Shea Serrano is a treasure trove of rap knowledge, so it makes sense that the Houston-based writer would be tapped to assemble one of the more ambitiously whimsical projects on the subject of hip hop: The Rap Yearbook, out Tuesday, highlights the most important rap song of every year from 1979 through 2014 and offers a full assessment of why it matters, what it means, how it changed music, and more. (All with gorgeous illustrations from Dallas-based artist Arturo Torres.)
Serrano’s book is ambitious, historically minded without getting lost in details, and as contentious as any attempt to qualify anything as “the most important” could hope to be. Written in Serrano’s imminently readable voice, The Rap Yearbook is a heck of a lot of fun. We caught up with the author to learn about the project, the legacy of Michael Watts and OG Ron C, and why there aren’t as many women in The Rap Yearbook as he’d have hoped.
Texas Monthly: Where did the book come from?
Shea Serrano: The backstory is my editor at Abrams, her name is Samantha Weiner. The book was her idea. She had been wanting to get it done, and we did the Bun B coloring book together a few years ago, so we were sort of looking to do another book together. I think they wanted to do another coloring book, but I wasn’t too interested in doing another one. So we were sort of just wandering around and she said, “Well, I have this idea for a book that we’ve been trying to get it done for a while. Maybe you’re the one you can put it together how we want it put together.” She explained it to me, and the first time I was like, “This sounds super f—ing boring. I don’t want to do this at all. I really like rap a whole bunch, but I don’t care about the most important song from 1981 is. What does that matter? I don’t want to listen to Afrika Bambaataa in my free time, so why would I want to read about him?” So I was sort of hesitant about it, and we were sort of moving it around a bit, but then I started looking into it and I tried to put a sample chapter together: “Let me see what I can do to make this interesting for somebody who’s not, like, a super rap nerd.” So I put one together and then I got some art together and some charts and stuff. We just sort of went for it. Even while we were working on it, I wasn’t very excited about it until we sort of settled on the template of what each chapter was going to look like, and all the parts that were going to be involved in there, and all the little different tricks I wanted to put in to make it interesting. Once that was all set in place it was like, “Okay, this is a good idea. You are right. That’s my bad.” So I started cranking them out.
TM: What song did you pick for the sample chapter?
SS: For the sample chapter, I did “Nuthin But a ‘G’ Thang.” I did two. I did that one and “Dear Mama” by Tupac. I just picked both of them because I knew those ones.
TM: What stretch of the book was the most fun to write?
SS: The most fun part is going to be somewhere between ’92 and ’98 or ’99. That’s when I was becoming a teenager and rap was starting to play a big part in my life, so it was fun to re-listen to all those songs, and read these old books or stories about the era, and then remember the stuff that I was doing when I heard a song for the first time. That part was the most fun to me. It wasn’t the easiest part. The easiest part was the beginning part just because it was easy to pick a song and say, “Well, this was the first rap song that had a hook in it, so it’s the most important one,” or, “This was the first rap song that was a battle rap song.” The beginning part was easier, but that middle section meant more to me personally.
TM: This is something that people argue about forever. Is there pressure in naming the definitive song of a certain year?
SS: It doesn’t matter what song you pick. Somebody’s going to say that it’s the wrong song, and somebody else is going to say, “Oh, wow, you got this one perfect.” But also, I’ve felt super confident about the picks because I did so much research for them. Each one took a long time to put together, and also I sort of leaned on the insight of some guys who were around during each of the eras. For example, with the early eighties stuff, I didn’t know much about that, so I read different books and then I talked to Chuck Eddie, who was covering rap then. In the nineties, I talked to Combat Jack, who was an entertainment lawyer for Jay-Z and all these different other guys. When I put the whole list of songs together, I sent it out to them or to Chris Weingarten, who’s a big rap guy and works as an editor at Rolling Stone. I said, “Can you all take a look at this and tell me, does this look about right?” Then I talked to Ice-T, who of course was around then. I presented them all the list and they said this looks about right. I was so confident afterwards, after they gave me the okay. I was like, “All right, I’m straight. It doesn’t matter what somebody else tells me.” Each chapter has a rebuttal from a different music writer and it’s always a really smart, fantastic writer, so they would say, “That’s actually not the right song. This is the right one.” We worked that in there, because it should be an argument. It shouldn’t just be me saying this is right and then you go, “Oh, okay.”
Although the book spends a lot of time bouncing between the East and West Coasts, Serrano’s love of hip hop has a strong Texas focus. So we asked him to put together a playlist of his favorite Houston rap songs to highlight some of the stuff that didn’t qualify for The Rap Yearbook.
TM: One thing that the book traces is how rap moved around regionally, from different parts of the country. Everything bounced around from the Coasts, until it was kind of everywhere.
SS: That was a big thing that I was trying to figure out while we were going through it. Just like you mentioned, you can see it bouncing from one Coast to another Coast, or from this part of the country to that part of the country, and then somewhere around the early 2000s it just stopped happening like that. That’s around the same time that the Internet became a big part of what rap was doing and how it was being spread. That was a big thing. I sort of thought you just notice it as a fan of rap, but you don’t really get into the history of how it shaped what happened over here in this other part of the country, so that was a neat thing to see.
