Vintage Canada, 2007, 360 pages, C$22.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-679-31389-2
The link between guns and modern hip-hop is as obvious as the genre’s music videos, but serious explorations of the subject aren’t quite as common. While the subject is good for alarmist sound-bite news reports, a serious exploration of the subject would require journalists with some understanding of hip-hop culture and the capability to analyze both the statistics and the human elements of the situation.
Fortunately, that’s exactly what we get from Rodrigo Bascuñán and Christian Pearce’s Enter the Babylon System, a book-length exploration of the link between urban culture and firearms. “Unpacking gun culture from Samuel Colt to 50 Cents”, as the subtitle suggests. Both authors are co-owners of Pound, “Canada’s largest hip-hop and urban culture magazine”, which speaks well of their interest and affection for the culture put under the microscope. But if you were expecting the kind of mealy-mouthed excuse that so often seems to come from groups under fire, think again: Both authors are quick to admit that there is a problem in hip-hop’s fascination for guns. The opening pages of the book make it clear that gun culture has a price measured in lives, as innocent bystanders and not-so-innocent criminals are both caught in the crossfire. The authors aren’t interested in denying the link between guns and hip-hop: They’re keen, however, on exploring the roots of that fascination, and its consequences.
After a vastly entertaining introduction that hints at the decidedly entertaining style in which the book is written (mixing statistics, news reports, hip-hop lyrics, artist interviews and well-penned editorializing), the book spends its “first chamber” discussing “the trade of the tools”: The weapons so often rhapsodized about. Readers who can’t tell the difference between a Glock and an AK-47 will be well-armed after reading a chapter that takes a hard look at weapon manufacturers, their products and their self-serving rhetoric. Latter meaty chapters discuss the gun distribution circuits (a process that involves a surprisingly low number of known crooked dealers), the way guns are depicted in popular culture outside hip-hop and the myriad of ways guns are used, from crime to suicide to military operations.
It’s a lively, entertaining, enraging book. Definitely written from a Canadian perspective, Enter the Babylon System doesn’t even attempt to excuse facilitators of gun violence. It’s difficult to come away from the book, for instance, without feeling that the NRA, regardless of it’s members’ purest intentions, is a borderline psychotic association that has taken a pro-violence mandate that goes far, far beyond protecting gun owners’ rights. The United States are quite naturally blamed for the influx of illegal gun in Canada, but one of the book’s surprises is an exploration of Canada’s home-grown gun makers.
Unfortunately, the book sometimes steps upon its own qualities. Utterly knowledgeable about hip-hop culture, the authors often assume the same understanding from their readers. And, as entertaining as the author’s style can be to read, some transitions and linking passages can feel forced and deliberately opaque, dampening the reading experience.
But even with those minor issues, Enter the Babylon System is a brilliant piece of engaged investigative journalism. It weaves together an impressive amount of material into a compelling storyline, one that goes beyond easy summaries to truly delve into the roots of gun culture. It’s compelling reading about a distasteful subject, and it’s a shame that the book was only published north of the frontier rather than down south where it could do some greater good.