Sunday, November 9, 2008

Rap Poetry

Is there any such thing? And if there is, is anybody doing it well?

Clearly this is a subject on which I’m very much not an authority.

Just to clarify what I’m looking for, I’m not asking about rap musicians whose lyrics might be called poetry or could be said to be poetic. Nor am I looking for sophisticated rap artists and theorists like DJ Spooky, whose work partakes of many of the same ideas that motivate contemporary experimental literature. Nor am I looking for contemporary experimental poets, like for instance the fantastic Julie Patton, whose art is clearly informed by hip hop culture. And I’m not simply looking for spoken word poetry either, or other African diaspora poetries like dub poetry, about which I know a fair amount.

No, I mean rap poetry: poetry made up of the same rhyming, word play, inflections and slang that comprise rap lyrics, and doing it in a way that works as poetry.

Although I’m nothing like an expert on rap music, I’m hardly completely ignorant of it. My taste runs more towards classic first generation rap like Public Enemy than it does later manifestations, although that maybe as much because I lack information as for any other reason. But in any case I know enough about rap music to hold a conversation about the subject.

Why am I asking about this? Every year, I have at least one student, and occasionally more than one, who comes to an interest in poetry through rap. Oddly enough perhaps, although it’s not really that surprising given the broad success of rap, the student is often, although not always, a white male.

When I have students of this kind, I’m never entirely sure how I should be trying to help them. Of course, I can work with them on rhythm and other sound effects in poetry as well as I need to. But what I don’t know is how to point them to writers and performers who are doing rap rhythms well simply as poetry, writers and performers who might be used as models or influences. And lacking those reference points, while I want to encourage students to go farther on whatever path they’re taking, I don’t entirely know what going farther might mean. Of course I already suggest that they consider broadening their palate of working sound effects and can show them many examples along those lines, whether it be Edwin Torres, Tracie Morris, Linton Kwesi Johnon or many others. But rap poets as such? I got nothing.

Which is why any names and ideas that you have would be really helpful.


rodney k said...

Hi Mark,

Brandon Brown. Dip in anywhere ("My Life as a Lover" is a free e-download), but his new CAMELS!, from Oakland's Taxt press, is most on my mind.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a great post because you have identified a very particular group of students -- we don't see many of them, but they show up, as you say, about one or two, every two or three semesters. As far as I can say, which may not be far!, most or all of these students are offering watered-down imitations of second-generation (or later) rap artists, and not, for the most part, doing anything terribly original, and at that, tend to resist moving their "rap" (usually not performed, and usually without musical accompaniment) toward a place of more significant language and soundplay.

In terms of poetry, I think that Harryette Mullen's book SLEEPING WITH THE DICTIONARY is a helpful read as would be Emily Dickinson's half or slant rhymes. I'm thinking of a writer, Paul Beatty, who read at the Folger years ago, from a book, THE WHITE BOY SHUFFLE, which may, on the one hand, offer students a certain kind of prose word and soundplay, even as it explores the very culture (from a black kid's standpoint) that you're bringing to the fore: suburban culture emulating or forced to find itself among urban culture. As for other genres -- why not jug band music like Clifford Hayes, Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers and Memphis Jug Band? I always thought that some of their songs were half-rap, and the jug sound, itself, "whooomp", in the background, offers different textures. Mississipi Fred McDowell's I DO NOT PLAY NO ROCK 'N' ROLL is partly spoken, and from the title itself, takes a stance that might challenge this group, but the sung rhythms, at times, are often markedly "stated" or erratic enough to be influential in this context. The Lightnin' Hopkins album SWARTHMORE CONCERT comes to mind as well. Reverend Gary Davis, too: the Newport album from 1969(?) is a gem. Gil Scott Heron? Last Poets? You could go on and on.

These kind of books and recordings might encourage students to "weird up" or "stagger" or slant their act (writings and recitations), but in my experience, this (small) group doesn't typically respond well to suggestions. For whatever reason, their works, to them, are usually beyond criticism, and they usually try to paint the professor as not in touch with rap / rap music / spoken word, etc., in lieu of making the kinds of "Unique First!" (TM) changes that would really stand apart.

So, I mean, on the one hand, I, too, am not an expert on rap. I, too, am partial to the early acts like Grandmaster Flash, Run-D.M.C., and Public Enemy, and even Go Go acts like Trouble Funk, and even early electronic music like Kraftwerk, and even world-rap-fusion-triphop stars like M.I.A., but I can't say much about N.W.A., Wu Tang, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, Biggie, etc., who are probably very fine in their own ways. The students, sometimes, approach my comments from the standpoint of "you don't really understand" and "nothing from the past can help me." These students have been, on the whole, one of the more difficult groups to work with, for whatever reason. Obviously, I'm suggesting that they're either trying to "coast through" or cannot open their minds.

