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Posts Tagged ‘rap’

Afterlife

April 16, 2013 | by

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Christopher Wallace is dead, murdered in the early hours of March 9, 1997, one block from my childhood home in Los Angeles. But exactly two weeks after his death, Wallace’s alter ego, the Notorious B.I.G., rose again with the album Life After Death. Geppetto was gone, but his Pinocchio lived on.

Like Wallace, “Biggie” grew up in Brooklyn, but in Bed-Stuy rather than Wallace’s more middle-class Clinton Hill. He dealt drugs, toted four-fours, and took falls, all of which Wallace did. But Biggie was a goddamned capo compared to his dramaturge’s small-time crook. Where Wallace was really gifted—almost preternaturally so, considering he died at twenty-four—was in the constructing and performing of a character, his character. Biggie was a fiction—not so farfetched as to court incredulity, but idealized, a romanticization of the writer. He was autobiographical to a point, but embellished into a Mitty-esque wish-fulfillment through whom his audience could vicariously fantasize about the good life: popping bottles and topping models.

In character, and within the strictures of the medium, Wallace could do and say things he’d never get away with as himself. With his heavy tongue he could probe the decay of poverty in a bouncy radio hit, or parody our nihilistic materialism with a club banger that made him millions, and never be in danger of hypocrisy.

Biggie was, his fans understood, the Flatbush Falstaff, dedicated to excess and frivolity, while Wallace was the mysterious magus who spawned him. Sadly, even magi are mortal. But, luckily for us, Big Poppa is forever.

Christopher Wallace is dead. Long live Biggie Smalls. Read More »

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Rap, Poetry, and Cats

July 3, 2012 | by

  • The London Olympics may be a couple of weeks away, but the poetry Olympics have already begun.
  • Science-based art.
  • The Elements of Style, as rap video.
  • An appreciation of illustrator R.O. Blechman.
  • Bookstore cats across America.
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    Period Piece: Rammellzee and the End

    April 18, 2012 | by

    Gash-o-lear, 1989–98, mixed-media sculpture with wireless sound system, keyboard gun, pyrotechnic jawbreaker, and missile launcher, approx. 7'. Courtesy The Suzanne Geiss Company, New York

    In January 1940, a German double agent warned the FBI, “Watch out for the dots! Lots and lots of little dots.” During World War II, German Abwehr agents used microphotography to reduce classified military documents down to a dot, entrusting the period with sensitive intelligence such as tank specs and bomb sites, as well as meeting coordinates, a time and a place. Administered to the page by syringe, the dot traveled under the guise of punctuation and was then enlarged by its recipient—blown up in a world that would ultimately be reduced to rubble. The end of the line harbored secrets.

    To an aerosol artist like Rammellzee, this would be the last stop on the A train in Far Rockaway, Queens, where he sprayed his first tag back in the late seventies. The letters—EG—stood for “Evolution Griller.” I once shared the dot’s steganographic past with this Queens-born rapper/letter engineer, a man once described as “micro” for his detailing of subway cars and history. Rammellzee had no time for punctuation, but all night for talking military engineering, tanks, dentistry, deep-sea bends, gangster ducks, and loaded symbols. Hunched over a beer inside the Battle Station, his Tribeca loft, he asked if I was with the Defense Department and grumbled, “Too much information in the room is not good policy.” Under his baleful watch, the only time a sentence called for a period was when declaring the end of an era. With Rammellzee, a single thought—often concerning the welfare of the alphabet—might span centuries: from Visigoth invasions to Panzer battalions to a subway tunnel beneath an African slave cemetery to a band from Buffalo called Robot Has Werewolf Hand. All between a burp and a nod, from a polymath who referred to himself as an equation.

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    Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Or,”

    January 12, 2012 | by

    Thomas Sayers Ellis.

    Most of the poems stuck in my head are rap songs. Rap is the music I grew up listening to, and the lyrics from those days, the late eighties and early nineties, have stayed with me. I’ve forgotten most of the poems I had to memorize at school; of Keats’s “To Autumn,” I remember only the famous lines. On the other hand, Big Daddy Kane’s “Smooth Operator,” Rakim’s “Mahogany,” or Nas’s “N.Y. State of Mind”—these are poems I know by heart, from beginning to end, and will probably never forget.

    Some people don’t believe raps are poems. They have a point. On the page, arranged into lines and stanzas, raps lose most of their appeal. I’m grateful to Bradley and DuBois’s enormous Anthology of Rap, if only because I now know what Raekwon is saying on “Triumph” (which doesn’t mean I understand it: “The swift chancellor, flex, the white-gold tarantula / Track truck diesel, play the weed, god, substantiala.” Can I get a footnote?). But when raps are spelled out like this they lose their fluidity, their life in three dimensions. Rap is not monotonous, though it is almost always composed in couplets and four-four lines. But the good songs always surprise you, leave you wrong-footed, put the emphasis or rhyme where you don’t expect it.

    There is no doubt that Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Or,” is a poem, but it is one of the few that feels to me like a rap—an especially good one. This is because of the way it establishes a pattern and then continually breaks away from it. The poem is based on the repetition of or, but as we read through it, what seemed like a formal constraint becomes a principle of transformation, a hinge that keeps flexing. The poem begins, as I read it, by riffing on the either/or logic of identity questionnaires (“You could get with this, or you could get with that,” as Black Sheep once put it, in a different context). But it quickly ramifies into geography, history, poetics. Read it out loud a few times and you might find you already have it memorized: Read More »

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