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”

No comments: