Hip: The History

Hip: The History

4.3 23
by John Leland

View All Available Formats & Editions

Hip: The History is the story of an American obsession. Derived from the Wolof word hepi or hipi ("to see," or "to open one's eyes"), which came to America with West African Slaves, hip is the dance between black and white-or insider and outsider-that gives America its unique flavor and rhythm. It has created fortunes, destroyed lives and shaped the way millions of us


Hip: The History is the story of an American obsession. Derived from the Wolof word hepi or hipi ("to see," or "to open one's eyes"), which came to America with West African Slaves, hip is the dance between black and white-or insider and outsider-that gives America its unique flavor and rhythm. It has created fortunes, destroyed lives and shaped the way millions of us talk, dress, dance, make love or see ourselves in the mirror. Everyone knows what hip is. This is the story of how we got here. Hip: The History draws the connections between Walt Whitman and Richard Hell, or Raymond Chandler and Snoop Dogg. It slinks among the pimps, hustlers, outlaws, junkies, scoundrels, white negroes, Beats, geeks, beboppers and other hipsters who crash the American experiment, and without whom we might all be listening to show tunes. Along the way, Hip: The History looks at hip's quest for authenticity, which binds millions of us together in a paradoxical desire to be different. Because, as George Clinton said, "You can't fake the funk."

