Death by Association

Calling on “black cyberpunk,” Roy Christopher’s book Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future bestows the genre with a ghostly pallor, risking its political potential

In Dead Precedents: How Hip-Hop Defines the Future, Chicago-based writer and academic Roy Christopher considers the notion that hip-hop is “black cyberpunk.” Cultural critic Mark Dery, from whom Christopher draws the idea, doesn’t explicitly state why he chooses that racial qualifier, alluding instead to the “bombed-out urban ruins” and the “benign neglect” of what were largely black and Latinx neighborhoods as an updated version of cyberpunk’s grimy urban sprawls and downtrodden citizens. But Christopher extrapolates by emphasizing rap’s roots in African oral traditions, and the exclusion of black figures in traditional science fiction. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, portrays a vision of 2019 that is much whiter than 2019 is and fails to incorporate the Asians from which its aesthetic is borrowed, let alone black and brown people. You could read this as a way of saying “black cyberpunk” is the appropriate nomenclature not only because of hip-hop’s concomitance with blackness but also because the alienation cyberpunk imagines in the near future is expressed in hip-hop as the current existence of many black and brown people.

For Christopher, hip-hop and cyberpunk’s love/hate relationship with computerized technology and the internet and its antiheroes, like Neuromancer’s Case or rappers like ODB, make them “movements of malcontents replacing what they see with ever-new visions of how things should be.” But the “black cyberpunk” analogy is an interesting one to pick up now, not least because cyberpunk is a genre considered for the most part to have passed. By taking up black cyberpunk, he tethers hip-hop to an outmoded genre, bestowing it with a deathly pallor, and consequently risks arresting its political potential: death by association. WIRED saw cyberpunk’s death throes in 1993, and Christopher himself dates cyberpunk from 1982 to 1999. Despite the presence of films like Blade Runner 2049, television shows like Altered Carbon, and games like the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, most answers to the question “Whatever happened to cyberpunk?” cite the depressing accuracy of its dystopian vision of shady multinational companies whose indispensable services compromise our privacy, and its reduction from a potentially subversive subculture to a neon-drenched visual aesthetic as the main reasons for its obsolescence.

Science-fiction writers’ dissatisfaction with old tropes not only resulted in a new literary subgenre but also predicted our computer-mediated culture. However, cyberpunk’s dreaming seemed to suffer from what William Gibson described as “future fatigue”: an inability to imagine an alternative to society far removed from current reality. Indeed, even cyberpunk’s derivatives such as biopunk and solarpunk eschew a focus on information technology, and others even turned away the future altogether to depict alternate pasts and retrofutures — the future imagined by the past — as is the case with steampunk and dieselpunk.

Hip-hop, in contrast to cyberpunk, looms large in the American social consciousness as one of the most ubiquitous forms of popular culture, influencing everything from fashion to politics. Christopher could have called hip-hop the anti-cyberpunk, considering that is what Dead Precedents actually seems to argue. He even writes that “where cyberpunk was co-opted and assimilated, its core concerns turned muted, its conceits mundane, hip-hop embodied and employs its speculative nature.” Indeed, for all its omnipresence, hip-hop manages to avoid total recoupment by the dominant culture not only because of its blackness, which keeps it at the margins of the mainstream even as it chances incorporation, but because of its disregard for tech’s insistence on the brand-new and perpetual forward motion. An alternative subtitle for the book could have been “How Hip-Hop Defies the Future,” he says. Hip-hop’s ability to plunder from the past, appropriate what already exists, and create something new — repetition with a difference — gives it a dynamism that thwarts the cynicism of future fatigue.

Afrofuturism, quite rightly, has a marked presence in this book, but the term is also presented as one that is contentious, prone to cliché. Christopher doesn’t exactly synonymize or clearly differentiate between Afrofuturism and black cyberpunk, but there’s a curious overlap. He draws a lineage from avant-jazz alien Sun Ra through graffiti theoretician Rammellzee (who he refers to as a black cyberpunk) to hip-hop experimentalist Juice Aleem. While Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force’s “Planet Rock” is considered an Afrofuturist work of proto-hip-hop, he sees it as early black cyberpunk. With no explicit delineation in the book, I gathered from his quoting Nelson George describing the sound of “Planet Rock” as a “spaceship landing in the ghetto” that the main difference lies in cyberpunk’s emphasis on the urban environment as opposed to the cosmos. It is also how that sound was built, with the Roland TR-808 drum machine and Kraftwerk sample, that demonstrates hip-hop’s “cyber” and “punk” aspects, embodied in the metaphor of hacking.

Dead Precedents wants to set aside the stereotypical figure of the antagonist hacker with the propensity for chaos, the one who undermines software systems and corporations with nihilistic pleasure. Instead, the book is interested in those who attempt to defy limitations — those who hack in search of the new, those who “seek to understand, not to undermine.” In this way the DJ is a hacker. This scratching and manipulation of equipment is a playfully defiant experimentation resulting in the creation of something new out of something old. As Mark Dery writes, “Hip-hop culture retrofits, refunctions, and willfully misuses the technocommodities and science fictions generated by a dominant culture.” For Christopher, Grandmaster Flash, who used the electrical-engineering skills he picked up in vocational high school to alter his mixer, is hip-hop’s “first cyberpunk.” Hip-hop hacks not just technology to make it do more than it was designed to but also our bodies. Christopher explains that rhythm and rhyme, allusion and appropriation hack our brains by playing to their “love of harmony and heightened meaning” and our desire to be part of an in-group. Hip-hop’s hacking, then, is a noble endeavor, a battle against cultural oblivion.

