Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Why We Shouldn't Treat Rap As Poetry

Jesse Kramer is a 24-year-old freelance writer, of sorts, but one whose talents are actually in demand. Right out of USC, with a major in Business, Kramer started a business called Rap Rebirth. It's a one-stop shop for all your rap needs. Jesse will help you punch up your rhymes, hooks, metaphors and similes; he’ll write you anything from a 16-bar verse to a whole album. He can even make you sound like Drake, if you want (odds are you will, apparently), and his business just might pose a problem to academics who want to make a name off of treating rap as something it is not.

In academia, elevating a “low art” to the status of high art can get a young scholar a good deal of attention. Late last year Yale Press released the Yale Anthology of Rap, to both fanfare and criticism. The book is an excellent example of how much attention high-low-brow academic efforts can draw. Slate ran a three-part series on the transcription errors in the volume, with writer Paul Devlin eventually visiting Grandmaster Caz at his house in the Bronx to go over the various errors made by editors Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois while transcribing a low-quality recording of Caz's "Live at Harlem World 1981.”

What Devlin doesn't mention is that Grandmaster Caz's words appear elsewhere in the anthology, credited to Big Bank Hank of the Sugarhill Gang, in "Rapper's Delight." "Rapper's Delight" was the first rap song to go mainstream, and its second verse was not written by the person performing it. Furthermore, Caz was not a willing collaborator in “Rapper’s Delight”; his words were stolen and he never made a nickel off the song. This sort of thing can be impossible to prove one way or another, but, in this case, an astute listener can pick it out—it’s all pretty clear if you know who’s who. Right at the top of the verse, Big Bank Hank declares "I'm the C-A-S-A-N-O-V-A and the rest is F-L-Y"; Casanova Fly was Grandmaster Caz's other name, aside from the one on his birth certificate. In the same song, Hank also claims that he's 6' 1", though video evidence suggests Big Bank Hank has a more George Costanza-esque frame than that line would suggest. In a later verse, Hank boasts that he's "the grandmaster with the three MCs"; Sugarhill Gang only had three MC's; The Cold Crush Brothers, Caz's group, had four (actually the size varied, but let's not get bogged down in details).

DuBois and Bradley mention this debate in passing in the intro to "Rappers Delight" in the form of a question—"Did Big Bank Hank, who was discovered by [Sylvia] Robinson rapping while working at a pizzeria, steal his rhymes from the rhyme book of his acquaintance Grandmaster Caz?"—when everyone else familiar with the story seems to agree that Caz's account is factual. So while Devlin's critiques were fascinating, valid and clearly time consuming (the Bronx!?), I think he missed the opportunity to level an even bigger critique of the Anthology. Namely, that its premise—that rap lyrics, separated from their performative context, can be read as literature or poetry, or both—is faulty. Very faulty.

Caz isn't the only uncredited “poet” in the anthology. Eazy-E gets credit for his verses on "Gangsta, Gangsta" and "Dopeman (Remix)", both off of NWA's seminal album, Straight Outta Compton. It's a good thing they left "8 Ball" out of the anthology. Maybe they thought it wasn't as good as the others (I’d have bumped either for “8 Ball” in a heartbeat, but I’m a white dude from California like that) but maybe it was also because the song contains the line, rapped by Eazy, "Ice Cube writes the rhymes that I say." Eazy had no problem admitting it—we now know that he was more of a financier of the group than a creative mind—but acknowledging it might have necessitated some academic gymnastics on the part of DuBois and Bradley, that they’d rather avoid. It’s hard to make a convincing case for rap as poetry if you can never credit authors properly.

Now, this is not to say that DuBois and Bradley don't deal with this problem. In their attempt to anthologize Rap As Poetry (an impulse we will heretofore abbreviate as RAP), they explain that they want to focus on the technical aspects of the poetry, not the performative ones, so the issue of authorship is made irrelevant. Watch as they explain it away:

Ghostwriting, the practice of one artists supplying lyrics for another to perform, has been around since rap's beginnings. However, given the audience's expectation that rappers' words should be their own, it has almost always been transacted behind the scenes. Rap lyrics are so closely associated with the identity of the artist that the idea of a distinction between writer and performer seems counterintuitive. Nonetheless, rap is in its essence, a collaborative art form, from the tapestry of its densely layered samples to its borrowed lyrical riffs and reverences. For the purposes of this anthology, we have elected to include all lyrics under the names of the their performers. We do this for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Practically, we recognize the impossibility of discerning with absolute certainty which artists wrote their own lyrics and which did not. Aesthetically, we believe that the act of performance constitutes a kind of composition; though the Beastie Boys, for instance, did not compose all the verses on "Paul Revere," their distinctive voices and deliveries shape the song and remain in our memory, even when the lyrics are brought back on the page.

