If You Don't Know, Now You Know
Hip-hop gets a refreshing literary spin with Houston-based writer Shea Serrano’s latest The Rap Year Book, a thoroughly entertaining timeline of rap throughout the decades that made The New York Times bestseller list after its release last month. Each chapter in Year Book chronicles Serrano’s choices for the best rap song of every year since 1979, beginning with Sugarhill Gang’s revolutionary classic, “Rapper’s Delight.”
It’s Serrano’s second publication following his interactive 2013 book Bun B’s Rapper Coloring and Activity Book. After that book’s success, the teacher-turned-author was ready to lay out the blueprint of what would be some of his most well-known writing to date, despite the fact that he was initially reluctant about writing a “history book” when his editor suggested the concept.
“That [sounded] like the most boring thing when you explain it like that—because in my head, I’m just imagining straight text,” Serrano says. “No one is going to be excited by that. I just want to make cool s—t all the time.”
After coaxing his editor to print color illustrations in Year Book, there came the most difficult part of the process: the actual research. It is a history book, after all. Not to mention, Serrano compiled the book while he was still teaching eighth grade science at Stevenson Middle School in south Houston.
“I’d teach, come home and then work on it from like, 6 in the evening till 3 in the morning, and then go to sleep and then wake up and do it all over it again,” he explains. “[The publisher] gave me a year to write the book…and I didn’t start writing it until the ninth month. So it was like a crazy schedule.”
Serrano turned to hip-hop books and documentaries for research, and he also read archived newspaper and magazine articles from web databases for social and cultural context. Given the immense volume of records to choose from throughout the years, Serrano had difficulty selecting just one song for some of the more contemporary years—especially 1988 and 1994, which Serrano believes had “the most stuff going on.”
“In '94, for example, Biggie’s album [Ready to Die] came out, Nas’s first album [Illmatic] came out, Wu-Tang Clan was releasing singles,” Serrano explains. “Snoop [Dogg] was releasing singles and Outkast showed up. Like you got some of the greatest guys of all time putting out music that year.”
After the completion of Year Book, Serrano continued teaching until he quit this past August to write full-time for the recently (and ruefully) suspended Grantland. Although he enjoys writing, Serrano admits that he misses the classroom and still feels it’s where he belongs. Until his scholastic return, he’ll continue freelance work and welcome whatever opportunities come his way—as long as they allow him to stay in Houston with his wife and three children. Big names in Los Angeles attempted to entice Serrano with TV writing gigs, but he wouldn’t bite. He prefers to fly solo.
“I want to be the one that makes those decisions so if it messes up, it’s on me,” he reasons. “And if it doesn’t [mess up], then it’ll be on me too.”
Serrano plans to release another rap-centric work, a coffee table book scheduled for publication in 2017. But the writer confesses that for all he knows, the concept might change closer to the deadline. Which might be a good thing, since Serrano still hasn’t fully adjusted to all the praise he's garnered for the Year Book, especially the attention from his former Stevenson M.S. students.
“When we did the book signing at Cactus Music, some of my [students] showed up to that, and it was really weird,” Serrano says. “I didn’t even recognize them until they told me. One of the girls was pregnant and I was like woah!”