New American Songbook

"In 20 years of listening to hip hop, its music and stories have never left me unchallenged or unchanged. Throughout its history—from Kool Herc to KRS and beyond—hip hop has told the story of America through the styles of noir, memoir, jazz and rhythm and blues, comic books and blockbuster action movies. It is everything we say we are, and those things we maintain we are not. This is the new American Songbook." - KMUW commentator, Zack Gingrich-Gaylord  

New American Songbook can be heard on alternate Mondays, or through iTunes.

generationbass / Flickr / Creative Commons

This commentary originally aired on July 20, 2015.

Our American identities are largely formed around the concept of work, both the noun and the verb, and as our national music, hip hop is no different.

The album "The Cold Vein" by the group Cannibal Ox is almost indescribable. Released in 2001, the album is produced by El-P, now well-known as half of the rap super-duo Run the Jewels; the music is dense and menacing, chordal and inorganic. Two emcees, Vast Aire and Vordul Mega, deliver what sounds like dispatches from the world on the other side of the singularity.

What is this world? It is desperate and mechanical, flesh fused with metal, and always winter. The heart of the album is in the song "Pigeon," where the city bird is woven into a metaphor for survival at all costs.

The newest offering from lyricist Aesop Rock, titled The Impossible Kid, is his most cogent to date. While Aesop Rock has been long known for his enormous vocabulary and complicated rhyme structures, this album still delivers an overflow of imagery, but with a focus and precision that was only approached in his earlier efforts.

The story is that James Dewitt Yancey had perfect pitch at two months old, and was spinning records in the Detroit parks as a toddler. Later, as a hip hop producer and emcee, Yancey, eventually known as J Dilla, would become one of those rare influences in the genre, seemingly having something to do with any new music coming out of either coast.

A couple of weeks ago in Charlton, Massachusetts, a car pulled up to a group of teenagers. A man got out of the car and began rapping at the teenagers. They were asked if they, too, wanted to, quote, "spit some bars." The teenagers declined and the man got back in the car and left. It’s a weird and silly story, but it left me concerned for the teenagers: Why didn’t they have any bars to spit?


The recent death of Malik Taylor, known more popularly as Phife Dawg, was marked by dozens of memorials and internet eulogies from all corners of hip hop. Phife was well-known for his role as a founding member of the seminal hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, alongside rapper Q-Tip and DJ Ali Shaheed Mohammed.

Jazz and hip hop have always been a natural fit, although sometimes a kitschy one. Hip hop has always taken notice of jazz music, most obviously through prolific sampling, but jazz also comes up in the deep history of hip hop: the Notorious B.I.G. reportedly learned his flow, his style of rapping, by first learning bebop riffs and scat syllables from an older jazz musician.


Somewhere in the vast pantheon of alternate universes and parallel worlds, there is an earth, much like ours, where Shaquille O’Neal is one of the greatest rappers of all time who for a brief period dabbled in basketball. It’s a world a little bit more ridiculous than our own, but nice in its own ways, gentler maybe, more enthusiastic.

In 1999, four New York City police officers shot and killed Amadou Diallo, a 22-year old immigrant from Guinea. Diallo was struck by nineteen bullets—the police had ultimately fired 41 times. It was a fatal case of mistaken identity: the police thought Diallo was someone else, he ran and they fired.

Danny Clinch

Location is more than latitude and longitude. Where you are is one part of it, of course, but how you are—and even more, how you are where you are—is also ‘your location’. I was reminded of this recently by two distinct pieces of music: the 1994 album ‘Illmatic’ by Nas, and Macklemore’s just-released song ‘White Privilege 2’.