Backspin, or How Hip-Hop Returned to My Life

Researching a new novel inspired Michael Chabon to revisit music he'd abandoned for decades

by Michael Chabon

Every novel is a license to obsess. To fixate on a subject--chess, comic books, Yiddish, the Khazars. To go overboard; to pluck the beeswax stoppers from the ears, cut the restraints, and freestyle madly toward the siren subject that is calling from the shore.

Vinyl records, for example. Early on, I decided to make a used-records store on Telegraph Avenue one of the key settings of my novel in progress. Okay, maybe "early on" is an under-exaggeration. Maybe it would be more accurate to say "the entire novel is just a pretext for spending as much time and money as I possibly can in used record stores." (A similar rationale doubtless underlies my projected next novel, the epic Tacos Al Pastor.)

At some point in the course of my thrilling, exhaustive and necessarily prolonged research among the crates and cratediggers, I encountered Wax Poetics, the greatest magazine in Known Space (sorry, Atlantic). Beautiful, well-written, intensely curated, WP articulates a hip-hop based theory of the history of black music on vinyl, 1950-1980. Borges argued that every writer creates his or her own precursors, that a great writer like Kafka retrospectively alters the way we read his predecessors. This is the line taken by Wax Poetics toward postwar black popular music; as if hip-hop were the root, and soul the flower; hip-hop the constellating line that draws an animal in a scatter of stars.

Anyway, thanks to Wax Poetics, one unexpected but maybe not unforeseeable result of the decision to have some characters own a shop together selling battered old things that are beautiful and valuable only to a small number of randomly assorted Geeko-Americans has been the joyful return to my life of hip-hop.

After falling in love with the music from the moment, in 1979, that my friend Harry sneaked a 12-inch single of something called "Rapper's Delight" into the language lab of Howard High School, the prospect of playing the thing again putting a huge smile of authentic delight on his face even before he slipped it onto the boxy Audiotronics record player we were supposed to be using for French Conversation, I had stopped listening to hip-hop, completely, around 1993. De La Soul, Public Enemy, Digital Underground, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy: for mysterious reasons, I put all those records away, and never listened to them, or any hip-hop, again.

Right now I listen to almost nothing else. New stuff, though a lot of the rhymes sound kind of broken, the synth-strings tinged with cheese. Old stuff, especially, as my first post suggested, Eric B. and Rakim. But especially especially, the stuff that happened in between. All the legendary violence and flow that came to pass after I left, East Coast-West Coast. The weird incantations of MF Doom. Tupac, Biggie Smalls. Wu Tang. People Under The Stairs. Common. Late De La. And all the intricate, memory-laced work of the late J Dilla, which enriches my life now almost every day.

I said "maybe not unforeseeable" because a similar thing happened with comic books when I was writing Kavalier & Clay. I read comics obsessively from, say, 1971 to 1978. Then I left them utterly behind, until one day almost 20 years later, the book that was the avatar of my heart at the time sent me back: to the old stuff I remembered loving, to the stuff that was then new. And most of all to the wonders that had come into the world in my absence: Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Sandman, the audacious brilliance of Howard Chaykin. All those masterpieces of the 1980s and early '90s, preserved for me in the time capsule of my renunciation.

Then, as now, I didn't regret having been gone; I had missed nothing. Like Max's supper, it was all there waiting for me when I returned--Chaykin's Time2, Dilla's Donuts. Still hot.