Thoughts from Co-Author Mark Costello on an underappreciated music writing classic
Signifying Rappers, the 1990 text published by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello is an interesting historical artifact in several different aspects. First off for fans of Wallace himself Signifying Rappers was his first published nonfiction book, his third published text in all. As an artifact within the field of music writing itself, Signifying Rappers as an even more edifying read. While hip-hop as an artform has since been examined under the lense of various tomes, both academic and otherwise - hip hop (still more commonly referred to in 1990 as “rap”) was still a nascent artform and had not been as seriously considered as it was in a text with the depth of Signifying Rappers. After recently being reprinted, Signifying Rappers will find itself revisited by many readers looking to gain a glimpse into the early work of David Foster Wallace. Ultimately though, part of what makes Signifying Rappers such a compelling read are the sections composed by author Mark Costello. Signifying Rappers works both as a surprisingly clairvoyant examination of rap as an artform and a snapshot of the friendship between two excellent writers at the peak of their respective powers.
I’m sure that many readers will find themselves intrigued by the fact that Signifying Rappers was co-authored given the fact that David Foster Wallace has become such a singular figure in American Nonfiction. Mark Costello, while lesser known, is an accomplished writer in his own right with the short fiction collection The Murphy Stories being perhaps his best known work, particularly the much anthologized short story Murphy’s Xmas. Costello’s work is often characterized by his use self-examination and introspection which would seem to make for an ideal fit for Wallace given the fact that much of his nonfiction has the same reflective qualities. I found myself wondering why these authors decided to collaborate so I asked Mark Costello a series of questions about their working process and how he views Signifying Rappers in hindsight.
“It was two friends doing an experiment, almost like a sedentary road trip of the brain”, Costello spoke of Signifying Rappers in retrospect. “The book was written very quickly, in full passion. The tone is all over the place. The writing veers from political violence to the rompish absurdity of sitcoms. It's like a playdate with a sugared-up five year-old. Which is, at some level what our culture deserves, then and now.” And what of the process of co-authorship itself? Costello likens it, in part, to comedy writing. “A lot of comedy of the SNL, Monty Python kind is written by partners or in larger groups. This was how DFW and I both started out, writing comedy for a Harvard Lampoon-like publication at Amherst College.” Costello continues, “It is a lot of fun because you are basically just trying to make your friend laugh, to complete his ideas, or to have him complete yours. You set him up, he sets you up, etc. You do dialogues in which the other person slips into the opposing character's voice and you just riff. The writing works because of deep familiarity. Even when it is raw or raunchy, there is always a playful and, well, sort of friendly quality in the best collaborative writing. If the circumstances exist to create this collaboration, it is of course a wonderful thing. But it very rarely does outside of comedy.”
Signifying Rappers itself stems from a Missouri Review Article in which Wallace and Costello profile a team of local Boston hip hop producers as a means of discussing hip hop as a serious artform. In their words “we’ve developed some theses about why serious rap is important, both as art-for-own-sake and as a kind of metaphor-with-larynx for a subbed-culture unique in its distillation of the energy and horror of the American present.”. Wallace and Costello go on elaborate on their love of hip-hop as an artform, defining the lyrics of hip-hop as poetry, then deftly comparing the reach of hip-hop to the cultural state of more traditional poetry as an artform. "Our opinion, then, from a distance: not only is serious rap poetry, but, in terms of the size of its audience, its potency in the Great U.S. Market, its power to spur and to authorize the artistic endeavor of a discouraged and malschooled young urban culture we've been encouraged sadly to write off, it's quite possibly the most important stuff happening in American poetry today. 'Real' (viz. academic) U.S. poetry, a world no less insular than rap, no less strange or stringent about vocal, manner, and the contexts it works off, has today become so inbred (against its professed wishes) inaccessible that it just doesn't get to share its creative products with more than a couple thousand fanatical, sandal-shod readers…"
Beyond the figures of Costello and Wallace themselves, part of what makes Signifying Rappers a compelling text is the fact that it acts as a sort of historical document of the early days of rap and hip hop. Wallace and Costello themselves seem cognizant of this, and the fact that rap itself was evolving quickly during that era, “A major impediment to sampling this Scene is the kaleidoscopic fury with which the Scene itself is changing. If you’re reading this in print it’s already dated.”. While this was probably true in 1989, this quote is even more true now, particularly when viewing a text with 24 years of hindsight. Most significantly, in the early 90’s rap was still predominantly sample based. That is, the “beats” that made up songs were directly sampled from other existing records. After dozens of lawsuits in the mid-nineties hip hop artists started turning to producers that could compose their own beats (think Pharell, Lil John, Just Blaze, etc.) and thus keep the artist in control of their own music, and perhaps more importantly, out of legal trouble. Costello himself remarked on how Signifying Rappers documented the early stages of this process, “I think rap, which was splitting into "hard" and "soft" in 1989 (one big theme of Signifying Rappers is this first divorce) has further splintered into so many variant genres that it doesn't make sense to bundle it all under the label rap. We do so, in order to package and sell it. But it's not really any sort of artistic truth.” The process of sampling itself was of great interest to Costello in Signifying Rappers. “It should not surprise, given rap’s almost poignant need for police harassment, that sampling, the mother methodology, is itself understood in-Scene as an outlaw credential”. Costello goes on to introduce a Public Enemy song in which Chuck D imagines himself in a courtroom, being sued for sampling without the proper legal permission. Costello mediates on the interesting dichotomy at play between rap as a new Black pop culture phenomenon set against Black pop music figures from the past, “But what will Chuck D do when the plaintiff in the lawsuit to silence rap is not the KKK or the FBI or even the NYPD, but rather black musicians of his father’s generation whose lifework he and his peers re-use? What will Chuck D do when he realizes that his enemy is his friend?”
