Friday, August 31, 2001

Book Review: Hip-Hoptionary

No Matta’ Where You Say It, You Know That You’ll Be Heard

From D-Town to the Boogie Down, Alonzo Westbrook’s Dictionary of Hip-Hop Speaks Volumes

By Sara Bruya (c) 2001

“Offensive or not, it is life. Real life uncensored. That's what Hip Hop is.”

- Alonzo Westbrook

I met up with Alonzo Westbrook at a music festival in Detroit, where he was selling copies of the “Hip-hoptionary,” his self-published Dictionary of Hip-Hop terminology.

A TV journalist by trade, slingin’ the Slanguage is only a hobby for Alonzo, though his interest in words, and their powerful ability to express, unite and transform, seems to be the passion that defines the man, (ya dig?)

Alonzo W: I was listening to the radio hearing words I didn't know, like blingbling, vivrant and jiggy and thought if I didn't know what was being said there were others who didn't, so I came up with the idea for the book. I appreciate the way the artists flip the language. It's pure art and in many cases, genius.

I discovered during research that there is a close connection between Rap and the African story-telling tradition. Slaves flipped or coded language so they could plot their escape, Harlem renaissance writers Zora Neal Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes spoke jive. In "A Dream Deferred" Hughes wrote: “Hello baby! Ain't you heard? The boogie woogie rumble of a dream deferred.” Muhammad Ali was boasting, "float like a butterfly sting like a bee" before Hip-Hop was born. So what it comes down to is in this book I’m simply celebrating language and trying to preserve a culture.

(Nikki Giovanni teaches a class at Virginia Tech, I think it is, called The Negro Spiritual as the American Metaphor. The basis is that there would be no American metaphor without the Negro spiritual. The metaphor is what the slaves gave to the world. And I say Hip-Hop continues in that tradition)

Sara B: The Hip-Hoptionary contains definitions for over 2,500 “old and new school” Hip-Hop terms. How long did it take to compile? What is the process involved in defining a word?

AW: About nine months of research, reading everything that is Hip Hop, all the periodicals, old and new, and checking out the movies, talking to friends and visiting and gathering words from across the country.

I'm not the creator of the terms, I only write what I hear. I spell them phonetically. I sometimes have to deduce the meaning but for the most part the artists are pretty direct in their meanings, which makes my job of collecting the terms easy.

SB: What were your editorial guidelines in deciding what goes in, what gets left out of the Hip-hoptionary?

AW: Nothing is excluded. It’s our language, our words, and our world. I refuse to edit it and why should I? We're already edited and censored and deleted enough. I support the culture. I support Hip-Hop.

SB: What kind of response have you received from the Hip-Hop community and the general public?

AW: The response has been overwhelming. I've been interviewed on TV and radio in several cities, most notably The CBS Early Show. Bryant Gumbel interviewed me live about the book, which yielded a generous response. The public loves it. They think it’s a great and timely idea. They love the title. They think its smart.

The only criticism is that I missed some words, which is true in some cases although not intentionally. I got about 2500 words--more than I imagined I would find. But keep in mind I was working solo.

Doubleday has since bought the rights to the book and is putting out a second edition in 2002 which will be fresher, tighter, thicker and more on point. It will be in stores worldwide, ya heard. (FYI there also was concern that the book would be dated, but keep in mind Webster of Webster’s dictionary updates every year to add or delete words. Likewise, we'll update the Hip-hoptionary but perhaps every two years.)

There are Hip-Hop courses of study in many schools across the country and teachers love the book because it allows them to connect with children who are growing up in this Hip- Hop era who only speak Hip-Hop. So the book is a great thing in that it is a bridge to education that has an immediate impact because now the teacher can understand what the student is saying and correct it according the rules of "standard" English. Tell the kids ‘with your boys you say whatever, but in society this is what is acceptable.’ I think the book is an invaluable tool in these type classrooms.

SB: What are your thoughts on the distinction between language, dialect, and slang?

AW: It's all communication. Those categorizations place one style over another but who’s to say which is better. The best to me is the most effective. To think otherwise is classism and its bullshit. Whatever language you speak, just make sure your point is clear. And that's one thing about Hip-Hop "slanguage"--it's heartfelt, it's real, it's pure and sometimes you have to create a new word to define a feeling. Fuck that it isn't mainstream. If it works for you, go with it.

I don't get caught up in the madness or the idea of "western thought and the classics" being held as the "proper" way to write, speak, etc. That's the classical superiority that's been ingrained into our society. It's hogwash only because it devalues other cultures and their thoughts. I do respect that there is a common language and I think all should speak it and be aware of it but I don't think any other language or culture within a culture should be shunned because it doesn't live up to the mainstream idea of what is "right".

