By BRANDON SODERBERG l Spin Sept.18, 2012
Since the tragic death of David Foster Wallace on September 15, 2008, we’ve seen a small but significant number of works by the author unearthed for the first time, or cannily repackaged. These include his incomplete novel The Pale King, his 2005 commencement speech for Kenyon College, and even his undergraduate senior thesis. Still out of print, however, and selling for hundreds of dollars used, is Wallace and Mark Costello’s 1990 book Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present. This book is often diminished by those studying Wallace, even though it is an early example of the author’s published non-fiction. According to 2003’s Understanding David Foster Wallace by Marshall Boswell, Wallace’s non-fiction career was based “on the strength of Signifying Rappers.” And so, it seems strange to treat a book about hip-hop co-authored by David Foster Wallace as barely even a footnote, especially when his college papers have been made available.
One problem, it seems, is that Wallace was candid in his dislike of his early work, and didn’t comment on the book very much. As a result, Signifying Rappers has garnered a reputation as insubstantial, or even a little bit of an embarrassment. In D.T. Max’s new biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Max dismisses the author’s interest in rap: “Wallace’s passion for rap was theoretical, verbal, abstract. The music never touched him as did the stoner songs of high school or the moody tripping songs of Amherst. His interest had the quality of a very smart kid slumming it.” Most slumming-it smart kids didn’t take the time to co-author a book about the then-burgeoning genre, though.
In the Village Voice , with the snarky glee of an Internet rap-blog commenter in the 2000s,Robert Christgau mocked Costello and Wallace’s inability to get their facts straight. Indeed, they did forget about Run-DMC’s King Of Rock when they moved through the group’s discography, and they hinged the book’s conclusion on misheard lyrics from Ice-T’s “The Hunted Child.” As the 140-page theory-soaked rant comes to a close, Costello and Wallace celebrate “a five-minute untraceable cut” with the “inscrutable chorus ‘Honeychild / I’m the honeychild.’”
Wallace didn’t like the book and “the dean of American rock critics” panned it, so most people decided that it wasn’t worth reading. Christgau’s criticisms are certainly valid, but they also seem beside the point. This is a book that works because its authors have more enthusiasm than knowledge, and don’t know any of the rules for how they’re “supposed” to approach rap music. That can be thrilling.
Signifying Rappers is also incredibly mindful of its whiteness, and even seems to predict the self-aware, open-source-inspired explosion of excited, amateur-ish blogging of the 2000s. The first part of the book is called “Entitlement,” and the book’s premise is pretty simple: Here are two dorks with “an uncomfortable, somewhat furtive, and distinctly white enthusiasm for a certain music called rap/hip-hop.” While their outsider-ness allows for goofy gaffes like not knowing an Ice-T song they probably should know if they’re going to write a book about rap, it also provides them with a nutty, ballsy freedom to riff and explore. A favorite is Costello’s dissection of Jesse Jackson’s lie about witnessing Martin Luther King Jr. die while sporting a shirt that Jackson claimed was splattered with the blood of MLK. Jackson wasn’t there, and this epic fib becomes (if you buy into Costello’s theorizing) one of the sources for hip-hop’s signifying and \complex wrestling between reality and “reality.”
Even if Signifying Rappers‘ obsequious style puts you off, it remains a fascinating artifact. It’s quasi-juvenilia from one of American literature’s best postmodern writers. And it’s hip-hop commentary from a time when the genre was still forming, and the rules for how to approach this stuff critically, weren’t established quite yet. It gives the book an unfettered freedom that couldn’t exist at any other moment in hip-hop history.