As a rule, however, this anthology emphasizes poetry over performance. This is not, after all, a collection of lyrics from rap's greatest hits, but rather a collection of rap's best poetry.

Ah, yes. See how important rap's performative aspects become when you must rise to defend RAP from the realities of rap? But RAP, as the editors explain, “stimulates greater appreciation for rap music than one might otherwise gain from listening to the recordings alone.” So, rap as performance (which we will not abbreviate as RAP) is only important to RAP when it is convenient for side-stepping the ghostwriting problem.

Not only can stripping rap of its performative context make authorship a complex issue, it's a bit reductive, and it makes it difficult to tell who is good at rap and who is bad at rap, as this story in NPR demonstrates. It was essentially a rap version of the classic cognitive science thought experiment about the existence of qualia, Mary the Color Scientist. (In the experiment, Mary is confined to a world that is completely black and white, but she studies our visual neurological pathways, and how we experience color. In essence, she knows everything there is to know about color, but she has never seen one. When she finally goes outside to the real world, will she learn anything new about color?) Sam Anderson, New York's literary critic, has somehow never listened to rap, but he reviewed the Anthology as if it were any other volume of poetry. NPR thought of the bright idea to catch up with him, and force him to listen to the stuff — apparently, he had yet to succumb to curiosity — to entertaining results.

We learn that, to the uninitiated, Ol’ Dirty Bastard's "Brooklyn Zoo" doesn't look good on paper (makes one wonder how the second verse on "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" might look); Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, and other early greats look amazing by comparison. This seems obvious. You can't hear the way Too $hort says the word—his word!—"bitch" on "Cusswords", the scratches and snares on Schoolly D's "PSK, What Does it Mean?", or the aggression in the way Pimp C opens up UGK's "Murder"—all songs in the Anthology that Anderson doesn't even mention in his article, or NPR's. So without even approaching the topic of authorship, the value of stripping rap lyrics of their musical and performative components is already questionable.

But authorship is clearly more important than DuBois and Bradley like to pretend, and it has only gotten harder to pin down since the days of “Rapper’s Delight." Even though rap is an art form that has benefited greatly from the practice of sampling and borrowing on the production side, its lyrical claims to authenticity make authorship an important, maybe even central issue to the genre, one that cannot be explained away in 200 words. And here is where we get back to Jesse Kramer’s new business, Rap Rebirth, which is, in essence a one-man rap editorial agency.

I spoke Kramer on the phone, from Los Angeles, to get a sense of how his business works, and what that might mean for the enterprise of RAP—and, I suppose, rap.

Kramer's business model is a bit of a departure from the way ghostwriting usually happens. Typically, rappers write verses for one another. Sometimes this is done peaceably. You might see N. Jones listed in the liner notes to songs Nas didn't appear on. Other times, business is not conducted in a straightforward fashion, leading to inevitable he-said-he-said situations. Philadelphia rapper Gillie the Kid seems to want to take credit for Lil Wayne's whole catalog. Incarcerated rapper Max B claimed to have written Jim Jones's "We Fly High," and furthermore said that he thought it sucked. The rapper [Mad] Skillz has been known to air out those for whom he has offered his services. Rappers writing for other rappers can get messy, especially when ghostwritten lyrics typically go upstream, so to speak—less-famous rappers ghostwriting for their more famous, but less talented, or otherwise creatively exhausted, counterparts.

Not Rap Rebirth, though, and Kramer recognizes that that's an asset. "I'm not trying to sell records," he tells me. "So I'm not interested in grabbing fame off of someone else's name. And I understand that confidentiality is so important to so many artists. So to keep that confidentiality maintains my reputation and generates more business for me. I align my interests with the artists' a little bit more than, say, a rapper who's writing for another rapper."

So how does Rap Rebirth work?

