How to Speak Hip

Del Close

How to Speak Hip is a spoken-word comedy album by improv pioneer Del Close and John Brent, released by Mercury Records in 1959. The album is designed as a satire of language-learning records, where the secret language of the ‘hipster’ is treated as a foreign language.

Part of the joke, however, is that it actually does a good job of describing the Beat Generation/Beatnik sub-culture: Basic concepts such as ‘cool’ and ‘uncool’ are taught, as well as vocabulary building (‘dig,’ ‘dig it,’ ‘dig yourself, baby,’ ‘dig the chick,’ ‘dig the cat,’ ‘What a drag!’).

Social notes are presented as for many language courses, and later in the album, the teacher (Close) is taken on field trips into the secret life of the hipster (Brent). However, the hipster rebels against participating in the teaching tool, leading to a humorously compromised teaching style.

A obsession with hipster slang had been prevalent in the mainstream culture since the late-30s/1940s when jazz music became a popular form. Cab Calloway released a recording of a song called the ‘Hepsters Dictionary’ in 1938 (along with a published booklet).

In the film ‘Song of the Thin Man’ from 1947 the ‘straight’ Nick and Nora have trouble following the jargon of the jazz musicians in the story. During the 1950s, as people became conscious of the Beat Generation phenomena, amid fears of juvenile delinquency, there was an increased urgency to understand the language spoken by the new youth culture.

The album came with a booklet expanding on the concepts discussed in the album, providing a supplementary reading list, and so on. It was was illustrated in a style of line drawing popular throughout the 50s (similar to the early commercial work of Andy Warhol). The woodcuts used as illustrations on the LP were stolen from Del’s Chicago apartment in the 1980s. Brian Wilson can be heard fondly mentioning this album in the box set ‘The Pet Sounds Sessions.’

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