Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hip Hop and Crime Novels

by Mike Knowles

I’ve seen Bob Dylan end up in one of our blogs on this site more than once. I’m pretty sure he’s a big favorite with a good number of the Do Some Damage boys. To be honest, I don’t get him. I’ve tried more than once, but he never sounds good to me. And whenever I see a little window linking a blog to Bob Dylan, I always think it seems out of place. Hip Hop seems like it should show up with crime fiction more often than Bob Dylan.

Number 1:

Let’s start with the obvious, crime fiction and hip hop share content. Hip Hop references guns, sex, drugs, crime on a very regular basis. Crime fiction uses these elements as its bread and butter. We have violent anti-heroes who rob banks and armoured cars, we have drunken private detectives who spend their days in the gutter, we have femme fatales who lead protagonists to their doom. Sometimes someone gets creative and we get everything at once.

An often heard argument is that Hip Hop is gratuitous in its depictions, so are crime novels. Many of the hard boiled and pulp works of the seventies are as violent and degrading to women as any NWA track. In fact, I think 50 Cent could learn a few things from Mike Hammer.

Think about the depictions of Hip Hop artists in the media. Many are standing with scantily clad women or are holding huge guns. Now think of the covers of some of your favorite books. If you’re like me there are some scary similarities.

Number 2:

Hip Hop artists collaborate with each other on albums so do crime writers. It is not uncommon for two crime writers to team up and create a book together. Ken Bruen has done this with Jason Starr several times for Hard Case Crime and every time I am blown away with their work. I don’t know of many other genres who do things like this. And if it does happen, I don’t think it happens as much as it does with crime fiction.

Number 3:

Hip Hop is known for freestyling. Rappers get together and create tracks off the cuff. This type of speedy work is something most crime writers can relate to. Think about how many people are taking part in the November writing month challenge. People are trying to get 50,000 words down in a month and a lot of us will do it. I didn’t join in because my usual speed is 2, 000 words a day and I don’t have the time to push myself any harder. I could write more if I didn’t have to work, but I’m happy with my schedule so I don’t try to screw with it. Many of the Crime icons are notorious for writing fast. Duane Swierczynski has blogged about many different crime writers like MacDonald, Marlowe, and Spillane who chugged out books in sometimes as little as a week. If we aren’t freestyling, than what are we doing?

Number 4:

Hip Hop doesn’t get a lot of mainstream respect neither do crime writers. Tons of people will argue that Hip Hop isn't really music. Similarly, I don’t think my mother, let alone my peers, considers what I do to be real writing. She tells me that she likes my books, but she doesn’t. Every pat on the back is coupled with a jab.

Standard Mom Responses:

“It was good, but did it have to be so violent?”

“You are a good writer, Mike. Really good. I mean it. I do. Seriously, I liked it. It’s not like the other books I read, but it was still pretty good.

“I can’t believe you came from me. How could you write such things?”

A lot of our books don’t win huge prizes. Some fiction writers won’t even use their real name on their attempts at crime and mystery fiction. Think about that for a second. We’re all writers who love to write. Part of writing is selling books, if you can’t sell them no one will publish them. Yet there are successful writers who use aliases to publish mystery and crime fiction. They don't want the following they have built up with their previous work involved in the marketing of a book that fits into a different genre. It makes no sense to me at all. If I put out a Romance novel you can be damn sure my name would still be on it because I wrote it and I'm allowed to be sensitive if I want. I’m sure some writers would have an artsy fartsy response about the name change, but it seems like they don’t want the stink of crime fiction to taint their respectability.

If you’ve been dumb enough to answer the question, “What are you reading these days?” you know the blank looks your friends give you is a sign of the lack of mainstream recognition crime writing gets. Hardly anyone ever knows who I’m talking about when I tell them what I like, but if I said Da Vinci Code, we’d all be on the same page. I used to get this with Lehane before Mystic River. Now everyone thinks they found him first.

My publisher told me once that mystery and sci-fi make the money to publish the artsy books that win awards. Crime fiction is like a dirty little secret; it sells the most, but no one ever wants to talk about it in the mainstream. I don’t care what anyone says, there is no way whatever is on Oprah’s book club is as good as Bruen, or Stark, or MacDonald.

For some reason Hip Hop has a spot in my heart that just won’t go away. The more I write the more I respect the clever language and constant evolution. So enough with the Dylan for one day. Here’s some Jay-Z.


Scott D. Parker said...

Heh, nice piece. I don't usually listen to or like hip hop but I'm going to give your videos a chance. As to Dylan, I'm a casual fan. I like the late Dylan (1997 onward) and I know some of the mid 60s material. Hardly anything in between. I saw him this past summer and was disappointed. Perhaps my wife is right: Dylan's songs are great when sung by someone else.

Your daily word count: at 2,000, you're ahead of what is needed (1,667) to get to 50,000 in 30 days. You'd be done early. Problem is the oppressive deadline. You fall behind, you're screwed.

John McFetridge said...

Mike, I was surprised the first time I was in Detroit and a woman tried to sell me a book she'd written. I was downtown and she was hand-selling, stopping people and showing them her book.

Then I discovered "urban lit." (a few are actually written "with" 50 Cent, I think). The bookstores in Detroit have Urban Lit sections - maybe they do in other American cities, too, I don't know.

So, you're right, hip hop lit is a genre.

I started reading them close to the beginning with Vicki Stringer (like any of these things the "beginning" is cloudy, but Vicki Stringer wrote a book, published it herself and sold a lot of copies - she used the same selling strategies she used to move cocaine, which got her the jail time that gave her the time to write the book). Then she started a publishing company but lots of people still self-publish and hand-sell.

