The history of hip-hop is as contentious as the history of America. You have a vague sense of who was there when it all started, but only hearsay divides the heroes and villains from the walk-ons. With the nerdiest of archival intentions, Seattle’s Experience Music Project enters the fray with Yes Yes Y’all, a gorgeous and surprisingly heartwarming oral history that updates early-1980s B-boy documents like David Toop’s The Rap Attack and Steven Hager’s Hip Hop.
Authors Charlie Ahearn, director of 1982’s seminal film Wild Style, and EMP curator Jim Fricke impressively round up most of the old school’s key graduates. Given hip-hop’s treacherous position nowadays as both a reaction against and an ambassador for American culture, it’s hard to imagine that its aspirations once reached no further than the borders of the Bronx. Featuring many previously unpublished photos and yellowing party flyers, the book captures that awkward moment when hip-hop was still too small for its britches. Fittingly, the best stories cast the movement and its high-school-aged pioneers as collective works-in-progress; especially charming is a story of top MC Busy Bee weathering neighborhood taunting after his mom publicly scolded him for breaking curfew.
The book’s greatest asset is also one of its few faults. With only scant secondary narration, Yes Yes Y’all is carried by its young voices but virtually ignores crucial figures unavailable for interview, like early rapper Spoonie Gee and the late, great percussionist Pumpkin. The unintended effect is that the book deifies its interviewees, few of whom speak beyond their own contributions. Despite this, the oral-history format fits the telling well. Instead of sweeping narrative, the book rests on a delicate, piecemeal logic that admirably engages the disparate, sometimes warring, voices and neighborhoods that accidentally came together in the late 1970s as culture.
If there is a single story to be deduced from Yes Yes Y’all, it’s one of joy and showmanship in the face of crime and neglect. As DJ Disco Wiz remarks in the book’s epilogue, “I never earned a dollar from hip-hop. . . . What I did, I did it from the heart.” Any volume on hip-hop history that ends with Wild Style, Run-D.M.C., and the founding of Def Jam—themselves signs that hip-hop in the 1980s had outgrown its improvisational, word-of-mouth roots—clearly has lofty intentions. Yes Yes Y’all doesn’t rewrite the canon, but strives to remind a jaded culture that before it found wealth and prestige, it was only trying to find a reason to smile.