The album and song “Signifying Rappers” by Schooly D acts as a jumping off point for the text itself. A long, dirging track built around Jimmy Page’s riff for the Led Zepplin song “Kashmir” - which, in an of itself is an interesting thing to look at historically, when a decade later Sean “Puff Daddy, P Diddy, Diddy, Whatever” Combs would also sample Page’s circular riff on “Come with Me”, his turgid contribution to the insipid Godzilla soundtrack - the film itself acting as a motion picture monument to the vapid quality of the early aughts - and suspiciously claim to mainstream music publications that he was inspired by seeing the song on a commercial for a classic rock compilation, not Schooly D’s infamous and seminal cut.
“Signifying Rappers” the song is patterned after the the figure of the “Signifying Monkey” within African cultural history and the concept of “Signifyin’” in general. Wallace and Costello were also keyed in to this concept, discussing the rap’s use of linguistic dualism in expressed in terms like “cut” (referring to either a song or a section of a song) or Chuck D’s use of the word “Uzi” as something of an avatar for his sublime lyrical talent.
As opposed to some of the more densely composed beats that colored rap songs like the works of Public Enemy (whose fantastic DJ Terminator X is paramount to understanding the complexity of sample based hip hop, so often the linear notes of Public Enemy albums would read like a sort of history of Black music in America), “Signifying Rappers” (which would later be used quite famously in the score to Abel Ferrara’s film Bad Lieutenant) is notably straightforward, with a starkly sampled riff to Led Zepplin’s Kashmir accompanied by the confident snarl of Schooly D’s menacing introduction:
“Yeah, what's up, what's goin on?
Before we start this next record
I gotta put my shades on
So I can feel cool
Remember that law
When you have to put your shades on to feel cool?
Well it's still a law, you gotta put your shades on so you can feel cool
You know what I'm sayin?
I'm-a put my shades on so I can see what you ain't doin'
And you ain't doin' nothin, you ain't doin' nothin
That I don't see
Now let's get on with this sh-- anyway”
Schooly D - Signifying Rappers
Wallace and Costello begin their discussion of “Signifying Rappers” with this verse and with good cause, for it represents something of a thesis of the song. “I’m-a put my shades on so you can feel cool, I’m gonna put my shades on so I can see what you aint doin’, And you aint doin nothin’”. The dual meaning of “aint doin nothin,” to Schooly D, sharply defines the gap between white and Black America-- not only the lack of Reagan era policies to address the needs of the Black community but also the significant cultural differences that allow hip hop, at that point a distinctly black art form to flourish. Wallace and Costello spend much of their work noting their ambivalence and discomfort in grappling with questions about Black identity and the African American experience. Later in the text, Ice T signature track “Colors” is quoted as possible response to their noble, yet uninvited intentions to defend hip hop as an artform to academic audiences.
“Tell me what have you left me
What have I got?
Last night in cold blood my young brother got shot
My homeboy got jacked, my mother's on crack
My sister can't work 'cause her arms show traks
Madness insanity, live in profanity
Then some punk claiming' they understanding' me
Give me a break, what world do you live in?
Death is my sex, guess my religion”
Ice T - Colors
Despite the myriad evolutions that rap and hip-hop have undergone since Signifying Rappers was published, Costello continues to remain a fan, albeit of a certain kind of hip-hop artist as opposed to the genre itself en masse. “I have two teenaged children, so "rap" in its zillion mutations is around me all the time.” Costello continues, “I like more nuanced and personal rappers. Drake is someone I like a lot. I think Kanye West can be at times dazzling, surprising, exuberant, almost Joycean, and I think there is, throughout his music a level of irony and regret -- the Price Paid. Everything comes at a price. It's a main duty of art to stylishly insist on this truth.” Costello’s characterization of Kanye West struck me as a particularly poignant insight, and has given me a new lense in which to examine West’s body of work. Despite its varied content and lack of central organization and aside from the wide gulf between the hip-hop of today and that of 1990, it’s these sorts of insights that Wallace and Costello are able articulate that make Signifying Rappers an essential text, both for fans of Wallace and Costello themselves, or simply fans of the kind of serious, probing long-form music writing that is all too uncommon in the tumblr/blogger era.