50 Years of Hip Hop: Books Authored by the Artists

By Bridget G. RSS Mon, September 11, 2023

In 2023, the Free Library is observing the 50th anniversary of hip hop with a limited-edition library card design commissioned by local artist Akinseye Brown.

In honor of this milestone, here are must-reads from the Free Library's catalog authored by top hip hop artists that shaped the genre and made their marks on music history forever.


Decoded (2011) by Jay-Z

Updated with three new songs, this is the intimate, first-person chronicle of the life and work of Jay-Z, born Shawn Carter in Brooklyn's notorious Marcy Projects, now known to many as the greatest rapper alive. Told through lyrics, images and personal narrative, Decoded shares the story of Jay-Z's life through the 10 codes that define him, giving an unparalleled insight into his background, influences and the artistic process that shapes his work. Each chapter features a highly personal narrative section followed by a visually captivating selection of his most famous and provocative lyrics underlining the chapter's themes, along with Jay-Z's own 'decoding' of each lyric, uncovering the wordplay and stories behind the song.

E.A.R.L. Ever Always Real Life: The Autobiography of DMX (2003) by DMX

This is the life and times of the darkest and most dangerously introspective hip hop artist ever — at the height of his career and completely uncensored. His real name is Earl Simmons. As a child he placed higher on tests than his fellow students, and liked to spend mornings with his mother and sisters playing games and making pancakes. But for young Earl — a boy growing up on the streets of Yonkers, New York — that kind of childhood didn’t last long. Beatings, abuse, and neglect very soon had him moving on to other things, like robbing, stealing, drugs, and, eventually, jail. Along the way, however, he found a talent and a passion for rhyme. After 27 years of chaos, struggle, and survival, DMX became one of the biggest stories in contemporary music. But his character goes beyond that. He’s also a father, a husband, and more important, someone who never gave up, and never stopped chasing his dreams.

From Staircase To Stage: The Story of Raekwon and The Wu-Tang Clan (2021) by Raekwon

There are rappers who everyone loves and there are rappers who every rapper loves, and Corey Woods, a.k.a. Raekwon the Chef, is one of the few who is both. His versatile flow, natural storytelling, and evocative imagery have inspired legions of fans and a new generation of rappers. Raekwon is one of the founding members of Wu-Tang Clan, and his voice and cadence are synonymous with the sound that has made the group iconic since 1991. Now, for the first time, Raekwon tells his whole story, from struggling through poverty in order to make ends meet to turning a hobby into a legacy. The Wu-Tang tale is dense, complex, and full of drama, and here nothing is off-limits: the group's origins, secrets behind songs like "C.R.E.A.M." and "Protect Ya Neck," and what it took to be one of the first hip hop groups to go from the underground to the mainstream.

The Rose That Grew From Concrete (2009) by Tupac Shakur

His talent was unbounded, a raw force that commanded attention and respect. His death was tragic — a violent homage to the power of his voice. His legacy is indomitable — remaining vibrant and alive. Here now, newly discovered, are Tupac's most honest and intimate thoughts conveyed through the pure art of poetry — a mirror into his enigmatic life and its many contradictions. Written in his own hand at the age of 19, they embrace his spirit, his energy ... and his ultimate message of hope.

Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity From The Lyrical Genius (2019) by Rakim

The musician and hip hop legend — hailed as “the greatest MC of all time” and compared to Thelonious Monk — reimagines the writing handbook in this memoir and guide that incorporates the soulful genius, confidence, and creativity of a master artist. When he exploded on the music scene, musical genius Rakim was hailed for his brilliant artistic style, adding layers, complexity, depth, musicality, and soul to rap. More than anyone, Rakim has changed the way MCs rhyme. Calm on the mic, his words combine in a frenzy of sound, using complicated patterns based on multisyllabic rhymes and internal rhythms. Rakim can tell a story about a down-on-his-luck man looking for a job and turn it into an epic tale and an unforgettable rhyme. He is not just a great songwriter—he’s a great modern writer. 

