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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: 'What is Punk?' and 'What is Hip-Hop?'

'What is Punk?' and 'What is Hip-Hop?'
'What is Punk?' and 'What is Hip-Hop?'Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

September 20, 2017

What is punk? Well, that's a question you could take hundreds of pages to answer — or, you could just fill 32 pages with rhyming couplets and clay figures. That's the approach that writer Eric Morse and illustrator Anny Yi took with their 2015 picture book What is Punk?

Apparently there was a nascent market of gen-x parents looking to introduce their kids to the bands they grew up on, because the book was a hit. "Its pages scream with hope and joy and peace for all mankind!" writes one customer review on Amazon, where the book has a coveted five-star average. Another customer review gets at what surely must be a major motivation for some adults: "Punk-loving parents will be able to springboard off the narrative with lots of personal anecdotes and backstory."

Some springboarding will be required if kids are to really understand what punk is, because Morse barely even tries to explain the genre's sound ("a deafening roar") or values ("harass the upper class"). Granted, this is a picture book — but if a picture book can explain dinosaur anatomy, or the cultural traditions of the Iberian Peninsula, it could say something a little more substantive about a musical genre famous for two-chord songs and one-note guitar solos.

Really, the charm of the book isn't so much in Morse's awkward verse ("Out near Lake Michigan, where they build America's cars/ Motown funk met gritty punk — and Detroit had a new star") as in Yi's adorable clay models of icons like David Johansen, Johnny Rotten, and Henry Rollins. The Clash get a two-page spread, and yep: there's Paul Simonon smashing his bass. You can see some of Yi's work on her Tumblr, which of course is called Hey! Ho! Let's Doh!

In their latest effort, Morse and Yi take on another popular music genre that came out of the '70s. What is Hip-Hop? starts with DJ Kool Herc ("Herc put the same track on tables one and two/ and bounced the beat back to make something new") and continues up through Kendrick Lamar ("Here's another MC flirting with the avant-garde/ His clever wording made him rap's new star").

Fans of What is Punk? will be either pleased or disappointed to learn that Morse hasn't tried to up his rhyming game just because the new book concerns professional rhymers. ("Getting paid in full is every rapper's dream/ It's also an album by Eric B. & Rakim.") The best parts of the What is Hip-Hop? text come when the author interpolates the more fluid work of his subjects. For example: "Bow wow wow, yippee-yo yippee-yay/ Who is this now coming out of L.A.?"

The new book does dig a little deeper into the distinctions among the groups, pointing out that Public Enemy confronted racism and N.W.A. tackled violence ("Call it right or call it wrong, they sang of the world they knew"). Author Nelson George gets a "producer" credit on the book, whatever that means.

Once again, though, the true rock star is Yi, whose tableaux get even more ambitious and frequently reference music videos. There's a clay version of Grandmaster Flash surfing on a turntable, LL Cool J in a boxing ring with his trademark Kangol hat, the Beastie Boys with their "Intergalactic" robot friend, and Eminem among several doppelgängers that presumably represent the false Slim Shadys.

Verdict: these books are pretty damn cute. You can't use that kind of language in a children's book...but you can apparently reference the Sex Pistols, so what do I know?