Note to Readers: I apologize for my absence. I’ve been knee deep in my next book and all of my energy has been going there. I want to have a draft completed by December so I’m going to be a little out of it from time to time. But I promise, promise, to update the blog as much as I can. Remember, it’s quality over quantity!
Those of you who’ve read excerpts from my book-in-progress, A History of Conflict, already know how interested I am in Nas and Jay-Z. So when I was doing some research a few weeks ago and stumbled across a new book by Michael Eric Dyson featuring an “intro” by Jay-Z and an “outro” by Nas, there was no question that I had to have it. Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop is the prolific Dr. Dyson’s latest contribution to the continuing conversation about the music, the money, the misogyny and misunderstanding that most people have about all of the above.
First let me say this: I appreciate Dr. Dyson. I sincerely believe that he wishes to speak for and about youth, the poor and working class, people of color and women. He’s shown and proven his commitment to outsiders and underdogs time after time. I’ve used both his biography on Malcolm X and Tupac Shakur extensively in my forthcoming book. Dr. Dyson is one of the few nationally recognized public intellectuals who have striven to go beyond easy dismissal and uniformed criticism of the hip hop generation. He’s also unafraid to state the obvious: that the only reason some of the best and brightest hip hop artists aren’t credited with the brilliance it takes to create the art they create is that they’re both black and, generally speaking, from poor backgrounds.
All of that being said, Know What I Mean? is a disappointing effort. Considering the fact that he managed to get Jay and Nas – two of the only rappers alive who can actually still move units and crowds – to contribute to the book, I expected more. Both Jay’s and Nas’s contributions account for a grand total of 8 pages. Beyond Jay’s gushing remarks about Dyson’s street credibility (“He came up from the bottom and told those on top what was up”) and Nas’s mini-rant against consumer culture (“Too many people are content to sit home night after night watching the latest network minstrel sitcom…”) little of substance or value is added by their appearances within the pages. They are, in effect, the guest artists brought in at the last minute to resuscitate an otherwise mediocre LP. In fact, the entire book is self-consciously structured as an album. The chapters are called “Tracks” and are preceded by a cleverly designed list of “credits” a la a record. If only the substance matched the style…
The book falters from the beginning pages. In his prelude, “What’s Beef: Hip Hop and Its Critics” Dr. Dyson trots out the usual cast of under-informed hip hop hater-lectuals and commences to destroy their credibility. The only problem is they have no credibility other than that which he gives them. After all, how many people outside of the academy know or care who John McWorther is? For the last decade or so Mr. McWorther has made a name and living as the resident black conservative. Those of us who know his work regard him with a mix of skepticism and wonder. McWorther is not an idiot but he is a pawn and whether his ideas about race (that black kids are responsible for their own failures, in a nutshell) are his own or those fed to him by the conservative think tank that employs him, the very fact that he has any credibility whatsoever has as much to do with Dyson’s continued public battle with him and others, including Bill Cosby and Martin Kilson.
In a way, Dyson proves his solidarity with a certain adversarial strain of hip hop by consistently creating clearly inferior (not to mention less enthused) bogeyman to publicly thrash in the name of the people. My main problem with Dyson, other than the fact that from a scholarly standpoint his work is either shoddy, or condescendingly superficial, is that while applauding Nas and Jay-Z for settling their differences and “changing the game forever” he continues to publicly wrestle with his academic adversaries who clearly aren’t as interested in defaming him as he is in dethroning them. Granted, their “beef” isn’t nearly as juicy or noteworthy, but the fact remains that Dyson appears to be a man, a talented man, who needs to pick on other scholars in order to make himself appear authentically engaged with the hip hop generation. Ultimately, this tactic only adds to the questions some already have about Dyson’s motives. Is he really a serious scholar? Or has he passed into the realm of the pop icon who uses (probably even abuses) rhetoric and his gift of church-inspired gab to shout others off the stage?
Beyond bashing the hip hop hateratti, Dyson uses the prelude to inform readers that he chose to style the book in a series of long-form interviews with younger scholars. “One gets a sense in interviews on hip hop of the improvisational and rhetorical creativity that mark the genre at its best,” the author writes; however, as an author myself I have ask if he’s being totally honest about this particular tactic. For one, it’s obvious that this book was virtually thrown together. Track 5, the book’s closing chapter (it’s all of 156 pages not including a protracted and unnecessary index) is entitled “Nappy-Head Ho’s, Worse Than Bitch Niggaz.” The obvious head nod to the Don Imus affair tells me three things: 1) that just a few months ago this book wasn’t even fully conceived let alone completed; 2) that the book was in desperate need of page-fillers up until the last minute; and 3) that Dyson has allowed himself to become an author rather than a writer. What’s the difference? An author can produce books that people buy because they have celebrity. A writer can also be an author but an author is not necessarily a writer.
