Below is an excerpt from a recent City Lights LIVE event, featuring Daniel Levin Becker in conversation with Ian S. Port, celebrating the launch of his new book What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language, published by City Lights. This event was originally broadcast live via Zoom and hosted by Peter Maravelis. You can listen to the entire event on our podcast, and watch it in full, as well, on our YouTube channel. This excerpt was transcribed by Molly O’Donnell and edited for clarity.
Ian S. Port: I had the pleasure of getting to know Daniel when I was at SF Weekly. And Daniel very brilliantly applied to come work with us there and do some writing. I had the pleasure of editing his work for a while there and talking about the idea for this book as it grew for many, many years. And so I’m excited that it’s now a real, physical thing that you can delight yourself with.
Daniel, I think we want to start by talking about one of the first big songs you go through in the book and one of the first big concepts in the book, which you call “rewinding.” How does that kind of play into hip-hop listening and what do you want to tell us about rewinding as it relates to hip-hop?
Daniel Levin Becker: So it works on multiple levels. The chapter, which is the second chapter in the book, is centered on a quote from Slug, of Atmosphere, who talks about how he wants to be “the man who makes you push rewind,” and I talk about how that’s actually a very common rap boast.
When you start to listen through the corpus, you start to hear people talk, boastingly, about their ability to make you rewind. And I kind of read into that: why it’s such a good boast for rap. There’s a technological flair to it. And I talk about how we don’t actually really rewind anymore, but the metaphor has persisted, implying that it’s compelling you to make a decision to go back and listen to a lyric or a whole song or whatever. You make the decision to revisit it, in the moment. And that feels like a really true metaphor for my experience of rap. Which, you know, when it’s good (which so often it is) is like, “Oh, here’s something” and I’ll go, “Wait, what?” and have to go back and listen to it. If it’s a song I’m listening to, maybe I’ll press pause and rewind. If it’s a song I hear out somewhere, maybe I’ll write down a lyric and look up later what it is. I use it, I guess, as shorthand for a kind of rapt fascination (no pun intended) and the way it’s boasted about by rappers, which feels very true to my experience, makes you almost helpless but to go back and keep listening to it until you’ve wrapped your mind around it, octopus-like.
Ian S. Port: Yeah, absolutely. I love the idea of rewinding being kind of utopian, just like reaching back and connecting. And I think that’s a really nice place to go to. Another thing I want to talk about is your history with this rewinding: you talk in the book about carrying rap lyrics “like stones in [your] pocket” that you can finger through and un-puzzle or sort through, and I love that. I would love to hear more about when that started for you. And when you kind of became aware, consciously, of that as a thing that you were doing, particularly with rap lyrics. And then how you got from there to “I’m gonna write a book about this” where you’re basically performing this act of un-puzzling for us across these pages.
Daniel Levin Becker: So it’s something I’ve always done, well before I’d heard a rap song ever in my life. Just little bits of phrase and rhymes and strange ways of expressing things, strange descriptions, movie dialogue. I inherited this from my dad, a particular knack for reciting movie lines verbatim, or what I think is verbatim until years later I realize that I got an adverb slightly wrong. So that’s always been part of my wiring, just sort of this retention. And I retained these things because there’s something that I want to puzzle through about them. Like, they’re not just perfectly clear in terms of what they’re communicating––there’s something more than the utility to them. And it pleases me to no end to keep examining them and keep repeating them and sort of turning them over to figure out how they work, which is something I talk a lot about in the book in terms of puzzling through rap lyrics, some of which are constructed as puzzles, like one-liners and similes and things that appear to be similes and aren’t, and others that are just wrought in a way that is really fascinating and kind of lends itself to meditation for me.
So the idea for the book came… I mean, you and I had started working together. I was already writing for SF Weekly and writing about rap, not a ton, but you know, I had been writing about music for several years at that point, doing a lot of album reviews and concert reviews, in particular, once I started writing for you. I initially started with rock, and hip-hop just started to occupy more and more of my attention. And I loved the way my attention interacted with it. Like, it just became very clear to me that it was what I had the most fun puzzling through and thinking about and writing about, and the whole process between thinking and writing. I was very happy there, as I say in the book. And around that time, I was also finishing my first book, which is about the Oulipo, which is another very language-obsessive world. It’s a French group that deals a lot with writing under constraints, and analyzing literature in ways that seem more mathematical than literary, so to speak.
