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Signifying Rappers

Signifying Rappers

by David Foster Wallace, Mark Costello
Signifying Rappers

Signifying Rappers

by David Foster Wallace, Mark Costello


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David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello's exuberant exploration of rap music and culture.

Living together in Cambridge in 1989, David Foster Wallace and longtime friend Mark Costello discovered that they shared "an uncomfortable, somewhat furtive, and distinctively white enthusiasm for a certain music called rap/hip-hop."

The book they wrote together, set against the legendary Boston music scene, mapped the bipolarities of rap and pop, rebellion and acceptance, glitz and gangsterdom. Signifying Rappers issued a fan's challenge to the giants of rock writing, Greil Marcus, Robert Palmer, and Lester Bangs: Could the new street beats of 1989 set us free, as rock had always promised?

Back in print at last, Signifying Rappers is a rare record of a city and a summer by two great thinkers, writers, and friends. With a new foreword by Mark Costello on his experience writing with David Foster Wallace, this rerelease cannot be missed.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316225830
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 07/23/2013
Pages: 153
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

David Foster Wallace was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1962 and raised in Illinois, where he was a regionally ranked junior tennis player. He received bachelor of arts degrees in philosophy and English from Amherst College and wrote what would become his first novel, The Broom of the System, as his senior English thesis. He received a masters of fine arts from University of Arizona in 1987 and briefly pursued graduate work in philosophy at Harvard University. His second novel, Infinite Jest, was published in 1996.

Wallace taught creative writing at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College, and published the story collections Girl with Curious Hair, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Oblivion, the essay collections A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and Consider the Lobster. He was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and a Whiting Writers' Award, and was appointed to the Usage Panel for The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. He died in 2008. His last novel, The Pale King, was published in 2011.

Date of Birth:

February 21, 1962

Date of Death:

September 12, 2008

Place of Birth:

Ithaca, NY

Place of Death:

Claremont, CA


B.A. in English & Philosophy, Amherst College, 1985;MFA, University of Arizona, 1987

Read an Excerpt

Signifying Rappers

By Mark Costello, David Foster Wallace

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2013 Mark Costello David Foster Wallace
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-22583-0





The schools in a portion of Boston stretching from just south of South Boston through Roxbury and into Dorchester are districted with a similar effect: the predominantly black areas are cut away from the predominantly white areas.

—Morgan v. Hennigan, U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, 1974

THE SEEK BUTTON on the Ford's radio is working. The downtown recedes. Miles of neighborhoods fill the windshield. The SEEK function locks on someplace in stereo, college FM probably. 'Yeah,' a new friend says. 'Whas up. Whas goin on.' The radio has another button, VOLá, which gets jacked repeatedly while the Ford hurtles, happily, to the source of the noise. Not to the station's broadcast booth on a campus across the river, nor to its transmission towers in the suburbs, but rather to RJam Productions in North Dorchester, where black kids from Boston's now integrated high schools—Latin, Madison Park, Jeremiah Burke, Mattapan—cut demos and dream of being bigger than even the radio's new friend, a young man named Schoolly D who right now, at speaker- damaging volume, sounds darn big. 'Before we start this next record ...,' Schoolly's saying. The record in question's called "Signifying Rapper," a brief, bloody tale of ghetto retribution from Side 2 of Schoolly's Smoke Some Kill. The cut's intro, spoken into echo-chamber emptiness over stolen Led Zep licks, remains, even as bleeped for airplay, the deepest 30 seconds of rap yet: 'Yeah,' Schoolly says

Whas up
Whas goin on
Before we start this next record
I gotta put my shades on
So I can feel cool
Remember that law?
When you had to put your shades on to feel cool?
Well it's still a law
Gotta put your shades on
So you can feel cool
I'm gonna put my shades on
So I can't see
What you aint doin
And you aint doin nothin
You aint doin nothin
That I [unintelligible]
Well let's get on with this [bleep] anyway:

