Interviews

John Leland, author of Hip: The History

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John Leland,

author of

Hip: The History

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John Leland’s Hip: The History is the story of an American obsession. Derived from the Wolof word hepi or hipi (“to see,” or “to open one’s eyes”), which came to America with West African Slaves, hip is the dance between black and white — or insider and outsider — that gives America its unique flavor and rhythm. It has created fortunes, destroyed lives and shaped the way millions of us talk, dress, dance, make love or see ourselves in the mirror. Everyone knows what hip is.

Leland tells the story of how we got here. Hip: The History draws the connections between Walt Whitman and Richard Hell, or Raymond Chandler and Snoop Dogg. It slinks among the pimps, hustlers, outlaws, junkies, scoundrels, white negroes, Beats, geeks, beboppers and other hipsters who crash the American experiment, and without whom we might all be listening to show tunes.

Along the way, Hip: The History looks at hip’s quest for authenticity, which binds millions of us together in a paradoxical desire to be different. Because, as George Clinton said, “You can’t fake the funk.” #

Leland pariticipates in a January 3, 2005 discussion with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita about how an underground idea — “hip” — has shaped American culture.
 
 

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Marlon

1966

by Andy Warhol

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“For something that is by definition subjective, hip is astoundingly uniform across the population. It is the beatitude of Thelonious Monk at the piano, or the stoic brutality of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, performing songs of drugs and sadomasochism as a projector flashed Andy Warhol’s films on their black turtlenecks. It is the flow of Jack Kerouac’s ‘bop prosody’ or Lenny Bruce’s jazz-out satire, or the rat-a-tat tattoo of James Ellroy’s elevated pulp lit. Walt Whitman was hip; Lord Buckley was hip; Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is too hip for her own good. Hip is the way Miles Davis talked, dressed, played or just stood — and the way Bob Dylan, after his own style, followed in kind (though both men strayed into injudicious leather in the 1980′s). The streets of Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Silver Lake in Los Angeles comprise a theme park in the key of hip. Its gaze is the knowing, raised eyebrow of Dawn Powell or Kim Gordon, bassist in the downtown band Sonic Youth – skeptical but not unkind.”

- John Leland

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- Listen to Chet Baker play, Let’s Get Lost

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JJM  Writing your book, Hip: The History, was quite an endeavor. To have an opinion about who or what is hip and who or what isn’t is one thing, but to create a volume of work around it and successfully articulate its path is quite another. Was writing this book an act of hip?

JL  I don’t know. It might have been an act of unhip, because it asks a lot of the questions we tend not to ask in everyday life. What is hip? How do we feel about it? Where does it come from? We don’t ask these questions because it would be unhip to ask them. So, maybe writing the book is the antithesis of being hip. I didn’t feel very hip as I was writing it.

JJM  In a way, though, part of the beauty of the hipster is their constant interest in growing as an individual through enlightenment, a function your book serves.

JL  I hope the book does that. I hope it is informative, and I hope it gets people to think. I want it to be provocative in that sense — to probe and provoke thought — and to question this thing that is in our lives and has strange effects on us. It affects the way we think about musicians and it affects what we listen to. It also affects the way we view the self-destruction of many of the people we look up to. It affects so many other things as well; the way we talk, the sunglasses we choose to wear, how we dress…

JJM  And who markets products to us as well.

JL  Yes, and who markets them to us and how.

JJM  In the introduction to your book, you wrote, “Clarence Major, in his study Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, traces the origins of hip to the Wolof verb hepi (“to see”) or hipi (“to open one’s eyes”) and dates its usage in America to the 1700′s. So from the linguistic start, hip is a term of enlightenment, cultivated by slaves from the West African nations of Senegal and coastal Gambia.” This has been questioned by Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, who believes that etymology is incorrect — that the origin of the word “hip” is actually unknown, but that it first appeared at the turn of the century. Finding the origins of this word couldn’t have been very easy. How did you determine the accuracy of hip’s origins?

