For a movement given to conquering the globe on its own terms, hip-hop can mean as much or as little as any observer chooses. Politically potent protest music, market-minded product, young form still negotiating its rabid growth, old form rotting into oblivionall such diagnoses can be made to stick in one way or another. At first, Patrick Neate flails while trying to make sense of the murk in Where You're At, a travelogue that follows hip-hop through different cities and Neate's own head. Starting in New York, he sounds a death knell for his beloved subject, focusing on the business interests and intra-scene politics that have relegated hip-hop to an empty lifestyle industry. The movement's health proves no less grim in Tokyo, where Neate hangs out in clubs full of would-be Japanese B-boys who embrace hip-hop for what seems like fashion and nothing else.
The first two chapters angle Where You're At as a solemn and somewhat pat screed: As an English writer invested in hip-hop as both music and lifestyle, Neate bemoans all that's wrong with everything he sees. Once he tires of his own vantage, however, the book twists into a probing, and altogether more invigorating, meditation on what hip-hop means in its different contexts.
After coming to terms with Tokyo, where the surface properties of hip-hop signify more than Neate initially realizes, the story shoves off to South Africa. In Johannesburg, rappers and label heads mull over questions raised by a global movement that holds out prospects of local ownership wherever it spreads. Matters of race bristle in a country where integration is still a relatively new project; here, Neate truly finds his feet by trading complaints about "corporate megaliths" for issues more personal and less oppressively obvious. In Johannesburg and Cape Town, local rappers struggle to carve out their own place on the hip-hop totem pole, associating with the planetary movement while recoiling at the ways Africa gets misrepresented by rappers ostensibly celebrating their homeland.
Surveying similar scenes in Paris, Rome, and Rio, Neate finds a lot to lament: corrosive commercialization, racial infighting, insurmountable corporate and political infrastructure. But his open-minded, evenhanded narrative leads to just as many signs of vitality, sounding a conflicted grace note for a movement whose power remains for those who seek it out.