The book’s hacker analogy is most salient in the comparison of the federal crackdown on hackers with the copyright concerns over sampling. Rappers and producers suddenly found themselves embroiled in lawsuits over the records they’d sampled, as De La Soul did when the Turtles sued them for $2.5 million in 1991. Cases like these resulted in the emergence of expensive sample-clearing procedures and, Christopher suggests, a stifling of creativity. Where once groups like Public Enemy could build “apocalyptic collages” using many snippets from many tracks, the limited funds meant songs almost became cover versions. Christopher writes, “It’s the difference between creating something new and curating something old.” There was something inspired about building a track out of many small components, like making a chaotic but arresting 1000-piece puzzle from 1000 other 1000-piece puzzles. Over the past 30 years, producers and artists have lamented the costs of the sample-clearing process, but the topic has extended beyond what the book presents. Underground and independent artists who sample don’t pay, because they’re below the radar. Huge artists like Kanye West seem to flip between clearing eye-wateringly expensive samples as a brag and seemingly deliberately not asking permission for others. There’s also the sense that today piracy is so widespread that independent creators might not even feel like hackers for sampling without clearing. Dead Precedents’s image of the hacker feels so specific to a certain age, and to a view of hip-hop that holds that sample-based rap is the genre at its most authentic.
Christopher has been writing about hip-hop for three decades and during that time has contributed to and edited several books such as the St. James Encyclopedia of Hip Hop Culture (2018) and Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture (2008). His writing is thematically and stylistically of a piece with the theory and criticism of Greg Tate, Mark Dery, Simon Reynolds, and Kodwo Eshun. That ecstasy of peer influence results in a book that is itself a patchwork as allusory and referential as any track, but at times Christopher does seem to disappear among all those quotations. At other times, his interactions with those sources go beyond ideas and dig right down to the sentence level. In one chapter he quotes Erika Anderson’s 2014 Pitchfork article “The Year That Cyberpunk Broke” and in a callback a few paragraphs later adopts her phrase “Sound familiar?” Like any true hip-hop head, Christopher is, to borrow a phrase from the aforementioned Eshun, “beat educated,” and that’s reflected in the text’s spirited energy and occasional “If you know, you know” tone.

In a 1988 Village Voice article, “Diary of a Bug,” Greg Tate famously referred to hip-hop as “ancestor worship,” defending its use of sampling and allusion, even when irreverent, as an “archive project” that “reanimat[es]” and honors old tracks and artists. But hip-hop is also troubled by the ghosts of its dead icons. Their estates posthumously release tracks; they are summoned in samples and lyrical references, and with holograms, as Tupac was at Coachella in 2012. Their disembodied voices then become apparitions on living rappers’ tracks (Tupac again on Kendrick Lamar’s “Mortal Man”). Christopher emphasizes how this can also be a burden. He cites Jay-Z’s frustrations with hip-hop’s necromancy, quoting the unreleased track “Most Kingz”: “they got me fighting ghosts.”

Hip-hop’s nostalgia can feel rooted in the sense that hip-hop is dead and all one can do is mourn and ache. After referring to the constructed memories of Blade Runner’s replicants, Christopher stresses that “nostalgia is a weakness.” One must banish the negative influence that says that our best days are gone and there is nothing new under the sun. Instead, when we look back, we are supposed to consider lost tomorrows and be, as Greg Tate said, both “backward-looking and forward-thinking.” To do otherwise is paralyzing.

How does hip-hop reconcile this tension between tradition and innovation? It’s useful that the preface of Dead Precedents invites us to “forget what you know about time and causation.” It is perhaps the only way hip-hop can be simultaneously “willfully unmoored from the flow of time,” “a patchwork of the past,” and “inherently futuristic.” The first time I read the book’s triumphant final line, “We are not passing the torch, but torching the past,” it made me a little uneasy. It seemed strangely reckless and contradictory to the idea that hip-hop uses the past to “build futures not yet forgotten.” Christopher acknowledges a valid anxiety that “not only are we afraid to forget; but we want our histories at hand because we fear the future as well.” How do we square torching that past with the fact that hip-hop carries histories that would otherwise have been lost?

Dead Precedents itself unfortunately doesn’t employ enough of a speculative nature. It is a retrofuturistic book — the story of how hip-hop defined the 21st century — that attempts in its last chapter to make an about-face to consider the future of hip-hop from the present. The book closes with a demand that hip-hop must become dangerous again, create hackers again, be prepared to break the law to make those sonic tapestries. It’s clear Christopher inherently believes in the future of the culture, but the path he lays out at the book’s conclusion isn’t so clear. It seems a lot to ask, but the book prompts this questioning by being not just a cultural history but a call to action. Being such a slim volume, with most of its narrative dedicated to hip-hop’s beginnings, this petition that covers only seven pages doesn’t feel robust enough to support Christopher’s optimism. Hence the ghostly pallor. I understood the book to be a warning. Much of the book came from an essay Christopher wrote titled “The End of an Aura: Nostalgia, Memory, and the Haunting of Hip-Hop.” Hip-hop must stave off co-option, future fatigue, and the loss of its subversive edge if it is not to lose its aura, which is the grim fate that befell cyberpunk.