Review by Miles Johnson
Y’all have heard of the bolo punch, right? I’m sure you’d know it if you saw it. The fighter’s eyes fixed on its target, dominant arm swinging in a wide but precise arc, much how you might throw the more conventional uppercut. You may have seen it thrown in a Three Stooges sketch or maybe the Super Smash Bros era Donkey Kong windup is more your speed, but it’s actually believed to have roots in the Philippines.
A bolo—“iták” in Tagalog, or “machete” in Spanish, or “bowie knife” in English or “big ass knife” in non-colonizing English—can be used to hack away limbs, brush, and other terrain found in places like the Philippines or Cuba, where fighters like Ceferino Garcia and Kid Gavílan, the man who invented the punch and the one who popularized it, cut their fighting teeth.
Here’s a clip of Sugar Ray Leonard using it to embarrass Roberto Duran, and this is what is actually important about this beautiful punch: you have to pay attention to both hands. Sounds simple, right? It’s a boxing match, you’re standing across from someone so nice with his hands we add a “Sugar” at the beginning of his name (not to mention he is the second best “Sugar Ray” to ever fight) so it’s probably a good idea to pay attention to both hands. But if a boxing legend drops both hands to taunt you before wildly winding up their haymaker arm, most of us would rationally focus not on the motionless arm, but on not getting hit by a devastating windmill. Most of us would get knocked out though, because again—it’s not a good idea to only focus on one hand, which is the intended brilliance of the bolo punch.
(Duran did not suffer a knockout at the hand of Leonard’s bolo—he simply waited until the next round to quit the fight.)
I don’t know if Hanif Abdurraqib, author of [The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, and (2016), They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us (2018)] has ever thrown a bolo punch in front of anybody. I can’t even speak to his skill as a fighter; maybe he can knuckle up. But what I can tell you is that by the end of the second chapter of his third, newest book, Go Ahead In The Rain: Notes To A Tribe Called Quest, Abdurraqib the writer bears a strong resemblance to Sugar Ray Leonard the boxing legend.
One of the many feats Abdurraqib’s writing accomplishes is a deft threading of topics that, at first glance, are disconnected. Whether explaining why Fetty Wap made the quintessential love song of his generation or the power of the seat belt, Abdurraqib excels at taking intimate moments and connecting them to larger social structures and phenomena. He’s great at making you watch both hands.
On its own, this is a writerly talent worthy of our awe. One could argue writers are at their best when they use their insight to make sense of the world they observe. In a book about A Tribe Called Quest specifically—a group that attracted fans across race, gender, and generation gaps—Abdurraqib’s penchant for holding and showing so much simultaneously is a perfect fit. Go Ahead In The Rain begins with a broader view of hip-hop’s genesis and how it fits within the history of Black music (the first three words are literally “In the beginning,” fit for any good origin story). It then transitions to discussing the formation of A Tribe Called Quest, the unique character traits of each of the initial members, and what made them as novel a group then as they are foundational to rap’s legacy now.
It isn’t until the following chapter, “The Low End,” that Abdurraqib switches to an epistolary format and you realize this is more than the biography of a major force in hip hop’s oft-referred to “golden era.” It is then, at the book’s first “Dear Tip,” or even plainer “Phife,” that you understand that your role as the reader is to bear witness to a multitude of crucial conversations—between a Black boy and the rap group he idolized growing up; between writers laboring to write for themselves and their people; between Black men who have harmed and been harmed; between feuding brothers lost in the riptide of their conflict; and perhaps most consequentially, between Black people who understand what it means to lose that which you loved and now cannot love anymore. You won’t absorb all that Go Ahead In The Rain emanates unless you’re committed to holding its assertions and questions all at once.
So when you reach the book’s dissection of the conflicts between Phife Dog and Q-Tip, and the Michael Rappaport-produced documentary that put those conflicts on the big screen, it’s critical to remember to watch both hands. Abdurraqib’s music criticism is as strong as it is because of his insight and observational skills—and he’s clearly put the research work in too. But the work is even more powerful because if you strive to write about music, you ultimately strive to write about people, and Hanif is really fucking good at writing about people.
Go Ahead In The Rain is not a chronicling of a group’s ascent to international stardom and descent back to solid earth. It’s not Abdurraqib’s memoir, using a cherished group of musicians to explore other truths about himself and his family. It’s not a sociological exploration of how music is synthesized by some and received, then contorted by others. It’s all of these things simultaneously and it would be a gargantuan task to digest all it has to offer on one, or even two readings. It’s only fair, as Abdurraqib has provided a story that is as historical and instructive as it is inquisitive. There will be questions—from how to protect your community and your own neck from the consequences of rapid success, to what it means that rap music comes from Black spaces that are actively scorned and policed—to accompany the answers Hanif provides. Hold them both as often as you can.
After all, Roberto Duran had the courtesy to at least wait until the eighth round before he succumbed to the weight of watching Sugar Ray’s brilliance, speeding toward him with confidence and precision.
Miles Johnson currently lives and writes in Oakland, but carries D.C. with him wherever he goes. Miles writes about Blackness, mental health, and popular culture, and focuses on the ways in which the three intersect in daily life. When he is not envisioning new ways to think, grow, and live in the service of Black liberation, he's brainstorming ways to get current Washington Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld a change of scenery. His work can be found at blackandoutside.com and he can be (virtually) found at @blackandoutside across all relevant social platforms.