On Modern Poetry
Poema pictura loquens, pictura poema silens
A poet's mission is to make words do more work than they normally do, to make them work on more than one level. - Jay-Z, Decoded
Hip hop is an integral part of many peoples lives from an early age to their death. One of my first memories as a child is walking by my older brothers room while the “Nuthin but a G thang” video by Dr. Dre was playing. I cold stopped in the middle of the hall in amazement as the hair on the back of my neck shot up and my body started to move to the P-Funk rhythms of music. 1,2,3, and to the 4…
There are countless people around the globe that have listened to hip hop their whole lives. Hip hip spans generations, time zones, and cultures. From the Bronx to Sierra Leon, hip hop is everywhere. Hip hop is one of the most flexible and adaptable music mediums in history. This is why it is widespread and popular, it can be molded for every ear and every style. Whether one is interested in the Jazz infused sounds of A Tribe Called Quest or the gritty style of someone like Kendrick Lamar, hip hop has one covered.
Hip hop is often misunderstood. It is often mislabeled as a genre for degenerates, gangsters, and criminals. Although it is difficult to deny that hip hop & rap more specifically is often the poetry of street life it is not something that is inherently negative or culturally subversive. It is simply a medium that is used to tell a story from a particular demographics point of view. For many, hip hop is something that accurately portrays street life - a life of hustling, glory, and riches. For others it is a form of art that allows one to tell stories that do not fit in main stream culture - think about Tupac’s Brenda has a baby, NWA’s F the Police, or Jay-Z’s Can I live. Each is a story of a person’s struggle to make sense of a reality that is filled with pain and suffering, not unlike the reality that many still face today.
So, is this form of art bad? No, in fact it is one of the most empowering forms of art ever created. For many men, these modern poets in the form of lyrical giants are an inspiration to work harder, attain glory, and provide for ones family, friends, and community. In an era that lacks strong male role models this is an integral part of the social fabric. I part that is often shoved to the side as dangerous, is in reality a way for men to establish a path to success. Sure, fame, money, and material well being are not the end goal for everyone nor are they they only parts of a happy life, but they are more than what most people can ever hope for. A man that is motivated to attain glory and success is much more useful to society than the man that has no motivation and thus stays on the couch in their parents basement hoping to win the next match of an online video game. Hip hop artists motivate people to be change agents in the real world, to slay the dragon and get the GOLD.
Life without knowledge is death in disguise - Talib Kweli
Is hip hop poetry? Answers generally follow a certain pattern. To call hip hop poetry is to praise it, to commend it as insightful or artful. To reject hip hop as poetry is to condemn it as shallow or poorly written. On both sides of the debate, then, poetry often acts as an honorific term.
When hip hop first originated in 1970’s New York it automatically gained popularity. Hip Hop then evolved in the 1980’s with rap, which was like poetic hip hop, it gave rappers the ability to express their artistic side with words. It was used as a voice to the world of hip-hop. Rappers used their music to give listeners a point of view of their world and their struggles.
RAP is an acronym for rhythm and poetry and while most of today’s rap is not as poetic as it used to be, it is still influential across myriad domains. Hip hop transcends the inner streets from where it was born to movies and board rooms. Many of the early rap pioneers are now amongst the richest people in the world due to their savvy business minds. The transmutation of hip hop’s inspirational poetry into knowledgeable action is a key theme in hip hop’s culture. The rap gods on high command their adherents to act on the knowledge they are imbued with.
I live by the beat like you live check to check. - Andre 3000
Local to Global
Hip Hop is global, lapping on every shore and landing at every airport. But what does Hip Hop mean? Is it the music with a chest-thumping beat? The rapid-fire lyrics rapped into a handheld mic? Gravity-defying dance steps? Writers turning walls into canvases with larger-than-life letters and illustrations?
The answer is all of the above—and more. Hip Hop embraces these artistic elements, most definitely. But it also has blended and transcended them to become a means for seeing, celebrating, experiencing, understanding, confronting, and commenting on life and the world. Hip Hop, in other words, is a way of living—a culture.
With rhythm, rhyme, and flow at the cornerstone, it’s no surprise that poetry and hip hop share a special history. Hip hop, as we know it today, is said to have originated in the Bronx in the 1970s, with DJ Kool Herc at the center. Influenced by jazz, blues, soul, and R&B records, the early hip hop tracks laid by DJs of the time would become the foundation for future rap artists.
DJ Kool Herc is credited with throwing the switch at an August 1973 dance bash. He spun the same record on twin turntables, toggling between them to isolate and extend percussion breaks—the most danceable sections of a song. It was a technique that filled the floor with dancers who had spent days and weeks polishing their moves.
The effect that night was electric, and soon other DJs in the Bronx were trying to outdo Herc. It was a code that has flowed through Hip Hop ever since:
Use skills and whatever resources are available to create something new and cool
Emulate and imitate the genius of others but inject personal style until the freshness glows.
