Several years ago, British novelist Patrick Neate stumbled into a Tokyo dance club called Harlem, where you might say up was down and down was...

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“Where You’re At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet”

by Patrick Neate

Riverhead, 274 pp., $14

Several years ago, British novelist Patrick Neate stumbled into a Tokyo dance club called Harlem, where you might say up was down and down was up. African men posing as black Americans were dancing with Japanese girls who’d tanned their skin the color of charcoal — to look black, of course. It goes without saying that the music they were listening to was American hip-hop.

As Neate discovers in “Where You’re At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet,” which recently won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism, hip-hop often leads to cultural cross-dressing such as this. Neate should know. A white Londoner who studied at Cambridge University and learned to DJ in Africa, Neate is a walking example of why authenticity is a slippery term in the hip-hop world.

Neate finds all kinds of definitions for what hip-hop truly is in “Where You’re At,” which chronicles his travels to Tokyo, Rio, New York, Johannesburg and Cape Town, talking to MCs named Herb and bopping his head to South African bubblegum (early ’90s disco pop). Like it or not, hip-hop is America’s best-selling music, and here is a book that shows what the world has done with America’s flashiest export.

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Like any expert in a marginalized genre that’s gone mainstream, Neate has a hard time giving a simple introduction. He’s forever clocking how five minutes ago a scene is, or measuring its purity with a gemologist’s precision. But to his credit, Neate knows his stuff. He has a firm grasp of hip-hop’s evolution from the break beat all the way up to Eminem, and one needn’t have spent their youth listening to Run-DMC to appreciate this understanding.

But his knowledge turns positively delicious where cultures cross over. Rather than describe this, Neate shows us. Over the course of “Where You’re At,” Neate visits a record label in Manhattan called Bronx Science, which ships most of its music to white Europeans overseas. He tests the pulse of old-time gangsters in South Africa, who signify by wearing Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Neate even makes a brief foray into the Italian rap scene, which is mostly left-wing and mostly political. Imagine if Public Enemy shouted less and drank cappuccinos, and you get the idea.

If all this makes your head spin, that’s OK, because every reference in the book gets a footnote or two. And there’s a discography that spans several continents and languages. It’s hard not to wish Neate’s publisher had sprung for an enclosed CD, though. Even when Neate talks about how an MC is “pulling words apart and reassembling them like plasticine shapes,” it’s difficult to grasp just how good the music can sound.

In an effort to be specific and authentic, Neate occasionally flirts with the language of connoisseurship that makes rock and jazz criticism so insular. He refers to MCs as B-boys and B-girls, talks about their flow and hangs out with all kinds of crews from ones who front to ones who really throw it down. There isn’t a city or scene Neate hasn’t seen, and he’s cool enough to use the word “wack” (uncool) without irony.

In the end, Neate has the good sense to laugh at his desire to display his knowledge. “Where You’re At” is a journey of sorts, and Neate actually does change in the process. He starts off with some clear ideas — that hip-hop is urban, that it’s been co-opted by commercialism — and winds up with a more vibrant, fluid appreciation for how different cultures have interpreted the music he loves. In Tokyo, for example, he initially comes down hard on that city’s bizarre mimicry of U.S. hip-hop. Japanese girls who spend thousands of dollars to have their hair thickened into dreadlocks? Rich Tokyo teens rapping about the thug life?

After a few days in the city, though, Neate loosens up and realizes that the Japanese have simply taken hip-hop culture in a new direction. Neate looks for a lyrical expression of issues; the Japanese turn to hip-hop for lyrical stylization. Period. By the end of this vivid and amusing book, Neate has learned how to embrace this multiplicity, even if that means the people loving his favorite music might occasionally seem, well, a little wack.

Poetry merges personal, political

“The School Among the Ruins: Poems 2000-2004”

by Adrienne Rich

W.W. Norton, 113 pp., $22.95

Carol Muske-Dukes once observed that when Adrienne Rich began publishing in her early 20s she was simply “a polite copyist of Yeats and Auden.” Muske-Dukes was not writing with teeth bared. In fact, she was just making the point that Rich’s evolution from imitation to mastery was a surprising (and exciting) one, by no means predetermined.

Sixteen volumes and a half-century since her debut, Rich’s voice is now part of the canon, and she has finally returned to her early roots with a new collection, “The School Among the Ruins.” Using montage techniques and a hiccupping but lovely rhythm, Rich begins with a nod to Yeats’ great poem, “Among the School Children,” but winds up with something else entirely. In Yeats’ world, after all, “The children learn to cipher and to sing/To study reading-books and histories,/To cut and sew, be neat in everything” In Rich’s, however, diarrhea is “the first question of the day/children shivering … it’s September/Second question: where is my mother?”

Since the ’60s, the personal and the political have been one in the same in Rich’s work, and “The School Among the Ruins,” winner of this year’s National Book Critics Circle award for poetry, reveals her at her anguished best, speaking out of compassion without ever climbing onto a soapbox. To Rich, “word and body/are all we have to lay on that line,” so she does it time and again in this collection: Mourning the cycle of violence in the West Bank, the political changes in America, the war in Iraq, the “cargoes of my young/fellow countrymen and women … being hauled/into positions aimed at death.”

John Freeman is a writer

in New York City.

For a complete list of the National
Book Critics Circle award winners,
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