Building a Hip-Hop Canon: Author Kiana Fitzgerald on Her New Book

lil-kim-ode-to-hip-hop.jpg No Way Out Tour - Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage
lil-kim-ode-to-hip-hop.jpg No Way Out Tour - Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

Recognition of hip-hop’s 50th anniversary has been in full force throughout 2023, but writer Kiana Fitzgerald’s celebration started almost a year early, in February 2022. That’s when she began crafting Ode to Hip-Hop, out now on Running Press. Her debut book chronicles “50 albums that define 50 years of trailblazing music,” spanning nearly the entire timespan of the genre: as early as Kurtis Blow and as recent as Megan Thee Stallion (who joins Lil Wayne, Lil Kim, Missy, Tupac, and Lil Nas X on the Yay Abe-illustrated book’s cover).

Fitzgerald says putting together this book, most of which she did in a tight turnaround from April to July last year, was a dream come true. After being approached with the initial idea for the book by her editor, Ada Zhang, she put together a master spreadsheet of albums to consider, then went through a meticulous listening process. After engaging with the rap canon and consulting trusted sources (such as her siblings), she whittled down a list of 50 albums from artists who represent a wide swathe of identities, regions, and time periods.

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“I tried to be as discerning as I possibly could, having an eye and an ear toward impact as well as regional influence, national influence, peer influence — all the things that really go into making hip-hop what it is,” she says. “I did my best to try to comb all those elements together. This is what I came up with.”

We talked to Fitzgerald about writing the book, which albums just missed the cut, and what she thinks the hip-hop community needs to focus on for the next 50 years.

How closely do you feel like the albums in this book align with your own personal top 50? 
I’m someone that could have made a book of 50 underground albums. To be frank, I prefer underground hip-hop. That’s the thing that keeps me going and alive. So in a different world, I would’ve loved to have incorporated a SpaceGhostPurrp project. But reaching back into the past to Three 6 Mafia allows me to write about SpaceGhostPurrp and Raider Klan and those kinds of acts within those sections.

I wanted this to be something that folks can pick up and understand, “OK, I see the cover, I see Missy, I see Kim, I see Wayne. I know that these artists are the ones who have brought a lot of soundtracks to people’s lives.” I didn’t want to be like, “This is what I like.” I tried to think about how these artists have touched the lives of everybody who listens to hip-hop.

The back cover mentions that these are “50 of the most lauded, controversial, and iconic albums of all time.” How did the idea of controversy play into the selection process?
I feel like hip-hop at its core is a controversial genre. It’s something that people have since the very beginning looked down upon. It’s taken a long time for hip-hop to get to the place that it is today. One of my favorite artists is Rob Banks from Florida, and I feel like a lot of folks don’t understand him, because he does make controversial work. He’s not in the book, but he’s an example of an artist that is maybe misunderstood, but is pushing hip-hop forward in [his] own way. I feel like you could close your eyes and pick a chapter and it would be controversial for some reason, from a Lil Kim Hardcore to 2 Live Crew.

What was the deliberation process of deciding which 50 made the final cut?
This is all on me. If anybody has any qualms, concerns, questions, direct them to me. I know that I’ve been living and breathing hip-hop since I was an infant. Women are not traditionally well-represented within hip-hop. I am from the South, [which] took a long time to come into a respected space in hip-hop. I wanted to use all of my background and the information that has been blessed upon me from the time I was a child, from my mother who introduced me to UGK and Master P, to my brother who introduced me to DJ Screw, to my sister who introduces me to so many people today.

This is something that I care very deeply about. I’m not flippant about it. I don’t want anybody to think that I didn’t take this seriously. But in terms of the selection process, it is all on me. In the introduction of the book,  I talk about how I went about selecting these albums. I was thinking about how an album shifted the culture — whether that’s fashion, philosophy, and beyond — both in real time and across time, how an album influenced other musicians from a peer standpoint as well as successors, and how an album altered the trajectory of hip-hop as we know it.