Maybe the radio has blundered like Coronado into a full-blown Schoolly D Retrospective, covering both years of his career, including all 14 selections from Smoke Some Kill. If so, we'll soon be hearing another classic, Schoolly's "Black Man," which samples a tape of Black Panther 'Minister of Justice' H. Rap Brown declaring: You can't do your own thing if your own thing aint the right thing. The brain's SEEK function locks on a memory of hearing a tape of Robert Kennedy plead for peace in some torn-up ghetto, saying: Reject the Bull Connors and the Rap Browns, the racial extremists of either color; and we're now on the John F. Fitzgerald Expressway, named after RFK's populist mayor grandfather, the Honorable John F. Fitzgerald, himself a kind of H. Blarney Brown back when the Irish were bottom dogs in Boston. So we're listening to an '80s admirer of a '60s protest populist once attacked as a demagogue by the grandson of the demagogue on whose namesake we ride.

The black areas are cut away from the white areas, a federal judge ruled in '74, and evidence is everywhere that nothing's changed since then. On the southbound left of the Fitzgerald Expressway pass 20 blocks of grim Irish Catholic housing projects, the westernmost border of Belfast, complete with Sinn Féin graffiti and murals depicting a glorious United Ireland, a neighborhood where the gadfly will get his fibula busted for praising the '74 court order that bused 'Them' from wherever it is 'They' live—the Third World fer chrissakes—into 97% white South Boston. On the expressway's right is the place the fibula-busters are talking about: the simultaneous northern border of Haiti, Jamaica, and Georgia; a territory maps of Boston call North Dorchester.

Uniting the two sides of the expressway is just about nothing. Both neighborhoods are tough and poor. Both hate the college world across the river, which, because of Boston's rotten public schools, they will never enter as freshmen. And kids from both neighborhoods can do this hating to the beat of undergraduate radio, which this fine morning features suburban kids with student debt broadcasting the art of a ghetto Philadelphian roughly their age, once much poorer than they but now, on royalties from Smoke Some Kill, very much richer.

Not that the shared digging of black street music is news, or even new: 20 years ago, when Morgan v. Hennigan, Boston's own Brown v. Board of Education, was inching through the courts, and even dark-complected Italians were sometimes unwelcome in the Irish precincts east of the expressway, kids in Boston's Little Belfast sang along with James Brown over the radio

Say it loud
I'm black and I'm proud
Say it loud
I'm black and I'm proud!

Except that halfway through the infectious funk, the crewcuts realize what they're saying: Jesus Christ, 'I'm proud to be black' fer chrissakes, like when you're in the porno store, you know, and you get lost or something and you find yourself in the men's part, you know? not the part for men the part about men, Jesus, and you get the hell outta there. And so they hum/mumble the suppressed parts

Say it loud
I'm mmm hum proud
Say it loud
Mum hum hum proud!

And those mumbling white funk fans from '68 were the nephews of Little Richard lovers, and the sons of soldiers who whipped Hitler to a Duke Ellington–influenced soundtrack.

But rap isn't funk, rock, or jazz, and the vast crossover move, broadcasting 'ghetto' music over college radios to ghettos of a different color, is no simple re-enactment of past crossovers. How, for example, does the sing-along fan of Smoke Some Kill mumble his way through these lines

Black is beautiful
Brown is [sick? slick? stiff?]
Yellow's OK
But white aint shit.

RJam Productions, modestly headquartered in a mixed black/Hispanic Fields Corner section of North Dorchester, is as follows:

• One (1) four-car garage fitted with dubbing and remastering gear worth more than most of the rest of the real estate on the block;

• One (1) Touchtone telephone (leased);

• Two (2) Chevy Blazers, vanity-plated RJAM1 and RJAM2, each equipped with cellular phones and slick tape decks (also leased);

• One (1) VCR with Kathleen Turner's Body Heat cued up on the morning in question;

• Most important, eight (8) promising acts under binding contract.

If—as has happened to many local labels—RJam were liquidated to satisfy creditors, these would be the pieces. But there are stores of value in the converted garage beyond the reach of the auctioneer's gavel. Schoolly D, the original Signifying Rapper, looms irresistibly from the pages of rap fanzines Hip-Hop and The Source; and RJam's prime, unauctionable asset is the consuming ambition of the artists in its stable to be the next Schoolly D. Or the next Ice T or Kool Moe Dee or L.L. Cool J, or whoever's the special hero of the kid cutting the demo. On this particular morning, the dream is to be the next MC Lyte—a hard-rapping woman known for jams like "Lyte Vs. Vanna Whyte" and "10% Dis"—since today is Tam-Tam's day, and Tam-Tam is, at 16, a tough girl in the MC Lyte mold who, like MC Lyte, can dance, look good, and tell men to beat it, all at once.

