DWYCK : a Cipher on Hip Hop poetics Part 2
And the saga continues… Part 1 is here.
5. Walt Whitman wrote about the streets so does this make him hip-hop? I’m being an ass here but there is a point I am making. And if so, would his inability to freestyle be read as inauthentic hip-hop poetry? Or is this absolutely bogus…of course he could freestyle! He was a civil war medic!
Douglas Kearney: Nah. Tony Hoagland mentions hip-hop in his poem “America”—that doesn’t make it a hip-hop poem. Yusef Komunyakaa talks about hip-hop; I double dog dare you to tell him he’s engaged in hip hop poetics. Content, I dunno, content seems the easiest thing. It’s just typing some letters. If I write “knight” am I medievalist? I think there has to be something in procedure to make it compelling—an aesthetic. There has to be something deeper, whether it’s Pat’s music theory or LaTasha’s bedroom kid’s praxis, to crack the nut. Maybe I’m speaking to a kind of investment beyond a name checking. Maybe that’s wrongheaded. But if you want something from any genre’s cultural cache, I think you have to put something on it. I’m ultimately not the arbiter of what that is, but I don’t feel out of pocket suggesting that it takes more than quoting an Ice Cube lyric and dropping all the g’s off your gerunds to be writing a hip hop poem.
High Priest: Well… if you wanted to stretch things, he did reference Asiatic cultures (passage to India) and made reference to being a son of Manhattan (Manhattan) so…Albeit Walt Whitman was racist as hell by some accounts.
Hanifah Walidah: You’re funny. I think Whitman was sincere in his pieces about the streets as are other artists who write about the streets. And like in Whitman’s day, you had those who front as we still have today. This is not a question about hip-hop as it is more about authenticity of one’s own expression.
Yolanda Wisher: It’s interesting to think of Whitman’s long-term revision of “Leaves of Grass” compared to freestyling. And he certainly had some of the underdog persona with him.
Patrick Rosal: Whitman was not hip-hop, but I could see a kind of kinship—with the long breath. And you know I felt my first affinities to hip-hop because all the elements were so of the body. This was even more true when I started reading “literary poetry” in my 20s. So much of it felt bodiless. I think Whitman infuses the European idiom with a voltage--the body electric and the 400-watt stacks in the yard. I don’t think that’s too much of a stretch. I recorded all of “Song of Myself” in one session for an online project for the University of Texas, Austin. I got home from the studio by dinnertime, was asleep by 9pm and I can tell you that the performance of that poem affected the way I dreamt that night. A good night on the dance floor can do that too, no? Anyway, I think there’s a broad kinship between Whitman and hip hop in that if language is, in part, thought turned sound, then the body has to be the transformer and receptacle--both the body and the language have to be changed in composition, revision, performance, jam session.
Also, a word on Whitman’s politics, I believe he was a Free-Soiler not because he thought necessarily slavery was immoral but because slavery would pose direct economic competition to the labor of Whites in the West.
6. Is there a greater basic level of linguistic and performance competence demanded of rappers generally than folk calling themselves Hip Hop poets?
Douglas Kearney: “She got a big booty so I call her big booty.”
High Priest: The level of memorization is a wayyyyy greater demand.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: But yo Priest, can you go a little further into why that is the case? Amongst us, you and Hanifah got hella more than me to contribute exactly on this and it’s part of what makes you you.
Hanifah Walidah: Hmph. I think the expectation is fairly even within context. There are some MC’s who do not do back flips with their tongue but can lean on a beat like nobody’s business and are simply just good writers or have a memorable voice, though simple lyrics. One or the sum of these things can give credibility to an MC. And there are poets whose linguistic back flips could use some editing especially since performance acrobatics can be received differently with or without a beat. And like MC’s, there are poets who can know how to orchestrate a performance with a lot or few words.
High Priest: Well Said. HW- Adding on again, for me, one of things I always marveled at, was the level of memorization that it takes for MC’s with a high word count to deliver—I remember how that factor was a distinction for poets versus MC’s. Cadence was another clear distinction.
