Clearly, if you can make yourself intangible or, contrariwise, turn your skin to metal, advancing your skill demands resources beyond what underfunded public schools can provide.
Thank goodness there’s Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters!
In The Uncanny X-Men, a comic book about a group of super-humans (mutants, precisely), the protagonists attend the School for shelter from mutant hating humans, but also to pursue an academic and martial education.
For the former, they use what appears to be a liberal arts curriculum.
For the latter, they use a special chamber called “The Danger Room” which employs special technology to simulate combat scenarios. It’s in the Danger Room that the X-Men train as defenders of human and mutantkind—sometimes one from the other. And contrariwise.
Do you ever argue with yourself?
The comics feature a shifting cast of mutants. Over nearly 50 years, this roster has developed complicated romantic entanglements and intra-crew rivalries, familial bonds, philosophical differences—a soap opera-action-adventure-fantasy-with-a-pop-feel-appeal-to-it.
Not just: “Should I have the beef or the fish?” “No, I said I was going to stop eating red meat.”
At times, rappers seem to have beef with everybody outside their crew. Everybody. Sometimes even you. Yeah you, punk: the one who bought the damn album.
In battle rap, there’s a direct addressee: the sucker MC in front of the MC with the mic. The MC w/mic kicks a rhymed insult about the sucker’s shoes and how they are a direct indication of an existential wackness that affects everything from the sucker’s ability to get a date, to win a fight, buy a car or stay out of prison. That sucker right there.
On a studio recording, in the absence of an actual opponent, many MCs simply direct their darts at “you.” Of course, you (listener) are meant to identify with the MC w/mic, not the MC=sucker. Thus, you will generate your own yous (suckers) to rap at while lipsyncing in your car or on a train or on a treadmill.
Ask W.C. Fields: there are plenty of suckers to go around.
Even so, in-studio, ensconced in their squads, MCs w/mics can still enjoy less-abstracted beef. And sometimes it’s with someone in the crew.
Maybe only a brief moment of tension. The Wu-Tang Clan’s first album, Enter the 36 Chambers: an interview ends side one. Method Man has been answering all the radio DJ’s questions about the nine-member group. After a minute or two of Method Man holding the mic, Raekwon the Chef jumps in on one of the interviewer’s questions: “Yo, can I do this one?!”
No surprises: a year or so later, a new track: “Meth Vs. Chef.”
This leads me to another category of intra-group conflict: song-mediated beef.
Hip hop—like most literary journals—supports competition. Sparring match tracks like “Meth Vs. Chef” are consonant with that aspect of the culture. Here, the rhymes don’t appear personal. The only conspicuous clue there is direct competition at all is the title. Meth and Rae are making a track together. If this is a sparring match, it’s at the level of style and flow, more so than direct address.
At the other end of song-mediated beef lie staged exhibitions, like UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” in which the performers have a simulated conflict in order to make a larger point through the song. For UTFO: Roxanne is fly but she is stuck up.
“No: I said I was going to cut down on red meat. Not cut it out.” “The point was, you were gonna become a vegetarian. A half-assed one at that seeing how salmon ain’t a plant.” “Half-assed?!”
But intra-group conflicts that are neither clearly performances or incidental tensions unsettle me. They are “real” contradictions that don’t disintegrate cooperation—yet. It’s that mess, again. That hell naw, but that too, again.
De La Soul’s first album, 3 Feet High and Rising, came out in 1989. And, with the exception of Prince Paul who stopped serving as the group’s producer/mentor after 1993’s Buhloone Mindstate, the roster has remained intact—including Plug Three, P.A. Mase, as DJ and occasional MC.
De La Soul’s “The Grind Date” from the 2004 album, The Grind Date. Dave (aka Plug Two), first line, second verse: “(well) Fuck a rhyme artist, I ain’t here for that.”
“Ooooo, this could be messy, but you don’t seem to mind…,” Ms. Morissette says before adding, “No one knows except the both of us.”
When I argue with myself, I am trying to articulate something that makes me angry or anxious. I hold an entire argument in my head—a kind of simulation—countering my own points, identifying the holes and making holes in the counter-argument. I am trying to see as many sides as possible, initially in hope that my argument is roundly sound; then to avoid needless beef by understanding I have no real argument to make. I do this in anticipation of conflict. I often see and hear my opponent—if I imagine it as public, I see the onlookers stoking the staged debate like a theater audience.
This is a conflict from Ionesco’s play The Bald Soprano as designed by French graphic artist, Robert Massin. Massin explored what he called “expressive typography” in which the text becomes an actor.
Massin’s design of the play’s book uses expressive typography along with images of the cast—yet, like musical themes, he assigns a different font and/or typeface for each figure. One may be a Roman serif (Mr. Smith), another an Italic sans serif (Mrs. Martin), etc. Thus, even on a spread like the one above where pictures of characters’ faces are less clearly connected to their dialogue, you still know whom says what.