Keep in mind Shakespeare is as bloody and dire as anything NWA has ever written...Homer glorifies rape...and a comparative list goes on… But we’re taught that this is what we should be if the classics somehow inspire positive, constructive values and behaviors. They don't. Please believe and know that.

Music does not dictate moral destiny. In the case of Hip-Hop, it's a reflection of society or the life of the artist. Offensive or not, it is life. Real life uncensored. That's what Hip-Hop is.

SB: Do you see Hip-Hop headed for general usage?

AW: Hip-Hop is mainstream. When you got Sprite and Honda and Baywatch and all these people using Hip Hop influenced themes to sell their Product, hell yeah it's in general usage. I was reading Fortune magazine the other day and one of the writers mentioned something about the "benjamins". Is that funny or what?

SB: Would there be a reason to create an English-to-Hip-Hop edition? Or is that going too far?

AW: Interestingly, in the follow up edition, the one due in 2002, I have split section: Slanguage to English and English to Slanguage. It's only to make it easier for the reader and those interested. For example if you're looking for “police” you would go to the English to Slanguage section of the book, find “police” and see “po po” or “5-0.”

I catch some flack from people saying I’m supporting a subordinate language, setting the race back and teaching people how to speak that "junk". I hope through interviews like yours we can dispose of that idea and see how racist or classist and hurtful it is and learn to celebrate cultures equally. This book is a way for people to expand their minds, to diversify. An educated person is diverse. You can't be closed minded and claim to be educated.

Whatever helps us to better communicate—because communication leads to understanding and understanding leads to tolerance and tolerance leads to peace, ya heard. Get it where you can, even if it's in a Hip-hoptionary.


WORD, ‘Zo. You go, boy.

Check out the Hip-hoptionary, some def threads, and make word suggestions on Alonzo’s website at

BlingBling: The glitter of Diamonds

Vivrant: Impressive, uplifting

Jiggy: Clean-cut and bouncy-fun.

Benjamins: Hundred-dollar bills

Musical Blue Balls: Music that leaves you wanting more

Get in that ass: Threat to harm

Finger-Dancing: Deejaying

Garlic: Music or lyrics with good sound (full of flavor)

Mo’ betta: Sex

Radar: Standout. “She’s radar”

Wednesday, May 09, 2001

Harlem Nights

Lush Life at St. Nick's Pub

By Sara Bruya (c) 2001

Everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout Harlem. So I figured, I’d put my ear to the ground and try to find one of those “undiscovered” hotbeds of smokin’ live jazz that fit the romantic notion of Harlem in its glory days. A friend asked if I had ever been to St. Nick’s Pub, known for their all night jam sessions on Mondays. Perfect. I couldn’t wait to savor the lush life in some small dive—the gritty, smoky, moody atmosphere of an old black & white jazz photo, unhampered by the crowds of the Village.

At 11:30pm I took the C train up to 145th and St. Nicholas and walked the two blocks up to the club, ignoring shouts of “go home, you white-ass bitch.” Perfect. I’m so hardcore, I thought. I had worn my 1940s red suede trench coat, and was eager to sit at the bar for twelve o’clocktails like a woman jazz ballads are written about. I found the pub, delightfully decorated outside with amateur paintings of instruments—drums and saxophones in black paint against white and red. Perfect. I was appropriately dressed.

But wait a second, the club was packed. I could hardly get in the door. And hey, where did all these tourists come from? Well, it looks like I’m the LAST one to know about this little gem. Ok, it was hard to swallow, but maybe the Germans and Japanese had their fingers on the pulse long before I did. The music explained it all. Wafting over the blond heads was some of the most unbelievable jazz I’ve heard (ESPECIALLY for no cover) in my quest for live music. On the walls, the aging portraits of jazz greats look on approvingly. I wonder what graced the walls when the greats themselves (Charlie Parker, Billy Strayhorn) actually played there…

I settled in at the bar and ordered a Tequila Sunrise, amused by the columns of red lights behind the bar and the sign asking patrons to please refrain from profanity. I tried, but as I still couldn’t see the musicians through the foreigners, I muttered them under my breath. But don’t get me wrong, St. Nick’s definitely has its share of interesting regulars—wide-brimmed hats, foot-long cigars, and salt & pepper beards make the crowd an unusual mix of characters. Great for people-watching.

