Norman Mailer and the Hip-Hop ethos

ESPN received an avalanche of criticism a year or so ago for its disastrous “Ali Rap,” an original pr

By Tim Murphy

ESPN received an avalanche of criticism a year or so ago for its disastrous “Ali Rap,” an original program which sought to pinpoint Muhammad Ali as the beginning of Hip-Hop. The idea was a failure on so many levels, with the most fundamental mistake being that Ali was such a dynamic, one-of-a-kind individual that it’s impossible to label him as the beginning, or the end, or even a crossroad for any one movement–he simply was. He had his phases–the Vietnam protest, for one–but amid that he was still Ali, involved for his own reasons and because of that, irreconcilably detached. (And I won’t even talk about this).While it would be irresponsible to declare the late Norman Mailer the Godfather of Hip-Hop, in many ways he embodied the Hip-Hop ethos that so many wished to dump on Ali.In a profession where so many of the greats were plagued by self-doubt and disengagement (whether they drank themselves to death, or took their own lives, or simply retreated to the solitude of their homes–unfortunately Charles Dickens did none of these things), there was more than a bit of showmanship in Mailer’s work. From the Boston Globe’s obituary:

The key book among the dozens Mr. Mailer published – the one that did the most to create his outsized persona – was “Advertisements for Myself” (1959). An audacious gathering of fiction, journalism, essays, and interviews, it served as Mr. Mailer’s announcement that he was king of the literary hill.

Certainly he’s not the first man to declare himself king of the mountain, but it runs parallel to the sentiment Jay-Z expressed on “Takeover,” or Notorious B.I.G. discussed in just about every single song. Along the same lines, Mailer also predicted that he would be the most important writer of his generation, which was his way of calling out the competition.Miami and the Siege of Chicago is still sitting on my bookshelf at home, untouched since I first picked it up a few years back. I have no immediate plans to read it–I’ll probably read Monday Night Jihad first–and it’ll probaby go on collecting dust unless I break my leg or have to spend a few years in San Quentin and need something to read. But at least he’s not Dickens.