Rappers come to the site on their own—it doesn’t hurt that Rap Rebirth is the number one Google hit for “rap ghostwriting”—and he gets a good amount word-of-mouth referrals. What happens next, in his words, is his new client will “tell me about themselves. They tell me about formative experiences, what it was like growing up, milestones in their life. They tell me where they're from. They tell me about their family and their friends, their crew. They tell me about slang in their neighborhood, their interests, who their artistic influences are.” That last part, totally unironically. And then, when everything is squared away, for just $25, Jesse writes them a 16-bar sample verse, as if he were them. “It’s a low-risk way for them to decide whether [we’re] a good fit,” he explains.

From there, Kramer and his client figure out if and how they want to collaborate. His work ranges in scope from punching up individual rhymes, to writing whole albums. He has lots of regular clients as well as one-off clients. For some of his regulars, Kramer estimates he has written 90 percent of their material. For others, maybe a little less than half.

He breaks down his clientele this way: about 60 percent up-and-coming artists, recording their first or second mixtape; 20 percent underground acts who have been around for longer; and about 20 percent “more established” artists. He clarifies on that last bit, “I don’t want to say mainstream, but they have more to work with.” Approximately 60 percent of his clientele is black, 20 percent are white, 10 percent are Latino, and 10 percent are Asian. This is a pretty accurate breakdown of California rap’s demographics, but Rap Rebirth's clients also come from faraway lands—including one from West Africa.

Kramer estimates that roughly one quarter of his clientele—specifically, 40 percent of the 60 percent of the up-and-coming artists he writes for— request that he makes them sound like Drake. About half request that he give them a more “gangsta” image. I asked him if he found it difficult, or funny, writing fake stories about a drug underworld that neither he nor his clients (apparently) know all that much about. He told me it was weird initially but that he has been “listening to hip-hop for so long, you know, it doesn't even seem strange.” Anyone who listens to enough rap knows that feeling well. What Kramer considers more ironic is the backpack rappers he writes for, who frequently ask him to write raps for them about how good they are about writing raps.

What is fascinating about Kramer's talent for writing rap lyrics is how closely it parallels Yale’s strictly textual approach to rap. Except for when a client requests a “reference track”—that is, Kramer rapping his words as he meant for them to be rapped, should the text alone not make this clear enough—he doesn’t really rap. “I mean, I like going to karaoke with my buddies and doing some LL or something, but that's about it,” he tells me.

Kramer started writing raps when he was about 14, a couple years after he really got into listening to rap. Inspired by his favorites, like Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest, Mobb Deep, Wu Tang, and Nas, he turned to the digial pen-and-pad: internet message boards. There, he would post verses, get into faux-freestyle battles, and practice his craft, all in text. And that’s how he would be evaluated, on the words alone. “I mean initially, you know, [the response was] not so good,” Kramer says, but “I got better and better and better and by the end I was getting real good response.” This seems strange, to become a better rapper in other people’s heads without ever really having to rap, but then again, for the rest of us who write, when was the last time you read—or rapped!—aloud something you wrote?

Kramer’s talent for writing rhymes, at a glance, might seem to reinforce the legitimacy of Rap As Poetry, and only poses problems for rap as primary document. He has, after all, bettered his craft in a strictly textual setting, and this skill is transferable to performative context, as evidenced by the fact that dozens of artists pay him for his work. I asked Kramer what he thinks of RAP, and he is all for it. “Good rap is definitely poetry,” he says, “and it's up there with the best poetry.” But he makes an important distinction, that seems like a necessary one for someone in his position, “you have to be careful, because it's also a product, and it's also entertainment. It's not purely art.” But then again, what is?

Where Rap Rebirth starts to provide problems for RAP is not easy to pinpoint, in part because RAP is conceptually loose. As Kramer, along with DuBois and Bradley, points out, only some rap is really poetry—specifically the raps that are poetic, or important for other historical reasons. And that’s where RAP gets into trouble. The study of RAP purports to not care about the lyrical content, and only the lyrical form, but based on what is included in the anthology, it is clear that that couldn’t possibly be true.

Rap is entirely inseparable from its lyrical content, and its lyrics are inseparable from their insecure claims to authenticity, and inevitable descent into exaggeration and self-aggrandizing. The constant use of the first person and the notion that rap is “street reportage” makes ghostwriting a problem for RAP, because the Yale Anthology cares more about the content and primary document aspects of rap than the editors care to admit. Isolating the lyrics from both the music, the performance, and the author makes them utterly uninteresting as art, and DuBois and Bradley know that. But it does provide a means for them to treat rap as poetry, and that’s what they want to do. Because you can make books of poetry, and you can’t make books of rap.

