The rap world seems tailor-made for noir. There’s money, paranoia, grudges, an endless cast of morally flexible hustlers. Nelson George’s The Plot Against Hip Hop has even hit upon an ideal protagonist: an HIV-positive heavy named D, who makes his living working security for rap-world luminaries and spends his evenings nodding off to Golden Age boom bap.
Then D comes home to find a music writer bleeding out on his doorstep, killed to protect a secret so deep! so dark! that it cuts to the very heart of hip hop as we know it.
Unfortunately, D has to work through prose that’s clunky even by pulp standards. (“Those knives had been as tangible as his tall chai latte, and way more lethal.”) And his idea of detective work consists mostly of asking his friends to look into something for him. Strangely, the conspirators in this fiendish plot tend to crumble under mild questioning, and when the plot finally comes to light, it’s both implausible and strangely meager. Apparently all it took to ruin one of the great art forms of the late 20th century was a rogue CIA agent and a little trash-talk.
George, a cultural critic and behind-the-scenes collaborator with Spike Lee and others, cut his teeth writing about music for Billboard and the Village Voice, and he’s clearly more than a little dismayed by the hyper-consumerist direction mainstream rap has taken. He also knows his stuff, and manages to slip an impressive amount of Bronx history into the tale. But like most conspiracy theories, this one lets the real villains off the hook too easy. Instead of going after the engines of corporate rap (surely he could have saved a few words for ClearChannel), George recycles tired villains like corrupt cops and ad men. The real conspiracy will have to wait for the sequel.