The story goes like this: Pushing 60, flogged by hepatitis C and in a crisis of whiteness following a nasty moment in New Orleans' Iberville Project ("The brackish smell of bodies was fierce, and I stumbled back against a wall as the youths moved in"), the creaky rock-and-roll scenester and author of Yes We Have No and The Heart of the World decides to consummate his long love affair with the city by taking a new path, that of the hip-hop starmaker. New Orleans-style rap -- the cheap, filthy, bumptious noise known as "bounce" -- has always excited him, and having angled himself into the bounce scene as a reporter, he turns himself into a sort of freelance, very low-rent producer/A&R man, pushing demos of local rappers into the laps of his pals in the music industry in New York. His credentials in this area are not strong -- in fact they're non-existent -- but his spirits are high.
"The vanities and credits by which I normally defined myself," he writes, "meant nothing here. Nobody knew or gave a damn what I did in my other life. I was just an old white crazyman, bouncing. Have at it."
His first project, a slow-moving young hotshot called Choppa ("Everyone's wanting me, wanting me all the time, it's like to drive me crazy"), is a bust. Choppa unfurls a devastating series of huge, gold-toothed yawns right in Cohn's face and blows off meeting after meeting, and the possibility of a deal with DreamWorks is held out just long enough for the whole thing to fall to pieces. Nothing daunted, Cohn continues to his next prospect: female rapper Junie B.
And so it goes. Cohn is a lovely writer, and there are priceless scenes on knackered studio couches and sagging porches as "Nik da Trik," fedora jammed defiantly on his Lear-like head, buggers about in the turgid undercurrents of New Orleans rap. As a character in his own book, he retains the dignity of his ridiculousness, even if as a stylist he very occasionally succumbs to the pressure to be groovy ("Junie Bezel, the Magnolia Pepper Girl, spat game like an Uzi"). The chapter "Real Niggaz," a potted history of hip-hop for the benefit of Cohn's over-50 white readers, is dispensable, but his close-up profiles of Supa Dave, Earl the studio boss, DJ Jubilee and others are not. Katrina, of course, tore up or inundated most of the world in which these people moved, so Triksta, written before the hurricane, takes on, despite itself, the character of an elegy. New Orleans, incredible city where (as Cohn describes) the funeral procession for murdered rapper Soulja Slim was led by the Rebirth Brass Band, how we loved you.
A world away from the quixotic blunderings of Triksta is the season's other essential rap book, Ethan Brown's hardheaded and impeccable Queens Reigns Supreme. Beginning in the present, with this year's indictment (for money laundering) of Queens record mogul Irv "Gotti' Lorenzo, CEO of The Inc (formerly Murder Inc), Brown burrows backward into the lore and reality of Southeast Queens gangster culture, mercilessly anatomising its relationship to the borough's emerging hip-hop industry.
The book's title is a bitter pun: "Supreme" is the street name of Kenneth McGriff, the crack-era kingpin whose money Lorenzo currently stands accused of laundering. In the dubious partnership between Lorenzo and Supreme, the former a generator of million-selling gangsta-rap fantasies, the latter the non-negotiably real thing, Brown finds the nexus, the place where "the streets" collide with the streets. It's a jackpot of a story, and one can only salute the sureness of his aim.
To begin with, we have history in microcosm. As Brown reveals, it was the homicidal grandiosity of the '80s Queens crews, and in particular that of jailed drug lord "Fat Cat" Nichols, that provoked the legislative wrath of the War on Drugs. A campaigning George H.W. Bush carried in his pocket the badge of Edward Byrne, a rookie cop "executed" in reprisal for police activity against the Fat Cat organization. The drug empires were broken up and the emperors went to jail, and this is where Brown's story really begins. Removed as physical presences, the top gangsters enjoyed a folkloric half-life in Queens hip-hop. Rappers took their names, retold their exploits, paid poetic homage, made myth. At the peak of their powers, these men had operated on an almost sci-fi level anyway. Brown writes of the Supreme Team's "souped-up Mercedes armed with gun turrets and an oil slick, the matching jackets emblazoned with the crew's logo, the packaging locations crowded with dozens of baggers who were forced to work in the nude so as not to walk off with any drugs."
In the 1990s, Supreme gets out of jail and makes a beeline for the fake gangsters at Murder Inc. He has a new hustle: Having spent much of his time behind bars immersed in the works of jailhouse novelist Donald Goines, he wants Murder Inc to bankroll the making of a Goines movie, which he senses would be a big hit because of its "ghetto realist qualities" -- and so we round another loop on the life/art spiral.
Meanwhile, a Queens native and former street-corner dealer named Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent) is making costume drama out of Supreme's high-rolling heyday ("Helicopters, Rolls Royces with Louis Vuitton interiors/Might sound like I'm fantasizin', but son I'm dead serious ...") and engineering a word war with Murder Inc's Ja Rule about just who is more "real." 50 Cent, it transpires, is a master of the "beef," the high-profile slanging match that has the dual effect of stoking media interest and (if you're good) flattening the opposition.
Brown describes a televised peace summit between 50 and Ja brokered by none other than Louis Farrakhan: 50 Cent, in a PR deathblow, simply fails to show up, leaving Farrakhan to "interview" a beached Ja Rule. (Farrakhan: "And now you're married, have children and you never hit your wife?" Ja Rule: "Yes, three children -- never hit my wife." Farrakhan: "That's wonderful, my brother.")
In the rap industry, gangster fact and gangsta fantasy have waltzed away with each other into a billion-dollar sunset, but there is a third element in Queens Reigns Supreme -- a bottom line. Keeping an eye on all the myth production is the ominously unimaginative presence of law enforcement, which at last is making its move on hip-hop. The indictment of Irv Lorenzo may be, suggests Brown, the beginning of the end.
There's a morality tale in here somewhere: The feds take things literally, and if you say you're a gangster, they might just believe you.
- Nik da Trik: Nick Cohn somehow maintains his dignity as a New Orleans producer/A&R man.