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All about the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America Hardcover – June 19, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this uneven critique of mainstream and socially conscious rap and hip-hop, McWhorter (Losing the Race) pillories the genre for positioning itself as a political—even revolutionary—medium. In the author's analysis, hip-hop is typified by narcissism rather than altruism, a culture of complaint rather than creative solution and a willful blindness to the real problems affecting black communities; McWhorter demonstrates how frequently artists rail against police brutality and how few mention HIV/AIDS, the single biggest killer of African-Americans. The author's admiration for the genre generally keeps his criticisms from sounding shrill, but it cannot compensate for the book's flaws. While McWhorter lambastes rappers for failing to address real issues, he doesn't either: like the hip-hop artists he chides, the author romanticizes activism while appearing clueless about the nuts and bolts of grassroots work. Equally troubling are McWhorter's unsubstantiated theories, chief among them his claim that African-Americans are more inclined to judge a statement by how it sounds than what it communicates. More interested in skewering hip-hop than suggesting paths to substantive social change, this book ultimately frustrates more than it illuminates. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“This is a remarkable book because, in its way, it celebrates hip-hop even as it argues against its political significance. McWhorter separates the powerful elements of the music itself from the often mindless political pretensions that surround it. He does what only the best cultural critics can do: he parses and clarifies to show the way beyond the dead-ends that art forms inevitably come to. He wants hip-hop to align with logic and reason. He wants it to grow.”
—Shelby Steele, author of The Content of Our Character

“John McWhorter is one of the few of whom it can be said, ‘He thinks for himself and goes his own way.’ In All About the Beat he takes on all of the exaggerated claims for hip-hop as something more than a long-running and lucrative trend. With absolute clarity, he proves them not to be the claims of airheads but airholes—empty openings in the wall of American popular culture. This book is a short but sharp and substantial rebuttal of the academic hustlers, lightweight rabble-rousers, and camp followers who do not know the difference between smoke and fire. For the good of us all, John McWhorter does.”
—Stanley Crouch, author of Considering Genius and The Artificial White Man

Praise for Winning the Race

“Splendid. . . . McWhorter has a keen eye for the foibles of social scientists.”
The Wall Street Journal
“A provocative challenge to conventional wisdom.”
USA Today --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 186 pages
  • Publisher: Gotham (June 19, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1592403743
  • ISBN-13: 978-1592403745
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.8 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,881,507 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Nyghtewynd VINE VOICE on January 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover
McWhorter makes a compelling case for a subject that seems obvious enough only if you are who McWhorter is: one of the world's preeminent linguists. Since he spends all day listening to languages to determine their meaning, why not do the same to hip-hop? And when you take away the beat (which the author claims is the primary draw to it) and the theatrics, what's left is not much. Even today's "conscious" rappers can't seem to fit more than a few sentences of actual message into each song, and the "message" that ends up there isn't much more than an upraised middle finger. Instead of encouraging action through music, the author encourages action through service, work, and education, and all three are more relevant that the political activism that is encouraged by such music. Don't turn it off, but don't rely on it as the be-all, end-all. The author has a very relational, understandable style, and his arguments are fairly tight. Very much worth your time.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on November 28, 2008
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
"Hip-hop presents nothing useful to forging political change in the real world. It's all about attitude and just that. It's music. Gkood music, but just music." (Kindle edition, loc. 178)

This is the thesis of John McWhorter's "All About the Beat." Hip-hop mlght be good music, but it makes for empty political commentary. It is time, McWhorter says, to treat hip-hop as what it is and not more than what it is.

Before buying this book - and if you are interested in the subject, you really should pick it up - we need to be clear on what this book is NOT. The book is not dissing hip-hop. It is not a conservative screed decrying the lack of family values in hip hop. It is not arguing that hip-hop is ruining the fabric of society. It's point is simply that hip-hop music, often touted as political commmentary laced with a beat, is nothing of the sort; it is music that OCCASIONALLY TRIES (and fails) to be political commentary.

McWhorter first focuses on the 'big' rappers - 50 Cent, Young Jeezy, et. al. - and, not suprisingly, finds this music virtually bereft of any real political statement other than "f... the man!" Next, McWhorter focuses on the "conscious" rappers - Mos Def, Common, the Roots - and finds that while their lyrics may be more about positivity than the thug life, these rappers still offer only very surface-level "political commentary." Rather than, "f... the man," these rappers say essentially the same thing in more tidy and seemingly thoughtful words - "rebel against the machine," perhaps.

McWhrter's strongest point, at least to me, is the idea that what passes as political commentary in rap is so light that it would not, and should not, be seen as political commentary at all.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Plain Talk on January 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed this book. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in hip-hop. with that being said, I think Mcwhorter's idea of political change is different that most hip-hop heads. I agree with most points that the author makes: Hip-hop is arguing for the sake of arguing in many cases, but there have been times where people have been fired up as a result of hip-hop. Hip-hop has brought to light many cases that would normally be obscure. I remember Chubb Rock talking about Yusef Hawkins, which caused me to do the research and find out what happened. Without Rap, I would have been in the dark. So to emphasize: Rap is not in the business of changing the political landscape, or even working within the political landscape most of the times. Rap is an empowerment tool that is designed to inform and hopefully get people to think. The problem is, which McWhorter has definitely pointed out, is that you can't be taken seriously when you make a brilliant political rap, then you are right back talking about Hoes, and money, and selling drugs. Nas is a prime example, also Tupac. Nas is brilliant at times, but then he slinks right back to talking about sex, drugs, or other mundane topics. You have to take the good with the bad, but let's not push rap off as meaningless when it comes to political movements. You may need to scale down your expectations. Check out my new book Plain Talk volume 1 on Racism and stereotypes. Oh yeah, buy this book as well!!!

Plain Talk - Volume 1
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By BT Invictus on May 30, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Having been a part of teacher education programs in both Los Angeles and New York City, I've heard many positive arguments for the incorporation of hip hop into English language curricula. I've always been a bit leery of these arguments, primarily because my personal rap collection consists solely of an album called "Millennium Hip Hop Party," featuring the likes of PM Dawn and House of Pain (an infomercial purchase). Needless to say, I'm hardly a hip hop connoisseur, and I've always suspected my rap/English lesson plans would go a little something like this:

"Um, hey, kidz. Uh, do you ever feel like your parents just don't understand you? Let's hear what the Fresh Prince and D.J. Jazzy Jeff have to say about that!"

I just can't subject my students to that.

I'm also uncomfortable with the notion that we should substitute Jay Z for Shakespeare in the urban English classroom, the tacit assumption being that urban kids can't relate to the latter. Hm. Meanwhile, the suburban kids are learning the Western canon as well as the rhetoric they need to succeed in the current culture. That seems like a pretty raw deal for the urban kids, in my opinion. Plus, who are we to decide for them whether or not they can relate to Shakespeare?

I've always been interested in this debate, which is why I added this book to my wishlist. While McWhorter doesn't deal at length with education, I still found his premise to be relevant to my concerns as a teacher. He argues that hip hop is most effective as an art form and not as a platform to discuss politics. He stresses repeatedly that his issue is not with the vulgarity of rap, but rather its inability to usher in a revolution for the black community in the way that the Civil Rights era did.
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