Occupy hip-hop - Page 2

BOOKS ISSUE: Three new lit releases by hip-hop greats put forth visions of change

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Justin Bua illustrates The Legends of Hip Hop

This individualized vision of change makes sense in relation to Bua's art. He is a portraitist, famous for "The DJ," a print of which went viral in the college-dorm-room-poster sense of the word. Though he started out by painting jazz scenes, he created "The DJ" after convincing his distributor that there was a chance that hip-hop images would sell just as well. He was right — that initial foray turned out to be one of the top selling posters of all time.

His most recent project is a love ode to similarly meteoric rises: to the B-boys, graffiti artists, emcees, and producers that made it to the top of the pack. In Legends of Hip-Hop, Bua pairs his trademark expressive faces and limbs with kind-of journal entries that sum up what they to him, or to the world of hip-hop at large. Veganism doesn't make an appearance — but that's not to say the book is without social significance for him.

"These people are part of our history," Bua says during his Guardian interview at vegan Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre. "It's really in the tradition of the Grecos, the Raphaels, the Rubins."

And where the old masters painted kings and queens, Bua paints Biggie and Queen Latifah. To Bronx-bred Bua, they are royalty and more than that, the meter sticks of our time. Hip-hop's effects can even be seen in the Oval Office (President Obama's is the face that concludes Legends of Hip-Hop).

Bua thinks this power can be harnessed. "If you look at all the money generated by hip-hop — that could change the world." And by no means does he think that the animal-product-free lifestyle and that of beats and breaks are unrelated.

"I think being vegan is the ultimate expression of hip-hop," he says before rattling off a list of dairy-free icons. (KRS-ONE, Russell Simmons, Dead Prez, DJ Qbert, and famous breakdancer Mr. Wiggles the are all vegans.) "It's irreverent, subversive, truth — it's about having a clear head and mind. The ultimate form of respect is to not eat each other. That's fucking weird."

SOME DAY, IT'LL ALL MAKE SENSE

By Common

(Atria Books, 320pp, hardcover, $25)

Common's autobiography (which he penned with the help of ghostwriter Adam Bradley) debuted in the 20th spot of the New York Times' hit parade. The book itself is heartrendingly earnest — you'll find none of the sly jabs of Bua or George hidden among its pages. But in a way, it is the more personal ode to the curative powers of hip-hop than either of those authors' tomes.

Putting aside the namedropping of ex-lovers (Erykah Badu) and current brothers (Kanye West), Some Day exposes a shocking truth. Common, he himself insists, is no more godly than the rest of us — he just chose the music as the rope that would pull him to that level. Sure, he wrote the woman-worshipping "The Light," but don't you still hear him using the word 'bitch'?

Common has perhaps the most call of the three authors to strike out against Tea Party tomfoolery and mechanized mediocrity in American government. (Lest we forget, when Obama invited him to perform at the White House, the Fox News Palin-Hannity-O'Reilly cabal screeched he was a "vile rapper" in part due to his song for Assata Shakur — something he speaks frankly about.) He also seems to have realized something that many haven't: hip-hop can be, in fact has proven itself to be, a tool towards whatever ends an artist has in mind.

The player shapes the game. Which is something, I fear, that will take a long time to start making sense to some.