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

By Patrick Neate

Riverhead Books, 274 pp., $14.00

Author Patrick Neate’s pursuit of the true meaning of hip hop could have been inspired by a significantly introspective and luminous bong hit. If you ask Neate to summarize his findings, his conclusions may flow like so: Hip hop is a black b-boy Brooklynite transplanted from Chippanham wearing a Pantera T-shirt graffin’ gamtaal on a slither of Berlin Wall tossing battle rhymes at a crew of Rio cariocas rockin’ Iverson jerseys beneath Lexion Kulca hoodies, Phat Farm jeans and squeaky clean Converse tackies while the DJ mixes dub breaks at a club called Harlem in Tokyo, Japan. And if you ask Neate why Where You’re At is an apt title for his “notes from the frontline of a hip-hop planet,” he’ll probably mention the obvious Rakim reference before upholding hip hop as “the worldwide urban soundtrack.”

Neate, 2001 winner of Britain’s prestigious Whitbread Award for his novel Twelve Bar Blues, calls Where You’re At his “travelogue” connecting London-New York-Tokyo-Johannesburg-Cape Town-Rio on his five-continent quest to contextualize the surgically precise injection of hip-hop culture into the veins of kids the world over.

Each chapter title references a dope lyric from a 20-plus-year archive marking hip hop’s emergence as the top grossing cultural capital in the whole entire universe. Its clout crafts what Neate calls the “imagined identity,” which is best described as the merchandising of keeping-it-realisms that inherently belong to hip-hop culture. “The strongest symbols in any sphere are those that manage to be flexible and specific all at once; symbols that seem to apply with pinpoint accuracy to you as an individual, ” recognizes Neate. “Hip hop can be a forum for reconciling seemingly conflicting definitions of who you are.” The benefit of such an elastic definition of keeping it real is that it stretches to fit both the adopted chic of a Japanese youth posing outside B-Boy Park and the Johannesburg entrepreneurs who began their own clothing line and convinced “Jo’burg” hip-hop crews to rock their gear onstage.

Whatever one “takes” from hip-hop culture (the fashion, the lingo, the party anthem, the message) associates her or him with a particular group–social, political or otherwise. As Neate reminds, “The globalization of hip hop doesn’t mean the homogeneous consumption of a homogeneous product but rather the diversification of a culture that is reinterpreted and/or reinvented internationally and nationally and by city, small group, and individual.” This malleability translates to a “glocal” hip-hop testament and reads like stacked scriptures of hip-hop heads witnessing to the same story.

Unfortunately, one of the recurring themes will be how blackness, with its cornrows and creative vernacular, became an overworked and monolithic corporate identity, a point better made and expounded on in hip-hop texts written by African-American hip-hop scholars Bakari Kitwana (www.indyweek.com/durham/2003-09-03/bookshelf.html) and Damien Ty Jackson (www.indyweek.com/durham/2004-01-21/bookshelf.html). Both Kitwana and Jackson champion revisiting the role of black art in developing a political agenda for disenfranchised youth. Neate mentions how dragooning pop culture has morphed into hip-hop incessancy but admits, “For an outsider like me, there’s frankly something bizarre about seeing America’s embrace of a subculture that once stood toe to toe with the norm.” Most Americans–particularly black ones–know, from every civil rights movement to Serena Williams’ powerful backhand side, those rebellious spirits once shunned become idolized and celebrated as American icons, and integrated as mainstream schools of thought as if America has always–or has ever been–executor of its constitutional pledge of equality for every man created.

In the beginning, image was “just how we do”; now, hip-hop stylistics is being vended, bought and sold to its very own urban inventors, often at their own expense. Neate, a white boy from London, doesn’t hesitate to admit that in hip hop, “corporate reputation” emphasizes “brand over product.” Check out the hot beat behind the next Geico or Gap commercial or just rent that movie that almost cost Queen Latifah her crown. Everybody’s got designs on hip hop, because as Neate eloquently puts it, “Where hip hop was once a voice of urban exclusion, it is often now a catalyst for the very same” and, in the true essence of American capitalism, “Exoticism has become both tool and luxury for the powerful.”

Neate’s travelogue is a globe-trotting journey that only begins as a self-exploration of hip hop’s meaning. Where You’re At dissects the role of westernization among global youth and urban cultures, and critiques hip hop as a corporate moguldef and dumb in its selling of and out. By drafting beautiful and tragic models of what hip hop looks like in their own backyards, youth the world over are reinvesting in “search and discovery,” what New York DJ Bobbito deems “the most neglected element of hip hop.” So in an age marked by cultural co-opting and conquest, no matter where you’re from, hip hop knows exactly where you’re at … and how you got there.