Hanifah Walidah: HP hit it on the nose. As an MC who was also seen as a spoken word artist/poet and has conducted performance workshops, I would always try to focus on memorization and dropping the pretense of reading a paper. Memorization was not just a technical skill to acquire, I simply feel it necessary to free your hands, thus freeing your body to acknowledge its place in fully expressing your work. Memorization is actually not so much a skill but a part of the process of writing. MC’s consider their flow, so as they write they practice these new words within their flow. You write with flow and performance in mind. It is not just the words on the paper that should make sense, but cadence and approach. One doesn’t exist without the other. I think spoken word artists walk this line as well but unfortunately they seem to only fall (flow) somewhere in between the 3-4 cadences. Allow me a minute of shitz and giggles:
Cadence 1) The Long Player Flow: A fairly paced standard flow with elongated vowels on every other word and usually the poet is speaking about something unfortunate that means more to the poet then the rest of us. “Hoooow Iiiiii miss myyyy dead cat, I just waaaaannnnt to cryyyyy” This flow is also known as the “I” flow or the “TMI FLow (To Much Information)”; every poem is written in first-person perspective.
Cadence 2) Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Flow: Where the wanna-be-but-didn’t MC doesn’t get to understand that we the audience want to understand what you’re saying but yet you still rhyme/speak a 100 miles per hour as we marvel at your breathe control and periodic heaves.
Cadence 3) The Mad Mad Flow: Boy I’m mad. I’m so mad boy I’m so mad at the world, The Man, women Arrrgggh!!. I am all mad with no resolve. If you weren’t mad walking in this joint tonight, you will be mad (at me) as I spray my madness on you for 3-5 minutes. If you’re not deaf you will be if I also choose to use the mic. I’m so mad I will forego dynamics or presenting any solutions in my piece. I will just be one with that fact that I am an eye-brow crinkling, lip biting, pacing on the stage but making no eye contact, been reading too many books from the vendors on 125th and well I’m JUST a MAD POET!
Cadence 4) Get Some Flow: A flow that is overtly spoken in a whisper or someone’s version of a sexy voice with explicit or metaphorical verses about sex or seduction. Most poets who use this cadence are not particularly sexy with or without it. Bottom line: If you’re not Jasiri (the ONLY poet worth his weight that made a craft out of this cadence) then just please please just please hush. It’s just you, your ego and a lot of undersexed audience members who are enjoying themselves, but its not poetry.
Cadence 5) The Preacher Flow: Often mistaken for the The Mad Flow. It is not poetry and that is not a stage. You are just ranting about pop politics or any variety of black people woes and phobias or what black women/men or “our women/men” should change to better fit some variant of respectable. The Butt Naked No Analysis Flow. A top. A glorified soapbox.
Patrick Rosal: Hanifah, you got me cryin! Douglas said he loved taxonomies. I like this one in particular.
As for performance standards, I definitely do not live up to the ones that Hanifah and Priest identify. I do have performance standards though. Story: The day I left my mom’s barrio in the Philippines this past April, my Uncle Charlie was sharpening the machete I just bought him from the smiths one town over. He would push the blade in rhythm against the whetstone. And then he told me stories as he was doing this: how my grandfather and other bolomen set snuck into the airfield (now the provincial airport) to set the Japanese planes on fire, how they hid in ditches in the hills, and who the baddest motherfucker in the barrio was—my grandfather. Thank god, he used none of the cadences above. For me, as a poet, I’m interested in the cadences of ordinary speech, especially when they are honed and heightened by a rhythm and a break--like the one made by sharpening a machete and telling family stories over that rhythm.
7. In some recent introductions attempting to examine Hip-Hop poetics, there is often The Last Poets reference. Respecting that, the follow up conversation of The Last Poets often credits The Beats with whom they (LP) adopted their style from. Is there any accuracy to this? Of course, I’d like to talk about the dozens, Dolemite, Blowfly, Oscar Brown, Jr. and vocalese. Vocalese often doesn’t get much attention in conversations surrounding rap and the closest it ever got to being mentioned was with rise of Hieroglyphics and Freestyle Fellowship over on the West Coast. Is there ever a case like such made with earlier poets like The Watts Poets?
High Priest: Vocalese is a way overlooked forebear of jazz/rap poetry that is harder to contextualize because it is more of a textual thing but I salute Freestyle Fellowship for deftly connecting those traditions—my comrade and teammate Beans also explored those devices early on.
Douglas Kearney: Yeah. Freestyle Fellowship! I’ve heard an inverted vocalese at DJ battles when folks will cut to a rapper’s cadence over an instrumental. I keep thinking I have an example of rap vocalese, but it’s always more of a mimesis of the original sound. De La’s “Dininit,” W.C.’s “The One” (“Bump, c’mon, buh-bump”). Oh! Didn’t Lauryn do one at the end of “Some Seek Stardom?” Bay area cadences of the 90s—from Hiero to Quannum—seemed interested in a kind of vocalese without antecedent...but now I’m on some streeeeeeetch.
