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I, Jenna


ineteen years ago, New Jersey native John Leland was writing travel brochures and freelancing record reviews for Trouser Press when he read about a new music magazine being started by the son of Penthouse‘s publisher. Soon, Leland was on staff at Spin, where he spent five years covering everything from Dinosaur Jr. to Milli Vanilli. After stints at Details and Newsweek during the ’90s, he became a cultural reporter at the New York Times, where he remains. Leland’s first book, Hip: The History (Ecco), is something of a culmination of his career’s work, taking in the Harlem Renaissance, pulp fiction, jazz, gangsta rap, and the complex negotiations that black and white America have engaged in since slavery — the very thing, he argues, that makes hip possible to begin with. Leland chatted with Nerve about hip’s origins, its sexual mores, and the problem with trucker hats. — Michaelangelo Matos Let’s start with the obvious: Why “hip”?
I think it’s what I’ve been obsessing about the whole time I’ve been a journalist. Not necessarily in terms of what’s hip and what’s not hip, but the racial questions that are at the heart of the book, and that really tell the story, are what I’ve been writing about for 20 years, and what I did as a music critic. When I can, those are the things that I delve into now.
What about hip does it take 386 pages to describe?
Each of the people in it could have been a book. Each of the chapters is a topic on which numerous books are written. Each of the figures in the book has biographies written about them. So I always felt constrained to keep it as tight as I did. But it’s a long story. It’s a story about American history. It’s this other way of looking at an important part of American cultural history. I never wanted it to be a who’s who, which I think would have been a possible book to do, and someone could do it well. But it would be unsatisfying to me because there’s way too many people you could never include in it, and also it was a story I wanted to tell. The way I did it, it was a learning experience for me — taking these things we take for granted and starting to examine them, and trying to examine them a little deeper. The biggest surprise for me was the linguistic origins of the word, in the very beginning of the process — that it comes from West Africa, that it’s about enlightenment, not charm or attractiveness or trendiness. The book proceeds from that little bit of information.
Who is the hippest person not in the book?
Paul Bowles. He was considered the gateway to hip — I think [Norman] Mailer wrote that he was the gatekeeper of cool. He’s certainly someone that could have been in the book. I actually made a list of people unduly left out of the book; I made a bunch of lists that will appear someplace, I’m not exactly sure where.
Is it important for you to keep track of what’s currently hip?
No. I think probably during the course of writing the book, one develops a mindset when you notice things like that — the muscles that we use to notice it gets stronger, they’re particularly attuned. If you just had a baby, you notice how many babies there are in your neighborhood; if you get a dog, you notice how many dogs there suddenly are. Just having my nose in this particular book for a couple of years I suppose made me more observant of some of these things. But something like the trucker hat was just unavoidable. One day you walked out on the street and everybody had a stupid-looking trucker hat. There are other people who are more observant on what’s [fashionable] than me, but the trucker hat was something that you just couldn’t miss.
Is Hip: The History the book you set out to write, or was it modified over time?
I’d wanted to write a race and pop culture or race and music book for a long time — but not a hip book. The idea of doing a history of hip was my agent’s. It took a while to sink in that it was the same thing I was thinking of doing — I hadn’t connected it with “hip,” per se. I thought to do a book about hip would be a who’s who about the cool kids in the cafeteria. It took a minute to realize that it was the same thing I was talking about.
Is hip a condition worth aspiring to?
Absolutely not. I’ve never been a drink the Kool-Aid kind of guy, and that applies to faith whether it is religious or cultish or hip.
There is nothing sadder than an aging hipster — true or false?
We all age, and we shouldn’t be so judgmental about the process of aging. The whole Buena Vista Social Club has gotten so corny and annoying, but when it came out, was there anything hipper than Compay Segundo as he appears in that movie?
Sure, but does hip invite a kind of Peter Pan-ism among those who practice it?
Well, superannuated teenagers are not a cool thing. People who have reached a certain age without finding comfort with themselves and are still trying to put on a show and impress people with how hip they are, no matter what age they are, are not a lot of fun to be around.
One thing I’m surprised you didn’t go into more detail in the book is hip’s relationship with sexual mores. Since one of the book’s major subjects is the mainstreaming of formerly deviant practices, I wondered if you’d like to address that.
I get into this a little bit with the importance gay men in particular have had to hip, in every part of it. Hip works when it’s crossing lines, when it blurs boundaries between what’s acceptable and unacceptable, what’s black and white, what’s gay and straight, what’s male and female. Anytime we’re able to cross over those in a way that enhances our knowledge in some way and gives us an idea what’s on the other side, that’s sort of the process of hip. But yes — so much of the early black-white crossover is sexual. It is the sexualization of black men by white would-be hipsters, and the intimacy gained in the early years [of hip] in the sex act itself — often forced or coerced, often brutal. There’s a level of intimacy, a shared vulnerability, and shared secrets between African-American and white men and women that’s unequal and cruel and left a legacy. But it also gave the lie to that we were completely different and led completely separate lives.  

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©2004 Nerve.com.