I might’ve been willing to overlook the interview format were it not for the fact that the interviews were really just jam sessions/love fests with Dyson and one of his various junior scholar acolytes. Everything Dyson said to the interviewer (he used a different scholar for each “Track”) was merely taken as fact. Moreover, the interview format does not lend itself to any deeper or more thoughtful inquiry. Even when Dyson gets in range of an insightful point, he winds up moving off in some other stream of consciousness tangent that leaves the reader adrift. Inspired and eloquent as his remarks are, they fall short of being impactful because they aren’t engaged with in any systematic way that can educate an uninformed reader. Dyson indeed proves his linguistic dexterity by flowing from Immanuel Kant to Tupac Shakur, but it’s all just a show. Beneath the name dropping and even lyric spitting lies little in the way of actual information.
On the other hand, Dyson’s deconstruction of Hustle & Flow does offer an interesting perspective on the pimp game which I’ve yet to see anywhere. His thoughts on the movie are provocative and critical, but they are also balanced and compassionate. Had Dyson shown as much care with the construction of the rest of the book, particularly an actual engagement with Nas’s and Jay-Z’s work beyond mere lyric pilfering to corroborate a point he’s trying to make, it genuinely could have been special. I have no doubt that Dyson has the technical savvy to joust with the rappers, but I fear that his personal relationship with them (perhaps even his longing to be accepted by them) precludes him from going beyond the “rhetoric” of saying rappers are complex, contradictory and flawed. Put a little differently, he has no problem critiquing rap per se, but when it comes to critiquing the artistry (beyond applauding their genius) he balks. Take, for instance, a snippet from Track 2. After insisting that Jay-Z’s line in the song “Diamonds,” “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business man” is one of the cleverest lines on the album, Dyson says, “I don’t have time to break down all of the possible literary meanings and cultural readings of this fertile line…” Excuse me? He doesn’t have time? Instead of a substantive engagement with Jay-Z’s work, we get Dyson using the rappers words to defend hip hop against the so-called critics who only even exist because Dyson conjured them and gave them power in first place!
To be fair, every now and again Dr. Dyson does drop a bit of science that you won’t find coming out anyone else’s mouth. Peep the following two quotes. The first is from Track 3. Talking about political rappers, Dyson says,
I think in the larger scheme of things, social and political consciousness among segments of the masses, especially among black youth, has been squelched by the downturn of the economy, the political hopelessness bred by exploitative elites, the huge class chasm in black America, and the consequences of a bitter generational divide.
Here Dyson actually makes a point that is worth further exploration and understanding. So much criticism is rained down on the shoulders of the hip-hop generation for being selfish and politically apathetic but very few people have attempted to ask or answer the harder questions about the time we are living in and the failure of the systems we were educated to believe in.
The second quote comes from Track 5. Responding to a question about Nas’s claim that hip hop is dead, Dyson says,
When Nas uttered the words “hip hop is dead,” he joined a long list of prophets and fed-up practioners who’ve announced the death of a field, only to jump-start a new phase of its growth.
Again, this is an amazing point. Dyson has the opportunity to go further with it and give it texture and relevance, but he chooses instead the easy way out. He drops the names of a Nobel Laureate and a renowned philosopher who also announced their fields were dead, then reminds us “Nas announced hip hop’s death on a hip hop album!” Sadly, the potentially profound connection he makes fizzles into more rhetoric standing in the place of rigor.
So why is my criticism of Know What I Mean? so harsh? Because not many people have the access to the marketplace and the ear of the public that Dyson presently has; because by throwing together a book and excusing the use of broad-stroked interviews rather than rigorous and thoughtful writing as a measure of solidarity with rappers he insults the intelligence of the very hip hop generation he seeks to represent and uplift. And, finally, I’m so harsh because the book offers nothing new to the conversation. Sure, it has the Dysonian spin, the rhetorical (I lost count of how many times this word appeared in this book) zest that many a reader has come to know, but it is very nearly completely bereft of valuable insight, let alone scholarship. My “beef” is that this isn’t even a book. It’s a product of the Michael Eric Dyson business machine. His genuine appreciation for the culture aside, it comes off as a way for him to put his stamp on the conversation, to ensure the perpetuation of his own celebrity, to prove he’s down with the cause. As a reader, writer, lover of hip-hop and member of the hip hop generation, I demand more than this! Know what I mean?