Yolanda Wisher: Well, where did the Beats get their stuff from? A lot of them were listening to bebop. Forget lyrics and just think cadence and flow and persona and attitude when you hear Dizzy and Charlie Parker or scat. Oscar Brown Jr. wasn’t overwhelmed by the music so much that he couldn’t innovate on it, or find his way into it with his own words. “Afro Blue’s” lyrics are as much a work of art as the music. Or all the different vocalese verses that exist for “Red Clay.” It makes sense to bring up vocalese talking about hip-hop, considering the way it dances around imitation/emulation. It’s also a little bit like “that beat is so good it needs words” or “I can do it better than the original.”
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: I bow to you lady! YW, you’re on to something definitely as Afro Blue—originally an instrumental composed by Mongo Santamaria—with lyrics was first recorded and performed by Abbey Lincoln and is definitely a type of vocalese. Added, many folks forget just how much Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure’s recording of “Moody’s Mood for Love” were early influences on lyrical delivery.
Yo Hanifah...um...isn’t your flow a combination of what we're talking about? I know you’ve mentioned Nina Simone as a muse for your material (or delivery). Does this question speak to you or not?
Hanifah Walidah: Thank you LNND, much appreciated. I kinda skipped over this one because I thought it answered itself. Of course I am a product of those who came before me. One thing I will say regarding my own flow is that I never studied anyone. I listened to Nina Simone to be affirmed that you can actually push the envelope without it being branded as “pushing an envelope.” I think a lot of these folks we speak of, of course, had their influences but then theirs is the attitude needed to carve out your own space for space sake. I use to listen to WBGO absent mindedly cleaning the house and hear like a ½ note melody of something and spin off into my own melody and experiment with flow. A form of flow sampling if you will. Now I did not study or focus in too hard to who I heard or their whole writing process. Honestly I could give two sh*ts. That ½ note has the same value as a train passing by and I hear a melody in the hum of the wheels rolling over the tracks. I may be going on a bit of a tangent here, but my point is vocalese is an open playing field for all to enjoy. Flow or melody is elusive. It comes and goes. It grows or can break your heart. They are like ideas. No one owns them ultimately.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: I hear you HW. That said, even though you might not know who you were listening to but caught something whenever you were house cleaning, you were studying. Smiles.
Patrick Rosal: I bet there’s a whole slew of criticism out there that explores how and what the Beats appropriated and from where. I realize the dangers of oversimplifying history, but it would be interesting for somebody smarter than me to detail the connections from Ginsberg to Blake and Blake to European Romanticism at large and Romanticism to the French Revolution and the French Revolution to the Haitian Slave Revolt. Feel me? The Beats, I would not be surprised, are descendants (perhaps reluctantly) of Toussaint Louverture.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: Ayibobo!!! I’m still waiting to hear the cat who writes lyrics over Tabla patterns.
8. One thing rap lyricism has that hip-hop poetry may not is an extensive body of “standards” or “classics.” There is a canon of rap lyrics agreed upon by academics and the street. In fact, it is quite likely that academics take their cues from the street as to what constitutes greatness. That said there doesn’t appear to be a “classics” one can refer to for hip-hop poetry. Is this a fair assumption?
Douglas Kearney: That right there goes to what I said about institutions. And the discourse—yes discourse—around this canon creates and articulates notions of a poetics. As such, a theoretical model of what one can do to achieve canonization. The contingency is present, but it’s present in artistic institutions all over. I don’t know whether it’s fair to say there are no classics of hip hop poetry. La, how far does something have to go back to be a classic?
High Priest: Time to create a new canon.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: Based on exactly what Priest? What will it look like? What is the criteria? Doug, you make a valid point on the item of what becomes a classic. Rihanna was just crowned an icon and well, you know, my definition of icon is totally different from how it is defined American Music Awards. Selfies in 2013 make you an icon? Pinche! Getting back on track, I don’t necessarily think, in the conversation of hip-hop poetics, that there is an age requirement or criteria based on how long one has been in the “game” per-se. For me it is the content and craft itself that makes anything a classic. What we are experiencing now is an attempt to archive these “classics.” Look at what just gone down with Rap Genius. Um…maybe a different conversation. Back to archiving the classics. Lovely. Fantastic. I am however expecting some WTF’s to go down.
High Priest: The terms Hip Hop Poetics is “PR” talk and I don’t know anyone who would define themselves in that way, so to create a formal canon, we first have to collectively label it—From my own subjective standpoint, the said canon would consist of artists of the period and the things that inspired them. The first ones to establish the framework and the willingness to brave the contentions of haters are the ones who dictate the constructs.