Competition was, and remains, a prime motivator in the Hip Hop realm. Like a powerful star, this dance-party scene quickly drew other art forms into its orbit. A growing movement of hopeful poets, visual artists, and urban philosophers added their visions and voices by whatever means available. They got the word out about what was happening in their neighborhoods—neighborhoods much of mainstream, middle-class America was doing its best to ignore or run down. Hip Hop kept coming, kept pushing, kept playing until that was no longer possible.
Much success to you, even if you wish me the opposite/ sooner or later we'll all see who the prophet is. - Nas
However, the roots of rap can be traced much further back in history to the West African griot tradition. Griots were historians, storytellers, poets, and/or praise singers. Griots may be referred to by a number of names in different societies, and they may perform slightly different functions in each one. No matter the term, the overarching call of the griot is to recount stories in a poetic or musical fashion.
The creative use of language and rhetorical styles shown in the Griot tradition appear throughout rap and hip hop history. Early examples of rap (sometimes called proto-rap) often fall into the category of jazz poetry—in which a poet responds to the sounds of Jazz. With music and lyrics built into the genre, this was a natural entry point for rap and hip hop (which are often used interchangeably, although they are not the same).
I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side - Raekwon
Early blues artists with rhythmic and lyrical content began to form in the Mississippi Delta as early as the 1920s, with groups like the Memphis Jug Band. The 1950 song “Gotta Let You Go” by one-man-band Joe Hill Louis is one of the earliest recorded examples of rapping in blues music.
In 1958, composer George Russel and vocalist Jon Hendricks collaborated on the album New York, N.Y. Hendricks has been called the “Poet Laureate of Jazz” for his lyrical and scatting abilities. Somewhere between spoken word and talk-singing, his style is arguably one of the most recognizable forms of early rap. Soon after, Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali) released the comedy album I Am The Greatest (1963). Somewhere between trash talk, spoken word, comedy, and rap, the album has inspired modern rappers such as LL Cool J, Chuck D, Slick Rick, and even Drake.
Fear not of men because men must die. Mind over matter and soul before flesh. - Mos Def
In the 1990s, hip hop music made its mainstream breakthrough with groups like N.W.A and Run-DMC. Names like Tupac, Biggie, Snoop Dogg, and Dre dominated the scene. Today, many writers, educators, and scholars are more closely studying hip hop and rap music as a form of literature. Britannica Digital Learning offers a great playlist on the poetry of hip hop, which discusses the relationship between rap music, literature, and literacy. Newbery honoree Jason Reynolds spoke on the subject on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Not to mention, Jay-Z’s 2011 book, Decoded, tells the story of rap and hip hop as poetry, an art form, and a movement. “I hope readers take away from this book that rap is poetry,” said Jay-Z. “You never hear rappers being compared to the greatest writers of all time. You hear that about Bob Dylan, but so is Biggie Smalls.”
The problem isn’t Hip Hop and its lyrics, the problem is we don’t teach our kids how to overcome failure, how to be great. What we saw in the 1970’s with punk, we saw in the 1990’s with hip-hop and gangster rap. It showed a separation from a system built to keep them segregated within a class system benefiting the children of the elite.
You’d rather have a Lexus or justice, a dream or some substance - Dead Prez
And that’s the reality. Rap didn’t create the problem of drugs or gangs, but it showed an ignorant society that it exists. That problems they considered fantasy or invented were real. Kids grew up around drugs and violence, and their music gave their stories a voice. A platform in which they could tell the world they existed and that poverty was real. There’s a lesson in the best poetry hip hop has to offer, but only if one cares to listen.
Although rap has changed over the years, there are still rap artist who rap to inspire people. Sadly, most popular artists today make songs that lack meaning once so prevalent in rap music. Today, MCs like Kanye, J Cole , and Kendrick Lamar fly high profiles in the world of Hip Hop. But that wasn’t always the case for the poets of the microphone.
In Hip Hop’s early years, its music scene focused on the disc jockey and the dance floor. The MC—short for “master of ceremonies”—was often a kind of sidekick to the DJ. In Yes Yes Y’all, an oral history of early Hip Hop, Grandmaster Caz describes the rise of MCing this way: “The microphone was just used for making announcements, like when the next party was gonna be, or people’s mom’s would come to the party looking for them, and you have to announce it on the mic.”
Before long, though, MCs wanted to showcase their own talents. Grandmaster Caz continues: “Different DJs started embellishing what they were saying. I would make an announcement this way, and somebody would hear that and they add a little bit to it. I’d hear it again and take it a little step further ’til it turned from lines to sentences to paragraphs to verses to rhymes.”
More and more, MCs earned the right to grab the mic using freestyle skills to entertain and command a live audience. A “master of ceremonies” might make all the needed announcements; but the job of an MC then and now is to guide everyone’s good time with their energy, wit, and ability to interact with people on the floor. And good MCs don’t just demand the mic—the audience honors their skills by demanding they take it.
Rappers emerged as a somewhat distinct group as rap gained commercial success. They were the voices and characters that created and sold the records. In some ways, the talents and responsibilities of rappers overlap with MCs, and an MC might also rap. The interaction with the audience is the big difference.