Editorial Reviews

Hipness is a quality that not even Bill Gates or Warren Buffett can buy. To probe the nature of this elusive asset, journalist John Leland mines disparate records of 19th-century literary bohemians, little-known jazz savants, and film noir vaults. This book is a hip history of hip and a treasure trove of cultural info.
David Camp
Don't be misled by the glib title; Hip: The History is not a decade-late cash-in book on martini revivalism and what made Frank and Dino swing. Rather, it's a thoroughgoing, research-intensive analysis of that uniquely American anti-establishmentarian posture known as hip, undertaken by a fellow who's spent much of his career ruminating on the subject, John Leland, a reporter for The New York Times and a former editor in chief of Details. Leland has assigned himself a mighty task: to explain the history of hip from its 18th-century origins in America's West African-born slave population, where hip evolved as a sort of whitey-confounding slanguage (evidently, the word ''hip'' derives from the Wolof term ''hepi'' or ''hipi,'' meaning ''to see'' or ''to open one's eyes''), to today's epidemic of ubiqui-hip, of corporate-sponsored grooviness (iPods, Gap ads) and pan-cultural dreadlocks.
— The New York Times
John Strausbaugh
Leland's Hip: The History is an impressive achievement -- thorough, exhaustively researched and eventually a bit exhausting. He seems to know everything there is to know about hip. He's read all the books, listened to all the music, seen all the movies. He manages to lay it all out with a detached authority that's just a hair shy of the know-it-all smugness implied by the book's title.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
What is hip? Leland has researched contemporary answers to that question for Spin, Details and the New York Times, and now probes deeper for a rigorous historical analysis that goes beyond the usual hot spots of the Lost Generation and the Harlem Renaissance, encompassing colonial plantations, animation studios, pulp magazine racks and the latest hipster hangouts. The story of hip is largely the story of American race relations, and Leland addresses the ways whites and blacks have interpreted and imitated one another from many angles, as assuredly perceptive when he analyzes Al Jolson's blackface persona as he is exploring the dynamic between bop jazz and Beat Generation writers. Refusing to either champion or condemn "the white boy who stole the blues," Leland presents readers with an accessible model of complex social forces. The breadth and sophistication of his argument is admirable, but it wouldn't be as convincing without his engaging tone, which shuns condescension to invite readers into a genial conversation-Leland even jokes about how the nature of hipness might date his book. Leland needn't worry: though hip will always be a matter of perception, few will be able to read this eclectic history without agreeing it's on to something. 49 b&w photos. Agent, Paul Bresnick. (Oct. 5) Forecast: With national radio interviews (including NPR) and author appearances, Leland's chronicle should reach all those who dig pop culture studies, whether they're fans of Miles Davis or the White Stripes. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Hip is often elusive, perpetually sought after, and forever reinventing itself. Is it crazy clothing, attitude, location, new music, rebellion? What is hip, how did it evolve, and just how deeply does it affect American culture? New York Times columnist and former Details editor in chief Leland provides some answers in this thoroughly researched history of hip's many facets its African American influences, countercultural movements, pivotal icons, and continually changing face up to hip-hop. Leland carefully examines hip's linguistic, historical, sociological, and cultural roots, dissecting the significance of hip in the diverse worlds of literature, gangsters, music, bohemia, cartoons, and technology and studying an eclectic group of figures that includes Walt Whitman, Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Kerouac, and Bugs Bunny. Although books on individual aspects of hip have appeared before, Leland may be the first to look at the big, complex picture. This absorbing analysis is highly recommended for academic and large public libraries. Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Forget diversity training and sociology lectures: here's a surefire way to excite teens about the forces at work in American history. Industrialization, Prohibition, immigration, civil rights, and class consciousness come alive when viewed through hip's lens, making it seem like one long, wild story whose new chapters build, riff, and expand on the old. This fast-paced volume is also a jumping-off point: whether explaining that "hip" comes from the Wolof word "hipi" ("to open one's eyes"), brought to America by West African slaves, or pointing out the resemblance between Bugs Bunny and the hard-boiled detectives of pulp fiction, Leland will lead YAs beyond Kerouac to "Original Gangstas" Thoreau and Whitman, the "thug vitality" of the 19th-century Bowery boys, and the over-the-top "bling" worn by Ma Rainey half a century before Lil' Kim showed up. Running throughout is a solid awareness that "hip" involves cultures borrowing, and often stealing, from one another. Unlike other observers of this phenomenon, however, Leland sees this less as a form of oppression and more as a form of play. While not always convincing, the argument is appealing, full of good will and good sense. Both a practical and a fun purchase, Hip may quickly become the most well-read book in your nonfiction collection.-Emily Lloyd, formerly at Rehoboth Beach Public Library, DE Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Comprehensive but overwrought account of how American-style coolness became the purported universal ideal. New York Times style reporter Leland takes on a quasi-academic and too-knowing voice in traveling through seemingly discrete and rarefied kingdoms of hipness. "There is no instruction manual for hipsters," he avers, "but there are archetypes of hip." He focuses on transformative cultural figures marginalized in their own time, mixing Melville, Whitman, Chandler, Bugs Bunny, raconteurs, criminals, Beats, jazzbos, druggies, rappers, and good-time girls into a percussive gumbo. In 15 long essay-chapters, he proposes understanding hip (derived from hepi, "to see" or hipi, "to open one's eyes") as a cultural process that over 150 years traveled from the fringe to America's mainstreamed consumer core. He sees certain nodes as particularly relevant, such as the urban postwar ferment that threw writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg against volatile musical personalities like Charlie Parker. Previous to the Beat explosion, "underground" subgenres like noir and bebop flirted with the mainstream, as did the Harlem Renaissance and Greenwich Village bohemianism; by the 1960s, Madison Avenue was happy to co-opt and repackage hip's signifiers in music and clothes. Leland identifies race as the great unacknowledged engine here, creating a more ambiguous narrative than mere "love and theft"; other chapters explore the hidden energies contributed to hip's genealogy by women, tricksters, criminals, and substance abusers. Although he grasps the process by which diverse cultural elements undergo synthesis-e.g., the connections among the war, the Beats, and all that came later-his prose ("The streets ofWilliamsburg in Brooklyn or Silver Lake in Los Angeles comprise a theme park in the key of hip") is more reminiscent of terminally unhip David Brooks than of edgier critic-provocateurs who've previously explored this territory, like Thomas Frank, Lester Bangs, or Nick Tosches. Leland's study may be revelatory to those under 25; it will seem familiar to people awake for the media's "alternative nation" and Gen-X deluge of the '90s. Codifies underground myths for both academe's cult-studs and the trucker-hat set. Agent: Paul Bresnick
Paul Krassner
“John Leland combines diligent research with insight and wit.”
Joe Levy
“What is hip? If you have to ask, ask John Leland.”
“The New York Times’ John Leland offers an incisive, entertaining look at this peculiarly American cultural notion...”
“An insightful chronicle of cool.”
Paper Magazine
“Hip: The History is the definitive work on the subject.”
“John Leland covers it all in his essential book, Hip: The History.”
Fab 5 Freddy
“Hip: The History is the seminal work on the topic and a must read for all you hipsters!”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.21(d)