What were some of the closest calls that didn’t make the final list of 50?
I would say the number one is Public Enemy, Fear of a Black Planet. I acknowledge that they are bastions of the culture, and they’ve done so much for hip-hop.They’re very present in the canon of hip-hop. They are mentioned in the book in a couple of chapters, but as far as getting their own chapter, it didn’t make the cut. And I know that folks are going to be like, “What do you mean? They did this and this, black CNN?” I understand all of those elements, but I also understand that sometimes the albums that we assume are the ones that should be exalted and revered for the rest of eternity don’t need to be in that list because they already are seen that way.

I’m happy that I was able to include Da Brat’s project or Trina’s project. If somebody sat me down and tried to ask me, “Why did you choose Trina over Public Enemy?” it would turn into somewhat of a sexism thing. So I’m glad that I had the opportunity and the freedom to include the albums that I did, because not every album is going to get a shout-out. I feel like Public Enemy is at the top of the top, and frankly, they don’t need it. But I do wish that I could have included them because they are very, very important to the movement of hip-hop.

ode to hip-hop
ode to hip-hop

How did you engage the balance of making sure that every era had proper representation?
When I initially put together a list, it did not look like this. I thought that I had to list an album for every single year. And then my editor, Ada, was like, “We don’t have to be strict like that.”

Obviously this book is meaty in the Nineties. For folks who don’t know why, that was a stacked time for hip-hop — so much innovation and creation and experimentation going on at that time. There’s also a bit of 2000s, but that’s because we’re in the 2000s and 2010s and 2020s at this point. And we came in 1980 with the first album by Kurtis Blow. That middle section between the late ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s is when hip-hop was bursting at the seams with good work.

I think we’re in a period where we’re trying to get our bearings again. There’s so much going on. There’s so many tools and it’s easier to hop in hip-hop than it was in the beginning. There are different issues that impacted how many projects were included from the early stages and the later stages. But I do feel like it does come down to the fact that…I was going to say niggas, but I don’t know if I can say that.

Go for it. Listen.
[Laughs.] Well, yeah, niggas were trying to get it together. There are different reasons for both of those ends of the spectrum, but overall, I think I did a good job including albums that were spread across the journey of hip-hop.

One thing I love about the book is the variety of identities. How intent were you about making sure artists of all identities were represented and celebrated in the book?
Shout out again to my editor, Ada. When I initially came to her with the year-by-year, she was like, “We got to shake some of this up.” Men dominated so much of this time in hip-hop’s life, and I feel like we’re just now [coming] to a place where in the later chapters, as we get closer to the contemporary times, the people start to look different, the artists start to look different, the art itself starts to look different.

I feel like Ada helped me to take a step back and identify, “All right, yes, some of these albums may have been more commercially successful, for example, but does that mean that it’s a more influential or impactful album than another one?” I tried hard with her assistance to get to a place where I was, again, looking from an aerial perspective. That min frame assisted me with being able to look across these years, and feel that yes, we have women, femmes, queer, Southern, West Coast, East Coast, whatever.

Why was Yay Abe chosen to illustrate for the book?
It’s all about what does it look like, how does it appeal to people? Who does it draw in? So as important as my work is, Yay Abe’s work is equally as important here, and he did a great job. When I was approached with this idea by my editor, she told me that this book was going to be judged by its cover. We want you to look at this book and want to buy it based on what it looks like. The design and illustrative team at Running Press found four illustrators, and they presented them to me, and he was my first choice by far.

He’s from South Africa, and he has a different perspective when it comes to creating. I think he was able to pour himself into this book, which is exciting because it’s both of our first books. It’s a big deal for him as well. I know he has murals, clothing, collaborations and all this crazy stuff going on, but this is still a pretty big deal for him, too. He knocked this out of the park.

Did you learn anything new about the hip-hop canon through the process of making this book?
Yeah, absolutely. We’ve come a long way in terms of homophobia. I will say that we still have some stuff going on, but the F-words that were flying around every album in the ’90s and 2000s was a lot. That was shocking. Even though I am familiar with those projects, and I know what they sound like, and I know the lyrics to them, I think especially listening, once I got them in this order and listening chronologically, it was very clear how things shifted and morphed from the ’80s to the ’90s and so on. That was an eye-opener for me.

