Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem

Nothing makes you question the purpose and meaning of life like hunger. Hunger is physical, it’s real.

Opening bets

This, my friends, is not a book. This is a lively narrated guided tour of Harlem, as it evolved through the second half of the 20th century. And it is an incredible life story of someone who has successfully fought the odds in life and has survived.

If you don’t know who Dapper Dan is, do not worry. You’re not alone. I myself did not know about him before I read this book. Based in Harlem, Dapper Dan is one of the most innovative and ground-breaking fashion designers who set up his own now-famous boutique in Harlem after having dabbled half his life as a hustler.

Hustle all the time

We were hustling before we even knew what the word meant.

Hustling as a verb has taken on a new meaning today. Urban Dictionary for example defines hustle as “Working hard, usually towards the common goal of creating an income.” But the hustle that Dapper Dan did all his life was based on the more traditional sense of the word, “to sell something to or obtain something from (someone) by energetic and especially underhanded activity.” For Dapper Dan, hustling was a way of life. Although he managed to stay away from other more debilitating addictions like alcohol and drugs, I guess hustling was his addiction.

As he would have said, a playa always be hustling whether on the streets or out of it. In one of the chapters he mentions about a time in his life when he had a respectable and responsible job of an assistant manager at a store. But the devious part of his hustling mind kept thinking of making extra money on the side. He explains how he tried to embezzle his employer’s money and got caught doing so. This resulted him in losing the job and almost got a friend fired as well.

Many of the hustles that Dapper Dan has dabbled in the past weren’t exactly legal. Gambling, selling drugs, credit card fraud, appropriating trademarks – his life was but an adventure on the wild side. At some point in time it did make me wonder for how long is a person responsible for all that he has done in the past, especially things that are not legal. But I realised that there are statute of limitations in law that define this boundary, beyond which an individual cannot be held to account (for minor crimes at least). I guess Dapper Dan was aware of these when he chose to disclose them.

Pretty fly

But it is evident that his experiences in his early life influenced and possibly even decided what he was going to do in his later life. As a playa, he was always fly. His unfailingly need to look dapper even got him his nick name and eventually led him to become a fashion designer.

It was about style and how you carried yourself in the street. It was about your shoes, the way you wore your hat. It was about the car your drove and how fly your girl dressed.

I understood how deep it was to be fly. It wasn’t the outside that was important. It was that thing that happened inside you that gave you strength. I felt powerful.

The book has a natural tone to it and is easy to. The story is so fascinating that I often ploughed through multiple chapters in a single sitting. It is most likely that the author narrated his story as he talked and walked in real life, and the book editor chose to keep the grammar and other lingo intact to capture the uniqueness of his style. It bring a richness and authenticity to the narration.

It is amazing how much Dapper Dan was fond of books and every time he started a new hustle he made it a point to read as much as he could find about that subject in order to give him an edge in the game. And boy was he ahead of the game. At one point in his life, he started “remaking credit cards” by scrounging for credit card receipts in the trash. He even swiped a credit card machine from a hospital and then proceeded on a multi-country jewellery buying binge. This was his paper game. This technique was so new that even when he got caught, the police and the judge had no clue about how the game actually worked and how serious their offence really was. As a result Dapper Dan and his partners got off lightly most of the time.

And just when you think that the game can’t be pushed any further, Dapper Dan went ahead and pushed it further anyway. By the late 1980s, Dapper Dan’s boutique was already quite popular with hustlers and rappers. When Harlem was facing a spike in the crime rate during this time, he started designing bullet-proof jackets for his hustler and rapper friends. Imagine a flashy Gucci-branded bulletproof jacket. Talk about having an untapped niche.

It is almost heart-breaking to read about how his store was pushed to the brink of closure and he himself had to face a dark period in his life when the big fashion brands descended on him for appropriating their trademarks. Of course what he did was questionable in the court of law, however he felt that his designs and creativity was still unique and original.

Intellectual property is still a gray area when it comes to fashion appropriation. Designers are constantly borrowing and sampling and getting inspiration from different cultures and from each other. It’s even more blurry in the art world.