The cool cats took turns sitting in with the Sugar Hill Jazz Quartet—a few trumpets, a trombone, a bass clarinet and what bandleader Patience Higgins called an “abundance of saxophones.” Most notably, James Carter impressed the crowd with deep and throaty solos from his alto sax--his eyes, meanwhile, flirting with the crowd as if to tell a story of seduction. His performance was phenomenal—a must see, which is lucky for you! He’s a regular at the Monday night jams. (Check him out at

Also impressive was bluesy songstress Lonie Walker. She wowed the crowd with a passionate piano performance of what she calls “acid blues”. But to see her again you’ll have to travel to Chicago where she owns and plays at the Underground Wonder Bar. (

The jam was just entering its peak when I left around 3am. Though I’m not as hardcore as some who stay ‘til 7:00am, I found my Harlem hang, for sure. If you can manage an all-nighter on a Monday, St. Nick’s is the place to be!

This Month at St. Nick’s:

Father’s Night Bash (The Night Before Mother’s Day) Sat. May 12, 2001 Featuring jazz, funk and blues by The Captain and The Brand Nu Gypsies.

Jam Session every Monday Night

Diva Tuesdays Karaoke ($2 cover) 8-11pm

St. Nick’s Pub -- 737 St. Nicholas Avenue at 149th Street -- 212-283-9728

Wednesday, February 14, 2001


New York, Dakar, Paris, Munich

Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout (Afro) Pop Music

By Sara Bruya (c) 2001

Riding up Tenth Avenue in a cab, the driver is singing along with the radio. “That’s Salif Keita!” I say, proud of myself for recognizing the great Malian singer over the scratchy airwaves. “Ah, You know African music??” the driver smiles, “Very Good! VERY GOOD!” I took the compliment, but didn’t really deserve it. I’ve really only just begun to scratch the surface of the many styles and artists wh
ich comprise the sounds of “Afro-Pop.”

My first exposure to modern music from the African Diaspora was in high school, when I would take a break from my homework to listen to Afro-Pop Worldwide on NPR (“with your host Georges ‘Zzzhorsh’ Collinet!”) But the African Pop scene hadn’t struck big in my small Montana town…(oh, there were drum circles, but that’s quite another story!) So I had to stumble across it again many years later--on an 18-hr layover in London--to experience the excitement of the real live thing! And to the credit of this great metropolis, though still lagging behind Europe’s appreciation for Afro-Pop, I’ve discovered it pulsing and jamming in crowded little New York night spots…alive and well…and growing!

I can’t remember the first time I set foot in Zinc Bar – a cozy downstairs dive just west of LaGuardia on Houston – but I think I was first charmed by the Moroccan-inspired décor in the little back room and the fact that they featured great live jazz for a $5 cover. That must have initially drawn me back there to hang on a Friday night…where I first encountered a band that would re-ignite my passion for African Pop and keep me on the dance floor all night and almost every Friday since.

The band is Kaïssa, named for Kaïssa Doumbè, the elegant and charismatic lead singer from Cameroon. She’s a gem of a woman—charming, stylish, and tres chouette! I was first struck by her embrace of the audience, both while singing and on her breaks. Between sets, she makes a point of introducing herself to new faces, making everyone feel welcome and familiar. When performing, Kaïssa charms the crowd with her incredible voice, broad smile and sexy moves! She’s joined by her husband Maciek Schejbal on drums.

Kaïssa describes her sound as a blend of Reggae, Jazz, R&B, Makossa (a Cameroonian dance rhythm from the Douala region, and also the name of the country's most popular pop style*), African and Brazilian fusion. She also cites the following influences (which I’ll include in full, because it’s such a hearty head’s up list for the Afro-Pop novice!):

Ngosso music from Cameroon (traditional singing from the Duala people)

Ambassibé music from Cameroon (traditional singing from the Sawa people)

Afro Beat from Nigeria and Cameroon (Fela Kuti, Niko Mbarga)

Mandingo music (Salif Keïta, Kassé Mady)

South African music (Myriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka, Bussi Mhlongo)

Afro American music ( Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Jackson 5, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder...)

Once becoming an “African Fridays” regular at Zinc, I discovered another of my favorites, Nkossi Konda with his band Peace of Mind. Nkossi, who was born in the Congo, gives an energetic performance of what he calls “Tri-cultural Pop,” referring to the musical influences he gathered as a result of extensive travel between the U.S., Europe and Africa starting at an early age. The result is a lively blend of Funk, Soukous (a musical style popular in the Congo that grew out of '50s Cuban rhumba music*) and Reggae with Pop hooks that really gets the crowd out of their seats.