The Gospel of Hip Hop: The First Instrument (2009) by KRS-One

Set in the format of the Christian Bible, this 800-plus-page opus is a life-guide manual for members of Hip Hop Kulture that combines classic philosophy with faith and practical knowledge for a fascinating, in-depth exploration of hip hop as a life path. Known as "The Teacha," KRS ONE developed his unique outlook as a homeless teen in Brooklyn, New York, engaging his philosophy of self-creation to become one of the most respected emcees in hip hop history. Respected as hip hop's true steward, KRS ONE painstakingly details the development of the culture and the ways in which we, as "Hiphoppas," can and should preserve its future.

Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story (2021) by Talib Kweli

One of the most lyrically gifted, socially conscious rappers of the past 20 years offers a firsthand account of hip hop as a political force in addition to illuminating his own upbringing and artistic success.

Diary of a Madman: The Geto Boys, Life, Death, and The Roots of Southern Rap (2015) by Scarface

From Geto Boys legend and renowned storyteller Scarface, comes a passionate memoir about how hip hop changed the life of a kid from the south side of Houston, and how he rose to the top and ushered in a new generation of rap dominance. In Diary of a Madman, Scarface shares how his world changed when he heard Run DMC for the first time; how he dropped out of school in the ninth grade and started selling crack; and how he began rapping as the new form of music made its way out of New York and across the country. It is the account of his rise to the heights of the rap world, as well as his battles with his own demons and depression. Passionately exploring and explaining the roots and influences of rap culture, Diary of a Madman is the story of hip hop — the music, the business, the streets, and life on the south side of Houston, Texas.

Livin' Loud (2022) by Chuck D

In Livin' Loud, Public Enemy founder, hip hop pioneer, and revolutionary activist, Chuck D, presents a body of art, each piece reflective of the man behind the music, alongside a biographical commentary tracing his musical and artistic trajectory — from his early roots and the central figures that critically shaped him and his voice, to the formation of Public Enemy, from his Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame induction through to his time with Prophets of Rage and current-day world affairs — Chuck D has been creating musical and cultural observations that challenge public opinion since 1985 and his visual compositions continue to interpret and question the world around us. Chuck D pays homage to his musical influences and peers from James Brown and Woody Guthrie to Def Jam labelmates Run-DMC and Beastie Boys; a host of the most influential hip hop artists from Ice Cube to Run the Jewels; his twin passions of baseball and basketball; creating a collection of landscapes on tour with Prophets of Rage, and a range of sociopolitical pieces that explore the issues continuing to shape our culture.

Let Love Have The Last Word: A Memoir (2019) by Common

Common believes that the phrase "let love have the last word" is not just a declaration; it is a statement of purpose, a daily promise. Love is the most powerful force on the planet and ultimately, the way you love determines who you are and how you experience life. Touching on God, self-love, partners, children, family, and community, Common explores the core tenets of love to help others understand what it means to receive and, most importantly, to give love. He moves from the personal — writing about his daughter, to whom he wants to be a better father — to the universal, where he observes that our society has become fractured under issues of race and politics. He knows there's no quick remedy for all of the hurt in the world, but love — for yourself and for others — is where the healing begins.

I Make My Own Rules (1997) by L.L. Cool J

LL Cool J reveals the trials of his childhood, including the story of how his father shot his mother and grandfather when he was four. He also talks about the controversial world of rap, telling the whole truth about his own decadent "champagne and gold chain" days. Most importantly, he talks about how he turned himself around and achieved success despite the odds, setting an example to kids and adults alike through his spiritual confidence, entrepreneurial style, and plain hard work.

Music Is History (2021) by Questlove

In Music Is History, bestselling author and Sundance award-winning director Questlove harnesses his encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and his deep curiosity about history to examine America over the past 50 years. Choosing one essential track from each year, Questlove unpacks each song’s significance, revealing the pivotal role that American music plays around issues of race, gender, politics, and identity.

Ten Ways Not To Commit Suicide: A Memoir (2016) by DMC

The legendary rap star and cofounder of Run D.M.C. speaks out about his battle with depression and overcoming suicidal thoughts — one of the most devastating yet little-known health issues plaguing the Black community today.

