Friday, February 2, 2007

a review of my book...

In Search Of...Divine Styler
By Ryan Somers, AKA Fritz Tha Cat
Mudscout Media, 168 pages, trade paperback, $14.00
From 1996 to 1999, Ryan Somers — also known as Fritz Tha Cat — self-published eight issues of his Ontario-based hip-hop zine, In Search Of...Divine Styler. This book, published by Montreal’s Mudscout Media, is a collection of the interviews, reviews, and articles selected from the eight issues of the seminal zine, interspersed with memoirs and testimonials of fans, musicians, and others involved in creating the zine.

Divine Styler is not the first book of its kind: the immortalization of a zine into a perfect-bound and durable coffee table-worthy tome (see Vice and Cometbus and Punk Planet). Nor are Somer’s personal stories and experiences in publishing a zine necessarily unheard of. Ryan’s zinester memoirs are, however, somewhat familiar and heartwarming to anyone who has ever experienced the struggle of self-publishing, and Divine Styler magazine, the offspring of his labor, is unique in that it was a one-of-a-kind publication, rare in the depth of knowledge its contributors possessed, and created on the foundation of an underlying singular goal — to seek out Ryan’s inspiration, the semi-obscure hip-hop artist known as Divine Styler.

Divine Styler is a Brooklyn-born rapper, a part of Ice-T’s Rhyme Syndicate in the 1980s best known for his single “Ain’t Sayin’ Nothin’” from his 1989 album, Word Power. That and his follow-up album, 1991’s Spiral Walls, were critically acclaimed but not hugely successful in the commercial market. As of today they are no longer in print — you’ll have to check eBay in hopes of digging up a cassette, if you’re lucky.

“I decided that I had to bring Divine Styler back to save hip-hop,” declares Somers in the introduction. “Using money from my welfare cheque, I started a cut-and-paste photocopied magazine named after Divine himself. My mission was to send the magazine all around the world, until eventually somebody, somewhere would get it into Mr. Styler’s hands, in hopes that it would inspire him to record and release music again.” In Search of...Divine Styler became a tribute, a mission, and a forum for underground hip-hop.

In April 1996, the first issue was released — 100 copies, cut-and-paste, photocopied. Merely two months passed, and issue two was released, featuring an interview (contained in full in the book) with The Fugees.

One of the most impressive aspects of Divine Styler is that throughout the book, from the early cut-and-paste issues through the last two (when the magazine was professionally printed and 10,000 copies were circulated), the interviewers show thorough knowledge in the subject matter, and ask interesting questions. Like the current punk rock zine Razorcake, Divine Styler magazine dug deep into the underground of the scene it supported, and conducted interviews that are, even today, captivating even when featuring the most obscure artist, and read by someone who might not have any foreknowledge of the subject matter. Such is the case in the instance of the interview with rapper Saukrates from issue three, who delves into the quagmire of record label/distributor relationships (and the difficulties therein); the discussion with Abstract Rude and Tribe Unique, which veers quickly from coastal conflicts to their personal religious beliefs; to an interview with the Divine Styler in issue seven. An especially interesting interview took place with Supreme Being Unit, who — like several others in the magazine — echo a lament common to the punk rock scene: the empiricism of major labels, and the struggle to “make it” without caving to the pressures of signing with a major.

A few big names — noticeable even to a hip-hop novice such as myself — pop up in this book. Interviews with poet Saul Williams, MF Doom, Eazy-E, and Kwest find their way into the pages of Divine Styler. Somers and company had an odd sense of humor, too, and it rears its head in several of these interviews: the Eazy-E interview is actually just a written recollection of a drunken attempt to contact Eazy with a Ouija Board (in issue eight); the Kwest “interview” is a recorded conversation between Kwest and a phone sex operator (also from issue eight); the MF Doom interview (once again, issue eight) is nothing more than a conversation about booze — and I’ve read interviews with Doom, he has a lot to say, and if you’re going to get him down on tape, you might as well attempt to get a coherent and insightful conversation going.

There are a whopping 26 interviews in this book — those are the only of the bunch that stray from the overall excellent quality of journalism that the writers for Divine Styler exhibit. Not only does this book bring back life to the zine it compiles, but it also brings back the words of artists such as Styles of Beyond, Sebutones, The Animal Pharm, Company Flow, Moka Only, and Hieroglyphics. Hip-hop aficionados take note.

My personal favorite article is the first I turned to — an interview with a black skinhead from Chicago known only as “Marty.” Marty knows his stuff. I didn’t even know black skinheads existed, as the skinhead culture has a pretty bad (and understandably bad) reputation as a culture infiltrated with racist, neo-Nazi fascism. Marty celebrates the working class politics and the racial integration of the original “real skinheads,” who were influenced equally by Kingston rude boys as by blue-collar British mods, and the genuineness of the ARA (Anti-Racist Action) skins, who retaliate against Nazi “boneheads.” Until now I sort of wrote off the ARA as a front for pussies who didn’t have the sack to admit their racist leanings. I’m glad to see it’s a movement with some legitimacy.

One of In Search Of...Divine Styler’s biggest successes is that it accomplished the goal (as stated by Somers in the book’s introduction) that it set out to achieve. In 1997, Divine Styler (the artist) was made aware of this Canadian zine that bore his name, and “the righteous music of Divine Styler was inspired and resurrected; Ryan’s search was over” says Addi “Mindbender” Stewart in the afterword. In 1999 (almost a decade after nearly disappearing from the hip-hop landscape) Divine Styler dropped his third album, Wordpower 2: Directrix.

Reading through the commentary in In Search Of...Divine Styler leaves no doubt that the magazine left a permanent impression upon those who it reached. Like most publications fading into the dark night of a dying zine culture, money killed this baby. Funding is the albatross that drags down most zinesters. However, this book is a testament and a time capsule, and is essential to not just lovers of Divine Styler the zine, Divine Styler the artist, and of hip-hop, but of zine culture and unlikely cultural phenomena. – Jackson Ellis


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