Sweetest Taboo


Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship"

By D. Scot Miller

PREVIEW The taboo has always had a special place in my heart. As a pre-adolescent, I was given a list of banned books from a rogue librarian and I hunted down and read every one of them. It may have seemed odd to find an 11-year-old black boy reading the likes of John Rechy's City of Night (Grove, 1963) and William Burroughs' Naked Lunch (Olympia/Grove, 1959), but these verboten tomes, along with the librarian's free beer and porn, served as an illicit gateway out of my little coal-mining town into the larger, lustier world. If not for the innocence-stealing pederast posing as the coolest adult I knew, I might still be in that town, feeling like I was missing something but never knowing what. In short, banned books saved my life: I never would have read a single one had they not been banned.

That's why it's exciting, even titillating, that the San Francisco Center for the Book, in collaboration with the African American Museum and Library in Oakland, presents "Banned and Recovered: Artists Respond to Censorship." The 63 installation, multimedia, and graphic artists showcased at the two sites don't so much address the issue of banned books as celebrate their favorites, which happened to have been banned somewhere at one time or another — and what great book hasn't? Among those praising the forbidden at the Center for the Book are Enrique Chagoya, who offers a 2000 diptych to Burroughs, and ex–Black Panther propagandist Emory Douglas, who brings Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970) to light.

MIXING IT UP: TAKING ON THE MEDIA BULLIES

Ishmael Reed

Da Capo Press

320 pages

$15.95

Ishmael Reed is one of the most prolific writers, seers, and pundits of the 20th and 21st centuries. The author of nine novels, six books of poetry, six plays, and four books of political essays has been a constant presence and persistent thorn in the sides of various official experts. What I love about Reed is his refusal to be classified, stereotyped, or labeled. From his first book, 1967's wildly experimental Freelance Pallbearers, through a turbulent and often silly surge of academic quarrels, he has shared his vision with bravado and courage.

His latest book of political essays continues his crusade for mother-wit in the face of a consistently homogenized culture, whether through an insightful interview with saxophonist Sonny Rollins, or writing that tackles America's anti-black lending practices. Reed's take is plainspoken and no-nonsense, yet an element of whimsy seems to permeate even the most uncomfortable subjects.

In an essay about the Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant trials, for example, his observation about hip-hop "pimp-culture" is that "Blacks are just as incompetent in this area of crime as they are in all others. Nearly four hundred years on this continent and not a single Martha Stewart or Ken Lay."

The only drawback of this book is that I get the impression that Reed is spending too much time in front of the television. It's rumored that he has several sets stacked one on top of another so he can watch them simultaneously.


De La Soul is alive

Two takes on 3 Feet High and Rising, 20 years later

By D. Scot Miller and Mosi Reeves


CHECK ONE Last night, I played De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy/Warner Bros., 1989) for the first time in years. I couldn't stop laughing.

It was a surprise, even though I always knew that much of De La Soul's early appeal rested on its humor. Kelvin "Posdnous" Mercer spelled "soundsop" backwards; Dave "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur loved yogurt. (He's pictured eating yogurt in the album's liner notes.) They complained about style biters who dug "Potholes in My Lawn"; and called their loopy, circuitous jams "Plug Tunin'." There were references to soap, water, and Luden's cough drops. In the first of several "game show" skits that bookended the album, Trugoy remarked that his favorite film was the 1976 sex-and-torture spectacle Bloodsucking Freaks. Twenty years later, De La Soul's private language — or, to be accurate, "DA Inner Sound Y'all (D.A.I.S.Y. Age)" — still sounds fresh and crazily absurd.

Mainstream rock critics, suspicious of all that hippity-hop stuff, welcomed 3 Feet with restrained praise at first: Rolling Stone, in one of its historic blunders, only gave the album three stars while acknowledging it as "one of the most original rap albums ever." The yellow-and-turquoise-daisies album art and MTV hype obscured De La Soul's sharply intelligent sendups of go-go ("Do As De La Does") and rap clich├ęs ("Take It Off," which parodied the then-ubiquitous "Funky Drummer" loop). Today, irony is so entrenched in the Generation X-Y-and-Zero lexicon that we forget how pleasurable it is when it's done right.

Unfortunately, the good vibes quickly turned sour. Shortly after the album's release, De La Soul ended an Arsenio Hall appearance with "Ain't Hip to Be Labeled a Hippie," a refrain first voiced on "Me, Myself and I." The 1991 follow-up De La Soul is Dead offered a smashed flowerpot and tales of how the crew nearly got kicked off LL Cool J's tour for fighting, just to prove that, hey, they ain't no punks. Goofy odes to weed-smoking jostled uneasily with cautionary tales of child abuse and murder. The playful spirit of hip-hop's so-called golden age was gone, another casualty in the oncoming storm of street realism and gangster aesthetics. (Mosi Reeves)

CHECK TWO I'd dug "Plug Tunin'" when I chanced across it on a mixtape from somewhere. This flow — this new style of speak — was shrouded in slang, occulted, and backed by a sound collage that seemed conjured from a basement where a rusty Victrola played the memories of an old man nodding off in his Lay-Z-Boy.

My boys hated that song. I loved it, but I didn't "get it." Armed with more fashion-sense than any of us knew what to do with, Marlon looked over at me and said, "You really like these Oklahoma muthafuckas?" Yes I did. Brothers was dope. From Strong Island, and dope. Rakim dope.

One Sunday, I was cleaning up my place to 3 Feet High and Rising and ran across a roach in an ashtray. Sprawled out on the couch watching the sun stream through my dirty windows, I "got" De La Soul. Every word was deciphered. It felt as if I'd learned a new language, or remembered an old one.

Things changed after that.

The 20th anniversary of De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising is a cause for celebration. Anyone else feeling vindicated?

Kelvin "Posdnous" Mercer, David "Trugoy the Dove" Jolicoeur, and Vincent "PA Mase" Mason have chronicled the last 20 years through nine studio albums and countless production credits (Camp Lo, Gorillaz and MF DOOM among them). Prince Paul produced them, and in turn their popularity produced Prince Paul. They introduced a sleeping world to the black gale known as Mos Def.

De La is coming back to San Francisco. Witness genius at work. (D. Scot Miller)