Other than that, something that I appreciated about this entire process was how some of these projects make me feel like I’m at home. They feel so familiar and so warm and inviting. You wouldn’t traditionally use those descriptors for a Gucci Mane album or whatever, but those projects mean so much to me.

I would also say that hip-hop doesn’t give a damn about stagnancy. It’s been beautiful to do so much research around this genre and realize that this shit don’t ever stay the same. It moves very quickly. I feel like that’s reflective of where we are today. It’s probably tenfold right now, because we have social media and a quick news cycle. Even thinking about from Nicki’s [rise] to Cardi’s [rise], from 2010 to 2018, how much changed in that short amount of time, relatively speaking.

In the prologue you’re very open about your relationship with hip-hop, especially through the way you navigate mental illness. What made you decide to be vulnerable and take that approach with the intro?
Thank you. There were a couple of reasons. One reason is I feel like there’s always a way to relate something back to yourself. And not in a selfish way, but in a human way, like, “I went through this, have you been through this?” I try to imbue that in most of the work that I do. I know some people think it’s selfish and personal et cetera, but I feel like that’s why I’ve gotten to the point where I am able to write a book about hip-hop in this way, because I have laid all my cards out on the table every time I write. And it’s not always hyper-personal like this intro, but I do try to always consider the human element and the personal aspect when it comes to the things that I write.

It felt natural for me to put this information out there. I’m very open about mental health as someone who lives with bipolar type one. I wanted people to know not only did the genre save my life, it’s also like damn near prophetic that I ended up in the Bronx when I went missing. As somebody who’s from a small town in the middle of the south in Texas, as someone who grew up in poverty who didn’t have a lot of opportunities, I never would’ve thought that I would end up in this position. And not only that, I never thought that I would’ve ended up roaming the streets of the Bronx in a manic state.

So again, when I went through those episodes, hip-hop is literally the only thing running through my mind. It’s the only thing that I care about. It’s the only thing that I care about deciphering, because it does feel like a big game of Clue or something. I wanted people to understand that no matter where you are in life, this genre can be there for you. And it may not be as intense as my personal situation, but I did want to relate that.

What do you think are some of the biggest things that the hip-hop community should be asking itself or considering for the next 50 years?
We should be asking how to incorporate people who are not traditionally here more, whether that be women, non-binary, femme, queer, whatever way you want to put it, whatever community want you want to draw from. We need to open that door up wider. It’s creaking open right now. We can see a Saucy Santana or Cakes Da Killa who are coming in from that angle. And then we have Lola Brooke and Maiya the Don coming from this other space. So we have all this fun stuff that’s happening, but I think that we have to remain mindful of leaving space open.

It’s easy for us to slip into our old ways of being like, “It’s a man’s game anyway, so whatever, just let it rock.” I would love for us to be intentional about inclusivity. And I also want us to take assault and abuse allegations more seriously. I feel like I didn’t include that much about those kinds of things in this book, because it is a celebratory book. And I feel like if I sat down and wrote about every single artist in this book that’s had an issue, it would’ve turned into something else.

So with that said, I do want us as a community to listen to women or listen to folks who have been affected by abuse and assault. I can’t make anybody listen or not listen to anything. But I do think that we all have a level of responsibility. And if you are going to listen to an artist that has some kind of allegation or case, even it’s alleged, be informed. If you are thinking about blasting that artist at a party or something, think about the people in your environment. Think about the people who may have been through something that this artist possibly did.

Is there anything else or anything else that I didn’t ask that you want to let the readers know?
It’s not for kids. I do use curse words in this book. So even though it looks family-friendly, it’s not, which is probably reflective of hip-hop itself. But it’s for grown-ups, even though a kid could read it. I would’ve read this if I was a kid. But anyway, it’s for people who love hip-hop and for people who are passive listeners as well. I’m as excited to hear what my peers say as I am strangers who don’t work in the same space as me. I’m very grateful for the opportunity and I hope people like it.

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