Blasting the Canon: Hip-Hop Poetics, Race & the Ivory Tower

An Essay by Michael Cirelli

Diamond cutter spine, armadillo armor that bends around the blades, bugs in the beard, ebony in the lung piece, bricks in the Timbs, bazooka in the tooth that he's flashing at your friends. It’s a lifestyle baby. No insipid recipes, not a single innocuous atom in the centerpiece. Oh my God, journalists across the globe are officially critiquing my first eight bars…

At first glance, these words from emcee Aesop Rock are as complex as John Ashbery’s verse is to me, but dig deeper and most “hip-hop heads" [1] will see the intertextual connections that are being made in regards to hip-hop culture. For example, “ebony in the lung piece” is a direct reference to the roots of the art form, which are black. Then we see references to Timbs, which are Timberland boots, as well as the “bazooka tooth” reference that aims at the power of this verbal and linguistic art form.
Emcee Aesop Rock

Aesop points out that hip-hop is a “lifestyle,” a culture (which we will explore deeper), and is not bound by “insipid recipes.” He then brilliantly closes his “first eight bars” by commenting on the critique. Rather than critique this form, (rap/hip-hop/lyrics, [2]) my essay will demonstrate the historical lineage that arrives at rap, as well as the validity of it in the framework of the poetry academy. For the sake of this essay, and not slighting the handful of black poets who have made permanent marks on the academy, I am more prone to point out some of the inconsistencies in what the academy deems important, in the light of its primarily white, male framework.

Unfortunately, it must also be noted that many of the black poets that have breached the guilded Ivory Tower, are less touted for the innovation of their craft, but more so for the cultural contributions they bring to the art. Therefore, it is even more important for me to highlight the importance of rappers as the populist poets of our era, to create a space and dialogue around the impact that this form of poetics should have on the academy. In Hip-Hop Poetry and The Classics (Milk Mug, 2004) [3], one of the forefathers of hip-hop music and culture, Russell Simmons says, “Hip-Hop is the global poetic language of today’s youth, and the hip-hop poetry of today will be looked back upon as the classics of our era.”
Rapper MF DOOM
To further examine the epistemic qualities of rap lyrics, we need to focus on cultural factors in the African-American (and Latino) community. For instance, when rapper MF Doom claims, “Look like a black wookie when he let his beard grow/weirdo, brown skin'ded always kept his hair low. Rumor has it, it’s an S-curl accident,” he is speaking to a specific community, his community. Unless we are aware of an “S-curl” as a type of hairstyle, or that “brown skin’ded” may be a vernacular norm in a hip-hop poetic tradition, then you most likely will not understand what he’s referencing. The richness in such phrasing has much more going on than end rhymes and meter. These verses are tapping into cultural and sociological perspectives that are part of a hip-hop vernacular that has evolved through the various black colloquialisms and idioms to create a uniquely “hip-hop” lexicon. There is even a hip-hop dictionary, Hip-Hoptionary (Broadway Books, 2003) [4], as well as websites dedicated to the language of the culture, complete with “slang flash cards” and a regularly updated list of new terms. The more connected you are to these culturally significant references, the more you will understand and appreciate. In Tony Hoagland’s poem, “Rap Music,” he compares the sound to “Twenty-six men trapped in a submarine/ (are) pounding on the walls with a metal pipe, shouting what they’ll do when they get out.” To the casual outsider, it just may be, however to the generation of young people who have grown up on and in hip-hop culture, these MF Doom lyrics are as lush with allusion as T.S. Elliot’s “The Waste Land.”

“Linguistic scholars, for the most part, have slept on hip-hop culture and the innovative and inventive use of language in the Hip-Hop Nation,” wrote Stanford University Professor of Linguistics & African-American Studies, H. Samy Alim in his course description of “The Language of Hip-Hop Culture.” Although courses like this have been popping up sporadically in respected universities across the U.S. and internationally (Harvard, UC Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, University of Wisconsin, UCLA, Oxford, University of Johannesburg), “to an intelligent forty-year-old, rap initially is dumb and does sound ugly,” claims Mark Zanger in his essay in The Boston Review [5]. Unfortunately this view has always permeated the white-American paradigm, one that perpetuates privilege through stereotyping: race, class and gender, as well as discrediting cultural phenomena like vernacular, colloquialisms, and speech genres. Just the fact that the academy is framed primarily by white male poets gives even more credence to these forces at work today. Furthermore, when we look critically at the primary forces that promote and perpetuate mainstream rap today, we see that people behind the scenes (who allow violent, homophobic and misogynistic music) closely resemble their counterparts in academia. So maybe the ugliness and dumbness that Zanger speaks of is more of a white American problem, one rooted in hundreds of years of hegemonic conditioning that places blame on the most marginalized cultures in our society. Rapper Jay-Z poignantly acknowledges this phenomenon (race, consumerism and violence) in his soundtrack to the Hollywood blockbuster movie American Gangster in the song “Ignorant Bullshit” when he acknowledges the movie Scarface as being much more influential than the gangster rapper Scarface in his personal coming of age:

