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  • Resistance in Rhyme
  • Brent Wood
Russell Potter. Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism. Albany: SUNY, 1995.

Spectacular Vernaculars is the most recent book on hip-hop to appear on university library shelves, and the first to deal squarely with hip-hop as a specifically postmodern phenomenon.

Did I say “phenomenon”? Russell Potter would have my head. The central claim Potter makes in the intriguing introduction to Spectacular Vernaculars is that hip-hop culture constitutes a “highly sophisticated postmodernism” (Potter, 1995: 13). By characterizing hip-hop as a “postmodernism,” rather than a “postmodern phenomenon,” Potter begins to build his case for understanding hip-hop as a self-conscious political practice, not merely as a collection of commodities and customs. Furthermore, he means to insist, against Paul Gilroy to whose work Potter often refers, that hip-hop is fundamentally a postmodernity rather than an instance of oppositional modernity (4).

Hip-hop, in Potter’s view, is a successful postmodern guerilla resistance against both the New Right and the corporate juggernauts that rule economic life in North America. Moreover, argues Potter, hip-hop is a resistance which has had “more crucial consequences than all the books on postmodernism rolled into one” (13). On the other hand, hip-hop is not simply a postmodernist praxis complementary to the postmodernist theory purveyed in the academy, but also a theoretical practice in its own right.

Why hip-hop ought to be thought of as postmodernist rather than modernist has something to do with the guerrilla nature of its strikes and the ruthlessness with which it employs capitalist weaponry and the found objects of the postindustrial urban mediascape. Unlike Richard Shusterman’s 1991 essay “The Fine Art of Rap,” which discussed the postmodern aesthetics of hip-hop music, Spectacular Vernaculars is concerned with hip-hop’s political dimension. Ultimately, for Potter, hip-hop cannot be modern because it operates, in Sun-Ra’s words, “after the end of the world.” Potter also makes reference to Shaber and Readings’ characterization of the postmodern as marking a “gap” in “the modernist concept of time as succession or progress” (3). Potter compares this kind of interruption in a culture’s perception of historical time to the interruption in musical time caused by the use of the sample in hip-hop music. He also relates it to the concept and practice of “signifyin(g)” as defined by Henry Louis Gates, which implies a different relationship between the present and the past than the one supposed by modernism. As a “signifyin(g)” practice, hip-hop is always reclaiming, recycling, and reiterating the past, rather than advancing from it.

The book’s title, “Spectacular Vernaculars,” plays on the double meanings of each of the words (and is a bust-ass four-syllable rhyme besides). The vernacular meaning of “vernacular” is something like “language of the common people,” and to his credit Potter makes an effort to speak in the language of the street. That he does not wholly succeed is probably inevitable, given his theoretical reference points and academic orientation. “Vernacular”’s ancestry is more to the point of the book. It can be traced back to the Latin vernaculus—“a slave born in his master’s house.” “Spectacular” refers not only to the quality of Potter’s rhyme, but also to Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Thus hip-hop is read fundamentally as a use of media and capital by the common people to further their own ends, rather than the ends of the hegemonic power structures which we generally assume are in control.

Spectacular Vernaculars is divided into five chapters, which deal, respectively, with hip-hop in terms of art; language; the politics of race, class, gender and sexuality; tactical resistance; and political theory.

Potter begins by characterizing hip-hop as a vernacular art, and seeks to demonstrate what he feels are its essential aspects. He argues that its fundamental practice is one of citation (or signifyin(g)), and that, as a result, hip-hop necessarily resists the categories of production and consumption. Three versions of the song “Tramp” are presented to illustrate this point: Lowell Fulsom’s 1966 “original” solo version, Otis Redding and Carla...

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