What is not mentioned clearly or sufficiently in the book that lately Dapper Dan has in fact collaborated with these very same fashion brands that initially chose to choke off his creativity. For example he now has a partnership with Gucci and Louis Vuitton to co-create, using their brands and his own designs to create clothes in an inimitable style. But Dapper Dan hasn’t talked extensively about this partnership in the book. Neither has he talked a lot about his wife and children in the book. But that is completely natural if he wanted to keep his personal life and relationships out of the public eye.

Where to go from here?

There are a couple of potentially good book recommendations that I found in his memoir and I have already added them to my Goodreads shelf. Some of these books are probably out of print and it could be difficult to source them.

Even his description of the Nation of Islam, Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm X, among others, had me branching out to other material while reading this book. I (re)watched the 2001 Muhammad Ali biopic starring Will Smith one evening. And now I have this whole list of movies set in Harlem on my to-do list to find out more about the time and place that he so memorably reminisces about.

Final bets please

Made in Harlem is definitely one of the best memoirs that I’ve read this year. This is a must must read if you’re an entrepreneur or are running or are planning to run your own business. It describes the kind of hustling that you need to do in order to grow your business, and sometimes survive and bounce back from failures.

What makes the story of Dapper Dan so amazing is that it is so improbable. For ever Dapper Dan that comes out of under-privileged environments, there are hundreds others who fail to make it. Even in his own family and friends, he lost many acquaintance who succumbed to one vice or the other. This makes this book all the most important as an inspiring tale of surviving the odds in life. Odds – that is what Dapper Dan beat, both literally and metaphorically. And oh yeah, talking about odds, I now know how to play Cee-Lo.

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Never Grow Up by Jackie Chan – Book Review

What can you say about Jackie Chan? He’s not only a great martial artist and a movie maker, but also a very good human being. You just can’t not love the man and his antics on screen. A veteran of over 200 movies with an equally impressive number of broken bones in his body, Jackie Chan has transcended language, political and cultural barriers to become one of the most recognised movie stars in the world today. In his own words, he is well known in the remote jungles of Africa as well as isolated islands in the Pacific Ocean (Vanuatu).

But I have a very strong feeling that not much would be known of the man outside the movie. One thing is well known, that he has been injured a lot, judging from the bloopers that he places at the end of his every movie. Some of this injuries have been life threatening. So it is only natural that one would be curious to understand what drives Jackie Chan to place his body under such extreme stress just in order to get that perfect stunt. This book promises to reveal that and much more.

The way to never grow up is to love what you do. I love movies. Making them keeps me young at heart. Most of the time, I forget how old I am!

Although the Chinese version of the book was released way back in 2015, it is only now that the English version is out. And just like the man and his movies, this book is a likeable memoir, honest, unflinching and entertaining. The book starts with his early years in Hong Kong, his initial schooling and his “dark decade” in the famous China Drama Academy (CDA). It was during this decade that his parents had moved to Australia leaving him at the mercy of the infamous Master Yu Jim-Yuen, who ran the CDA. According to Jackie Chan, his parents signed him off for ten years to study and stay at the boarding school. And so the foundation of the man who was to become a world famous martial artist was laid in this school. Luckily, because the school focused on drama, opera and fighting rather than the traditional academic subjects, Jackie Chan found a natural outlet towards the world of movies and acting.

The book traces his initial struggling days as a stunt extra along side other greats, notably Bruce Lee. He was an extra in the blockbuster Enter the Dragon, with a screen time of less than ten seconds. But his intensity and passion towards performing dangerous and risky stunts ensured that people kept in mind his young reckless kid who was good at combining action with comedy, leading to a whole new genre of movies.

The book describes his initial break as a lead actor and his swift rise to become a superstar, first in China and then across the world. Jackie Chan wistfully remembers his godfathers who gave him that break and a free hand in creating action sequences the way he liked them to be.