I missed the part when it stopped bein 'bout Imus 
What do my lyrics got to do with this shit!
Scarface the movie did more than Scarface the rapper to me
So that ain't to blame for all the shit that's happened to me
Are you sayin what I'm spittin
Is worse than these celebrataunts showin they kitten, you kiddin!
Let's stop the bullshittin
'Till we all without sin, let's quit the pulpittin’

In an American Poetry Review essay by Tony Hoagland [6], one of the few poets who isn’t afraid to be “controversial” in his poems (best exemplified in his poem “The Change”), he poignantly acknowledges the trouble of race in the white academy:

But few, if any, want to get their hands dirty these days, and it costs us. Consider, just for an example, the subject matter of race in America. Why hasn’t racial anxiety, shame and hatred — such a large presence in American life — been more a theme in poetry by Caucasian-Americans? The answer might be that Empathy is profoundly inadequate as a strategy to some subjects. To really get at the subject of race, chances are, is going to require some unattractive, tricky self-expression, something adequate to the paradoxical complexities of privilege, shame and resentment. To speak in a voice equal to reality in this case will mean the loss of observer-immunity-status, will mean admitting that one is not on the sidelines of our racial realities, but actually in the tangled middle of them, in very personal ways. Nobody is going to look good. Meanwhile, of course, American black poets have been putting the nasty topic on the table for a long time, in very personal ways.

Not only have African-American poets been at the forefront of examining these dynamics for years, (which has its own socio-political implications), but race and inequality has shaped the history of rap lyrics and vernacular since its inception. For example, a very hot button issue associated with this culture is the use of the “N word” [7]. However, when examining its use in literature and music we will find myriad opinions and viewpoints. We see the reclaiming of the word in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Sucka Nigga:”

See, nigga first was used back in the Deep South
Fallin’ out between the dome of the white man's mouth
It means that we will never grow, you know the word dummy
Other niggas in the community think it's crummy
But I don't, neither does the youth cause we
em-brace adversity it goes right with the race
And being that we use it as a term of endearment
Niggas start to bug to the dome is where the fear went
Now the little shorties say it all of the time
And a whole bunch of niggas throw the word in they rhyme
Yo I start to flinch, as I try not to say it
But my lips is like the oohwop as I start to spray it
My lips is like a oohwop as I start to spray it

Rapper Mos Def also adds to the conversation, and even has Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest on the track, in his single “Mr. Nigga:”

Who is the cat eatin out on the town
And make the whole dining room turn they head round
Mr. Nigga, Nigga Nigga
He got the speakers in the trunk with the bass on crunk
Who be ridin up in the high-rise elevator
Other tenants who be prayin’ they ain't the new neighbor
Mr Nigga, Nigga Nigga
They try to play him like a chump cause he got what they want

Troy Donald Jamerson (aka rapper Pharoahe Monch)
For the sake of this essay, it is important for me to engage (and re-engage) this ongoing, evolving and dynamic dialogue happening within hip-hop culture, (through the medium of rap), as one that is acknowledged in the context of a poetic discourse. Books and scholarship regarding hip-hop history and culture are abundant, but what is glaringly missing is a relevant discourse around the poetics of rap. However, when I want to make my case, I am often forced to frame the conversation around institutional norms (academic) that determine what is deemed worthy. For example, the idea of the “remix” [8] in rap, is an old and honored tradition in the poetry canon, best exemplified ad nauseum in MFA programs across the country in exercises such as the “imitation poem” [9].  Therefore, when we can see the similarities, (which will hold abundantly true for rhymed verse, sestinas and villanelles), this argument starts to make sense. However, one of the major red flags in making these arguments for rap, is that in order to make them, one needs to frame them in the context of the white academy, which is problematic, especially when this “hip-hop poetry,” (which arguably mirrors the cultural aesthetics of the Beat and New York School movements, not to mention its literary historical context) has not reached the “Ivory Tower” in any significant ways in English Literature or Poetry. This argument, to “validate” hip-hop literature, rests on a slippery (and potentially racist) slope, as rap lyrics and hip-hop culture have their own histories and evolutions that stand on their own, and need not be validated in comparison with other accepted forms of literature or scholarship. Luckily, professors like Alim (among others) is creating spaces for these discussions to happen. In an article written for the Journal of English Linguistics [10], he examines the poetics of hip-hop rapper/emcee/MC [11] Pharoahe Monch, breaking down the artists double, triple and quadruple “multirhyming skillz” while incorporating the jargon of the genre: ishhh, spit, madd styles. Professor Alim and many of his contemporaries have also done extensive studies examining “Hip-Hop Nation Language” and its relation to African American Vernacular English (AAVE), because of its profound effect on media and popular culture, which is heavily derived from hip-hop culture. Interestingly enough, (outside of examples found in poetry,) “AAVE is the only American dialect where is deletion is found” [12].  AAVE has its own set of rules for grammar and linguistic composition that are just as complex as any language or dialect. Many examples of this can be found throughout African-American literature and music. It is this fluidity of language, the ability to recreate the means of expression and the way that things are said, that makes rap lyrics a continuation and an evolution of our poetic tradition. It’s new, it’s original, and in the idiom of hip-hop: it’s fresh.