Nkossi draws influence from many of the great bands and individual artists from his country (Zaiko Langa Langa, Papa Wemba, Franco & Koffi Olomide and others) while acknowledging Marvin Gaye, The Commodores, Rod Stewart, Peter Gabriel, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Police and especially Bob Marley as his primary “mainstream” influences.

“Tri-cultural pop represents the fusion between (the) three cultures that I have had the fortune and privilege of fully experiencing,” Nkossi says. “My challenge has always been about becoming one of the first African artists to cross over on the U.S. charts while keeping alive my strong and proud African heritage.”

And this could very well describe the challenge to Afro-Pop in general-- a form that crosses, without watering down, the best of ancient and traditional African rhythms with modern, progressive pop. But breaking into the American market is not easy.

“I sense that people are really open to our music,” Kaïssa says. “They are kind of ‘hungry’ for it. They are ready to hear it! But let me say this: There are not enough venues to perform. Record companies are not open to even trying (to sign us). If they do, they do not know how to promote it they say. There’s lots of work to do still.”

Nkossi agrees. “The majority of major labels in the States have not yet figured out that there is a market for those of us who were raised abroad, speak the language fluently and understand the importance and the dynamics of our adoptive Cultures.” But he adds, “Our world is getting smaller and more and more musicians are willing to fuse their sound with those from other cultures. The bottom line is that once you get past the language, it is just music!”

The success of this fusion can be heard in Nkossi’s dynamic live performances and especially on his Adyoyoyo Mona Lisa album which has consistently remained in the top 15 on the Africa#1 charts since its release in June 1998. The song My World clearly incorporates elements of Soukous and even Rap (with a political message in multiple languages) in a catchy, feel-good pop tune, while the peaceful love ballad Can’t Complain is beautiful ear-candy, combining again the English, French and Lingala languages with audible reference to Nkossi’s Sting/ Peter Gabriel bent.

In addition to its fusion of sounds, Afro-Pop has a strong tradition of political and social activism. Kaïssa sings against war and injustice and has performed for AIDS Research, UNESCO, and for Nelson Mandela’s Birthday Concert in South Africa. Nkossi cites, in addition to his musical influences, his admiration for great civil rights activists such as Gandhi, Dr. King, Malcolm X, and Mandela. His tune I Am Somebody from his Spring 2001 album Tamboula Malembe (a track which features Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish formerly of Living Colour) is proposed as the theme for Amnesty International’s 40th Anniversary Celebration this year.

The commitment of these performers to the plights of the human spirit seems only a natural outgrowth of their music. Afro-Pop, with its infectious dance rhythms and memorable melodies, can’t help but bring one to feel more happy and alive! Be sure to experience it while such seasoned and talented performers are available in such an intimate and welcoming setting--for such a reasonable cover!

Nkossi Konda with his band Peace of Mind will be at Zinc Bar on February 16, 2001. Kaïssa Doumbè will be there the following Friday, February 23.

Sets start at 11:00, 12:30 and 2:00. $5 cover.


For a map of the African continent go to:

Contact Info and Recommended links:

Zinc Bar: 90 W. Houston Street 212-477-8337

Other venues which feature Afro-Pop in NYC include Nell’s, Lion’s Den (African Tuesdays), Joe’s Pub, and SOBs.

Kaïssa Doumbè –

Nkossi Konda – / /

To order Tamboula Malembe or Adyoyoyo Mona Lisa, contact

Check out: /

Recommended Listening:

Kaïssa Doumbè:

  • Salif Keita – Soro
  • Manu Dibango – Wakafrika
  • Lokua Kanza – Wapi O
  • Miriam Makeba – Live in Paris & Conakry

Nkossi Konda:

  • Henri Dikongue – C’est La Vie
  • Richard Bona – Scenes From My Life
  • Youssou N’Dour – Lion
  • Papa Wemba – Le Voyageur/ Emotion/ Wake-Up
  • Viva la Musica – Place Vendome
  • Petit Makambo – Le Scorpion
  • Rene Lokua – Kumisama Yahwe
  • Vieux Diop – Banana

Sara B.:

  • Nkossi Konda – Adiyoyoyo Mona Lisa
  • Habib Koite & Bamada – Ma Ya
  • Etoile de Dakar (Featuring Youssou N’Dour) – Absa Gueye Vol. 1
  • Cheikh Lo – Ne La Thaiss
  • Fela Kuti – Expensive Shit/He Miss Road
  • Angelique Kidjo – Aye
  • Salif Keita – Papa

* as defined by the African Music Encyclopedia at

* as defined by the African Music Encyclopedia at