Friday, April 1, 2016

The Dangers in Writing about Hip Hop in Crime Fiction: Guest post by Jack Batten

Today I welcome back Jack Batten. Jack wrote an article on Cool Canadian Crime for Mystery Fanfare in 2011. Jack Batten is an author, journalist, reviewer, and radio personality. He has written over forty books on subjects that include biography, crime fiction, law and court cases, and sports. Jack Batten’s first career was as a lawyer. After four years, he turned to writing. Batten has written for many newspapers and magazines, including Chatelaine, Rolling Stone, and Toronto Life. He has written radio plays for the CBC and a jazz column for The Globe and Mail. Nowadays, Jack Batten writes books and reviews crime novels for The Sunday Star. Six of his books are crime novels featuring a Toronto criminal lawyer named Crang. Keeper of the Flame, published this month, is the sixth in the series.

Jack Batten:
The Dangers in Writing about Hip Hop in Crime Fiction

I can’t remember now why I chose the profession of hip hop singer for the pivotal figure in the latest book in my Crang series of crime novels. Maybe I thought it would give the book a smartly up-to-date feel, something contemporary and hip. Maybe it did. But what I know for sure is that the choice of vocation meant a lot of trouble for me, the author.

Crang, the central character and narrator of the books, is a Toronto criminal lawyer who operates more like a private eye. He’s fifty years old, something of a smartass, a lover of vodka martinis, jazz and his long time girlfriend, Annie B. Cooke; she’s a journalist who specializes in writing about movies. Crang’s clients over the course of the series have been a mixed bunch; a snooty corporate lawyer, a jazz musician, Crang’s ex-wife, a Vietnamese Torontonian in the marijuana grow op business. A fairly exotic collection, in other words, but nothing Crang couldn’t handle.

The new book and sixth in the series, Keeper of the Flame, published this month, presents a different and more difficult set of circumstances. In the plot, a Toronto hip hop singer of international renown, a sweet natured young guy with one point of vulnerability in his past, is threatened with blackmail, and the singer’s manager calls on Crang to head off the blackmailer. The assignment means Crang needs to learn enough about hip hop to move confidently in its world, and it’s this necessity that lies at the root of the problem because neither Crang nor I, lifelong jazz fans, know the first things about hip hop as a culture or as a music form.

Writing the book, I set out to fill in the knowledge gap for both of us. Mostly I relied on the Internet, listening to hours of music, studying news stories, biographies and reams of hot gossip. Along the way, as it happened, my education process got a lift from a real-life event. I was in Manhattan on other business when the New York tabloids reported at length on a juicy event on the local hip hop scene. It seemed that two hip hop Legends and their vast entourages gathered at a club known as a favourite hangout for the music’s inner cliques. On this night, one Legend shouted the news that the other Legend’s girlfriend much preferred the first Legend’s talents at love-making. Pretty soon, a brawl broke out, a piece of epic violence that featured both sides hurling at one another unopened bottles of a three-hundred-dollar champagne called Armand de Brignac Brut Gold. The champagne was better known among hip hoppers as Ace of Spades from its mention by that name in a Jay-Z song called Show Me What You Got. As a battle, the collision of egos and exploding champagne bottles made better copy than any fiction writer could cook up. So I jotted extensive notes from the tabloid accounts and slipped the Ace of Spades fray into Keeper of the Flame with only the names changed to protect the guilty.

As a music form, hip hop wasn’t easy to get a handle on. Was it even music? It short changed conventional melody and harmony, gave a pass to variations in rhythm, and emphasized the lyrics. Chanting was the favoured mode of conveying the ideas in the pieces, and there was plenty of borrowing from more familiar R&B patterns and rhythms. And, oh yeah, the guys wore pants that drooped perilously in the rear end. OK, I got all of that under control, and so did Crang, and both of us understood just enough about the music and the culture to fake our way through the case that involved blackmail and later in the plot a puzzling murder.

Still, we bungled now and then in total hip hop comprehension. In one semi-hilarious incident in my research, listening to Jay-Z sing his song Empire State of Mind, I assumed he was doing one of the number’s passages in his own falsetto voice. In the earlier drafts of Keeper of the Flame’s manuscript, Crang mentions the piece of music in just these words. Fortunately for both of us, a more clued-in copy editor caught a crucial error. Jay-Z wasn’t singing the passage falsetto. A gifted singer named Alicia Keys sang those few bars.

Both Crang and I gave the copy editor our effusive thanks. And both of us resolved to stick in future to jazz as our music of choice after the perilous brush with hip hop, the music we never quite gripped in our hearts and minds.

1 comment:

Judy Penz Sheluk, author said...

Great post, and very funny about Alicia Keyes. That's actually the only version of Empire State of Mind I knowledge of hip hop is less than zero. But a good reminder to us all that no matter how much we research, we're bound to miss stuff that isn't in our personal wheelhouse.