Jackie Chan also writes about his marriage and his child. This is where the pain is evident. Jackie makes it obvious that he has neglected his family for long, especially his son. From the chapters on his family, it made me feel that there is still an unspoken tension between Jackie Chan and his son. The imperfect portrait of a star who has “more dollars than sense” is kind of heart-breaking. According to the book, Jackie Chan does not know how to read and write. But then after his unbelievable success as an international movie star he hasn’t felt the need to.

…I do regret not learning to read and write or do math. When I grew up and went to America to make movies, everyone was using credit cards, but I couldn’t possibly. At the time, you had to fill out a credit card slip to pay for things, and I didn’t know how to write. Every time I signed my name, it looked different. Store clerks would compare the signature on the slip with the one on the card and didn’t believe they matched…Currently, I have an unlimited black card in my wallet and could buy a jet plane with it. It’s blank without a signature.

But I did feel that underneath the friendly nature and the ever-smiling face, there is a semi-dark egotistical human being. His extravagant shopping sprees and his seemingly childish revenges (on the sales girl who ignored him when he wasn’t well off, and his friend who swindled him of 3million dollars) are just two examples. But does that reduce me love for Jackie Chan? Not a bit. Maybe it is a cultural thing and I’m definitely not the right person to judge him for his flaws.

And what introspection of Jackie Chan would be complete without his jaw-dropping stunts, both for the audience and for him? He mentions in the book that there is probably not a single place in his body that hasn’t been wounded during the action sequences of his movies. One of the ugliest ones was his jump onto a tree in Armour of God, where effectively fractured his skull with blood gushing out of his ears and nose. Today at the age of 63, he keeps on making movies and entertaining people through his antics. But deep within, he probably knows that he has abused his body more than he should have.

My ankle joint pops out of its socket all the time, even when I’m just walking around, and I’ll have to pop it back in. My leg sometimes gets dislocated when I’m showering. For that one, I need my assistant to help me click it back in.

It is evident that through his journey, initially in the Chinese film industry and then in Hollywood, Jackie Chan has learnt a lot. It is this learning attitude that the book brings out nicely. At the end of the book the veteran Jackie Chan has two pointed appeals. One to the Chinese film industry to keep on learning from the West, and incorporating the best film making techniques into the beautiful tales from the East. The second appeal is for the national treasures of countries to be restored safely into the country of origin, helping preserve the ancient culture and dignity of those relics. Apparently, his movie Chinese Zodiac was an effort towards the same, and it did result in the return of some of such Chinese relics.

The book is peppered with classic Chinese philosophy, right from the way the Chinese prefer to raise their children, to their approaches to work and life. And it is clear that Jackie Chan does not want to be seen as the perfect movie star, husband or father, and he makes it evident that he learnt as he grew old.

I liked the memoir for its honest outlook about a flawed yet likeable human being. After all, who among us is perfect? Pick this book up to find out what lies beyond the two hours of carefully edited screen time of a movie, the pain and the passion that goes into making a Jackie Chan masterpiece.

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How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life – Scott Adams

Scott Adams has created a brilliant and enduring comic strip that hits the right chord with everyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment. Through thousands and thousands of daily comic strips, he has portrayed the frustrations, foibles, the pettiness, and sometimes downright imbecility that one would encounter in their workplace. His earlier books such as the Dilbert Principle were downright hilarious in their own way.

So it was with this legacy that I picked up this “self-help” book by Scott Adams. And also I hoped that the book would be an in-depth memoir of the cartoonist. The book started out a bit slow. The first couple of chapters seemed incoherent. But as I read on, I came across a few very good points in how Scott Adams maintains his creativity and energy level. He talks about preferring systems to goals. He talks about having a positive attitude. He talks about being a simplifier instead of an optimizer. And so on. But as I read on, I wondered where was this going. I couldn’t make a clear head or tail of the book. Some chapters start and finish quickly, while others went on and on without seeming to make a point.

By the time I reached the book half-way I simply lost my patience. I didn’t find any substantial take-aways from the book. And so I’m abandoning this book. Never realized that a book from the writers of one of the funniest comic strips could be so boring. Maybe this book is yet one more thing that the author has failed at (and he will still win big).

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