TM: How did you get hooked up with Arturo Torres for the illustrations?
SS: There’s this group from Dallas called the Outfit Texas. It’s this local rap group. I’m a big fan of theirs. I had ended up covering them earlier, maybe like a couple years ago, when they were first getting started, and so I just followed them on Twitter. They posted a picture of a flyer for some show they were performing and it was an actual flyer with art on it, and when I saw it I was like, “Aw man, this is the exact style that I’m trying to find.” I had been looking around for different artists, so when I saw the flyer—it didn’t have his name on it or anything, but I hit them up and I got in contact with their manager and she told me who it was, and I just sort of hunted around on the internet until I found him. Nobody had heard of him before. He just does these flyers for local groups or DJs or clubs or whatever. We talked, and I explained what it was, and we worked out the different details and there you go, now his art is all in the book. It’s fantastic.
TM: The book covers the full history of a global art form. Are there things that were personal to you that you wish you could have included in the book?
Shea Serrano: Yeah, definitely. It would have been a whole different book. It wouldn’t hardly have been any New York guys in there, for sure. All my stuff, I like my rap slow. I like it to have a certain feel to it. I think Pimp C described it as “country rap songs.” That’s the kind of stuff that I like the most, so if it were me, the middle section would have been like a bunch of Master P or Juvenile, those types of guys. That part was tricky for me just to make sure I wasn’t just picking songs that I liked. If it would have just been my rap history, it would have been a totally different book.
TM: Can you name some songs or some artists that shaped Texas rap the way that some of the New York guys shaped global rap?
SS: Oh, yeah, yeah. You’ve got all the main guys, of course. You’ve got UGK, and they did their whole thing. They were the first street rap guys to put it all together as well as they did. Before them, you had the Geto Boys, but then you also have other characters in there who don’t get as much attention paid to them—like a Big Moe, who’s a Houston guy, or a Fat Pat. They didn’t break out in the way that the Swisha House guys did. They weren’t shooting for that sort of commercialism. That’s just a thing that happened. DJ Screw, he wasn’t in that at all. He wasn’t interested in his music being anything other than this art that he was putting together, so it just sort of stayed around Houston and infected everything that way. When Swisha House came, Michael Watts, OG Ron C—those guys were making a concerted effort to get it out of Houston, so that’s when they had all of the Mike Jones and Paul Wall and Chamillionaire. All those guys are on the Swisha House label and so they exploded that way. Underneath them, you’ve got these other characters who are doing this really cool stuff. To people in Houston, they’re legends. But nobody outside of Houston has heard of them.
TM: I worked in a record store in Chicago when I was 18, and then I moved to Texas and worked at a Sam Goody in the mall in McAllen, and suddenly South Park Mexican—who nobody in Chicago had ever even heard of—was the top-selling rapper at the store. Now that rap is so global, and the Internet makes everything so connected, can those regional superstars develop locally the way they used to?
SS: Each town sort of still has those guys, whether it’s because their music is a little too meta for anybody outside of that city to understand—maybe they talk about the highway system too much or whatever, maybe they only use Houston slang. Houston still has guys that nobody’s heard of, or if they have heard of it, it’s like only the super rap nerds have heard of them. East City still has those guys. The Internet makes it easier for them to get their music out, but in a lot of cases it just still doesn’t get out there, because there’s so much that you have to sort of sift through. But most of these guys are sort of older guys.
TM: It’s disappointing that none of these songs are by women, but it’s fair, because when you’re tracing what’s been important to the evolution of rap, women have been kind of ignored there. Was that something that you thought about when you were doing this list?
SS: Yeah, definitely. I kept trying to find an instance where a woman’s rap song was more important than a guy’s, and it was just too hard. I was looking at each individual chapter and I was saying, “Man, we really need to figure out a way to get a woman’s chapter in here.” And then I was like, “That sounds like a stupid thing to say, because if it needed to be in there, then it would be in there.” Only two of the rebuttals, I think, even mentioned songs by women, and both of them were Missy Elliott songs. It would have been nice to have them in there. It would be nice if they weren’t so disrespected in rap, and in total. I think that when I saw the whole book and I was going through it I was like, okay, this makes sense because these are all of the big songs that sort of did a big thing and then underneath that you have this other layer of stuff. One of the rebuttals is about Juvenile. One of the rebuttals is about Lil Jon. You have the second tier of important things that were going on, and that’s where we find some of the women that are mentioned or they’re like sidebars or whatever. It was a tricky situation, because it felt like we should pick some just to be fair, and rap isn’t fair. You know what I’m saying? When we did the coloring book we were like let’s make sure—let’s hit up all these different women because we want a certain percentage of the book to be women. Missy Elliott’s probably, if I make a list of my favorite rappers of all-time, she’s in the top 3. So I wanted to do a Missy Elliott chapter, but it didn’t work out that way because it doesn’t work out that way.