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Easy to understand, yet hard to define

Hip: The History, By John Leland, Ecco, 405 pp., with photos, $26.95

Other than the title of a tangy funk classic by Tower of Power, what is hip?

Certainly, most folks believe they recognize hip when they see it or hear it. It permeates Miles Davis's potent combination of insouciance and ferocity; it stalks ''the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix" in Allen Ginsberg's ''Howl," and it glows in the way Aretha Franklin spells ''R-E-S-P-E-C-T," as if she invented the word.

Still, recognizing what is hip is not tantamount to defining it; that John Leland resists the obvious temptation to answer such an impossible question is just one of the strengths of his alluring book, ''Hip: The History." In what he calls ''a history of a public perception, which by its nature is sometimes awry," Leland reveals a cultural concept as elusive as it is powerful.

In ways both entertaining and enlightening, Leland finds the abstract essence of a uniquely American construct weaving a fascinating path though music, criminals, and literature, which includes Walt Whitman, Louis Armstrong, Big Daddy Kane, Dorothy Parker, even Bugs Bunny.

To be sure, anything uniquely American must have at its core our great national dilemma -- race. Hip, Leland writes, ''tells a story of black and white America, and the dance of conflict and curiosity that binds it. In a history often defined by racial clash, hip offers an alternative account of centuries of contact and emulation, of back and forth."

The word ''hip" has been traced back to the Wolof verbs ''hepi," (''to see") and ''hipi," (''to open one's eyes"). As a term of awareness and enlightenment, it was brought to America by slaves from Senegal and coastal Gambia. From its inception here, hip is born as ''a subversive intelligence that outsiders developed under the eye of insiders," Leland contends. And to some extent, in its least corrupted form, hip remains the province of the marginalized and alienated, such as those black and Latino kids who, 30 years ago, spat rhymes over borrowed rhythms at South Bronx block parties before hip-hop even had a proper name.

Though Leland says that ''without the Africans, there is no hip," he also asserts there is no hip without African-Americans and European-Americans, ''inventing new identities for themselves as Americans in each other's orbit."

How best to absorb such a thesis probably depends on whether one believes, say, that Elvis Presley was the ''King of Rock 'n' Roll" or yet another cultural thief who ransacked black musical idioms then had the gall to claim them as his own. Leland's too savvy to take sides in this fractious decades-old argument, but he does examine the impact of other white figures such as Thomas Dartmouth ''Daddy" Rice, a white performer who popularized minstrel shows in the 19th century and, of course, rapper Eminem (who, by the way, is mentioned more times than Run-DMC, Jay-Z, Chuck D, and Tupac Shakur combined).

Like a listing of the greatest albums or films of all time, this book is sure to fuel arguments. Yet it's too judiciously researched and thoughtfully presented to be accused of shallow provocation. Leland regales ''the beatitude of Thelonious Monk at the piano or the stoic brutality of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground," but he also points how hip is used to glorify self-destruction. ''Hip rationalizes poor life choices; it squanders money, love, talent, lives," Leland writes, and the line conjures any number of icons such as Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Kurt Cobain. ''Hip is a convenient excuse" for screw-ups. Appropriately, he devotes an entire chapter, ''Criminally Hip," to outlaws from Billy the Kid to pimp-turned-author Iceberg Slim, but makes it clear that ''outlaws are not the same as hipsters," because those outside the law ultimately ''are not in control of their own myth."

Today, of course, when rap stars appear in deodorant commercials and extreme sports stars sell soda, hip quickly becomes commercialized. With the Internet and 24-hour news channels, ''the time lag between innovation and passive consumption," Leland writes, has been erased. But there's no bitterness in his observations. Hip is not static; and by the time Madison Avenue has co-opted the latest dance or slang, someone out there is already moving the needle toward reinvention and a new self-expression that binds us, as surely as politics and race can often divide us.

''For better and worse, hip represents a dream of America," Leland writes. ''At its best, it imagines the racial fluidity of pop culture as the real America, the one we are yearning to become."

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