Rap is so many things to so many different people. But at its core, it is made up of rhyming verse. But just because Dr. Dre and Dr. Seuss both use the same medium Shakespeare used to tell stories, it doesn’t necessarily follow that either of them are poets. Consider this proposition in reverse to see how absurd it is: For my graduate thesis, I am going to give Calvin Trillin a bunch of half-assed instrumentals and have DJ Drama help him put together a Gangta Grillz mixtape, and then we’ll evaluate him alongside Gucci Mane and Cam’ron, and other rappers who have made Gangsta Grillz mixtapes. That would be awesome, but it would not provide any more insight into the how and why Calvin Trillin does what he does. It would simply provide me the opportunity to take someone else’s work, put it in a different context, and call it something different.

Treating rap as poetry explains away too much of the sloppy realities about how and why it happens. We should just go back to treating rap as rap. It’s far more enjoyable to embrace the mess.

Willy Staley, believe it or not, has a Tumblr.

35 Comments / Post A Comment

metoometoo (#230)

When I was 16, taking a creative writing summer course at Dublin City University, my roommate and I discovered that "Baby Got Back" had never been released in Ireland. So I wrote down all the lyrics in the back of my notebook and we memorized them and chanted them all over campus while shaking our asses, to the great enjoyment of our fellow campers.

After the program ended, I got my evaluation from the creative writing teacher. He had nice things to say about my writing overall, but was most impressed with the "poem" in the back of the notebook, and wondered why I hadn't shared it in class.

Hamilton (#122)

Fuck that guy and his ghostwriting business. And his wack clients.

You are absolutely right about the worthlessness of reading rap lyrics on paper instead of listening to them. That's why they invented rap music.

Tomball (#11,276)

Speaking of Shakespeare, I always thought it was foolish (and difficult) to read his work. That was also meant to be heard aloud.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@Tomball You should definitely stick to the oral tradition for your major poets. Textual apparatus do ruin that shit.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I'm still waiting for someone to speak the Iliad to me.

propertius (#361)

@Tulletilsynet I've seen too many books where the apparatus takes up most of most of the pages. I'm just *waiting* for some smartass to write a new ancient book that is all apparatus.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@propertius Richard Janko, call your office.

mishaps (#5,779)

@boyofdestiny Go find the Ian McKellan recordings.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@mishaps I was being a little disingenuous there, but now that I know these things exist, I'll keep an eye out. Thanks!

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@propertius I give you the late Armand Schwerner.

propertius (#361)

@dntsqzthchrmn Is this a(nother) sign of the End Times?

Matt H (#45)

Exactly. Pouring over underground hip-hop like its Camus? That shit is wack. But just for fun, there's nothing like a good Brand Nubian track.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Wait, but Shakespeare was a poet. I'm confused.

geo dude@twitter (#11,279)

i agree that this scenario is twisted, and in this case textuality is the problem, but who's responsible for the bummy-ass idea that Poetry lives in a book?

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@geo dude@twitter Theognis of Megara.

geo dude@twitter (#11,279)

@Tulletilsynet i donno man. peep this:

bashe (#10,245)

Sigh. Let's go over it again. "Performative" is not a fancy-ass synonym for "performed," okay? Songs are not "performative." They are "performed." A marriage oath, a swearing-in ceremony, a priest's blessing over the eucharist — something that effects a transformation by its utterance, is performative. Don't try to sound like the half-wit academics you're justifiably taking to task by referring to "rap's performative aspects."

GoGoGojira (#2,871)

@bashe Now I want a priest to rap like Drake over the eucharist

Moff (#28)

All of the supporting points here are well taken and make sense, but the thrust of the post — "We should not treat rap as poetry!" — suffers from that frustrating binaryism that pervades so much of our ongoing cultural conversation about art (and so many other things).

I mean: Do treat rap as poetry, if you feel like it. Yes, you're isolating one aspect of the form — which might be useful if you want to figure out things about how it works as a whole. These are ideas: play with them; break them apart; put them back together. Even release rap verses as a book of poems! 'Cause simply by showcasing rap as poetry, the book has also highlighted what makes rap not poetry (or, that is to say, much of what makes it rap).