I would better Alim’s statement, by claiming that most of the academic poetry world has also “slept on” the poetic value of hip-hop lyrics, or rap. Furthermore, as highlighted in The Handbook of Poetic Forms (T&W Press, 1987) [13], this essay deliberately treats “rap” as a poetic form, just like sonnets, pantoums, or sestinas. With rappers like MF Doom finding fresh and inventive ways to use the end word “super,” (ten times in his new single “Hoe Cakes,”) I am reminded how some of my favorite sestina writers seem to effortlessly integrate their end words with newness and originality. In a recent reading I attended with master prose writer Russell Edson, he even championed form over free verse. He claimed that the restrictions of form have the effect of freeing the author from the pressures of poem making. In regards to form, Anthony Hecht is also quoted as saying, “So preoccupied is he bound to be with the fulfillment of technical requirements that in the beginning of his poem he cannot look very far ahead, and even a short glance forward will show him that he must improvise, reconsider and alter what had first seemed to him his intended direction, if he is to accommodate the demands of the form” [14]. Anyone who has ever heard a rap will undoubtedly pick up on its form immediately. Furthermore, this “improvisation” that Hecht comments on is a fundamental aspect of rap lyrics and also has its own sub-form called “freestyling.” In a freestyle rap, the emcee will extemporaneously rap about his current surroundings, or if in a “freestyle battle,” the rapper will duel with another emcee much like the medieval troubadours did. Not only did the 12th century troubadour poets, mostly French and Italian, duel each other with love songs/poems, for a “maiden’s love,” but the themes they advocated, the ideas of courtly love, as well as in many cases crude advances, have become the bedrock of love songs of every genre. However, rather than negate these similarities, it would be better for us to locate them within their rich traditions and histories that unfold in a complex lineage of poetic forms (located in countless cultures around the world).

It is this generation that has seen a new explosion of song writing that is derivative of these oral poetic traditions. In the U.S. alone, rap is a multi-billion dollar industry. In October of 2003, black artists held the top ten spots on the Billboard charts for the first time ever. Dana Gioia, (now NEA president), in an October 1994 talk at Poets House in NYC [15], recognized that the “primary means of publication for new American poetry is now oral.” When we examine closely the roots of rap, we can trace the lineage that begins in the African bardic traditions, through to the African-American expressive/oral traditions, and their evolution today as a hip-hop culture that is steeped in its own language, craft, and style. What we are seeing is the reemergence of the our ancient poetic traditions as one of the most popular and lucrative art forms in American history. We have a whole generation of people that are involved in and excited about, “geeked off,” a lyrically based art form. Gioia later explains:

Spoken word artist Ursula Rucker
There has been a huge reemergence of populist oral poetry, largely among groups who were alienated from the dominant, academic, literary culture. The new schools of populist poetry include rap, cowboy poetry, and poetry slams, which together command audiences in the millions. What was seen then was the increasing intellectualization and academicization of poetry. But history usually works dialectically, and one trend often creates its opposite. Nor would anyone twenty years ago have predicted that most of this oral poetry would be formal—in the then discredited and supposed elitist techniques of rhyme and meter. Rap is usually composed in a four-stress line (like Anglo-Saxon poetry without the alliteration) and mostly rhymed in couplets.

