Rapper’s Deluxe

Book Review

Even Greater Days: Rapper’s Deluxe: How Hip Hop Made the World

In the latter third of Dr. Todd Boyd’s highly anticipated new tome Rapper’s Deluxe is a “A Great Day in Hip Hop,” a subsection of a chapter called “It Was All a Dream: The 1990s,” which covers a broad range of shifts and trends in and around hip hop culture over the course of a decade that many longtime fans of rap music consider, for various reasons, the genre’s golden era.

This subsection is but four pages out of a chapter of roughly 80. It consists of three pages of images and one page of text. Only three of those images are from the ‘90s and feature figures from the world of hip hop. The other images date to the ‘50s and ‘60s and feature jazz musicians. Dr. Boyd brings this all into characteristically succinct, interdisciplinarily revelatory confluence in just a half dozen paragraphs prompted by two black and white photographs on the facing page that comprise, together, about 250 people. It’s worth pausing on these two images here to convey some sense of how truly immersive an experience it is to read and absorb this impressive book.

At top on that facing page is A Great Day in Harlem, a 1958 photograph by Art Kane that was published in The Golden Age of Jazz, the January 1959 issue of Esquire. It features a rather classically composed, pyramidal configuration of jazz musicians, 57 in total – plus a dozen or so kids – assembled on and around a stoop in Harlem. Dr. Boyd describes the photograph as “a documentation of jazz culture at a moment when the music was at a creative critical juncture. […] A Great Day in Harlem captures jazz and jazz culture at its peak.”

Beneath A Great Day in Harlem is its hip hop analog, A Great Day in Hip Hop, photographed by Gordon Parks in 1998 for a cover of XXL magazine. For this image, 177 figures from the world of hip hop gathered together on the same stoop in Harlem – the congregation this time, however, spilling over onto the two adjacent stoops as well, and filling in the stretch of sidewalk between and around them. As seen in this stacked layout, the photograph is instantly recognizable as a kind of double homage: Parks’s tribute to Kane’s original photograph 40 years earlier, and the hip hop figures’ tribute to their creative forebears and broadly culture-redefining counterparts. And to be sure, it is a thoroughly arresting photograph, amazing as much for its composition and effusive theatrics as it is for its prodigious historical momentousness – and for the mere fact that it was somehow possible to gather such an eclectic multitude of hip hop personalities all together in one place at one time, all looking in the same direction. To look closely at this photograph, perhaps especially alongside fellow fans of hip hop, is to spend hours identifying individuals and groups, figuring out how long they’d been around by then and which albums were out, speculating on what some of them might be thinking of or saying to one another in the moment, wondering if collaborations that came afterwards might’ve been conceived on this day, remarking on who’s not there and guessing as to why, and noting how many of them have since passed away.

A photo album with a group of people

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Over the decades, both photographs have remained wide open to such profound lexicality, and both continue to speak volumes. And yet, with characteristic depth of knowledge and casualness of style, Dr. Boyd efficiently relates the images to one another by way of their kindred historicities and import, and goes on to describe select instances of jazz’s influence on hip hop throughout the ‘90s and beyond – and how rappers’ and producers’ incorporation of and references to jazz additionally eternalized both genres and, in the process, made them both hipper, their enmeshed histories richer. On the subsequent page is further visual summation of the same: the cover of Guru’s 1993 album Jazzmatazz: An Experimental Fusion of Hip-Hop and Jazz. I still have that album on cassette tape. It’s over 30 years old and, much unlike me, hasn’t aged a day.

I pause at such length on these four pages of Rapper’s Deluxe out of its constituent few hundred because they’re exemplary of what to expect from every feature and facet of this deeply researched, formidably composed, vastly interdisciplinary, and gorgeously presented tome. In five chronologically sequenced chapters, each devoted to a decade of hip hop’s half-century, to date, of history – and each opening with several pages of wonderfully poster-like graphic inlays – Dr. Boyd addresses pioneers, trendsetters, rule-makers, rule-breakers, milestones, and watershed moments in hip hop on levels musicological and broadly cultural alike. Through the lenses of sampling and remixing, both in rap music and as a method of observation and research, and grounded in a firm belief in the powers of evocation and veneration that rap music demonstrates with such particular prolificness, the author contextualizes the evolution of hip hop within a broadly illuminating cultural milieu comprising music, art, sports, politics, film, fashion, and design. In so doing, he makes very clear how the rise and gradually increasing acceptance of rap music sowed the seeds for the wider cultural movement of hip hop. For Dr. Boyd, while rap was emerging as a novel musical genre, “hip hop would not be defined by music alone. Rather, it was developing into a distinct cultural platform championing multiple modes of expression but with music at its root. The historical arc of Rapper’s Deluxe documents the manifestation of this culture, from the root to the fruit.”

A book of basketball players

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A large part of what makes this book so enthralling is that Dr. Boyd was himself enthralled with everything in it as he came of age in Detroit in the 1970’s. He engaged with and was inspired by the same cultural touchstones that the early rappers and shapers of hip hop engaged with and were inspired by. As those sources of inspiration and modes of engagement changed and broadened for him, so did they for them. This serves to make his mode of critical unpacking, albeit painstakingly researched and meticulously detailed, seem more like a manner of casual storytelling from the point of view of a particularly observant insider – or rather, a virtually omniscient narrator. Nevertheless, Dr. Boyd remains light on the text, opting to do much of his storytelling by way of a spectacular array of imagery. For every page or two of text are three or four pages of lushly reproduced photographs, artworks, advertisements, movie posters, album covers, film stills, and so forth – 430 such images in total – from soldiers in Vietnam to rappers at the Super Bowl, from DJ Kool Herc to Kendrick Lamar, from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, from Julius Erving to Michael Jordan, from Mike Tyson to Allen Iverson, from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Kara Walker, from Aretha Franklin to Mary J. Blige, from Blaxploitation posters to stills from Boyz N the Hood, from Dapper Dan to Virgil Abloh, from Angela Davis to Barack Obama, from the cover of an album by Richard Pryor to an entire subsection devoted to The Wire. All that, and that barely scrapes the tip of the cultural expansiveness and massive coolness of the Rapper’s Deluxe iceberg.

Rapper’s Deluxe is a sumptuous object and a museum of a book. It’s probably everything you think it is, and it’s definitely then some. As Dr. Boyd remarks in his introduction: “Rapper’s Deluxe is hip hop like you have never conceived it before, making connections across the culture, through the culture, for the culture, and beyond.” It shows how hip hop came into the world, then built its own world within it, then opened its world into the world around it, then eventually proliferated into an ever-evolving mode of undeniable global presence. This begs additional reflection on those two remarkable photographs discussed above. Perhaps in 2028 – 70 years after Kane’s A Great Day in Harlem, 30 years after Parks’s A Great Day in Hip Hop, and 55 years since hip hop’s birth – another photographer, or maybe group of collaborating photographers, could create a composite image, or even this time a short film, called something like An Even Greater Day in Hip Hop’s World, featuring hundreds of figures from this era’s international network of hip hop artists and tastemakers situated on stoops and landmark locations all around the globe. Something tells me Dr. Boyd could make that happen.

A black and gold book

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All images courtesy Phaidon Press. 

Rapper’s Deluxe: How Hip Hop Made the World, Dr. Todd Boyd, London and New York, Phaidon, February 2024.

About the writer: Paul D’Agostino, PhD is an artist, writer, curator, and translator. You can find him on Instagram and Threads @pauldagostinostudio