Before I saw Massin’s work, I read and wrote comic books. Reading Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, I could hear how the title character’s mopey but also millennia-deep voice sounded because it was always represented as white lettering in a wavering, black text balloon.
Or how in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, the Joker’s voice was terrifying, not vaudevillian—it was blood-spattered and asymmetric, breaking the leading and tracking, lycanthropic in how it shifted from upper to lower case, from ornamental to grotesk.
And before I read comics I knew that people—not just black people—argued about how black people should be.
Early in my poetry, I figured I could articulate my vision for black representation. As a result, the poems, “Black Market Jam” and “Prepackaged Plastic Blackness” were scoldings. Not particularly sophisticated but damn sure of their correctness. And like most things “damn-sure correct,” they opportunistically simplified complex matters into soundbites germane to their own context. In each case, the context was a poem; but context could be anything: a news network, for example.
These poems became unsatisfying. I got less interested in being right than getting at something true. I realized I didn’t want my poems to be safe chambers for my my voice to echo back at me.
I wanted my poems to be Danger Rooms.
“Atomic Buckdance” from Fear, Some was the first such poem I wrote. It has a cast of five types, or faces, or typefaces; each a figure for a different principle of representation and/or interrogation of representational strategies. There is Griot (a storyteller/historian), Two-head (a juju man), Trickster (an opportunist), Singer, Victim and Authority. Each voice uses a different typeface—they’re all the same font, but variations of bold, italic and capitalization create a system of distinctions and kinships.
For example, I set Two-head and Trickster’s words in small capitals indicating their subtle power, but Trickster’s are also boldfaced, an indication of self-importance. Trickster’s lines incline, signifying upward mobility. Two-head’s words can slope down, up or remain at a straight angle, signaling its mastery over different paths and ability to speak to each figure.
Victim uses downward-sloping, full-size capitalized italics (I put “Roman…Italics” in the book—an error: the terms contradict each other). The italics create a connection to Singer, whose words appear in lowercase italics. This acknowledges an aestheticized lament that runs through black song traditions. Victim’s lines decline, opposing Trickster’s come-up. Full-size capitalization speaks to volume and conspicuous power; see Authority, whose text appears full-sized, capitalized, roman. This association situates Victim in an authoritative position: a critical argument within itself.
These typographic decisions allowed me to compress composition; I could proceed without writing: “the victim and the trickster are opposites”; that understanding guides the content of the poem.
Beyond visual aspects, the poem is an argument between the figures. Additionally, I employ sight pun to mess with repetition. First, to suggest a recurring argument; next, to emphasize similarities to which the cast seems deaf; and third, to assert the importance of seeing the text.
While I don’t think the cast is aware of their contradiction and cooperation, as the writer, I was surprised to see it work as long as it did. I didn’t know Trickster would have the last word, but tricksters are often not bound by systems. They change context. Trickster exits the poem, leaving the rest of the cast to deal with the mess of right(eous) representation:
“Quantum Spit,” a poem published as an LP-sized series of broadsides by Corollary Press, uses a similar approach, though nuanced by my explorations in the Black Automaton poems.
The conflicting cast swells to 9: an MC (who, like Griot, serves as a less-masked proxy for the poet), Battle Rapper, Reality Rapper (a genre category meant to contain both early gangsta rap, political rap and social commentary rap), Popular Rapper (the crossover star), Hypemen, Turntablist, Drummer, America and Love.
Like “Atomic Buckdance,” representation is in question here. Popular Rapper asks: “America loves me; what should I smell like?” Reality Rapper has a suggestion.
Also, like “Atomic Buckdance” typeface/orientation acts as a signifier for socio-cultural taxonomies and projected self-image.
“Quantum Spit” differs, I think, in ambition and technique. It reworks a form or two and nonces one up. And, like Public Enemy, it samples itself, composing then quoting, chopping and reconfiguring, building the poem out of itself.
Most importantly for me, perhaps the poem enters the rap tradition of the cautionary tale. By setting the poem in a hip hop context, representation is more explicitly connected to performance. “Quantum Spit’s” cast is not strictly archetypes from amassed mascons of black culture, but figures already playing roles.
When I was in high school, “playing the role” meant fronting in a context where danger was real. Some beef, particularly over representation, can lead to violence—no simulations. In reflection of this, perhaps, “Quantum Spit” doesn’t end with a trickster thumbing its nose and quitting the game, but with the smell of gun powder. In this sense, it plays out what Slick Rick might call: “Just another case about the wrong path.”
Through contradiction and cooperation, I mean these poems to argue that just finding a path can be a complex negotiation between possibilities. It’s my hope these casts’ simulated conflicts deepen notions of representation even if it means making things more complicated, eschewing flatness like a vegetarian does red meat.
Morissette, Alanis. "Hands Clean" Under Rug Swept, 2002.
Slick Rick. "Children's Story" The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, 1988
Poet, performer, and librettist Douglas Kearney grew up in Altadena, California. He received his BA from Howard University and his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and is also a graduate and fellow of Cave Canem. In the Los Angeles Times, poet David St. John observed, “What...