Furthermore, the explosion of oral poetry that we see today through poetry slams and hip-hop, stems back to ancient traditions in African, Indian, Greek and Roman societies. The earliest examples of this tradition date back to the West African griots, which can be translated to mean news-singer, bard or rhapsode. The griots primary role was to sing the news, pass down the oral history, traditions and cultural mores of their societies. They were originally members of the Mandinke people, however most were nomadic, wandering poets and “praise-singers” who used poetry and rhythm to preserve their history. This is a key role of today’s emcee, especially in the light of the mainstream rap music that promotes sex and violence, although these themes are also timeless (and promoted by capital forces). There are still many rappers, often regarded as “conscious rappers,” who hold true to the story-telling, historical preservation and socially aware roots of this oral poetic tradition. In Nas’ single “I Can,” along with infusing feel good rhymes that are aimed at inspiring youth to achieve their goals, he gives a thumbnail history lesson:

Be, be, 'fore we came to this country
We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys
There was empires in Africa called Kush
Timbuktu, where every race came to get books
To learn from black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans
Asian Arabs and gave them gold when
Gold was converted to money it all changed
Money then became empowerment for Europeans
The Persian military invaded
They heard about the gold, the teachings and everything sacred
Africa was almost robbed naked
Slavery was money, so they began making slave ships
Egypt was the place that Alexander the Great went
He was so shocked at the mountains with black faces
Shot up they nose to impose what basically
Still goes on today, you see?

What we see throughout history are different incarnations of this same role in ancient and modern civilizations across Greece, India, Europe and the Americas. Song has always been a cultural preserver, and the aesthetics of the lyrical content of such advances, almost always represent the social, cultural, political or philosophical drives of a certain society. In India, for instance, the oral tradition was passed on through prayer, scripture and art, while in Greek and Roman civilizations philosophical debates using song and poetry closely resembled the freestyle battles that I have previously mentioned. Today’s rappers also recognize this history. Los Angeles based rap group, The Freestyle Fellowship, even named their first album “Innercity Griot.” And even Nobel Prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heany acknowledged the lyrical power of rapper Eminem, claiming that he has "sent a voltage around a generation." Like many popular rappers today, Eminem got his start as a battle (freestyle) rapper, which is depicted in the 2002 blockbuster movie 8 Mile.

And like in 8 Mile, the struggle that many of these rappers go through resemble the epics of our ancient canon. With rappers like Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., who have reached icon status in the rap community, it is hard not to compare their lives and music to the epics of the past. Brooklyn rapper U.S. even boasts of his lyrics, “my style is a violent gift to Troy.” In Aristotle’s Poetics [16] he defines tragedy:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.

Ready To Die (album cover)
According to Aristotle, it is through “tragedy” that the aims of poetry are best fulfilled. When comparing this to the rap canon, what we will find is an overwhelming catalogue of tragedy. These values and realities are imitated throughout the rap culture. Because the black American experience is one wrought with oppression and injustice, rap’s role in truth telling, especially in relation to its oral poetic lineage, almost always exposes the experiences within these systems. In Notorious B.I.G.’s seminal album “Ready To Die,” we are taken through the epic experiences of a young Christopher Wallace. In his anthem-like song, “Juicy,” he outlines his life going from “ashy to classy” and the struggles that he endured to get there. What we see in Aristotle’s Poetics is the idea of a complete action that the poetry, according to Aristotle, should take. In “Ready To Die,” we see this arc over and over again. Not to mention that the presentation of these experiences are done with “harmony and rhythm,” also praised by Aristotle, who explains that they are the “pleasures” of the form.

However, when examined closely, this “voltage” that Heany speaks of is something that is also inherently derivative of African-American culture, dating back to slavery. Most notably, the dozens, also known as dirty dozens or “playing the dozens” was a custom in which two competitors went head to head in a comedic trash talk, a game of insults, that often targeted an adversary’s mother or family member. This tradition can be traced back to chattel slavery as an alternative to physical contention between slaves, which often carried potentially harsh consequences. Furthermore, the term “the dozens” refers to the devaluing of slaves on the auction block who were “past their prime”, and therefore sold by the dozen. However, in essence, the dozens is a game of wit, self-control, mental and verbal agility that has roots deep in Africa, the Greek and Roman forums, Medieval Europe and the street corners of Brooklyn, the Bronx, or anywhere else that hip-hop culture exists. In Hoagland’s essay [17]  on “meanness” and “negative capability” he expounds on the relationship between truth telling and the power of menace. He states:

Meanness, the very thing which is unforgivable in human social life, in poetry is thrilling and valuable. Why? Because the willingness to be offensive sets free the ruthless observer in all of us, the spiteful perceptive angel who sees and tells, unimpeded by nicety or second thoughts…There is truth-telling in meanness, but that is not all of it. Meanness is also an aesthetic asset for its flavor of danger. Nothing wakes us up like menace — Menace refreshes. When a poem becomes aggressive, it rouses an excitement in us, in part because we see that someone has broken their social shackles. We feel intoxicated by that outlaw freedom, and we covet it for ourselves.

