To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic

To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic

To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic

To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic


"At a time when academics are just beginning to recognize hip hop as a legitimate form, Cobb, a child of rap himself, brings an unparalleled level of understanding to the music. His historically informed yet hip to the tip viewpoint roots readers in the art form rather than the hype." - Chuck D

"With poetic passion and surgical precision, William Jelani Cobb's engaging exploration of the hip-hop aesthetic lovingly demonstrates that when it comes to beats and rhymes the beauty of the (bass) god resides in the details." - Joan Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down

"Finally, a hip hop study that captures the verve and swagger that marked the work of our critical forebears Albert Murray and Amiri Baraka. In his brilliant new tome, Cobb bridges the gap between the majesty of the Blues and the gully regality of hip hop." - Mark Anthony Neal, author of New Black Man

He'll idle with some prelim scratches to let the crowd know what's coming next. And if his boy got skills enough, if the verbal game is tight enough, that right there will be the kinetic moment, that blessed split-second when beat meets rhyme. With roots that stretch from West Africa through the black pulpit, hip-hop emerged in the streets of the South Bronx in the 1970s and has spread to the farthest corners of the earth. To the Break of Dawn uniquely examines this freestyle verbal artistry on its own terms. A kid from Queens who spent his youth at the epicenter of this new art form, music critic William Jelani Cobb takes readers inside the beats, the lyrics, and the flow of hip-hop, separating mere corporate rappers from the creative MCs that forged the art in the crucible of the street jam. The four pillars of hip hop- break dancing, graffiti art, deejaying, and rapping- find their origins in traditions as diverse as the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira and Caribbean immigrants' turnstile artistry. Tracing hip-hop's relationship to ancestral forms of expression, Cobb explores the cultural and literary elements that are at its core. From KRS-One and Notorious B. I. G. to Tupac Shakur and Lauryn Hill, he profiles MCs who were pivotal to the rise of the genre, verbal artists whose lineage runs back to the black preacher and the bluesman. Unlike books that focus on hip-hop as a social movement or a commercial phenomenon,To the Break of Dawntracks the music's aesthetic, stylistic, and thematic evolution from its inception to today's distinctly regional sub-divisions and styles. Written with an insider's ear, the book illuminates hip-hop's innovations in a freestyle form that speaks to both aficionados and newcomers to the art.


NEW YORK, circa 1986

That was us: the sweat-baptized, blue-light basement apostles of the breakbeat. We, the b-boy delegates of our five-borough universe, eyes hidden beneath baseball caps pulled low, uniformed in ?Guess, Kangol, and Adidas Olympic Team training gear. Our ranks cued waaay back to the subway lines that had delivered us to this place: Union Square, the nightspot deriving its name from the section of Manhattan where it was located. If you came from around our way, South Queens, specifically, then you gathered your tribe at 163rd Street and Hillside Ave and took the E to Lexington. Then you caught the downtown #6 to 14th Street, which delivered you to the far end of the Square.

At the front you encountered Muscle D, a brother swollen to a rippled abstraction, barely contained by his nylon tees and capable of literally moving the crowd. Down below was a consecrated dance-floor, the theater for our repertoire of movements: the Wop, the Rambo, the Fila, the Biz, the Prep. The true disciple could tell you that Rakim was there, the headlining act on the opening night at Union Square. That disciple would know that Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince were to be the second act. Or that Biz-Markie rolled up in that spot on the reg, self-advertising with the boldfaced B-I-Z emblazoned on his cap—as if he was worried you would mistake him for Kool Moe Dee. You would remember the smell of it, if you had ever been there, the blunt-heavy air mixed with sweat, leather, Polo cologne, and some other indefinable element—a calibrated cool, perhaps—that we were so filled with that it must have seeped from our pores into the atmosphere also.

This is my romantic memory of the distant past. But the charitable will indulge my personal mythologizing for a moment.

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