Rating:As a fan of both hip-hop and books, it’s rare the two mediums intersect at an avenue that isn’t entirely awful. If you’ve ever taken a stroll down your local Barnes & Noble’s music section, chances are the designated rap shelf is dominated by insultingly preachy books that attempt to “explain rap,” or someone’s college thesis on how Tupac “deconstructed gangsta archetypes by othering the masculine gaze of capitalism through the feminine mystique” published to bank off the ever growing market of people who want to “really get hip-hop” without really getting hip-hop. But even now with college university courses teaching the genre and culture’s genesis by painting in the proverbial broad-strokes, there’s still a certain sterilization in the crossroads of hip-hop and academia that, even in the most precisely researched lectures, loses the very visceral and fun resonance that’s made hip-hop a worldwide phenomenon. The history of hip-hop’s global impact through regional lineages is a largely untold story, which is why Zach Combs’ Headspin, Headshots & History: Growing up in Twin Cities Hip Hop is so refreshing.
If you’re familiar with the midwest underground/indie-rap explosion over the past decade, chances are you’ve heard author Combs rap. Whether as New MC of Kanser, or Big Zach of More Than Lights and Traditional Methods, he’s a veteran of both the hip-hop and festival circuits with the type of style made for word-of-mouth fandom. The Bemidji, Minnesota-born Combs has been living in South Minneapolis since 1987, and he’s seen all facets of the local scene morph several times over. From amassing a vast array of photographs of neighborhood graffiti pieces to keeping records of local MC battles, he’s been one of the most prolific archivists of all facets of the local hip-hop scene. It’s this passion and longstanding presence that makes him the ideal author for this kind of book.
But while many authors who take on writing a book on hip-hop mess up right off the bat by making themselves the center of the story, it’s the degree with how personal Combs gets that allows Headspin, Headshots & History to absolutely soar. The anecdotes with local artists who’ve gone on to national fame aren’t included for name-dropping or gossipy reasons, but rather because they paint an honest three-dimensional picture of who they were during a pre-YouTube era of which there isn’t much documentation. Further, when Combs corresponds these stories to what was going on in his life at the time, it resonates in a way that captures the essence of what made, and continues to make, Twin Cities hip-hop so exciting.
The bulk of the book is in chronological order, with entire chapters dedicated to the importance of local milestones and events along the way. From the Loring Pasta Bar battles to the filming of a local hip-hop episode of MTV’s “Made,” every nuance and its ripple effect is presented. Even the artists who were a part of the scene before Combs’ time, Combs makes a point to describe their legacies through what he’s heard passed down. With hip-hop being such a regionally influenced genre, similar stories have to exist all over the map. For the Twin Cities, Combs is the first to put this type of story to paper. It’s not only an eye-opening detailed blank-filler for underground aficionados. but a genuinely almost-touching story of one lifetime in changing scene that should be accessible to everyone.