So I think I was also just looking for a new project. The Oulipo project took me three or four years of research and writing and as happy as I was for the book to be done, I also felt a little bit of a phantom-limb pain of, “What is the lens that I’m going to see everything that I engage with in my daily life through?” I don’t remember there being a conscious decision to say, like, rap is going to be that thing, or that it already is. But for whatever reason, it felt like a natural next thing, and certainly a challenge.
Ian S. Port: Yeah, I think it’s impressive to me to see in the book’s finished form, how much of a piece it does feel with the earlier work with the idea of puzzling and wordplay. It’s, like, obviously, hip-hop is such an incredible trove of that. And such a huge public, consequential, culturally massive part of that.
As you write in the book, there are lots of other books about what rap lyrics mean, or about what rap as a totality means. You put it in the book that you write about how rap means. And that does strike me as a fairly difficult thing to do. And I think one of the amazing achievements of this book is just how entertaining and fun it is to go with you page by page as you uncover those meanings and sort through those puzzles with us. But that also seems very hard. So can you talk about some of the difficulties that you encounter in approaching a book that way? And actually just taking this kind of semantic lens on rap?
Daniel Levin Becker: Yeah, I mean, it’s fraught with peril, for sure. And one of the things that I think is very continuous with the rewind impulse that we were just discussing, is that a lot of the time the rewind is not just, “That sounded great. I want to hear it again,” but “How did they do that? What is that actually constructed of, and how does it work together?” I think, probably if I weren’t a writer, my relationship to hearing these conjurations of wordplay and these quips and such and such would be different because I think there probably was some latent sense of understanding how these are constructed might make me a better writer, might make me a more confident and resourceful user of language.
I feel like that’s what the mission was for me. (The quote at the head of the rewind chapter is talking about the mission: to be the man that makes you push rewind.) But there’s this sort of equal and opposite mission, that in Black literary analysis is referred to as signifying, which is this whole really compelling and fascinating rhetorical strategy of misdirection and slippage and appearing to say one thing and actually meaning another thing. And that’s the peril that I was describing. It’s not just reading a really elegant lecture or a speech or even a poem, and trying to puzzle through how it works. It’s reading something that on some level, if not necessarily in every single lyric, is at least the inheritor of a tradition that is actively trying to scramble the path, trying to misdirect you and send you off on one path, whereas in fact the true meaning, such as it is, is hiding somewhere else. So, that was a big part of the challenge.
This was also around the time that Rap Genius was starting. Rap Genius, now just called Genius, initially called Rap Exegesis. Unsurprisingly started by some people that I went to Yale with. They started this website and I heard about it and thought it was super cool. I just loved the idea of creating this platform where people could transcribe lyrics and debate what they meant, because it had both a helpful function of listening to a song being like, “I don’t know what that word he just used means, and it’s itching me from the inside, I want so badly to know what he’s saying,” and also just the discursive “You hear it this way, I hear it this other way.” And as long as the author, even if the author does have a literally authoritative interpretation––which is the case with Jay-Z that I talk about later in the book––it doesn’t necessarily mean that other interpretations aren’t equally valid. So it just felt like a really fun place to play with those meanings, and their various multiplicities.
But one of the cool things about Rap Genius, in theory, is that it saves you from “getting it wrong.” It saves you from hearing some slang and being like, “Oh, yeah, that’s totally about sex” when actually it’s about cocaine or whatever. I don’t know, maybe this is more of a me thing than a universal experience, but the fear of too confidently pretending that you know what something means and being, you know, not the butt of the joke but outing your ignorance. So that’s the line that I surf throughout this book. And Genius is a great resource to hear other people sound off on what they think something means, but ultimately the interpretation is mine alone and the fault is mine, the embarrassment is mine, if I turn out to be wrong. And it’s better to just sort of embrace that, because it is really an important experience of listening to rap, especially as a white listener. There’s a level of anxiety to it, but it also just makes the whole experience so much more lively and engaging.
