Kevin Coval on Bomb The Suburbs, 20 Years Later

words by Kevin Coval


This year Billy Wimsatt's book "Bomb The Suburbs" turns 20. Here is one of a three part series of retrospectives on the iconic text. 


 Bomb the Suburbs repped for Chicago. Common's Resurrection came out in October of same year, 1994. Prior to that moment, there wasn't a lot of indigenous Chicago hip-hop. Chicago is the birthplace of house music, but its hip-hop community was comprised of NY imports or mimicry in the still nascent forms of the culture. In the late 80s early, 90s Chicago hip-hop, like most hip-hop outside of NY and LA, had yet to find its voice. Chicago was still and continues to be immersed in the style and sensibility of blues, soul and house musics. But Resurrection put Chicago in the national dialogue because it utilized local dialect, sound, narratives and realist working class portraiture, placing Common's poetics in the Chicago tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks.

 Together, BTS and Resurrection were just the beginning. Through one book and one album, Chicago was finally beginning to create original, dope products for hip-hop consumption. If Common inherited some of the fire of Black Arts poet Haki Madhubuti, then Upski was channeling the rogue and compassionate journalism of Studs Terkel, an oral historian who turned the mic over to those at the city's margins.

 BTS is aesthetically innovative. It's a book that feels like a mixtape. Skits, interviews, prose, cartoons, theory and creative memoir. It’s something only a hip-hop practitioner could write.

 Though sloppy and at times pejorative, BTS is an attempt for a white hip-hop kid to wrestle with whiteness. White appropriation of black cultural production is an old American tale, but rarely is it trotted into public discourse by someone who is appropriating. I read BTS the year it dropped. The marketing campaign in Chicago was ubiquitous. There was an excitement about the book. About a Chicago boy making good. It said things about race that were embarrassing and difficult and authentic and beautiful and risky. It is a foray into a (naive) critical race theory for the hip-hop generation.

 BTS remains fresh twenty years later due to the growing disparity between rich and poor, Black and white and the increasing number of bodies of color housed and dehumanized in the prison industrial complex. In THIS moment, BTS sounds an important and urgent call for public discourse and radical change. Its answers might not be my own conclusions, but the conversation and read remain essential and necessary, twenty years ago and right this second.

Kevin Coval is a poet, educator and organizer from Chicago. He is the founder of Louder Than A Bomb: Chicago’s Youth Poetry Festival. His books “Shtick” and “More Shit Chief Keef Don’t Like” are available now on Haymarket Books.