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To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip-Hop Aesthetic.

* To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip-Hop Aesthetic By William Jelani Cobb New York University Press, February 2007 $22.95, ISBN 0-814-71670-9

To the Break of Dawn marks a crucial turning point in hip-hop writing. Gone are the days when hip-hop's critical discourse was limited, seen as nothing more than a modern sociological artifact, a lens through which all of the ugly isms were projected, or a lens with which to see history, popular culture, or music history from an urban perspective. In this relatively thin tome, Cobb expands the conversation of hip-hop to what many writers (and listeners) have ignored for years: that it is an art.

Hip-hop's artists are MCs, wordsmiths and modern griots tapping into their ancestral memory, freezing a moment in history with words, giving us an aesthetic--its beats and lyrics, the intersection of Caribbean and African influences, its immediate responses to history, and its vicious reputation for improvisation (or freestyle). Cobb contextualizes hip-hop as an art from the first pages, where he writes nostalgically about this hypnotizing new art form that emerged during his boyhood in the local color of Queens, New York. Making comparisons to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and other literary texts, Cobb calls hip-hop a modern evolution to the black autobiography.

In accessible prose, Cobb reveals both his familiarity with hip-hop--but most importantly-his familiarity with the subjects of hip-hop. In five chapters, he articulates hip-hop's "Roots," situating them in a larger oral-tradition-Diaspora context; the historical-political periods that influenced the content, beats and style; its blues tradition, including influential MCs such as Big Pun, Common, Eminem, Jay Z, Lauren Hill, the Notorious B.I.G. and Rakim.

To the Break of Dawn is a complementary addition to the hip-hop bookshelf where Bakari Kitwana's The Hip-Hop Generation (Basic Civitas Books, 2002), Jeff Chang's Can't Stop Won't Stop (St. Martin's Press, 2005) and Joan Morgan's When Chicken-heads Come Home to Roost (Simon & Schuster, 1999) hold pride of place.

In writing about hip-hop's aesthetic, Cobb captures the innocence of an entire generation. Reading about this lost innocence recalls to mind why we fell in love with hip-hop--the art, the music and the rhythm of the words.

Some of us knew hip-hop was an art before this book was ever written; however, we didn't have the criteria by which to judge it as art. Now that we have a starting point, we're able to hold the second and third generation of MCs to a higher standard. By opening the discourse on hip-hip's aesthetics, William Jelani Cobb spearheads a new sub-genre, and perhaps a return or revolution in hip-hop aesthetics.

See (*) for BIBR recommended titles

Abdul All is the managing editor of Howard University's literary journal, The Amistad.
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Author:Ali, Abdul
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Date:May 1, 2007
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