To the Break of Dawn

A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic

200 pages

May, 2008

ISBN: 9780814716717



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William Jelani Cobb is Assistant Professor of History at Spelman College and editor of The Essential Harold Cruse: A Reader. He is a contributing writer at Essence magazine, and his music criticism and essays have also appeared in the Washington Post, Emerge, and the Progressive. His website can be found at He resides in Atlanta, Georgia.

All books by William Jelani Cobb

2007 Arts Club of Washington’s National Award for Arts Writing - Finalist

With roots that stretch from West Africa through the black pulpit, hip-hop emerged in the streets of the South Bronx in the 1970s and has spread to the farthest corners of the earth. To the Break of Dawn uniquely examines this freestyle verbal artistry on its own terms. A kid from Queens who spent his youth at the epicenter of this new art form, music critic William Jelani Cobb takes readers inside the beats, the lyrics, and the flow of hip-hop, separating mere corporate rappers from the creative MCs that forged the art in the crucible of the street jam.

The four pillars of hip hop—break dancing, graffiti art, deejaying, and rapping—find their origins in traditions as diverse as the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira and Caribbean immigrants’ turnstile artistry. Tracing hip-hop’s relationship to ancestral forms of expression, Cobb explores the cultural and literary elements that are at its core. From KRS-One and Notorious B.I.G. to Tupac Shakur and Lauryn Hill, he profiles MCs who were pivotal to the rise of the genre, verbal artists whose lineage runs back to the black preacher and the bluesman.

Unlike books that focus on hip-hop as a social movement or a commercial phenomenon, To the Break of Dawn tracks the music's aesthetic, stylistic, and thematic evolution from its inception to today's distinctly regional sub-divisions and styles. Written with an insider's ear, the book illuminates hip-hop's innovations in a freestyle form that speaks to both aficionados and newcomers to the art.


  • To the Break of Dawn marks a crucial turning point in hip-hop writing. . . . By opening the discourse on hip-hop’s aesthetic, Cobb spearheads a new sub-genre, and perhaps a return or revolution in hip-hop aesthetics.”

    Black Issues Book Review

  • “[P]eels back the many digitized layers of hip-hop to explore the evolution of the MC, from African folkloric traditions to the global (and often hypercommercial) phenomenon it is today.”


  • To the Break of Dawn is smart, funny, conversational—a book to touch off serious study of the modern MC.”

    The Austin Chronicle

  • “Upon finishing To The Break of Dawn any objective fan will acknowledge that Cobb has done a commendable job in chronicling rap’s evolution and explaining its multiple influences and impact.”

    City Paper

  • To the Break of Dawn dissects the evolution of hip hop lyricism from its most primitive beginnings to its current manifestation as a global phenomenon. Author Jelani Cobb examines issues of race, geography, genre and bravado in this overview of hip hop’s lyrical art. Covering words from B.I.G., Cube, Obie Trice and Pimp C, Cobb offers an intellectual and up-to-date report on hip hop’s most powerful element.”

    The Source Magazine

  • “What makes William Jelani Cobb’s To the Break of Dawn so refreshing is that it centers on what hip-hop is, rather than on what it does. Eschewing the common practice of treating rap lyrics as just another way to talk about race, politics or the self, Cobb treats them as art. His aim is ambitious: to articulate hip-hop's aesthetic principles while tracing its roots back to the ‘ancestral poetic and musical traditions’ of black oral culture, from Sunday sermons to gut-bucket blues. To the Break of Dawn celebrates lyrical invention, the artists and even the particular rhymes that make hip-hop great. For the uninitiated, it is Hip-Hop 101, offering a rich overview of rap's verbal artistry. For the aficionado, it alternately affirms and challenges deeply held beliefs of what is valuable in hip-hop.”

    Washington Post Book World

  • “This book makes an important contribution to hip-hop history. . . . Cobb’s writing style is engaging, and the book benefits from the legitimacy provided by the author’s background: he is a former MC who grew up with the culture.”


  • “On literally every page [Cobb] displays a tremendous command of language and history as he ‘examines the aesthetic, stylistic, and thematic evolution of hip hop from its inception in the South Bronx to the present era.’ But make no mistake: this groundbreaking work is an artfully constructed and vividly written look at ‘the artistic evolution of rap music and its relationship to earlier forms of black expression.’ Much of the book's pleasure also comes from Cobb’s ability to ‘freestyle’ serious and humorous insights-from how artists such as Tupac and Nas sometimes ‘stepped outside the conventions of hip-hop to pen sympathetic narratives about the sexual exploitation of young women,’ to how LL Cool J’s pioneering ‘I Need a Beat’ sounded ‘like he’d raided every entry in an SAT book.’”

    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  • “Vital stuff for hip hop fans eager to know more about their favorite cultural idiom’s development and underpinnings.”


  • “Cobb has contributed a worthy study to the growing literature on hip-hop.”

    Popular Music

  • “At a time when academics are just beginning to recognize hip hop as a legitimate form, William Jelani Cobb, a child of rap himself, brings an unparalleled level of understanding to the music. His historically informed yet hip-to-the-tip viewpoint roots readers in the art form rather than the hype.”

    —Chuck D

  • “With poetic passion and surgical precision, William Jelani Cobb’s engaging exploration of the hip hop aesthetic lovingly demonstrates that, when it comes to beats and rhymes, the beauty of the (bass) god resides in the details.”

    —Joan Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost

  • “Finally, a hip hop study that captures the verve and swagger that marked the work of our critical forebears Albert Murray and Amiri Baraka. In his brilliant new tome, William Jelani Cobb bridges the gap between the majesty of the blues and the gully regality of hip hop.”

    —Mark Anthony Neal, author of New Black Man

  • “Wow! To the Break of Dawn is a crucial contribution to hip hop history. I'm thrilled that William Jelani Cobb has documented hip hop's relationship to the blues. If you want to truly understand how hip hop was born, read this book.”

    —MC Lyte

  • To the Break of Dawn tells the serious story of hip hop's artistic roots, and in the process revels in the great MCs who stand at the crossroads of music and literature. In a crowded field of hip hop scholars, pundits, and journalists, To the Break of Dawn puts William Jelani Cobb way out in front.”

    —Ta-Nehisi Coates