Remembering Non-Hipster Brooklyn in the 90s, and a Hip-Hop Mystery
Steph was a good friend, a good big brother, and an outstanding rapper.
That didn’t save him. As Tiffany D. Jackson’s Let Me Hear a Rhyme opens, Steph is also another teen-age victim of gun violence, mourned by his family and his friends in late ‘90s Brooklyn.
“For the past few days, I flipped through channels waiting to see Steph’s photo cross the screen, but everyone was still busy talking about President Clinton hooking up with that intern,” thinks Quadir, one of Steph’s two closest friends. “Like, damn, don’t murders make the news no more? Don’t they know who Steph was? I mean, yeah, folks die every day. But it’s not every day you lose your main man.”
Quadir, his buddy Jarrell, and Steph’s little sister Jasmine are all hurting. So when they find a trove of shoe boxes underneath Steph’s bed packed with his tapes, they hatch a plan to pay homage to the fallen. They re-christen Steph “the Architect”, take his tunes to a producer friend to mix up a demo, and start circulating his music at parties and on the streets, all in the hopes of scoring Steph a posthumous record deal.
Quady and Rell mostly just want their best friend’s talents recognized. Jasmine agrees, but only if they’ll help her investigate what happened.
“Somebody gotta know something,” Jazz insists. “I can’t just move on like Steph didn’t exist. He would do it for me. He would do it for you!”
Jackson spins Let Me Hear A Rhyme in chapters that alternate narration amongst the trio, which gives readers insights into the secrets each is keeping. That creates deeper layers in the plot beyond Steph’s murder and his friends’ attempts to make him the biggest rapper to come out of Brooklyn since Biggie.
Jazz is a committed student of African-American history, and weighs whether to join an underground guerrilla-style protest group. Quady has an offer to switch to a private school, one with uniforms and college prep.
Rell’s being recruited, too, but by Mack the drug dealer, who peels crisp hundreds out of a Gucci money clip to buy ice cream for all the kids hanging in the B-voort project courtyard. “He knows what it’s like to be a kid growing up in Bed-Stuy,” Rell maintains. “Wish Quady and Steph rocked with him too, but … they just think he’s bad business. Going off rumors, they don’t know the real Mack like I do.”
Most of all, Jackson captures African-American life in Brooklyn circa 1998, from HOT 97 radio and Timberland boots to Vibe magazine and pagers. She showcases everyday moments of family, from the sweet-sixteen party for Quady’s girlfriend Ronnie to Jazz finally learning to play spades. And there are touches of humor throughout, like when Rell’s twin brothers ask for ice cream in unison. “(W)hat I tell you about talking together like that?” he scolds. “Mad creepy, looking like the black Shining.”
Jackson’s love letter to the place she grew up, augmented by rap lyrics from Malik “Malik-16” Shafir, touches the heart and soul. Her Brooklyn may not be a world of privilege, but it’s a place that nurtures the connections that matter.
(Katherine Tegen Books, May 21, 2019)