When I first heard about the 33 1/3 book series I was unexplainably intrigued. At the expense of nerding out, I admit that one of my more satisfying forms of entertainment is researching and discovering the deeper stories behind the creation of the music. Here you have a series where each book is generally dedicated to discussing the circumstances and processes that lead to recording and releasing a particular album.
Excited as I was about the general concept, it wasn’t until the 30th edition that I found an album that I connected with, “Paul’s Boutique.” With approximately 75 books now released, there are four additional Hip Hop titles available: Public Enemy’s "It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back" (#71), Nas’s “Illmatic” (#64), A Tribe Called Quest’s “People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm” (#47), and DJ Shadow’s “Entroducing” (#24).*
Each book takes a slightly different approach in how they explore the album and its artist(s). Sometimes the artists are involved or interviewed for the book, other times not. In each that I have read, at least someone involved with the group/album was interviewed—studio engineer, manager, producer, label rep, publicist, etc.
“Paul’s Boutique” is excellently written by Dan LeRoy and is probably the best of the batch in terms of feeding my inner-nerd. He outlines, with amazing detail, the Beastie Boy’s transition from Def Jam to Capitol, the bizarre and almost unreal process of recording the album, and then the disappointment of the major label upon it’s releasing. All of which were critical steps leading into them reinventing themselves for the follow up album, “Check Your Head.” As if the startling detail throughout wasn’t enough, the book starts to wind down with a song-by-song breakdown further revealing each song’s meaning, inspiration, and creative process; even remixes and outtakes are included.
"It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back", written by Christopher R Weingarten, uses an interesting approach of viewing the album heavily from a sample-based theory. Of course, there is hardly a better album to dissect in that way. The ingenious and pioneering techniques, employed by the team who would eventually be named the Bomb Squad, are sample-layering and sound manipulation at its finest. Through this process, nearly as much is learned about the artists sampled as the actual album. However, with other books available** that already detail much of that info, this was a refreshing method.
Shawn Taylor, the writer of “People’s Instinctive Travels…,” takes a far more personal approach to his book and in turn tells the story of this album as it affected him and/or acted as the soundtrack for his life initially upon its release, through the years and even a re-evaluation of its power today with a series of experiments. Taylor’s writing style possesses a strong Hip Hop aesthetic, as he writes it in the same way I imagine you discussed this album with your crew when it dropped. This style draws the reader in, to easily relate to and often even feel as if it’s self-reflective. As a result, you don’t actually learn much more about the actual album, with the exception of the closing interview with engineer extraordinaire, Bob Power. However, it is sure to make you look at this debut album, often over-shadowed by their following release, in a different light upon your next listen.
The primary angle for Matthew Gasteier’s exploration of “Illmatic” is the lyrics. Nas’s past, present, and future is dissected, examined and/or theorized via an album composed of endless quote-worthy material. Although Nas himself is only represented through his quotes and a series of previous interviews, the book digs deep with the surrounding cast who were critical in building what is considered one of Hip Hop’s greatest albums—MC Serch, DJ Premier, Pete Rock, AZ, and Q Tip all provide insight on working with Nas and their contributions to the Illmatic record.
Upon the start of writing this review the only book I had not read was “Entroducing.” I had been meaning to, just never got around to it. I initially figured I would maneuver around the issue with a perceived clever ending, suggesting “I was going off to read another volume and so should you…” Or something witty like that. However, upon reaching that point the completist in me rebelled. Instead I left it out, got the book, then headed to a co-op for a Very Berry smoothie and some Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies and drove to the beach. I sat on a bench, with the iPod on random, low in the background, and read the book from start to finish. I was rather impressed. I was even captivated by the intro, which is saying a lot because I often find myself skipping those in books. Ironically, the reason I seldom finishing reading introductions is exactly what made this one so interesting; basically, for the most part, it appears to be so disconnected from the actual subject of the book. Yet when stepping back I realized that, in many ways, it paralleled the album itself. As author Eliot Wilder details his evolution of discovering music, it’s an exercise in a blending of genres and a series of emotions, as well as risks. Eliot has a great gift for detail, with the use of a sort of poetic phrasing balanced with raw human emotion. Nearing the end of the intro I recall thinking, “He wrote this like it was the last thing he was going to write.” In terms of this book, that’s basically true. This is the first in the series where the entire contents of the book, save the already championed intro, is an ongoing interview with the artist. Truthfully, this is the concept that I envision being the most suited for the context of the series. For me, it’s all about learning more about the person behind the music and the unknown stories and methods to create it, and how better to achieve that than an open book discussion with the creator themselves. Although, there’s not much additional input in terms of all out writing, there is a definite journalistic skill in asking the right questions and here Eliot triumphs once again.
The next scheduled Hip Hop editions are for Outkast’s “Aquemini” and Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter The 36 Chambers.” I’m willing to bet there several others either in the works or up for consideration—LL Cool J, Notorious B.I.G, Run-DMC, 2Pac, Eminem and Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” easily come to mind.
However, don’t sleep on all the other great offerings, primarily in the Rock and Punk Rock genre. There are also a few excellent soul options covering work from James Brown, Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder, as well as upcoming Funkadelic and Aretha Franklin volumes.
For more info on the 33 1/3 series, visit http://www.33third.blogspot.com/
Written By Kevin Beacham
* I didn’t learn about the DJ Shadow edition until much later.
** Check “Don’t Rhyme For The Sake Of Riddlin”