Adam Mansbach, On Hip-Hop, the 80s, and Graffiti as Literature

MansbachAdam Mansbach has carved an unlikely path through the literary landscape, certainly not the route suggested by English professors and MFA programs. After writing a few respectable novels that explored race, art, and music, Mansbach achieved New York Times bestseller status with Go the F**k to Sleep, the faux children’s book birthed from a sleep-deprived Facebook status update, which reached #1 on Amazon months before it went on sale.

Mansbach’s new book, Rage is Back (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for January), tacks in yet another new direction: New York graffiti artistry, with a dash of magical realism. I’d interviewed Adam last year during his GTFTS travels, and was happy to spend time with him again during his recent visit to Seattle. As a former New Yorker, I found myself feeling misty and nostalgic for the times and places depicted in Rage, and learned over the course of an afternoon pub session that Mansbach used this book to explore his early New York days and, specifically, his hip-hop roots.

RageA one-time graffiti writer, Mansbach said “bombing” trains (translation: spray-painting subway cars) was expected if you were a hip-hop kid. “At the time that I got into hip hop, in about 86-87, the culture was kind of all of a piece, and you were expected to be conversant in every aspect of it,” he said. “So: DJ-ing, rapping, dancing, graffiti ... like, the kinetic, the sonic, the visual.”

Mansbach published a hip-hop magazine. He rapped, DJ-ed, MC-ed and breakdanced. But he learned that the graffiti artists were the eccentrics and “the mad geniuses of hip hop.” While the musicians and dancers could do their thing in public, “graffiti writers had to run around in the tunnels, in the dark, be all dirty and grubby.” He found himself drawn to those mole people and their illicit art.

Rage is Back is filled with such eccentrics, including Billy Rage, the father of narrator Dondi, who abandoned his infant son after the death of a graffiti crew-mate. Sixteen years later, Billy is back in New York, where he reunites with his son and his crew and conspires to take down the corrupt city official who killed one of his own.

These days, you won’t find graffiti on New York’s subways. The city that helped launch that particular art form has scrubbed it away, like removing an unwanted tattoo. This clearly bothers Mansbach, who feels that graffiti was not only a visual representation of a certain kind of energy--art designed to move and flow--but also literature. They were graffiti “writers,” he explained. And they were telling a story. 

Part of that story, he believes, was a tribute to paradox: “fame and anonymity, at once; art and vandalism, at once; creating and destroying, at once.”

While researching Rage, Mansbach toured New York's subway tunnels and interviewed some of the legends of New York graffiti culture, including Phase 2, an aerosol artist from the 70s and 80s who pioneered the bubble style of graffiti lettering (and is the model for one of the book’s main characters). And at a time when current artists such as Banksy are selling works for six figures, it pains Mansbach to see graffiti's pioneers slip further into obscurity, outliving the world they created.

Some of the early artists are still revered in other countries, but little-known in New York.  He likens it to an author being out of print in America, but a bestseller in Germany.

Rage is Back pays homage to those guys, and to the hip-hop culture on which Mansbach was raised.

Next up for Mansbach is another career tack: A supernatural thriller entitled Dead Run, coming this fall.

“It involves dead people running.”


>Listen to two singles from the forthcoming Rage Is Back mixtape: "'The Next Chapter (Still Love H.E.R.)," featuring Common and J. Period, and "Rage is Back (Freestyle)," featuring Black Thought and J. Period

>See all of Adam's books; visit his website; find him on Twitter

>Trivia: Go the F**k to Sleep fans may know that the audiobook was narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. The other two shortlisted narrators were Christopher Walken and Werner Herzog, whose version you can listen to here.

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