Tha Doggfather: The Times, Trials, and Hardcore Truths of Snoop Dogg (1999) by Snoop Dogg

Raised to the heights, and brought to the brink, Snoop Dogg eventually found sanity and salvation in his relationship with Shante Taylor, his high school sweetheart. Married in 1997, the couple started a new life with their two young sons, even as Snoop's career reached new heights in his creative collaboration with Master P and No Limit Records. No one knows more of the truth about the life, and no one tells it more like it is, than Tha Doggfather, Snoop Dogg.

Ladies First: Revelations of a Strong Woman (2000) by Queen Latifah

At 19, she was the first female solo rapper to have a major record deal. Four years later she had become a top television actress and movie star. She earned a Grammy, started a record label, and became the president of her own company. Today she is rap music's most enduring female force. But how did Dana Owens, a young girl from Newark, New Jersey, become Queen Latifah and make it to the top of the charts? The most powerful voice in rap has always been quiet about her life ... until now.

Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption from South Central to Hollywood (2011) by Ice-T

The hip hop artist and television star shares the story of his early life, marked by the deaths of his parents, his involvement in gangs, and the single-minded work ethic that enabled his rise to international fame.

The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash: My Life, My Beats (2008) by Grandmaster Flash

In the 1970s, Grandmaster Flash pioneered the art of break-beat DJing — the process of remixing and thereby creating a new piece of music by playing vinyl records and turntables as musical instruments. Disco-era DJs spun records so that people could dance. The original turntablist, Flash took it a step further by cutting, rubbing, backspinning, and mixing records, focusing on “breaks” — what Flash described as “the short, climactic parts of the records that really grabbed me” — as a way of heightening musical excitement and creating something new. Now the man who paved the way for such artists as Jay-Z, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and 50 Cent tells all — from his early days on the mean streets of the South Bronx to the heights of hip hop stardom, losing millions at the hands of his record label, his downward spiral into cocaine addiction, and his ultimate redemption with the help and love of his family and friends.

The Way I Am (2008) by Eminem

Fiercely intelligent, relentlessly provocative, and prodigiously gifted, Eminem is known as much for his enigmatic persona as for being the fastest-selling rap artist and the first rapper to ever win an Oscar. Everyone wants to know what Eminem is really like after the curtains go down. In The Way I Am, Eminem writes candidly about how he sees the world; about family and friends; about hip hop, rap battles, and his searing rhymes; and about the conflicts and challenges that have made him who he is today.

From Pieces to Weight: Once Upon A Time in Southside Queens (2005) by 50 Cent

In the New York Times bestseller From Pieces to Weight, rap mogul 50 Cent, a.k.a. Curtis Jackson, lifts the veil on his complicated life, from the murder of his mother when he was 12, to hustling on the streets; from the assassination attempt that nearly finished him to his meteoric rise to the top of hip hop royalty. This violent and introspective memoir reveals not only 50 Cent's story but also the story of a generation of youth faced with hard choices and very few options. It is a tale of sacrifice, transformation, and redemption, but also one of hope, determination, and the power of self. Told in 50's unique voice, the narrative drips with raw insight, street wisdom, and his struggle to survive at all costs — and behold the riches of the American Dream.

Hurricanes: A Memoir (2019) by Rick Ross

Rick Ross is an indomitable presence in the music industry, but few people know his full story. Now, for the first time, Ross offers a vivid, dramatic, and unexpectedly candid account of his early childhood, his tumultuous adolescence, and his dramatic ascendancy in the world of hip hop. Born William Leonard Roberts II, Ross grew up 'across the bridge,' in a Miami at odds with the glitzy beaches, nightclubs, and yachts of South Beach. In the aftermath of the 1980 race riots and the Mariel boatlift, Ross came of age at the height of the city's crack epidemic, when home invasions and execution-style killings were commonplace. Still, in the midst of the chaos and danger that surrounded him, Ross flourished, first as a standout high school football player and then as a dope boy in Carol City's notorious Matchbox housing projects. All the while he honed his musical talent, overcoming setback after setback until a song called "Hustlin" changed his life forever.

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