Book Review: “Ode to Hip-Hop: 50 Albums that Define 50 Years of Trailblazing Music” — Diversifying the Definition
By Adam Ellsworth
What makes “Ode to Hip-Hop” such a worthy addition to the Rap Book Library is that it makes room for the contributions and trailblazing importance of artists who have been overlooked. Specifically, artists who aren’t straight men.
Ode to Hip-Hop: 50 Albums that Define 50 Years of Trailblazing Music by Kiana Fitzgerald/Illustrated by Yay Abe. Running Press, 224 pages, $28.
In the beginning, there were no hip-hop records. No singles, no mixtapes, no LPs. To hear hip-hop was to experience it live, watching and listening as a DJ standing behind two turntables took the break from a funk or R&B classic and expanded it, as Clive Campbell (a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc) did for the first time in front of an audience 50 years ago this August. Herc and his disciples could take a seconds-long break — the percussion-heavy section of a song — and make it last minutes. They could take a single song and stretch it, or take two songs with similar breaks and blend them together, creating a completely new tune in the process.
Soon MCs became part of the show, hyping up the crowd while the DJs practiced their alchemy behind the tables. Still, the DJs were the stars, and what they were doing was not being captured on wax. And why would it be? Who would want to listen to a record of a DJ playing records?
Such thinking obviously didn’t last long, and by the end of the ’70s, there were in fact hip-hop recordings. Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was the breakthrough. (Ironically, the song uses live musicians to replicate Chic’s hit “Good Times,” so, technically speaking, the track is not a record of a DJ playing a record.) It wasn’t long before hip-hop artists started making full “Album as Statement” discs, like their peers in rock, soul, country, and jazz.
Kiana Fitzgerald is interested in those albums in Ode to Hip-Hop: 50 Albums that Define 50 Years of Trailblazing Music. From Kurtis Blow’s 1980 self-titled debut to Megan Thee Stallion’s 2022 sophomore release Traumazine, these are the albums that tell if not “the,” then certainly “a” story of hip hop, via two-to-three-page synopses of each LP that are paired with utterly original illustrations from Yay Abe.
Much of the book’s story will sound familiar. The ’80s had Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (The Message), Run D.M.C. (Run D.M.C.), Eric B. & Rakim (Paid in Full), and N.W.A. (Straight Outta Compton). The ’90s were the genre’s high-water mark with A Tribe Called Quest (People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm), Dr. Dre (The Chronic), Wu-Tang Clan (Enter the Wu-Tang [36 Chambers]), Nas (Illmatic), the Notorious B.I.G. (Ready to Die), and 2Pac (All Eyez On Me). And by the 2000s, hip-hop had taken over the mainstream with Eminem (The Marshall Mathers LP), Jay-Z (The Blueprint), and Kanye West (The College Dropout).
We can quibble over the albums Fitzgerald doesn’t include in her list of 50 (no De La Soul?!?! No Public Enemy?!?! The College Dropout instead of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?!?!), but Ode to Hip-Hop isn’t a compilation of the “best” hip-hop records of all-time. The book is essentially concerned with tracing the history of the music, with a nod toward the albums that had the greatest influence on culture, other artists, and the entire trajectory of rap. By this standard, 2 Live Crew’s 1989 record As Nasty As They Wanna Be, which Florida politicians literally tried to ban as obscene, becomes a must for inclusion, even if, from a pure we-still-listen-to-this-shit-four-decades-later standpoint, it can’t touch De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising from the same year.
Clearly Fitzgerald has included enough heavy hitters to justify the book’s subtitle. What makes Ode to Hip-Hop such a worthy addition to the Rap Book Library, though, is not that she includes the obvious, but that she makes room for the contributions and trailblazing importance of artists who are easier to overlook. Specifically, artists who aren’t straight men.
This means Salt-N-Peppa (Hot, Cool, and Vicious), Queen Latifah (Black Reign), Ms. Lauryn Hill (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill), and Missy Elliott (Supa Dupa Fly) are all given their due, as are MC Lyte (Lyte As a Rock), Lil’ Kim (Hard Core), Da Brat (Funkdafied), and Trina (Da Baddest B****h). By the time Fitzgerald reaches her section of albums from the 2010s, four of the 10 LPs featured were created by female MCs. For the still in-progress 2020s, two of three records the author spotlights were made by women. Tokenism? Undeserved? Not “real” hip-hop? Dare you to say that to Cardi B’s (Invasion of Privacy) face.
Female voices are better represented than queer ones in Ode to Hip-Hop, though that says more about the genre (not to mention the wider culture) itself than Fitzgerald’s book. Still, at least two are included, most unapologetically so in the case of Lil Nas X (MONTERO). The rapper came out years before the release of 2021’s MONTERO, when his 2018 breakout hit “Old Town Road” was riding high on the singles charts, which, as Fitzgerald notes, was no small thing in the world of hip-hop.
As demonstrated by the lap dance the rapper gives to a CGI Satan in the video for MONTERO’s title track, Little Nas X is certainly not shy about his sexuality. “I do feel like this newer generation of rappers who are coming in, and the ones who are here, are going to have to reshape their thoughts,” he told GQ the year of the album’s release. “Because change is happening. There’s going to be so many gay rappers. There’s going to be more trans people in the industry and whatnot. Ten years from now, everything that I’m doing won’t even seem like it was shocking.”
That’s a scary thought for some, but it will undoubtedly be proven correct. At this point, hip-hop has evolved too far to stop now. There will always be new sounds, new voices, and new classic albums to obsess over and argue about. Regardless of gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, orientation, or ability, hip-hop is by and for everyone. Always has been. Always will be.
Adam Ellsworth is a writer, journalist, and amateur professional rock and roll historian. His writing on rock music has appeared on the websites YNE Magazine, KevChino.com, Online Music Reviews, and Metronome Review. His non-rock writing has appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, on Wakefield Patch, and elsewhere. Adam has an MS in journalism from Boston University and a BA in literature from American University. He grew up in Western Massachusetts, and currently lives with his wife in a suburb of Boston. You can follow Adam on Twitter @adamlz24.