JL  Sheidlower is right in one sense, that there is disagreement among etymologists about the origins of the word. I looked at what there was, and found that the Wolof etymology made the most sense. It is sort of disappointing that Sheidlower doesn’t present any information or any evidence for his criticism and for his claim. Otherwise, I thought it was a respectful piece, and I quite liked it. I love arguing over the nitty-gritty of words, but I felt that there was an important story here, which is the influence and the transit and the changes of African elements in American life that tend to be unexamined or operate below the surface.

JJM  Right, and how we borrow from it, or some would even say steal from it.

JL  That’s right, and by denying the African origins of this word, we were, in a way, repeating that story.

JJM  What elements form the foundation of hip?

JL  The main element is the peculiar enlightenment of the outsider. Again, I go back to that word, “hipi” or “hepi,” meaning “to see or to open your eyes,” which comes from the Wolof tribe of West Africa. Who uses this word first? It is the ultimate outsider group, the enslaved Africans, who use it to communicate with one another in the presence of the mainstream population — the white people. It then gets borrowed and stolen and used by white people for their own purposes. They in turn are parodied by the Africans for their own purposes. So, what is hip in all this? It is the enlightenment of the outsider, and that sense of borrowing and crossing over into knowledge that you are not supposed to have or use. Those are the basic building blocks of hip.

JJM  What is the difference between “cool” and “hip?”

JL  The terms are used pretty interchangeably, so it is almost pedantry to think there is a difference between them. They do have different roots. If we say that “hip” comes from this word meaning “to see” or “to open your eyes,” it is a kind of enlightenment. “Cool” is a behavior arising from that, or hiding it. Robert Farris Thompson at Yale traces across these African linguistic spectrums and found that “cool” is a kind of non-reactive behavior.

JJM  While reading your book, I constantly tried to define what and who is or isn’t hip.  Frankly, some of the people you define in your book as being hip — Lou Reed, for example — are not particularly hip from my view of the world.  So, making this determination seems all so arbitrary and probably based on our own personal childhood experiences. Do you remember who you considered to be hip when you were a kid, and do you still look for the characteristics these people had in who you consider to be hip today?

JL  I think the folks I named as my heroes, the anti-hero type, Joe Pepitone, Walt Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Joe Namath, were who I considered to be hip.

JJM  Sure, these guys had characteristics that many of us would consider hip. In fact, do you remember when Namath’s hair got so long that it used to hang out the back of his helmet, and how cool that looked?

JL  Yes.

JJM  Okay, but what I mean to ask is, was there anyone on the playground of your school, for example, who may have dressed differently or had certain characteristics you would now define as being hip, and how important are those people to us when we define who is hip in the wider culture?

JL   Very important. They should always be the ones who we think of as being hip, rather than the public figures I write about. Celebrities are convenient subjects because I can talk about Lou Reed, for example, in a way I can’t talk about Pete Brock, a boy I went to grammar school with who I thought was pretty hip. Yes, public figures are useful in telling this story because most people — no matter where they are — know who Lou Reed is, but we cross paths with people in our everyday lives who are easily defined as “hip.” They are real people we work with or live down the street from but who never have time to talk to us because they are too busy doing something cool we wish we could a part of. There are certainly instances where many of the people we considered to be hip in our junior high school never got beyond that peak. That was as hip as they ever got.

JJM   You wrote, “If hip has a gender, it is female.”  Can you explain that?

JL  I want to be careful to not make generalizations about the female sex when I answer this. The idea of femininity is a kind of construct we all deal with. What is “hip?”   It is something to be looked at, which is a feminine quality. I am not saying that women are to be looked at, but I am saying that femininity makes most sense when it is looked at and appreciated.  Hip has a mystique to it, and it speaks with double meaning. Hip is comfortable with the idea of image as value, and that is a part of this construction of femininity that we have, and it is opposed to the way we think of masculinity.

JJM  You wrote, “The hip felicities — the uncapped solos of bebop and hip-hop, the gnostic blur of the Lost Generation and the Beat generation, the indie purism of Chapel Hill or Olympia, the altered consciousness of the drug culture — all built on the principles they threw down.” The “they” you refer to are Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Melville. How did these writers lay down the intellectual framework of hip?

JL  Think about some of the things they said about nonconformity as a formal ideal; they believed in respect for the individual rather than the collective needs. Also, there was a sense of eroticism in their work, and they valued nature and independence. They felt America had its own rough-hewn street language, and they valued that over the formal language.

