Posts Tagged ‘rap’
March 25, 2016 | by Zinzi Clemmons
Remembering Phife Dawg—a family perspective.
I lived in New York for the first time for the summer of 2006, between my junior and senior years of college. I was in love with words. I’d started writing, but I needed a job, so I entered book publishing. Two days a week, I read manuscripts in the magnificent but decaying Flatiron Building; at night, I worked the coat check at a white-tablecloth restaurant on Union Square for spending money (the perfect gig, as in the summer I had few customers, and spent most of my time reading). After my shifts at the restaurant, I took the 5 train uptown to Harlem with the typical collection of bleary-eyed late-night workers and drunk revelers, where I slept on a cot in the living room of my aunt’s two-bedroom apartment.
The apartment was modest but warmly decorated in pinks, oranges, and turquoises—colors that undoubtedly reminded her of Trinidad, her island home. Our sleeping arrangement mirrored that of my great-grandmother’s house. She’d lived till she was ninety-eight: a former caretaker who’d immigrated from a rural part of the island, she’d saved enough money to buy a semidetached three-bedroom house in Jamaica, Queens.
As several family members and friends before and after her did, my aunt, the poet Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, had stayed with my great-grandmother to get on her feet in America. She married young, had a child, and, after an amicable divorce, started dating women—a shock to our family of devout Seventh Day Adventists. When I was younger, my parents, in a typical move of the time, never discussed her sexuality. I only knew that she had many female friends, and after a while, sometimes they would be gone from her life in a way that was unusual for just friends. In that apartment, she finally gave me a name for what she was, speaking to me openly about her life like I was an equal, capable enough to understand and not to judge.
On the wall of the apartment hung a portrait of Malik Taylor, aka Phife Dawg of A Tribe Called Quest, who was her son and my cousin. She told me that when visitors came by, they would uniformly exclaim how much they loved him. Why do you have a picture of him? they’d ask, before dropping one of his verses, and she would answer with pride, He’s my son, her perfect white smile beaming. Read More »
July 8, 2014 | by Alex Dueben
A writer and poet whose verse recently appeared in the Spring issue of The Paris Review–Carol Muske-Dukes has long been interested and active in presenting a public face of poetry. A former poet laureate of California and a teacher for many years, she founded the Ph.D. program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern California and began a writing program, in 1972, at the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island in New York. On the heels of National Poetry Month, I spoke with Muske-Dukes at her home in Southern California about the many contemporary approaches to reading, writing, and thinking about the art of poetry, from hip-hop to “unoriginal genius” and how language matters.
What do you think the public face of poetry looks like?
Recently, a judge of the prestigious 2014 British Forward Prize for Poetry was moved to observe that “there is an awful lot of very powerful, lyrical, and readable poetry being written today,” but we need education, because “we have lost the sense that poetry sits halfway between prose and music—that you can’t expect to read it like a novel.”
A few years ago, the New York Times published an op-ed of mine, about learning poetry by heart. The response to it confirmed that people of all ages think about poetry as a kind of inspired music, embodying beauty and insight. On one hand, poetry has always flowed from music, as rap and hip-hop remind us big-time. Rappers know how poetry walks and talks. So we have music, or deeply felt recitations of poems that belong to collective memory. On the other hand, we have overly instructive prose poems, as well as the experiments of certain critical ideologies, or conceptual performance art. These aspects seem to represent the public, Janus face of poetry.
Is there a particular critical ideology you have in mind?
I’m thinking of the idea of “unoriginal genius,” though no one outside of the academy much cares about how some academic critics are now promoting it. “Unoriginal genius,” oxymoronic as it sounds, means simply that you can call yourself a genius in this age of technology if you’re savvy at editing, deleting, and erasing certain words from canonical poems and calling what remains proof of your genius. Read More »
April 16, 2013 | by Chris Wallace
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 »
July 3, 2012 | by The Paris Review
April 18, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
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.
January 12, 2012 | by Robyn Creswell
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 »