Ian S. Port: Yeah, definitely. I like the sense that you’re probably missing something at all times, or at many times, or there’s some slippage there between even your best thought of what something means and what it may mean to a certain audience.
I think one of the interesting things about the book, too, is it catalogs certain less successful approaches of interpreting rap lyrics. And there are some mentions, and there are places where people have approached it in incurious, even like bullying ways, and then seeing you wrestle with these lines with such humility is really interesting. One great success of this book is how personal it is in a certain way. Like, there’s a deep element of you underlying a lot of this, and so even though it is very much a book about rap and about rap lyrics, it’s also inevitably a book about your lens on them and then a book about you, in some ways.
I want to ask, have you or did you encounter any resistance to the idea of approaching rap lyrics like this? Like, in the very intro of the book, you kind of feign this defensiveness of, like, “No, you’re reading too far into it” when you pull apart a 50 Cent lyric for us. Did you encounter resistance to this in yourself or from others? Or how did that go?
Daniel Levin Becker: I didn’t really encounter any resistance. The notable exception being my agent at the time, to whom I said I wanted to write a book about rap, and she was like, “Does it need to be a book?” Which it did—like, it was an excellent question, and in so many ways, this project would have been much quicker and probably much more commercially apt if it were a podcast or something. But I’m just the kind of person who needed it to be a book.
Other than that, there’s a part a little later in the introduction where I talk about how like this book’s straw man, the person I’m arguing against, isn’t the person who’s like, “Rap? Is that garbage still around?” Right before coming here this evening, I went to a book launch for a French book about American rap. And there was a roundtable discussion with some of the people who were sort of pioneers in bringing American rap, or rap period, to France. And they were recalling that there was, you know, this period of resistance where people were like, “This is not high culture. It’s not going to be around for a while.” Éric Zemmour, who’s kind of the Trumpian far-right candidate in the upcoming presidential election, very famously once described rap as “a culture of illiterates.”
So I feel like that tension, that sort of antagonism, has always been present, but it hasn’t really been present in my lifetime, culturally. By the time I came of age and started listening to rap, there weren’t university courses being taught on hip-hop. Yale hadn’t put out it’s like 800-page anthology of rap lyrics. But I think it was pretty clear to everybody who didn’t have some more suspect reason for denying it, that rap was here to stay. It was commercially this huge juggernaut, and culturally it was doing a lot. It was bringing together a lot of threads in Black culture, in American culture, in Jamaican culture, and just creating something that was at once ages old and completely new. And so to argue against that cultural bloc felt like a little bit of a straw man thing. It felt sort of dishonest to say that I needed to argue for rap’s legitimacy as an object of cultural study or as high culture or whatever. Does that answer your question?
Ian S. Port: Yeah, I think that does answer the question.
Daniel Levin Becker: Right. So what I say in the introduction is something to the effect that my antagonist, if this book has one, which it doesn’t really have one—besides maybe these people whose approach to interpreting rap is really incurious. That’s exactly the right word. If you don’t know what something means, and that’s driving your interpretation, that’s fine. But if you’re not curious, if you’re just satisfied, saying like, “I don’t understand what this means, so I’m going to say it’s stupid,” which really is, I think, either the subtext, or sometimes the text of some treatments of rap out there. That’s the only thing that really gets under my skin.
So that’s a little bit of an antagonist for the book. But otherwise it’s not this idea that rap is bullshit so much as this idea that the main value we should get from rap’s importance is sociological. That rap is this, you know, this blossoming of Black rage or inner-city angst or whatever. Like, there’s a lot of that, and I don’t think that’s an unfair dimension to take up when you talk about rap, but to talk about that, without also taking into account just the sheer excellence and brilliance and linguistic resourcefulness and rhetorical creativity—that just seems criminal to me, to not acknowledge how special it is as art, no matter what it is that you want to say about it as sociology or as a political artifact.