David Foster Wallace knew about Wittgenstein, Frege — and Ice T. Just republished by Little, Brown, Signifying Rappers, Wallace's 1989 slim, smart volume written with his Amherst College classmate and novelist Mark Costello, is a reminder of both just how infinitely curious Wallace was and how relevant rap has always been to American popular culture.
Wallace was, arguably, the broadest literary mind of Generation X: he could write a novel about tennis and marijuana (Infinite Jest) and, also, muse on the ethics of boiling crustaceans while they are still alive (in the titular essay of Consider the Lobster). Back in 1989, though, he was just a 26-year-old Harvard graduate student (one who had recently attempted suicide; he would tragically succeed in taking his own life in 2008) living on Houghton St.
Many people have roommates; few have roommates who are on the cusp of literary greatness. Wallace had lived with Costello at Amherst and now asked the Boston native to move in with him. In his new introduction to this volume, Costello — who has written a novel of his own, Big If — is alone worth reading. He writes of living with Wallace in Boston:
Dave was more of a bar man than a club man, but … I could often talk him into a music crawl through the town. In 1989, humanity lacked the great and hungry search tools of today, Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Bing. But on mild Friday nights in dense-packed urban areas, we did possess another life-enlarging search engine. It was called walking.
This was precisely the cultural moment when rap was becoming mainstream, spurred along by Tone Lōc and Bobby Brown, the latter a native of the black Roxbury section of Boston. A friend of Costello’s – “a lefty lawyer for the tugboat workers’ union – arrived to stay at the Houghton St. apartment, brining tapes (this was, remember, when people still listened to tapes) of Slick Rick, N.W.A. and Public Enemy. Rap was thus in the air. Shortly thereafter, Wallace went to New York to meet with an editor, and the idea for Signifying Rappers was born.