Just don't say rap is poetry. Which I'm not sure the book in question or anyone else is trying to do.

KeithTalent (#2,014)

I tried to stop myself from posting this but could not.

When you wrote "heretofore" I think you meant "hereinafter".

Interesting that you devote a lot of space to telling the reader what rap, and RAP, is and isn't, but very little about what poetry is and isn't. I'm left with the impression that you have a very limited concept of poetry (and music) inferred from how you describe rap not being poetry. So, what is poetry? And, how do music and poetry interact generally? Because many of your points are not limited to rap, but could apply to the blues, jazz, folk, rock, or almost any other form of semantic vocal expression set to music (you do think rap is music, right?). But we indisputably admire the poetry in those other forms of music. In the end, this article reads as less about why rap should not be treated as poetry and more about a beef you have with a book and its authors.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

The general idea is fine — we shouldn't treat ANYTHING the way we treat poetry. The actual execution? ok kid, settle down there.

Moff (#28)

@dntsqzthchrmn: That is true. We have been huge dicks to poetry.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Moff Apology accepted, on behalf of art made of words. But when I pass the news along, I'm going to advise poetry to remember Plato's Republic and not get cocky — not to blame the victim, but poetry did bring a lot of it on itself.

Moff (#28)

@dntsqzthchrmn: Exactly. Look at what it was wearing, and the company it keeps.*

*Garrison Keillor.

@joeks@twitter (#10,808)

"It's hard to make a convincing case for rap as poetry if you can never credit authors properly."

Is it? I mean, not that I'm on board with this Rap As Poetry business, because I'm not. You should listen to the music, that's what it's there for! But a poem doesn't become not-a-poem just because we're not sure who authored it. Our culture has all kinds of old stuff that we like but we're not sure who made it. Isn't Shakespeare's actual identity somewhat of a mystery to this day?

A.R. Chrisman (#2,964)

I agree with Moff. Your calling out of others for dogmatism leads you straight into the same rigid structures of definition. What's worse is that where yours could be expanded enough to circumvent the problem of myopia, they're flaccid and indefensible. This concept of "rap is rap" and not anything else is so ridiculously limiting. It's like you're defending the authenticity of the rap experience without taking into consideration the authenticity of the experience some have treating rap as poetry.

I would comment here about how only considering rap as performance can lead us into defending otherwise reprehensible things (Odd Future, et. al) but, well, I think I've written quite a lot about that and would rather not rewrite it out here when, again, nobody is going to read it.

Couldn't disagree more. 1st of all, Rap is not low art. Pretty elitist to use that as an example. Granted, not all rap is great, not all poetry is great. Therefore not all rap makes for good poetry. Not all "traditional" poetry makes for good poetry either. Rap doesn't need to be written down, or look good written down to qualify as poetry. Poetry IS so wonderful and all encompassing precisely because of the fact that Dr. Seus, Dr. Dre & Shakespeare are all poets. As for ghostwriting, some of today's biggest name authors employ ghostwriters to help them write their bestsellers. This is a very old and tired argument given within an extremely narrow context. I had thought this kind of antiquated thinking had been thoroughly dismissed years ago. I was surprised to see it written about here.

All the people defending Rap's existence as poetry on this page are so loosely defining what they're talking about that it sort of muddies the basic definition of poetry. Regardless of how you define what poetry is you can't escape the basic fact that it's primary concentration is language. You are using language as a medium to create beauty and along the way, to help out, you can enlist devices like rhythm, repetition, performance. But Rap is performance-BASED. As the article points out, its power and purpose are found in performance, not in language. The language may say things the artist wants to say, and may certainly be beautiful, but it's not the primary focus of what they're doing. Just like with Spoken Word poetry, which is really performance-based drama. Poetry may have in origin to be spoken aloud, but that's not what it DOES. Even sound poetry, which necessarily exists on paper as merely a suspended performance, has in origin LANGUAGE, and not sound or rhythm or musicality. Rap has it's origin in music.

I'm sort of surprised at Moff, who is generally sharp enough to get all those distinctions on the first go.

And Jaime Adoff – low art and high art are academic terms that define more where an art is aiming rather than what it's content is. Low art aims at mass consumption by the public, high art at rarefied consumption, most often by other artists. You shouldn't get bent out of shape about it, it's not pejorative.

