Wi14 Keynote: Hanif Abdurraqib on Sampling, Reading, and Life in Indie Bookstores

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Poet, essayist, and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib, whose forthcoming book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest, will be published by University of Texas Press on February 1, appeared before booksellers at the 2019 Winter Institute in Albuquerque, where he spoke on music sampling, reading, and his experiences in indie bookstores.

Abdurraqib, who invited booksellers to gather around him on the floor and in the front seats of the auditorium, began his keynote address with a reading from a chapter of Go Ahead in the Rain, which focused on a road trip he took as a teenager after reading H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights. He began with that specific passage, he said, because it was a story about the journey that reading a book took him on. “I read Friday Night Lights when I was 19 and immediately wanted to go to Odessa, Texas. I think all the time about what reading is, if not a way to indulge our foolish passions,” Abdurraqib said.

Hanif Abdurraqib addressing an audience of booksellers, who are seated on the floor around him.

In the months leading up to Go Ahead in the Rain’s publication, Abdurraqib noted, he has consistently been asked why he decided to write about A Tribe Called Quest, a hip-hop collective formed in the 1980s that used sampling — the act of incorporating clips of a piece of music into a new song — to create its unique sound. “Ultimately, I’m fascinated by what sampling actually is, or what it asks of both a listener or reader,” he said. “I also came of age in an era where rap music had no rules as far as what could be sampled and how.”

Abdurraqib, who grew up recording songs from the radio onto cassette tapes and then burning songs he loved onto CDs, told booksellers that his original concept for his keynote address at Wi14 changed when he was asked to create an opening playlist. Each of the songs on the playlist were ones that A Tribe Called Quest, which regularly featured 15 to 20 samples in one song, used in their own music.

“Sampling was effectively walking through a grocery store with a cart and shoveling in all that you wanted, assuming that you would make sense of it later,” he said. “The whole work of a sample, if you are at least arrogant enough or ambitious enough, is to say this once-finished product could live a better life than the life it was given at first…‘Sure, this John Coltrane song sounds good, but what can I do with it to make it better?’ There’s something miraculous about that to me.”  

A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” included a sample from Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and Abdurraqib said he found what Tribe did with it to be brilliant. “That’s something really magical. To say even atop the already-spectacular, there is another crescendo,” he said.

He also talked about the parallels between sampling and reading. “Much like reading a book or immersing oneself in any media, the idea of the sample is to hear the world differently,” he said, like how the first time he read Their Eyes Were Watching God, he felt like he was able to see through the eyes of Zora Neale Hurston’s characters.

“When I read a book,” he said, “I imagine that I am able to briefly borrow the eyes of the speaker and look up and see a different world. If we’re lucky enough, we’re reading books that are engaging us, and we get to see the world a little bit differently each time, or imagine a different place than the one we’re in.”

Listening to Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, he added, creates an atmosphere and world for him in the same way that reading a novel does, as they both push the imagination to picture a world that is better or different from the one we live in now. Bookstores like The Book Loft in Columbus, Ohio, he noted, also offer a similar experience.

The Book Loft was Abdurraqib’s first experience with how the physical space of a store can trigger one’s imagination. He fondly recalled that the store’s layout, with its many sections and many rooms, is similar to a maze: “All the time you hear people talk about ‘I go to bookstores and I just get lost,’ and it’s really whimsical and romantic, but if you go to The Book Loft you’re literally lost, and you kind of have to find your way out of the mass of books.”

The cover image for Go Ahead in the Rain. It reads: "This is the third book by Hanif Abdurraqib. It is a love letter to a group, a sound, and an era. It is called Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest."

This sense of getting lost in a bookstore was a formative experience, he added, saying, “It was important to read my way out of that maze...By the time I exited The Book Loft, I was able to imagine a different and better world than the one that I’d entered, and that, too, is a type of sampling.”

Abdurraqib shared with booksellers an experience he had during Winter Institute with a woman in a local shop in Old Town Albuquerque. The two got onto the subject of books, and she told him that she was writing one about her father. As she dug deeper into her research, Abdurraqib said, the woman said she realized that she was going to need to write two books because her father meant so much to her, and she wanted him to mean that much to other people as well.

“That’s why books should be written,” he said. “If we’re lucky, we’re building a life for ourselves just by existing and being in proximity with people who we love and care about. We’re building a life that deserves to be echoed into some corners after we’re gone. I think all the time about the people who are tasked with doing that echoing for us, and how they take to their work. I was so impressed by this woman, who began by writing about this person that she loved but then realized that she could not stop.”

“I think about that with this book. I haven’t found out how to articulate why I chose to write about A Tribe Called Quest, but to say that I love them so much,” he added. “Before there’s a generation gap that swallows them, I want to be somewhat responsible for the way that they echo in this world.”

As both a writer and a reader, indie bookstores have been vital to Abdurraqib’s life and career, he said, and working with booksellers has been one of the greatest experiences for him.

“I’ve always had the desire to be someone who lived life as a regular inside some indie bookstore like they do in the movies,” he said, adding that the first places he tends to check out when visiting a new city are indie bookstores, as well as sneaker stores. “But because of the fact that I’ve had people believe in my writing, I’ve gotten the opportunity to be a regular at many indie bookstores, and that’s been a dream come true.”

Abdurraqib closed his keynote address with a reading from his book, which looked at A Tribe Called Quest’s final album, We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service, Leonard Cohen’s death, and the 2016 election, as well as a Q&A session in which he shared his favorite albums and books, his writing process, and his thoughts on how sneaker shops should be learning from indie bookstores.