Or so claims Tam-Tam's producer, promoter, and Dutch uncle, Gary Smith, who opened RJam on Martin Luther King's birthday, 1989, with his older brother Nate. Nate, the elder statesman, is 25. Gary, 22, runs the company while Nate travels with his boyhood-friend-turned-boss, quadruple-platinum, Prince-derived rapper/singer Bobby Brown. RJam was founded in part with an investment from the 23-year-old multimillionaire Brown, a native of Roxbury. Brown now lives in Los Angeles.

Nate and Gary Smith turn a healthy profit making demos at $500/tape, but the brothers aren't in the health business. Their aim: to follow in the corporate footsteps of Rush Productions, a once similarly tiny production company run from a basement in Hollis, Queens, that has, since its basement days, given America the Def Jam label, Public Enemy, L.L. Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and much of the rest of that culture-quake called rap. Gary Smith doesn't compare RJam to Def Jam; but, like Rush / Def Jam's Russell Simmons, Gary produces pop, soul, and R&B as well as straight rap, and actually prefers R&B. But how many sophomores at nearby Jeremiah Burke can afford to dream in R&B, to front music lessons and $500 for an nth-hand sound setup, find three friends to learn drums, bass, and keyboards, and then raise another $500 to make a demo at RJam? Anybody with a larynx can rap, however, and RJam's brisk business in rap demos pays the taxman, Boston Edison, and the Chevrolet Motor Credit Corp.

Twenty minutes farther south on the Fitzgerald Expressway, across the Neponset River and into the pricey suburbs, is the scene of John Cheever's boyhood, more recently celebrated as Massachusetts Miracle country, where technology ventures are started at the rate of five per week, four of which will fail within 12 months. RJam's Gary Smith is secret brother to the men of the suburban chambers of commerce, sharing their worries about cash flow, overhead, and the enforceability of his contracts; but Gary's world and theirs are as far apart as those of Ward and Eldridge Cleaver. Worriers in suburbia fear that ballooning property values will hike taxes on computer executives' seaside homes. In Gary's neighborhood, property values are actually falling.

In another sense, of course, the streets surrounding RJam's soundproof studio are the costliest real estate in Boston. At least two young men died as downpayments within a week of today's recording session. Jimmy Carle, 22, a soldier for the Corbet Street gang based south of RJam, was felled by a sniper on the American Legion Highway. This was in retaliation, it's widely rumored, for the Corbet-ordered murder 72 hours before of Roberto Godfrey, 18, leader of a rival gang active in RJam's own North Dorchester. The dead kids plied a trade called retail narcotics, and the mounting body count in Boston's gang war represents a simple application of a cherished chamber of commerce precept: defend your sales territory against competitors.

Gary Smith has competitors too, and he knows RJam lives or dies on the loyalty of its artists. Gary declined a production deal with MCA precisely because he felt it would break faith with performers whose fidelity to the company constitutes RJam's illiquidable inventory. Tam-Tam, today's recordee, is a relatively safe bet in the loyalty department. She considers Gary and Nate Smith family, in part because Nate Smith fathered a child by her older sister. But not all of RJam's artists share Tam-Tam's blood ties to the brothers. Gary Smith knows that the key to the success of his artists lies in getting demo tapes heard by decision-makers at the 20 or so established, if often small, labels that might like the noise and agree to distribute the tape as a record. But, in shopping the tape around, Gary must—like the youth gangs, like anybody in business—be wary. In the rap world, rip-offs are as common as false compliments, and it takes only three minutes to copy a three-minute tape.

Gary's agitated this particular morning by a cut off of girl rapper Antoinette's new LP Who's the Boss?. Gary claims that Tam-Tam recorded a slow number called "I'm Cryin" a year ago. The song, which he cues up and plays as he talks, features Tam-Tam, sounding cynical and sexy well beyond her then 15 years, comforting a friend after a breakup; it's a street girl's slam of boys as a whole, a subgenre of rap familiar to fans of Salt-N-Pepa or Neneh Cherry. 'What you crying' for, Pebbles?' Tam-Tam asks her sobbing friend; 'He aint worth all that.' A chorus of girls then sings

I'm cryyyyyyyyyyyyyin
Over you ....

Soon after "I'm Cryin" was done, Tam-Tam herself broke with her partner, the last of several girls to rap with Tam-Tam under the name 'Pebbles.' 'She was making me sound bad,' Tam-Tam would explain this afternoon.

According to Gary, two rival producers liked "I'm Cryin" and offered to buy it. Tam-Tam refused, not because she didn't believe in selling out, rather because she didn't believe in selling out for the few hundred bucks the producers offered. "I'm Cryin" was personal, after all. Tam-Tam spent weeks working out her rhymes. 'That song was mine,' she says later. Gary Smith claims, with the pride of a Medici, that "I'm Cryin" was cowritten by one of the backup singers, herself inspired by having Gary break her heart. The song was his too.

A few months later, the rival producers dismantled their Boston operation and moved to New York City, selling some of their equipment to RJam but keeping hundreds of demo tapes they'd made or copied, including Tam-Tam's. The two were rumored to have a shadowy 'production deal' with a major label, or with a minor label that itself had a deal with a major label. Months passed before Next Plateau Records released Antoinette's Who's the Boss?, featuring a cut called "I'm Cryin," rapped by Antoinette and backed by voices sounding, gosh, an awful lot like Tam-Tam's, singing

I'm cryyyyyyyyyyyyyin
Over you....

The bad news came to Tam-Tam over the radio. 'The girls were hurt when they heard that song,' Gary recalls. 'They came to see me in the studio. They were crying.' Here Gary imitates women crying.

A lawsuit is contemplated, but who can wait for court-ordered justice? Tam-Tam's DJ and producers will today cut the rhythm tracks for a revenge single, aimed at the shameless, plagiarizing Antoinette, under the working title "Ho, You're Guilty."

Gary Smith crosses Geneva Avenue in North Dorchester at the wheel of the leased Chevy Blazer RJAM1, talking shop with Reese Thomas, Tam-Tam's DJ. Reese was once famous down here as DJ Scratch until a member of Long Island's rap outfit EPMD began using the name. Now Reese is DJ Reese. He, too, is linked to RJam's extended family: his first cousin is Nate Smith's best friend and silent partner, Bobby Brown.

Like the men who invented rap in the Bronx a decade ago, Reese broke in throwing parties for strangers who paid $5/head to bop to his mixology. He and a few buddies rhymed to Public Enemy instrumentals until Reese got bored and began mixing his own rhythm tracks on a battered six-track cassette recorder, using bits and chunks of store-bought music he admired. Soon Reese had a second side business customizing tracks for amateur rappers as he and his friends had once rapped to Def Jam / CBS's Public Enemy. Reese had crossed the rap-blurred line between performer and one-man record company.

Reese's ambition, he says minutes after meeting you, is to have something to do—either as DJ or producer—with the first Boston rap act signed by a 'major label.' Somebody points out that Dorchester's own Gang Starr have just released a well-received LP, No More Mr. Nice Guy.

'Yeah,' Reese says, 'but that's not on a major label. I'm talking about a major label. What label they on?'

'Wild Pitch,' Gary Smith says after thinking about it.

'That's not a major label,' Reese says. He has agreed to produce a rap record for Bobby Brown's sister in coming weeks, his best shot yet at fulfilling his major-label ambitions.

Reese loads a cassette of the rhythm tracks he's worked up for "Ho, You're Guilty" into RJAM1's deck. It's a dense, funky groove.

'Sounds nice,' Gary says. Then he frowns, hearing something. 'What's that?' he asks Reese.

'A little help,' Reese says. Meaning that Reese, incorrigible cultural guerilla, has heard a lick he liked in some other rap record and spliced it into what will be the backbone of Tam-Tam's attack on the plagiarizing Antoinette.


Excerpted from Signifying Rappers by Mark Costello, David Foster Wallace. Copyright © 2013 Mark Costello David Foster Wallace. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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