And to say that it's a form of antiquated thinking to define something based on what it empirically does is just a lazy way of saying "this thing I like doesn't get enough respect. Fix it.". Sorry. Rap is great and rap does what it does magnificently, but like everything else in this world, Rap cannot be all things to all people in all circumstances. And no matter how unhappy that makes you, it's just something you have to deal with. A book cannot be Twilight and The Odyssey at the same time. It's either one or the other.

Moff (#28)

@Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston: Well, no.

(1) I'm not quite sure how you arrive at the conclusion that "rap has its origins in music," as if everything rap is made of comes streaming from one unified source. Clearly, there is a language element to rap; even just as a word, it's meant "to speak" since well before hip-hop came into being. You simply cannot have rap without language. There's no such thing as a rap instrumental, while there is demonstrably such a thing as a freestyle without any musical accompaniment.

(2) My comment wasn't about rap being all things to all people in all circumstances. In fact, I explicitly noted that rap isn't poetry. But: that doesn't mean you can't treat it as poetry. Taking a novel and turning it into a screenplay will teach you things about both the novel and screenplay as forms, as well as about the specific story you're working with. Taking a teenage vampire romance and rendering it as a Homeric epic will teach you things about both those forms, too.* And putting rap lyrics on paper and scrutinizing their meter, their rhythm, and the metaphors they employ will give you some insight into both hip-hop and poetry. This is about adjusting our perceptions of these works (which, for all intents and purposes, exist only as objects of our senses), not trying to cram more properties into rap's haecceity.

(3) While low and high art are academic terms that are more frequently, these days, treated as descriptive, and while rap does fall under the umbrella of low art based on the terms' definitions, the distinction is most definitely, as Jaime Adoff says, elitist. I mean, it's not as elitist as it used to be, because lots more people understand that the terms don't reflect the quality of a work, but it's still got (and will always have) its roots in a mind-set that is about as elitist as they come.

*Speaking of Homeric epics, you might check out Eric Havelock's work (e.g., Preface to Plato), which if he's right at all would indicate a pretty remarkable resemblance between the poets who take so much flak in The Republic and the rappers of today.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Rap has its origins in a) Jamaican toasting b) block parties in the Bronx and c) DID EVERYBODY SLEEP ON JEFF CHANG'S CAN'T STOP WON'T STOP SEE ME in red at the top of the paper

@Moff Again, not exactly what I'm saying.

When I say the origin of rap is in music, I mean the place where it gets its fundamental power in immediate creation, not its historical origin. Which I'm pretty sure I made crystal clear. Sure, you can learn things about rhythm and meter, etc. from Rap. There's no question. But the fact that it uses certain devices of poetry doesn't necessarily make it poetry.

You said it yourself, it has a language COMPONENT. That component can be poetry if it stands on its own, but that doesn't make all of rap a kind of poetry. Poetry is LANGUAGE. If a poem has an internal beat that stands up on its own as pretty cool, then you can consider that component of poetry to be good music. But that doesn't make that poem into music. You get me?

When divorced from the place they came from, from the thing that gives them their original power, the lyrics become ridiculous and childish, generally laughable. There are some exceptions, and that of course means that certain lyrics are brilliant, and certain ones are poetry. But that doesn't mean that you should treat all rap as poetry. It simply means that certain lyrics are so well-crafted that they can stand up on their own in two genres of art.

Taking things out of their comfort zone and examining them is great for understanding them, but your vampire teen romance rendered as a homeric epic would also be a laughable disaster. Sure you'd learn what constitutes each one, but the actual product would be ludicrous precisely because you're taking it out of the context where it was created, you're divorcing it from why it existed in the first place.

If you take a boxer and cut off his arms and throw him into a Taekwondo tournament it would be silly. He would be competing in a place he isn't supposed to exist in. His core power is removed and you've put him in a place where something else is being judged. It's academic, sure, but as a valid criticism it will never stand up.

Ok, it's a great read. And he's probably even right about the Yale book being bullshit; god knows the hip hop section of the Norton is bullshit. But this guy's argument is equally bullshit, and, actually, it's bullshit for the exact same reason. The thing he's calling the Yale profs out for, essentially, is misrepresenting hip hop by squeezing it into their definition of poetry, ignoring or doing their best to explain away anything that doesn't fit. And by overlooking issues like authorship or the fact that the primary media for this poetry is the spoken and not the written word they do exactly that, and are I would say less than rigorous in their pursuit of insight into the language arts.

