New Books About Black Recording Artists

Following are brief descriptions of recently published books that are certain to please fans of funk, soul, jazz, hip hop and reggae music.
Al Green

Title: Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green

Author: Jimmy McDonough

Publisher: Da Capo Press

Formats: Hardcover (432 pages), Kindle, Audiobook

Release date: August 29, 2017

 

Though Al Green collaborated with Davin Seay on an “autobiography” in 2000, most fans were unsatisfied with the result, which was famously short on details due to Green’s reluctance to actually sit for interviews and tell his own story. Now Jimmy McDonough has attempted a more definitive biography, likewise working from previously published interviews with Green and secondary sources, in addition to new in-depth interviews with many colleagues and associates. The result is Soul Survivor, which chronicles the many sides of Al Green, from his days as a soul singer to his transition to Reverend Al Green and the many facets of his character that fall in between and outside of these boundaries. Not all of it is pretty, but Soul Survivor is likely as close as we’ll ever get to understanding the man behind the music and the pulpit.

Otis Redding
Title: Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life

Author: Jonathan Gould

Publisher: Crown Archetype (May 16, 2017)

Formats: Hardcover (544 pages), Paperback, Kindle, Audiobook

Release date: May 16, 2017

 

Seven short years – that was the entire length of the career of one of the giants of soul music, Otis Redding, from the first single he cut as a teenager in 1960 to his untimely death at the age of 26 in December 1967. Now, on the 50th anniversary of Redding’s death, Jonathan Gould finally offers a biography that’s a fitting tribute to the architect of Southern soul music. Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, however, is so much more than one man’s story, as Gould digs into the social fabric of the era, exposing the racial tensions and realities of faced by black musicians of his generation. Impeccably researched, respectfully written, and highly recommended!     

Prince & the Purple Rain Studios
Title: Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions, 1983-1984

Author: Duane Tudahl

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield

Formats: Hardcover, Kindle, Audiobook

Release date: November 15, 2017

 

Described as “the definitive chronicle of Prince’s creative brilliance during 1983 and 1984,” author Duane Tudahl’s 552 page volume is a must have for any serious Prince fan. Delving into the brief but intense period that produced Purple Rain, Tudahl expounds on Prince’s professional as well as his personal life. But this is not a tell-all, biopic-type treatment. Rather, the focus is on Prince’s studio sessions and includes copious details on recording studios, which songs were tracked at each, session personnel, producers, engineers, and the stories behind the sessions. Also included are details regarding Prince’s work with The Time, Vanity 6, and the Revolution, including his frenetic schedule of rehearsals, tours, and filming. Tudahl has been covering Prince for over 20 years, and is able to draw upon interviews he conducted with a wide range of Prince’s associates, adding to the authoritative nature of his reporting. This is the first book in the series; Tudahl is already planning the second volume, which will cover 1985-1986.

Prince
Title: Prince: A Private View

Author: Afshin Shahidi

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Formats: Hardcover (256 pages), Kindle

Release date: October 24, 2017

 

We can’t include just one Prince-related book when there are so many to choose from. If you’re more interested in a visual representation of the artist than a chronology of his early recording sessions, then check out Prince: A Private View. Featuring many never-before-seen photos by Afshin Shahidi, Prince’s primary photographer, this collection captures both the glamour and mystique of the artist. Though the text takes a backseat to the vivid portraits, Shahidi does provide some context to the photos in the form of short stories. It should be noted, however, that this isn’t a “coffee table” book, but a standard-size volume.

The Jacksons Legacy
Title:  The Jacksons: Legacy

Author: The Jacksons with Fred Bronson

Publisher: Black Dog & Leventhal

Formats: Hardcover (320 pages), Kindle

Release date: October 24, 2017

 

Even if we’re weren’t based in Indiana, we’d still have to jump on The Jacksons: Legacy documenting the state’s most famous musical family. Plugged as “the first official book on the Royal Family of Pop,” the Jacksons collaborated with well-known music industry writer Fred Bronson, who was allowed access to the family archives and conducted interviews over a two week period. Though it’s highly unlikely that any new information was uncovered in that extremely brief period of time, we’re at least promised some previously unpublished photographs, including documentation of official merchandise and other ephemera. The book coincides with The Jackson’s 50th anniversary, which may be reason enough for fans to pick up a copy.

