When rappers reference items they consume–whether Cristal, Clarks Wallabees, or chronic–listeners seek them out, either out of curiosity or a desire to be like their heroes. And thanks to hip-hop’s tendency to occasionally serve as an educated, sound-advice-giving older sibling, those references can sometimes motivate listeners to pick up a book. I always loved reading, but sometimes I needed a bit of advice as far as what to check out next, and the literary references dropped by MCs often served as my introduction to new wings of the library. Here, in no particular order, are ten books that rappers have turned me on to over the years.
1.The Spook Who Sat By The Door by Sam Greenlee
Reference: CL Smooth, “All The Places”: “Known to be the spook who sat by the door…”
The mention was subtle, but the title is so distinct and abstract it caught my attention immediately. Not too long after hearing “All The Places” I passed a bookseller’s stand around West 4th Street. The title caught my eye, and the book–about the first black dude in the CIA retiring and coming home to Chicago to train the gangs as freedom fighters–changed my life. Revolutionary but gangsta to say the least.
2. Pimp by Iceberg Slim
Reference: Jay-Z, “Who You Wit?”: “Iceberg Slim baby ride rims through the suburbs…”
I had heard Iceberg Slim’s name before, but never thought anything of it. One day, the video for “Who You Wit?” was playing and my dad heard the reference and asked, “Iceberg Slim huh? You kid’s still read Slim’s stuff?” Huh? “You know, Robert Beck.” What? My dad, being my dad, brought the autobiographical Pimp home the next day, and I still have it. It’s one man’s gruesome, funny, and still relevant account of how he pimped his way into the history books.
3. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Reference: The producer with the same name
I always read song credits as a kid. So when I saw this book in my girlfriend’s FIT dorm, I snatched it up and read it almost overnight. It was another life-changer. A kid dreams of treasure and crosses the desert to pursue it. If this story doesn’t motivate you to get out and get something, nothing will.
4. The Making Of A Slave by Willy Lynch
Reference: Talib Kweli, “Re: Definition”: “How To Make A Slave by Willie Lynch is still applying…”
The title fascinated me so much I actively sought it out at Talib Kweli’s bookstore in Brooklyn. (Remember Nkiru Books on Flatbush Avenue, before it moved to Washington?) The book–a guide to breaking slaves’ spirits and getting the most out of them, written by the plantation owner and inspiration for the term “lynching”–reads like a distorted Dog Whisperer, and Kweli was right… it still applies today.
5. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli
Reference: Tupac Shakur’s The Don Killuminati: The Seven Day Theory (recorded under the name Makaveli)
I read this one a few months after Tupac’s murder because I didn’t believe he was dead. Also, I had been (falsely) informed that Niccolo Machiavelli was an advocate of faking your death to fool your enemies. This took me months to read and reread and though it was interesting at times I couldn’t really apply this 1513 book to life on the Lower East Side in the late ’90s. And I’m pretty sure Pac’s dead.
6. Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
Reference: Rass Kass, “Soul On Ice”: “You want Lexus moonroof, Hennessy 80 proof/ playing the Game of Life with your soul on ice”
You can’t talk about books and hip-hop without mentioning Rass Kass. You ever peep “Nature of the Threat”? Dude reads. When I first heard “Soul On Ice,” I was transfixed by its apocalyptic subject matter; when I found out its title paid tribute to a book, I snagged the paperback. It was a major letdown, though. Especially after finding out Eldridge Cleaver was a rapist.
7. The Shining by Stephen King
Reference: Smif-N-Wessun, Dah Shinin’
I actually saw the film prior to reading the book. But I would never have done either without the Brooklyn duo’s reference. The book was way better—there, the black dude saves the day, while in the movie he travels thousands of miles only to be killed instantly.
8. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley
Reference: Dead Prez, “They Schools”: “But I was reading Malcolm…”
I had already seen Spike Lee’s X, so I was pretty familiar with the content. To be honest I still haven’t read the book in its entirety, although I liked the parts when Malcolm was hustling as Detroit Red. That counts, right?
9. Kenyatta’s Last Hit by Donald Goines
Reference: Ghostface, “We Made It”: “Goines’ Kenyatta’s Hit best sellers for niggas…”
I’d been hearing about Donald Goines; one day while at the library on lunch break I spotted this book and was reminded of the Ghostface track. It’s about a black revolutionary on the run and while it’s not the best from Goines’ body of work, it’s still pretty exciting.
10. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Reference: The Roots, Things Fall Apart
?uestlove has a thing for naming The Roots’ albums after books–The Tipping Point, Phrenology. This one was a great read. It’s about Christian missionaries slowly converting an African village, though its fearless leader resists desperately. What were you trying to insinuate with that one, ?uesto?