Douglas Kearney: There was an interesting article about the fetish for classics in hip hop—it basically used Illmatic as a lens through which to view the conundrums of making Good Kid, m.AA.d City. Ain’t “Classic” just the purist’s analogue of a MegaHit? That’s irresponsible of me, prolly.
Hanifah Walidah: I’m so glad you brought this up. The answer to this question may be in the medium in which people experience most “hip-hop poetry” as oppose to straight hip-hop. There aren’t a lot of recordings of poets, definitely not work as great and conceptually executed like the Last Poets. Maybe you have a record of a poet if they performed on Def Poetry Jam or some Youtube clips. But poets go viral by word of mouth, which is such a beautiful thing. It is somewhat unaffected by not having to create an artifact or having been influenced by industry. So with performance poetry, you either had to have been there or not. Hip-Hop poets creates canons purely on reputation and the oral exchange of the people. How revolutionary is that? SO this brings to question canons or standards. Canons are popularized songs. They are performance recordings that hit many people at once with one listen. Where were you when you first heard Rakim’s “My Melody” or saw the Public Enemy “Basehead” video? But is that less valuable than the oral tales of having seen Saul Williams at the Nuyorican one night in the mid-90s and witnessed how he both moved and levitated the crowd?
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs: At HP, what you wrote about “the ones who dictate the constructs”? It’s already happening God. And that’s where shit is slippery.
Yolanda Wisher: I think some of the brightest, knowledgeable heads could pull together a canon of hip-hop poetry, but it would and should always be contested like every other canon.
Patrick Rosal: I can’t really identify a classic. One of the perverse things about being a DJ is that you are always looking for a sound that’s not there yet. The definition of a classic is that it is in a wider consciousness across space and time. It’s in the air. But, also by definition, what a DJ does is “dig.” He/She is an innovator by excavation. Are there “classic” hip-hop poems? Probably--but I imagine they are constantly being defined and redefined by innovations in digging.
Ah, what a beautiful night/day/afternoon. Stay tuned for Part 3…
The cipher is:
Kyle Austin aka High Priest aka HPrizm representing Queens: Composer, Lyricist, Educator - Founding member of the rap collective Antipop Consortium. Priest’s latest composition, a tone-poem/tribute to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell entitled “WAVES” is slated to premiere at Sons d’hiver in Paris featuring David Viralles, Steve Lehman and Wadada Leo Smith. His collection of written works, Back to Kush will be published by Glassman & Bear in 2014.
Douglas Kearney aka Magellan aka Blot: Poet/performer/librettist whose second, full-length collection of poetry, The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), was Catherine Wagner’s selection for the National Poetry Series. Red Hen Press will publish Kearney’s third collection, Patter, in 2014. Raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in California's Santa Clarita Valley. He teaches at CalArts.
Patrick Rosal aka P-Ski of the Majestic Force Breaking Crew: the author of three full-length poetry collections of them include Boneshepherds. A former Fulbright Fellow, he is currently on the faculty of Rutgers University- Camden's MFA program, where he teaches poetry, poetics, and remix history and culture.
Hanifah Walidah aka Sha-key representing Yonkers: musician, playwright, educator and ethnographer. She is the co-founder of the poet/performance collectives The Vibe Khamelons and The Boom Poetic, both recognized as groundbreaking for their fusion of hip hop lyric structure, beatnik cadence and poetry. A longtime member of the neofunk band Brooklyn Funk Essentials, Hanifah currently lives in Paris and is touring with her band, St. Lo.
Poet, educator, and musician, Yolanda Wisher aka Little Nay, Nay Nay and Pootsie, hails from Philadelphia, PA where she directs a youth education program for the Mural Arts Program. The founder of Poetry for the People Philly and the Germantown Poetry Festival, her first book of poetry will be published by Hanging Loose Press in 2014.
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs aka Squeaky representing Harlem, USA. Die hard Depeche Mode fan. Does not know how to manipulate her gluteal muscles to a beat. Once had a phone thang with the road manager for Funkdoobiest. Occupational hazard.
Tarot for the Day: Justice, Judgement (Reversed), The Wheel of Fortune
Song for the Day: Medusa "Pimps Down, Flows Up"
Interdisciplinary poet and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs was born and raised in Harlem. She studied at the Borough of Manhattan Community College and earned an MA at New York University and an MFA at California College of the Arts. Diggs’s work is truly hybrid: languages and modes...