Gucci Mane
Title: The Autobiography of Gucci Mane

Author: Gucci Mane & Neil Martinez-Belkin

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Formats: Hardcover (286 pages), Kindle

Release Date: September 19, 2017

 

 

There’s nothing like a comeback story to warm our hearts, especially at Christmastime. Through honest, unflinching reflectiveness, Gucci Mane has given us just that—a down-and-out but not done-and-out narrative of his journey so far. Mane tells his story in his own words, covering his early years as Radric Delantic Davis to his star-studded fame as Gucci Mane, trap pioneer and mentor to a subsequent generation of artists and producers: Migos, Young Thug, Nicki Minaj, and Zaytoven, to name a few. Detailing how choices to be part of the drug dealing world continuously dealt him one-step-forward, two-steps-back in the music world, Mane also confronts his dark past and explains how his time in lockup became his most positive life-altering experience. It is one of the greatest comeback stories in the history of music, and it is one you won’t want to miss.

Chuck D Hip Hop History
Title: Chuck D Presents This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History

Author: Chuck D, Shepard Faiey (Foreword)

Publisher: Black Dog & Leventhal

Format: Hardcover (673 pages), Kindle

Release Date: October 10, 2017

 

Chuck D.’s dedication to hip hop’s fan base has been solid since the start of his Public Enemy days, and with this release he continues to gift us in the form of vital information about rap and hip hop’s history. Based on his long-running show on Rapstation.com, D’s comprehensive collection of pivotal moments and influential songs in the genre’s recorded history is a first in the hip hop scholarship world. Included in this chronological collection are songs such as Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’” to Kendrik Lamar’s ground-breaking verse on “Control”, and all hits in-between. Incorporated into the tome are key events in hip hop history, from Grandmaster Flash’s first scratch through Tupac’s holographic appearance at Coachella, interwoven with 100+ portraits of various hip hop artists. This work is a worthy addition to any hip hop lover’s collection, and for those that study or work in the genre, it is a necessity worth owning.

Queen of Bebop
Title: Queen of Bebop: The Musical Lives of Sarah Vaughan

Author: Elaine M. Hayes

Publisher: Ecco

Formats: Hardcover (432 pages), Paperback, Kindle, Audiobook

Release date: July 2017

 

One of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time, Sarah Vaughan has been the subject of previous books, but the only full length biography of note was Leslie Gourse’s Sassy: The Life of Sarah Vaughan, published nearly 25 fives ago. Now jazz historian Elaine M. Hayes offers a more definitive treatment in Queen of Bebop, which digs deeper into her life not only as a performer, but as a black woman facing the challenges of race and gender within the music industry and beyond. A must read for anyone interested in jazz and popular in the latter half of the 20th century, African American music and musicians, or music in general.

Bob Marley
Title: So Much Things to Say: The Oral History of Bob Marley

Author: Roger Steffens

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company

Formats: Hardcover, Kindle

Release date: July, 2017

 

So Much Things to Say is a must have for any serious Bob Marley fan. Drawing on testimonies by friends, relatives and musical associates, author and archivist Roger Steffens—the leading authority on Bob Marley—tells the story of the reggae legend, from his younger days in Kingston to his professional years. As the title implies, this book includes a great deal of information regarding the life of Marley, including the violent confrontation with Lee “Scratch” Perry, his performance for freedom fighters in Zimbabwe, details on Marley’s final months, controversies surrounding Marley’s death, and many more first-hand accounts of his life. So Much Things to Say will serve as a valuable resource for anyone who is interested in the history of reggae music and Marley’s incredible influence upon the genre and global culture.

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss, Amy Aiyegbusi and Jamaal Baptiste

 

Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage

Prophets of Rage
Title: Prophets of Rage

Artist: Prophets of Rage

Label: Fantasy

Formats: CD, Vinyl, MP3

Release date: September 15, 2017

 

 

Rap-rock supergroup Prophets of Rage—featuring Chuck D (vocals) and DJ Lord (turntables) of Public Enemy, Tom Morello (guitar), Tim “Timmy C” Commerford (bass) and Brad Wilk (beats) of Rage Against The Machine, and B-Real (vocals) of Cypress Hill—coalesced in 2016 around the title of the famous Public Enemy song that opens with the line, “I got a right to be hostile, man, my people are being persecuted!” During their initial “Make America Rage Again Tour,” the group staged protest performances leading up to the U.S. Presidential election. Post-election, they’ve ramped up their tours as they take their “message to the mosh pit,” countering neo-fascist rhetoric that seems to escalate on a daily basis with their own brand of anti-establishment “rage politik” music.