Check out her publishing company, Triple Crown.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

I wrote an article a couple of years back called Black Crime Fiction: An Introduction and I largely agree with you that fans of crime fiction would like rap, street lit and black pulp fiction. But there are a lot of variables that play into why they don't.

I think that rap is an extension of black crime fiction and for a few reasons the mystery/crime/pulp community isn't aware of black crime fiction.

Here is a quote from that article:

"The Black Crime Fiction writers have produced a fully realized strain of crime fiction that has developed completely separate from the established canon. One that has its own history. Not claiming Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler as its foundation but instead the books of Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim & Donald Goines. Developing its own cache of stock characters. Here, for the most part, there will be no tales of private eye’s but instead we will find plenty of stories about pimps. There won’t be a single dame in sight but there will be whores. Not to mention the tales that are filled with drug dealers, drug users, inmates, con men, numbers runners and yes even gangsters.

Over the years I have had conversations with other readers of mystery, crime and pulp fiction and I have been continually surprised at the blank looks that I receive when mentioning most of these authors. I can’t help but be surprised that these books aren’t regarded as the crime fiction classics that they are. Other then Chester Himes, who is still criminally under read, a few readers had read a book or two by Iceberg Slim or Donald Goines but the other writers remained unheard of. These books remain light-years and a few city blocks away from any established canon.

It’s my belief that this same group of readers who like mystery, crime and pulp fiction would like these books and authors if they knew of them. The success of Hardcase books proves that there is a market for classic crime fiction, yet despite their continued success the Black Crime Fiction writers have gone unnoticed in traditional circles of mystery/crime fiction readers. They have been unable to draft off of the success of their white counter-parts."

I disagree with some of your smaller points but agree over all. There's some great writing, some great stories and some great imagery floating around in the music.

BTW have you read Gary Phillips - particularly The Jook which was re-released earlier this year.

Here's part of my conclusion from the article:

"We look at authors like Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford & David Goodis and consider their qualities as dark, raw & unflinching writers to be what makes them classics. Every accolade has been heaped on them and they all have been deserved. But maybe just this one time its ok for us to say that Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford & David Goodis are the white Clarence Cooper Jr., Donald Goines & Chester Himes."

Mike Knowles said...


Is there anything you don't know? You have some serious intel buried in your skull and I love you for it.

That site is cool. Vicki's story is even better. I wish I had known more about this before I put the blog up.

Mike Knowles said...


I agree that Chester Himes and Iceberg Slim are under read. I actually e-mailed Hard Case Crime a while back and asked them to throw some Chester Himes in the mix, so if it happens you know who to thank. Not enough people know about Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones.

The only mainstream writer of black crime fiction that I can think of is Walter Mosley and I wish there were more books out there like his. The elements of race that he includes in his stories completely alter familiar ideas into something far more complex. It really is a shame that the scope of crime fiction can be so narrow at times.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

I've been telling Charles for years that he needs a brother in the Hard Case lineup. Just a few days ago I emailed Charles to let him know that Verne E. Smith recently had the rights to The Jones Men revert back to him. Charles explained his reasons (all very sound) why he couldn't do anything with the info right now.

The Jones Men is an unacknowledged influence on the Wire and a fucking brilliant book.

I've been hoping for a Robert Deane Pharr revival for years. One of his books is so rare that you can't even find anyone who has read it.

There are a number of the old Halloway House books that are decades out of print and go for triple digits on the secondary market.

Norton Records just a couple of weeks ago put out a book called Sweets and Other Stories by Andre Williams which he wrote after a stint in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.

Here is the synopsis:

"SWEETS is a narrative which takes you for a wild ride from Chicago to Houston, New Orleans, and New York City, as a teenage girl finds herself in a family way, without a family. Forced to fend for herself, she is taken under the wing of a local pimp who entices her into
prostitution. The adventures that follow are a free-for-all foray through the fantastic world of pimps and their women, funeral directors, gangs and drug running, with sidebar anecdotes that are
guaranteed to appall, alarm and stonish. Extreme entries remain unedited, and none of Williams’ raw drawl storytelling style has been tampered with in this standout fiction debut."

As you tell this is my wheelhouse a bit. I love this stuff.

Jay Stringer said...


You've clearley got a whole wealth of knowledge to drop on the subject, great to read. I know you've already written about it elsewhere, but if you ever want the chance to do a DSD post on the subject, I'm sure we can arrange that.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Yeah slot me in at some point if one of you guys needs a fill in.

John McFetridge said...

That was a great article, Brian.

I thought maybe the popularity of The Wire, particularly among crime writers, might have turned into some interest in this writing.

I remember a CD years ago called Rhythm, Country and Blues that had coves of songs by duets like Lyle Lovett and Al Green, Patti Labelle and Travis Tritt and so on.

Maybe someone should put out the short story version of that kind of collection.

And Mike, I'm just old. And I read Brian's article and I went to something in Sarnia once called Genrecon and I met a writer named Sylvia hubbard who was inspired by Vicki Stringer and told me all about her.

I wish I had useful information...

Dana King said...

I'm with you on Dylan; not sure about the hip-hop thing. (I'm a middle-aged white guy, which may have something to do with it.)

My Beloved Spousal Equivalent tried to convert me to Dylan. I said, "The can not sing." She went on and on about what great songs he wrote. I told her they have a perfect job for someone who writes great songs and can't sing: it's called "songwriter." She doesn't bother me much about Dylan any more. When she does, I just mumble some tune unintelligibly and she stops.

Chester Himes is greatly under appreciated.