Book report 2021/01 – Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem

I am endlessly fascinated by tales from 20th Century New York City – stories about jazz, punk, hip hop, comics, TV, stand-up, the mob, fashion – all of it and more. Especially about the people who made it happen.

I bought this book on a whim. I really didn’t know much about about Dapper Dan. His name regularly appeared in rap lyrics – especially in the 90s. I was vaguely aware of his role in outfitting a whole generation of New York rappers but that was about it.

It turns out he has lived a fascinating life of which his time dressing hip hop legends is probably the least interesting aspect.

Born in 1940s Harlem he lived through some of the most turbulent decades in New York’s history – with Harlem (where he has lived all his life) at the centre of much of the change. He has been a street hustler most of his life – reading about it is like a roller coaster ride through the dark side of the American Dream. Gambling, drug dealing (and addiction), credit card fraud, prison spells, dabbling with the Nation of Islam (while Malcolm X was still about), flirting with a journalism career, trips to Africa (and missing the Rumble in the Jungle), dropping the names of notorious gangsters like they were sports stars and then being right in the middle of things when hip hop invaded mainstream culture (including popping up on Yo! MTV Raps) not to mention his shop being the location for one of Mike Tyson’s early controversies.

There is a lot to cover and it is a breezy read – it never goes too deep into things and as with most autobiographies he is pretty forgiving to himself. I suspect there are a lot of other perspectives to his tales – especially from the various women raising his children. Also his dabbling with spirituality – which he is at pains to highlight – feels like someone determined to retroactively frame themselves as a philosopher caught up in the ‘game’ – something he himself contradicts time after time.

It is a never anything less than interesting from beginning to end though and I powered though the book in about a day (something I didn’t manage throughout 2020!).

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