Buppies, B-boys, Baps & Bohos

Nelson George is the author of seven books on black culture and music, as well as a regular columnist for the VILLAGE VOICE, where most of these essays originally appeared. Published between 1980 and 1992, they cover a wide range of topics, all involving African Americans who’ve come of age since the end of the civil rights movement in the late 1960’s. George dubs their music, art, and style “Post-Soul Culture.” This society has spawned the four new African American character types listed in the title.

Of the four, the B-boy (short for the break-dancer nickname “break boy”) has been the most celebrated and condemned; his street attitude and style have had an influence far beyond their ghetto base. So the first part of the book (“B-Boys”) is devoted to rap and hip hop, including the first article on rap to appear in a national music magazine. George also devotes a section to soul music, his musical first love, covering classic Motown artists as well as contemporaries like Anita Baker (“Soul Culture: Trad and Retro-Nuevo”).

The other character types aren’t dealt with explicitly in the book’s organization. “Media Impressions” covers a variety of newsmakers (Richard Pryor, Spike Lee, Tracy Chapman) and the general treatment of blacks in the news media. “To Be a Black Man” has a more personal focus, including the title essay, George’s single most popular column. Finally, “Big City of Dreams” deals with New York City, George’s home turf (and love/hate object).

Taken together, these essays form a scrapbook of black culture in the eighties and early nineties. What makes them readable is that they’re much more than time capsules. They’re full of closely observed details: the sixteen-year-old chewing gum and reading THE COLOR PURPLE in “Native Daughters,” Jesse Jackson’s hands in “Hands On.” And passion: the love of soul music that infuses “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” the rage in “To Be a Black Man.” George runs a risk of losing the general audience in places—e.g., essays that assume knowledge of hip hop music or New York City politics—but his writing is never less than interesting.