In 1979, a trio of MCs rapped over the break from Chic’s “Good Times.” The result was The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” rap’s first hit. Three years later, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five released The Message, a funky but unblinking account of hard times in an inner-city neighborhood. As the 1980s unrolled, MCs and rappers rose rapidly from second fiddles to big dogs including Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Run DMC, and Public Enemy. They created personas, cooler-than-life characters that might be super-smooth or gangland tough. They boasted about their style and talents and made sure to honor the DJ. MCing and rapping went from sideshow to main event as one of Hip Hop’s essential elements.
Hip Hop’s Rapping Poets
An MC or rapper’s “flow” is crucial to his or her performance. The flow is the combination of rhyme and rhythm to create the rap’s desired effect: fluid and soothing to communicate romance, for example; staccato and harsh to signal anger and conflict.
Before Hip Hop and rap took hold in the United States, spoken-word poetry occasionally worked its way into jazz performances. Many history-minded rappers also connect their art to The Last Poets, a Harlem-based group, and The Watts Prophets out of Los Angeles. Both emerged in the late-1960s and paired political poetry with improvisational jazz. Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” resembles rap before it got the name.
Increasingly, students of Hip Hop culture recognize the best MCs as accomplished formal poets. They rap complex rhyme schemes, most built on a rock-solid four-beat rhythm, or meter. But again, a good MC surprises audiences with syncopation and other off-the-beat techniques. Hip Hop aficionados reserve special respect for MCs with freestyle skills—the ability to improvise fresh rhymes while standing in the heat of the spotlight.
Hip Hop has always contained elements of knowledge to its listeners. It teaches the Hip Hop community about its identity, what it means to be powerful in the modern world and ways to express that identity. It places great importance on claiming a stake in one’s own education. “Knowing where YOU come from helps to show YOU where YOU are going,” writes legendary MC KRS-One. “Once you know where you come from you then know what to learn.” (“KRS” stands for “Knowledge Reigns Supreme.”)
Hip Hop believes that people can take control of their lives through self-knowledge and self-expression. Knowledge influences style and technique and connects its artists under a collective Hip Hop umbrella. It engages the world through Hip Hop’s history, values, and ideas, and adds intellectual muscle to support and inform its music and moves and its poetry and art. Most importantly, it allows for a shared experience against an uncertain world.
LOVE is... Looking Over Various Errors. - Lupe Fiasco
Hip Hop in Prose and Poetry
MCs tell complex stories in rhythm and rhyme. Rappers write and polish their lyrics before delivering them in raps. The secret is out: The toughest, coolest, most dangerous-seeming MCs are, at heart, basically just enormous language dorks or wordcels in the parlance of today. They love puns and rhymes and slang and extended metaphors. These skills can translate smoothly into literary forms—short stories, novels, scripts, poetry, and comic book-style graphic novels. Some works relate the gritty realities of poverty or inner-city living; others find the humor there and wherever; all describe trying to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world.
Things just aint the same for Gangstas - Dr. Dre
Relatively few contemporary poets use patterned rhyme; almost all view rhyme as optional, if not unappealing. In contrast, very few hip hop artists do not rhyme. Sharpening the distinction, hip hop artists revel in the most audacious rhymes, the cobbling together of diverse material. They favor the particular kinds of rhymes that most contemporary poets specifically avoid.
Some Hip Hop-savvy teachers are bringing the best of Hip Hop literature into their classrooms. And writers for kids, teens, and young adults are telling Hip Hop tales in books like Think Again by Doug E. Fresh, Debbie Allen’s Brothers of the Knight, and the Hip-Hop Kidz series by Jasmine Bellar.
If the presence of bombastic rhymes distinguishes hip hop from poetry, it also suggests what a consideration of hip hop adds to the study of poetry. Hip hop’s difference clarifies what is missing. Judged according to contemporary practice, hip hop may not be poetry, but that is what makes it such a powerful model. Hip hop inspires attentive listeners to reconsider the pleasures and opportunities rhyme offers and it inspires a new generation to reintroduce conspicuous patterned rhyme back into poetry. Hip hop is a source of joy, strength, and knowledge for many people. Not unlike, the wisdom imbued by Dante, Shakespeare, or Frost.
Rap is emblematic of the duality of hip-hop masculinity; male rappers’ agency, illustrated by the thematic content of their music described above, is afforded to them through historical rhetoric and forces, shaping the media and art representative of masculinity. In analyzing hip-hop masculinity against the historical and aesthetic framework of cool pose, and the masculine rhetoric, we can understand the powerful dynamics of hip-hop culture in more expansive terms.
Real G’s move in silence like lasagna - Lil Wayne
Hip hop is a means for people to attain great ends. Whether that be fame, wealth, or wisdom - modern poet aka hip hop artists are the guiding light through a path of modernity that is riddled with Machiavellian ideals of cunning, decceit and narcissism. Hip hop artists know how the “real” world functions and they write it all out for all to see. It is then on the individual or community to synthesize the wisdom espoused by these artists and act in a way that allows them to thrive in the progressive fluidity of modern day.