The 12 tracks on the group’s full-length self-titled album represent a true collaboration, written and recorded during an intensive two week studio session. All are equally powerful, exuding caustic, socially conscious lyrics on topics ranging from economic inequality and homelessness (“Living on the 110”) to the legalization of marijuana (“Legalize Me”) to the perils of government drone surveillance (“Take Me Higher”). Other songs are intended to incite protest against ongoing political, religious, and racial injustices. As Morello proclaimed, this is “the soundtrack for the resistance in 2017.”

The most recently released single, “Hail to the Chief,” is a strong indictment of President Donald Trump, but focuses more specifically on Vice President Mike Pence as the greater evil, whose Indiana politics are linked with those of Jeff Session’s Alabama. In the video Pence is cast as Trump’s puppet master as well as his heir apparent, while Chuck D spits, “All hail to the chief who came in the name of a thief to cease peace.”

Another compelling track is “Unf*ck the World” (the video is directed by Michael Moore). In a recent interview with Uproxx, Chuck D spoke about the song’s message: “Tom [Morello] coined a statement, ‘The world won’t fix itself.’ Things don’t fix itself, you gotta make it happen. If you want to see this change, you got to get up and orchestrate that happening. . .”  This message is communicated clearly in the song’s chorus:  “No hatred / F*ck racists / Blank faces / Time’s changin’/ One nation / Unification / The vibration / Unf*ck the World!”

Melding two genres—rap and heavy metal—that collide in a swirling vortex of rebellion and resistance, Prophets of Rage bring their protest music to the masses. At a time when even peaceful protests face unrelenting attacks from the Oval Office’s Twitter feed, Prophets of Rage may yet convince everyone to “Give a damn, evil can’t stand yeah, when the people take a stand” (—Unf*ck the World).

Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss

Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin

Title: Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’: The Authorized Story of Public Enemy

Author: Russell Myrie

Format: Book (hardcover)

Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd, Edinburgh

Date: 2008 (1st U.S. printing 2009)

Finally!—an authorized biography of Public Enemy, the hip-hop group that brought hope and intelligence to the ghetto, reinforced Black pride in a mainstream outlet, and said “F*** you” to the president. Public Enemy fan and all-around hip hop nerd, Russell Myrie, presents an in-depth study of the life and times of the group, relaying information about members from the days of young hoodrat mischief to those of professional musicality and political pertinence. This informative story, entitled Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’, provides a timeline of the group’s conception and progression. Importantly, it includes highly personal quotes from interviews with prominent members such as the controversial Professor Griff, Terminator X, the Shocklee brothers, Flava Flav, and of course the legendary Chuck D.

Myrie, a London cat born in 1978, wrote the book so that it reads like a hip hop textbook, a piece of scholarly research that manages to avoid the convoluted language so often associated with academia. The slang is easily recognizable to anyone who knows their hip-hop; Myrie says that, “It was really important to me to write it in a way hip hop heads across the world could understand. For us by us, right?” Absolutely. He also purposefully shapes the quotes into the dialect in which they were uttered, providing readers with the voice of these idols, not just their words. Easy to follow but sometimes confusing in the details, the book is complete with an index so you can look things up, or remind yourself what year an early album came out. Readers may also want to have Youtube at the ready, because the videos, songs, tours, etc. are almost always available in clips that really bring the text to life.

One qualm—is Myrie hard enough on Public Enemy? The combative rap personalities of the group seem to beg more antagonism than the author dishes out. I wanted to see Myrie yell at them and hear PE yell back. Though there were certainly years of highly questionable decisions and underground beefs within the band and their labels, it gets brushed off as being not so important. But Public Enemy made their reputation by going against convention, so why did they fall into the same traps as other performers? Perhaps it truly couldn’t be helped, but I would like to see Public Enemy mad again. The battle isn’t over.

So yes, it took a long time to finally create a biography and yes, it is by a British author and released by a Scottish press, and not written from a home-grown American perspective. Perhaps this is because of the controversy of members like Professor Griff and Chuck D’s market-loathing approach to mainstream media. Perhaps America got sick of the group too soon. Whatever the case, Public Enemy was certainly a globally, if not universally, loved, heard, and understood group. The politics of PE go beyond American borders, and Myrie does well in portraying this aspect of the group’s gravity and longevity.

Posted by Rachel Weidner

Editor’s note: Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (1989) was one of the first hip hop albums added to the National Recording Registry, which includes the nation’s most culturally, historically or aesthetically important recordings selected to be maintained and preserved indefinitely as part of the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000.  To nominate additional recordings for this honor, forms can be found here.