JJM  The church was so important in that era. You suggest that the sermons of the nineteenth century served to inspire hipsters.

JL  The preachers of the nineteenth century worked the frontier. Because they traveled from town to town, they were often the people who brought information and news to communities. They created a transition from the upright, puritan style with which the nation had begun, to a more flamboyant, individualistic, highly emotive style that has informed American arts ever since.

JJM What was the first outpost for Bohemia?

JL  As far as I can tell, it was a beer hall on lower Broadway in New York called Pfaff’s. Walt Whitman hung out there, and the New York Saturday Press publisher Henry Clapp and his circle of friends also hung out there. One imagines them smoking French cigarettes there — which of course they didn’t — but they did discuss things like radical politics, sexual revolution, and humor, and combining all of those elements.

JJM  Physical gathering places are very important to hip, whether it be Pfaff’s, or the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas used to hang out, or Minton’s, where bebop was born.

JL  Yes, and people also needed a place where they could run a tab. {Laughs} I am sure that has something to do with the stability of location. I don’t know if places extend tabs now.

JJM  Why do you refer to the forties and fifties as the “Golden Age of Hip?”

JL It was the era of the beats and the beboppers, when so much energy was being created. Their crossing of paths was really interesting. The beboppers brought more resources to American music than any population before them.

JJM  The beboppers created art outside the mainstream that writers of the period admired…

JL  Yes. Two very distinct, powerful, alluring, educated, artistically adventurous, late-modernist populations — the beat writers and the bebop musicians — created their art during the repressiveness of the post-War/Cold War years, which worked as a foil for them. All the elements for hip were right.

JJM  The beat writers’ admiration for the work of black artists during the Cold War era differed greatly from the white admirers of the Harlem Renaissance artists, didn’t it?

JL  Yes, very strongly. They were much closer to them, and much more romantically attached to them. They weren’t looking for jazz musicians to revitalize the center of society, they were looking to them as an “out” from the center of society.

JJM  The differences are pretty striking. During the Harlem Renaissance, people like James Weldon Johnson felt that black Americans could achieve intellectual parity through the creation of literature and art “inside” mainstream society, whereas the bebop musicians, as you mentioned, looked at advancing through the creation of art considered “outside” the mainstream.

JL  One of the big differences between the fifties and the sixties is that during the sixties, there was hope of revitalization, whereas in the fifties, there was not. Beats felt that the center of society was corrupt and decaying. They were reading Spengler’s The Decline of the West, and they believed there was this collapse in the center. So, rather than save the center, it was time to get off the ship, and in jazz, they found another ship to jump in.

JJM  The civil rights movement provided such a breeding ground for hip, and the actions of Martin Luther King was an impetus for many whites — including myself — to not only appreciate their work, but to also join their fight in our own way. Yet, you placed no real emphasis on politicians or leaders of the civil rights era as models for hip. Why not?

JL  It’s a funny thing. The civil rights movement of the sixties was so effective, in part, because it was so incredibly square. Its leaders were nicely dressed preachers who were so upright and honest that, in our eyes, they clearly had justice on their side. They were not rebel renegades, instead, they were really the conscience of America. Think of the students that integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and think of Rosa Parks — they were unblemished, upright American citizens. King himself was an unblemished individual, as pure as you can be. So, that is one reason I placed so little emphasis on them. The black power movement was, in some ways, more hip-related.

JJM  You mean personalities like Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Huey Newton…

JL  Yes.

JJM  Well, they certainly fit into your theory concerning the mingling of outlaw behavior and hip, and especially how the outlaw is one person removed from the hipster. When I was a kid during the sixties, I remember being faced with certain choices that put me on the edge of being an outlaw, and they were choices people I considered to be models of hip were making all the time. For example, should I pick up this rock and throw it at the bank as part of my protest? Or, should I move to Canada to avoid the draft? Whether that sort of thinking is part of hip is something one could argue, and perhaps there was more opportunity for these kinds of choices during that era than there are now…

JL  I don’t know. I keep thinking that we will get back to that, but it hasn’t happened.