But the author of this article, Staley, he is equally less than rigorous and makes the same mistake he gets so much glee out of lambasting the stuffy old professors for making. They are approaching the question with their definition of poetry firmly in hand and forcing rap to fit it, and he's approaching the question with his definition of poetry firmly in hand and using it as the fall guy that makes rap look good. Rap is sloppy and messy and enjoyable he says in the last paragraph (takin it to the text, bitch) and poetry, we infer by extension, is not and suffers in the comparison. My friend Paco makes this same move all the time (he teaches math in Brooklyn and runs a hip hop program at his school, has no use for my high and mighty interest in the genre, thinks Shakespeare is the man trying to bring him down). And sure, that's an argument that's load to fun to make, throw some rocks at the ivory tower.

But it accomplishes in the long term exactly the same nothing that the Yale book accomplishes; it doesn't help the academy expand its understanding of what role making pretty and potentially meaningful patterns out of words plays in our society by applying rigorous intellectual attention to a body of work that is clearly related to what we call poetry in some way but just as clearly differs from that definition in important and interesting ways; and it doesn't help the aesthetic community that seems to most clearly represent whatever zietgiest there is to be found in postmodernity take advantage of attention among the high and mighty and become a dominant part of the intellectual life of a generation. This is the Spivak thing; exempting yourself from the conversation through a simple appeal to the authenticity of your oppositional position and thereby relegating yourself to inevitable appropriation by the system you purport to be operating outside of. Staley could have used all those arguments he makes against the Yale book to mount a critique of the academic ideology concerning poetry that he seems so sure is incapable of understanding rap; instead, he uses one hand to flip the system the bird by saying how much more vital and fun rap is and with the other pats the system on the back by saying rap could never be Shakespeare. What does this accomplish beyond reinforcing the status quo regarding the discourse of both rap and poetry? Making Staley look clever and funny and ensuring that most of the people on both sides of the argument are going to agree with him? Which is pretty much exactly what he calls out all those young scholars who write about flashy lowbrow shit just to get noticed are doing, yeah?

On the other hand, if you were to say 'rap is poetry' and 'Shakespeare is poetry' and then let those sentences bump into each other without, to the the best of your ability, bringing your own preconceptions into the question, you could theoretically make yourself look clever and actually be clever at the same time and learn something. Like maybe you see all those issues with crediting the texts in the Yale book and you ask about changes in the nature of authorship that might have taken place during a century in which access to various forms of recorded literacy has expanded exponentially, or you think about the implications of taking plays that were undoubtedly produced to some extent in and by the socially creative space of a theater and fashioning out of them an embodiment of the cultural and intellectual superiority of England.

Sorry, got a bit carried away there, but the article is irritating. If you're going to enter into a conversation simply to say 'this conversation is stupid, you should stop having it' what's the point of opening your mouth? This was obviously written by an intelligent and sympathetic human being; is this really a person who has nothing more substantial to contribute than an exercise in wit?

Ehhh, I got halfway through this article and I already have a huge problem with it.

If you are saying rap is not poetry because some people do not credit their lines properly, then you have to go back and say Shakespeare never wrote poetry because he took a lot of his description of Cleopatra and her ship in "Julius Caser" straight from the words of Plutarch (at some points, literally line by line) and that "Romeo and Juliet" had no poetry in it because it was a blatant rip-off of "The Tragic History of Romeus and Juliette." Not to mention the other blatant rip-offs that Shakespeare had during his career.

Not only that, you would have to say "The Lion King" is not a movie because it's based on Hamlet, that what Edison did is not inventions because he ripped off the work of others and that MLK was not a Civil Rights Leader because he plagiarized many of his speeches.

Ughgghggh, another problem:

these people complain that rap has been stripped of its performative and musical values, but since when is poetry suppoed to be strip of its performative and musical values?

Long before the printing press poetry existed, and it was PERFORMED, often with music in the way rap is performed. If anything, rap is closer to the roots of poetry than present day, written and typed poetry is.

The printing press changed how poets looked at their form, which is why poetry after the printing press lost a lot of its meter and rhyme: it went from being performative to written.

The difference between reading and hearing poems like Poe's "Annabell Lee" and "Nevermore" is IMMENSE, and lose just as much quality as if you were to read "Cusswords" rather than hear it performed.

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