Read an Excerpt

Hip: The History

By John Leland


ISBN: 0-06-052817-6

Chapter One

Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her ... You know why music was the center of our lives for such a long time? Because it was a way of allowing Africa in. - Brian Eno

Toward the end of 1619, John Rolfe, the first tobacco grower of Virginia, noted the arrival of a new import to the British colonies. Rolfe (1585-1622) is best known as the husband of Pocahontas, and it was his experiments with growing tobacco that saved the Jamestown settlement from ruin. The incoming cargo he noted on this day would change the course of tobacco and the colonies as a whole. "About the last of August," he wrote, "came a Dutch man of war that sold us twenty Negroes."

These slaves, likely looted from a Spanish ship or one of the Spanish colonies to the south, were not the first African slaves in North America. The Spanish explorers Panfilo de Narvaez, Menendéz de Avilés and Coronado had all brought slaves into what is now Florida and New Mexico. Yet the 20 Africans who were brought ashore at modern-day Hampton, Virginia, then carried upriver for sale in Jamestown, formally marked the beginning of what would be 246 years of America's "peculiar institution" of slavery. Five years after their arrival, a 1624 census of Virginia recorded the presence of 22 blacks. Before the country banned new imports in 1808, leaving still the illegal market, around 600,000 to 650,000 Africans were brought to the states in bondage; by 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, there were almost 4 million slaves in the United States, out of a total population of 31 million.

A pressing question in the evolution of hip is, why here? Why did hip as we know it, and as it is emulated around the world, arise as a distinctly American phenomenon? Many of its signature elements existed among the bohemians of the Left Bank in Paris - or, for that matter, among those of Bohemia, now a part of the Czech Republic. The European capitals embraced the romance of scruff at least as early as Henri Murger's 1840s literary sketches, Scènes de la vie die bohème, or Giacomo Puccini's 1896 opera based on the sketches, La Bohème. Yet it is impossible to imagine Europe producing the blues or the Beats, the Harlem Renaissance or the Factory. What distinguished the United States is both simple and, in its ramifications, maddeningly, insolubly complex. That difference is the presence of Africans, and the coexistence of two very different populations in a new country with undefined boundaries. Without the Africans, there is no hip.

To be finer about it, there is no hip without African Americans and European Americans, inventing new identities for themselves as Americans in each other's orbit. These first-generation arrivals, black and white, and their second-, third- and fourth-generation heirs, learned to be Americans together. As a self-conscious idea, America took shape across an improvised chasm of race. Some of the most passionate arguments over slavery were economic rather than moral: Adam Smith argued that it undermined the free market for labor; defenders countered that the peculiar institution was more humane than the "wage slavery" of northern factories. But on a practical level, people on both sides of the divide needed strategies for negotiating the conundrum that held them apart, interdependent but radically segregated.

These strategies are hip's formative processes. While we often think of hip as springing whole into the world in the 1920s or 1950s, its roots go back at least another century. Hipster language, stance and irony begin not in the cool poses of the modern city but on the antebellum plantation, in the interplay of these two populations. For all their difference in standing, the black and white foreigners taught each other how to talk, eat, sing, worship and celebrate, each side learning as it was being learned. Customs passed back and forth. Though history texts talk of Africans becoming Europeanized, or of Europeans stealing the blues, the ways the two populations dealt with each other were more complicated than that. Such borrowing is never indiscriminate, nor the copying exact. Like digital samplers, the borrowers pick and choose what works for them, and shape it to their own ends; the final product comments on both its origins and its manipulations.

