A group of teenagers armed with little more than an attitude and some turntables created a rebellion 30 years ago in the Bronx. The fire spread across the globe, from Beirut to Beijing, where youths use hip-hop to rap about being denied freedom, power and a voice.
Back at home, the lingua franca of the counterculture has become the language of vapid commercialism and empty values, according to author Thomas Chatterton Williams.
The argument he makes in his book, "Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture," is not about high culture versus low culture. Neither is the book — Williams' first — a thinly disguised attempt to make money by offering lurid details about hip-hop's royalty.
The stakes are too high for that, especially for African-Americans, said Williams by telephone during a national book tour that touches down Friday at the Book Passage in Corte Madera.
The stakes are higher, he said, because racism and now hip-hop have limited what it means to be black by insisting on one measure: street culture as embodied by Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z.
Jay-Z, who once rapped, "I dumb down my lyrics to double my dollars," is one form of blackness, Williams said. "But why does he set the tone for black culture today? It's tragic."
The irony is that young men have a better chance of being like President Barack Obama than a rap star, Williams said. From Oakland to New Jersey, they will sabotage their future just for the sake of trying to be like their millionaire entertainment idols. The dynamic, Williams said, "has quietly taken the place of white racism as the most formidable obstacle to success and equality in the black middle classes."
Williams used to emulate and idolize the rappers he now criticizes. He still listens to hip-hop but learned to appreciate jazz and Nina Simone and Marvin Gaye while studying at Georgetown University. There he discovered other definitions of what it could mean to be black, ones that included men like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison — and his father.
It took a long time for him to appreciate his scholarly parent, an African-American man who grew up in the height of segregation in the South.
"Black never looked like my father sitting in a study underlining a book," Williams said. "It looked like a kid who could be walking in the South Bronx."
Growing up in the middle-class New Jersey suburb of Fanwood, Williams remembers watching wide-eyed as Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre and The Notorious B.I.G. swaggered across the TV screen at the local barbershop, Unisex Hair Creationz. The men set the tone for what it meant to be young and black and male: dumbed-down and thugged-out.
"I'm a put it on a bullet and put it in your brain," rapped Eric B. and Rakim while Williams and his friends imitated the rappers' scowl. Others went further because they thought they shared the tragic fate of men like Tupac Shakur.
While writing "Losing My Cool," Williams said he realized how easily he "could have become a statistic." He credits his parents with helping him to break the "python grip" of bad role models and what he called a "relentless and powerful propaganda campaign that steamed into the house 24/7."
Williams changed, but hip-hop didn't despite a promising moment during Obama's presidential campaign. Hip-hop returned to bling obsession instead of, as Williams put it, evolving into an art that describes what it means to be alive and black in America in the 21st century.
That said, "Losing My Cool" doesn't try to explain why the flame of rebellion no longer illuminates hip-hop. Williams does, however, offer a mirror that reflects what has happened to society as a result of the transformation.
" 'Losing My Cool,' " he said, "will provoke readers black, white, old and young to question, critique and ultimately reject more of the nonsense and conformity that surrounds us all."