Does the genre exist (rap poetry)? I don't really think so. But that's just me. I mean, if folks wanted to get tricky, they could also listen to "time signature" jazz like Max Roach's JAZZ IN 3/4 TIME or Brubeck stuff. I think that's more of what we're talking about -- surprising the reader when he or she expects a sound to happen in a singsongy kind of way, and in essence, training us to listen for, or await, a different kind of sound.

Rock on / rap on / Free Verse Forever!


Jeremy Stewart said...

Hi, Mark,

I read your blog pretty faithfully, but I tend to sit on the sidelines of the blog world. On this topic, however, I just had to mention Wayde Compton.

I'm surprised you didn't meet him in Vancouver. His stuff is not exactly what you are asking for, but it's sometimes pretty close. Compton demonstrates a nuanced engagement with hip-hop culture in general and the African-Canadian experience in particular. If you show this to rap-inspired students, I'm sure they will find something to grab ahold of.

Good luck,

Jeremy Stewart

Gary said...

This probably doesn't help make the case for rap poets, per se, but it's worth a look:
Freestyle, a documentary that foregrounds language and on-the-spot invention.

Worth a Netflix, anyway!

Johannes said...


I don't understand your post because it seems to be based on two contradictory notions: 1. Rap is not already a form of poetry 2. you want a rap poetry. So the issue is one of genre rules - do we keep rap out of our idea of "Poetry" or do we "let it in."

I'm clearly a 90s kind of guy but I love Wu Tang and especially Ghostface Killah. Their aesthetic seems to yoke the most disparate forms of language together with form (not that different from some poetry).

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these helpful suggestions, everybody. I'll take a look at Brown and Compton, whose work I don't know.

Johannes, yeah, I think you are missing the point a bit. I don't debate that rap lyrics can be considered poetry, although of course there's a significant difference between lyrics meant to be performed along with music and lyrics meant to be performed without music.

And that's the difference that I'm asking about: is there anyone doing rap poetry that is not put to music, either as 1) spoken word or 2) meant be read on the page as poetry? And it's interesting that there may not be that many examples, perhaps because of the success of it as music. So maybe my advice to students of this kind should be "Start a rap group." But when I'm dealing with students who are solo performing their rap poems or writing them down on the page, I'm looking for models that can be helpful to them in that particular process.

mark wallace said...

Colin Smith wrote me the following backchannel and gave me permission to post it.


Like you, I'm really not sure what Rap Poetry might be, or whether there is much tactical use to this category. I'm glad your respondents brought up Harryette Mullen, Gil Scott-Heron, and Wayde Compton. Saves me doing it.

What quickly came to mind so far for me:

Do you suppose Amiri Baraka might be a useful exemplar? Thinking more of some of the poems in Funk Lore (later poems) than those in Transbluesency. But it's been a good long while since I've sampled either, so I'm not too sure.

Hattie Gossett and Wanda Coleman and Sapphire.

A really good, really political rap album from a crew yclept The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. They were shortlived, sadly. Only 2 records, one a collaboration with William S. Burroughs, yowza, kinda frightened to imagine this! Michael Franti, now of Spearhead, was involved and is lead vox. The album I know and have is from 1992 and is titled Hypocrisy Is the Greatest Luxury.

Mark, you heard yet of a Canadian hip-hop label called Peanuts & Corn? Started in Manitoba, though the guy doing most of the production work and selection work (he goes by the handle of "mcenroe") has lived pretty much non-stop in Vancouver. All political artists, here. One of the best is a fellow goes by the moniker of Gruf (or Gruf Tha Druid), who writes exquisitely and from a deep-dish ecological standpoint, which might be novel. His 2 albums: Druidry and Hopeless. There's also a collaboration with DJ Brace, Sound Barriers.

Somehow for me June Jordan and Audre Lorde are never far away from this, and do you think it might be possible to draw a throughline from them back to Gwendolyn Brooks?

How about folks past and present in and for the Nuyorican Poets Cafe? A poet from the earlier years of that but who now lives in Miami is Adrian Castro. He's published by Coffee House, and some of his stuff rocks in a piss-eloquent way. Puts me a little in mind of Wayde Compton, actually.

Canadian Aboriginal hip-hip: War Party; Slangblossom. Draw a line of influence back over the "border" to John Trudell.

mark wallace said...

Colin Smith sent the following addition to his previous note and gave me permission to post it.


Hey, Mark, here's a feetsnote. The gal who vanished off the tip of my mind is Lillian Allen. Toronto artist of poetry and music that she calls "dub". Some of us in Vancouver in the late Eighties used to do a fair bit of happydancing to her song about Nelson Mandela.

Dave King said...

Alas, I don't know anything that might be of help to you, but I shall be watching your comments avidly, for it is a subject i would like to be better acquainted with.

Anonymous said...

Saul Williams, Sage Francis, B. Dolan.

Anonymous said...


check out my poetry mockery rap

Anonymous said...

illogic. His most poetic album: celestial clockwork

Amir Sulaiman, is another that comes to mind.