This produced the feedback loop of hip, which centuries later gives us white kids sporting doo rags. Against the larger story of racial oppression and animosity, there was also one of creative interplay. The two populations had something to take from each other. In the decades bracketing the Civil War, when a maturing America began to stage stories about itself, it created two idioms that reflected exactly this unresolved vortex. The first is the blackface minstrel show, which surfaced in the 1820s and 1830s and is considered America's first popular culture. The second is the blues, which appeared toward the end of the century. These two forms, nurtured on American soil, are the twined root stems of hip. We live among their branches to this day.

If hip is a story of synthesis in the context of division, its origins lie in the unique structure of slavery in America, which pushed the two populations together. In the massive sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean, which accounted for the majority of the transatlantic slave trade, slaves lived in overwhelmingly black worlds. Owners ran these plantations from a distance, working their slaves to death in the tropical climes and then importing huge waves of replacements. African cultures and languages, constantly replenished by new arrivals, survived relatively undiluted, and do to this day. In North America, by contrast, until the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 spurred the growth of big plantations, most farms were small and required few slaves. Owners worked the land, often without overseers between them and the slaves ...


Excerpted from Hip: The History by John Leland Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

Paul Krassner
“John Leland combines diligent research with insight and wit.”
Joe Levy
“What is hip? If you have to ask, ask John Leland.”
Fab 5 Freddy
“Hip: The History is the seminal work on the topic and a must read for all you hipsters!”

Meet the Author

John Leland is a reporter for the New York Times and former editor in chief of Details, and he was an original columnist at SPIN magazine. Robert Christgau of the Village Voice called him "the best American postmod critic (the best new American rock critic period)," and Chuck D of Public Enemy said the nasty parts of the song "Bring the Noise" were written about him. He lives in Manhattan's East Village with his wife, Risa, and son, Jordan.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Hip, the History 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Who can really define the word "hip"? The term has its origins in the 1700s, and its definition has evolved greatly since then. This book is a great tool for chronicling what it has meant through the centuries, and its social impact, especially in America. Definitely recommended for scholars of the culture in the United States.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
FALLOUT 4!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! PLEASE?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So a few ideas I had were: <br> - Fantasy/medival <br> - Post Apocolyptic (Very much Fallout 4 inspired) <br> - Steampunk <p> Blegh. That's all I can think of at the moment. If you have any other ideas, tell me! The most voted idea will be made into a RP. <p> ~ H&#65430
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Um...can i be Katniss?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im back!!! But i cant be here thursday, which sucks... ~delphinium
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My name is sunny if u want to form an aliance with me let me no
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nite delphie(climbs up to a tree a sleeps in a large branch. You almost cant see her.) ~ fatalonie
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ur names destin and ur expecting to get a girl that u cant even see
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I will. My names Alyssa Robin Burns. District Eleven. Good at knives. Sixteen.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My name is ash. Im a girl from district twelve. In another roleplay i won the hunger games. I prefer bow and arrows and knifes and only wear camo. I have brown hair and blue-gray eyes that look mint green in the sunlight. If you can get me to i have a beautiful smile.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I would like to join the hunger games. My name is Cassia,and if you want to add me in put the headline as @ctribute. I can fight like the best of them and then some.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What do i do now
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am in district three. I am 10 . I am Jess's brother. My weapon is my hand. I work alone. Beware. I can kill u in 1 second if i have to. I can also kill doing a slow painful 30 seconds if i have to
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just started can someone help
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How EXACTLY do u play
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am from district 12 and i have a skill for hiding.i am a female
Anonymous More than 1 year ago