It's hard out there for a pioneer. Imagine how rocky baseball's integration would have been if Jackie Robinson were a weak-fielding, weak-hitting utility infielder who drunkenly cussed out his teammates after every loss, got into fistfights with umpires and hit on the owner's wife. In order to permanently break baseball's color line, Robinson needed to be an exemplar of nobility, resilience and quiet determination. For Robinson represented not just himself but every black ballplayer dreaming of crossing over from the Negro to the Major Leagues. That was an enormous burden for any one man to carry. But Robinson pulled it off with grace and dignity. The world is richer for his sacrifices.
So it pains me to report that Hiding In Hip Hop author Terrance Dean, a ground-breaker in his own right, is the literary equivalent of a weak-fielding, out-of-control third-rate utility infielder. It's unfortunate that the first high-profile book about the closeted gay "down low" subculture in Hip Hop is notable mainly for its awfulness. Dean is the reason editors and ghost-writers exist: he's got a compelling, important story to tell but lacks the talent to tell it adequately. To call the writing in Hiding conversational is an insult to every conversation held since the beginning of time. A five-year-old could read it. Heck, a five-year-old could have written it.
I'm sure Dean is a lovely human being with nothing but the best intentions. It certainly takes courage to come out in a Hip Hop culture rife with homophobia and straight-jacketed by rigidly defined gender roles. If even a single gay black teen writhing in self-hatred picks up Hiding and feels less alone then Dean will have performed a valuable public service. But seldom have good intentions gone so terribly awry.
It's not an encouraging sign that even the dust jacket contains typos, noting that the author has worked with such luminaries as "Anjelica Houston". Oh well, it's not as if Huston is the scion of a legendary acting dynasty or anything. Then again, Dean never writes about working with the Oscar-winning star of Prizzi's Honor, so it's possible that he really did work with Anjelica Houston, Anjelica Huston's non-union Mexican equivalent.
If Dean did have a ghost-writer, then that mystery scribe should commit seppuku out of shame. Dean has all the raw materials for a riveting memoir. The progeny of a gorgeous, heroin-addicted, AIDS-stricken prostitute mother (who Dean creepily/awkwardly praises for her "amazing body parts") and an absent father, he was molested at thirteen and grew up feeling deeply confused and ashamed of his budding sexuality. Karrene "Superhead" Steffens isn't a good writer, but the early chapters of her book–which parallel Dean's traumatic childhood–boast a blunt visceral power. It's hard not to empathize with the lady-author as she endures horrifying sexual abuse or endures a hellish, abusive marriage to Kool G. Rap. But Dean's terrible writing took me out of the story. I found myself concentrating on all the unnecessary words, awkward sentences, colorless prose and voluminous clichés instead of being sucked into his experiences.
It's hard not to compare Hiding to Steffens' Confessions Of A Video Vixen, and not just because Dean clearly aspires to do for down low brothers what Steffens did for dignity-free hip hop knob-gobblers. They both embody groups demonized and ridiculed throughout Hip Hop: trollops and homosexuals, hos and bros who love other bros. They both promise to blow the lid off exotic, secretive subcultures. The difference is that while Steffens' juicy tell-all isn't, you know, any good, it nevertheless delivers the goods. Hiding doesn't.
Dean hides the identities of Hip Hop's Down Low contingent with fake names and maddeningly vague descriptions. Though to be fair, Dean totally does out that one good-looking black man who worked with top producers and later appeared in both movies and television. Don't know who I'm talking about? What if I told you that he appeared in both comedies and dramas? Or that he was associated with another rapper and traveled with an entourage?
Instead of prompting an open and healthy dialogue about homosexuality and Hip Hop, Hiding is bound to inspire lots of grade-school snickering and gossip about who may or may not be gay. In a maddeningly repetitive, unedifying shame cycle, Dean feels bad about himself, so he throws himself into anonymous gay sex, then feels even worse about himself, so he drowns his sorrows in anonymous gay sex. Repeat that dynamic for about three hundred pages and you have Hiding In Hip Hop.
Of course, Hiding isn't wholly devoid of juicy celebrity revelations. Dean does occasionally name names. While working on The Keenen Ivory Wayans Show, Dean explosively reveals that the Wayans couldn't be nicer and that Brandy is just a charming, delightful woman. Then there's Dean's scandalous stint as a gofer for Spike Lee. At one point this pushy dame was all up in Spike's business and Spike was all, "Dean, why didn't you get that crazy woman away from me" and he was all, "Hey, I'm not your bodyguard." Even more fascinatingly, Spike once noticed a hickey on Dean's neck and asked about it. When Dean tried to pass it off as a bug bite, Lee deliciously quipped that he should watch out for bugs in the future. To think, if Dean hadn't been offered a fat book contract those priceless anecdotes would have been lost to the ages. Future generations will hail Dean for documenting these encounters for posterity.
One of the book's myriad disappointments is its dearth of Hip Hop content. I suppose Hiding In Hip Hop is a juicier and more commercial title than Hiding In Various Menial Jobs Within The Entertainment Industry, Some Of Which Tangentially Involve Hip Hop but the book's first two hundred pages have next to nothing to do with Hip Hop. Dean seems to think that Hip Hop credibility is something that can be transmitted sexually. Lord knows, he's certainly schtupped his share of rappers, producers and singers. By his own admission, he's boned everyone from that one guy who had that hit song to that musician you might be familiar with. The book's paltry Hip Hop content comes mostly from Dean's use of dated slang that went out with MC Hammer's gypsy pants. Here's Dean flirting with a singer who, shockingly, is a down low brother despite his stunning impersonation of a heterosexual who just can't keep the honeys from wanting to freak him:
"I just got to figure out how to let all my honeys know I can't be freaking them on the regular." "Oh?" My ears perked up. I began to imagine him with the women, the things he was doing to them and how he was freaking them. I wanted to be a freak with him. "Yeah, man. I got these other two women I've been seeing and damn, they are some freaks. I can't let go."
Has anyone, in the history of mankind, ever talked like that, with the possible exception of The Onion's very own Smoove B? OMG! What if Dean is actually outing Smoove B? The mind boggles. One of the nice things about writing a memoir is that you can polish and clean up conversations. You can make stumbling, inarticulate, borderline incoherent bits o' banter cleaner and more eloquent than they actually were, not dumber and less convincing. Late in the book Dean finally begins to emerge from his cocoon of shame and tentatively learns to embrace his homosexuality. It's a relief mainly because his epic self-pity–conveyed in touchy-feely therapy-speak–is such a droning bore. It's great that Dean has learned to love and accept himself. But it'd be even nicer if he'd gotten a good, or even, competent book out of it. With Hiding In Hip Hop, Dean pioneers a new literary subgenre: the tell-none.Up next on Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club: You'll Never Suck Cock In This Town Again, A Bunch of Dirty Hoors Yes, I Can, Sammy Davis Jr. The Knob-Gobbler Diaries, Super-Ho That Half-Assed Don Simpson Biography I'll Probably Get Around To Writing About At Some Point The Unusual Suspect, Stephen Baldwin As always, I am open to suggestions