Mural of Tupac Shakur in Sierra Leone.
©Teun Voeten 1999.
When we compare this to hip-hop, a form rooted in the “outlaw freedom” of a Tupac Shakur, or the menace of rappers and producers who even have names like MF Doom, Mad Villain, Yukmouth, or Evil Dee, we see how negative capability is inherent in the aesthetics of rap as well. Because hip-hop was borne of the streets, in an economically disadvantaged and oppressed people of color culture, the rebellious aspects of the content are second nature, as well as the liberatory messages therein. However, rap seems to get a bad rap when it exposes the violent realities of its environment. It is almost always dismissed as violent and, as we have seen, “ugly.” But in poetry, it seems to be different, as Hoagland further explains:

Once upon a time, Meanness was poetically permissible, even celebrated. Satire rejoices in the lampooning of human nature, in telling tales of vice and folly. Juvenal and Villon, Chaucer and Swift, Ben Johnson and Catullus — the poets of social satire slander their enemies, mock their neighbors, and tell tales on their lovers with glee. Spitting, punching below the belt, and face-slapping for them was a source of creative energy and pride.

The common and widely satirized “ya mama” jokes are also culturally connected to this lineage, as well as being a highly recognized argumentative rejoinder in AAVE. The alternative rap group The Pharcyde, has a whole song dedicated to the phenomena:

Ya mama’s so fat. How fat is she?
Ya mama is so big and fat that she can get busy
with twenty-two burritos, but times are rough
I seen her in the back of Taco Bell with handcuffs

But rap lyrics are more than just clever insults and whopping punch lines. At its core, this form has roots in protest music, spirituals, as well as the tradition known as “toasting” where African-American heroes are championed through rhymed tales. This tradition is has also transcended most musical genres and is also a cornerstone of many rappers’ work including Nas, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco and a host of others. On Common’s 2000 album “Like Water For Chocolate,” which also carries its own literary allusion, he details the life of Black Panther Assata Shakur from her capture by police, to her prison escape and subsequent asylum in Cuba (another country with a populist hip-hop culture.) In “Song for Assata” Common accounts in a gripping detail:

There were lights and sirens, gunshots firin’
Cover your eyes as I describe a scene so violent
Seemed like a bad dream, she laid in a blood puddle
Blood bubbled in her chest, cold air brushed against open flesh
No room to rest, pain consumed each breath
Shot twice wit her hands up
Police questioned but shot before she answered
One Panther lost his life, the other ran for his
Scandalous the police were as they kicked and beat her
Comprehension she was beyond, tryna hold on
to life. She thought she'd live with no arm
that's what it felt like, got to the hospital, eyes held tight
They moved her room to room-she could tell by the light
Handcuffed tight to the bed, through her skin it bit
Put guns to her head, every word she got hit
"Who shot the trooper?" they asked her
Put mace in her eyes, threatened to blast her
Her mind raced till things got still
Opened her eyes, realized she's next to her best friend who got killed
She got chills, they told her: that's where she would be next

Hip-Hop Scholar Davey D
Prior to hip hop, black radio stations played an important role in the community by being a musical and cultural preserver or griot (story teller). It reflected the customs and values of the day in particular communities. It set the tone and created the climate for which people governed their lives as this was a primary source of information and enjoyment. This was particularly true for young people.

It has even been noted that in 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech that honored black djs and their importance in keeping the Civil Rights Movement alive. “He noted that while television and newspapers were popular and often times more effective mediums, they rarely languaged themselves so that Black folks could relate to them (Davey D).” Even Dana Gioia in his article, “Can Poetry Matter?” [18] attests to the power of the oral poetic:

Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio. A little imaginative programming at the hundreds of college and public-supported radio stations could bring poetry to millions of listeners. Some programming exists, but it is stuck mostly in the standard subculture format of living poets' reading their own work. Mixing poetry with music on classical and jazz stations or creating innovative talk-radio formats could re-establish a direct relationship between poetry and the general audience.

Keeping all of this in mind, it is important to view rap music as a vital form of radical truth telling. Not since the sixties have we seen a musical genre that is associated with social progress, as well as poetry. Even now we see folk singers like Bob Dylan included in the Oxford Book of American Poetry, (but no rappers). The argument can be made that much of the original spirit of the form has been lost with the mass marketing and comodification of hip-hop, however at its root is this lineage of radical truth telling. And contrary to what is heard on the radio or portrayed in the media these days, there are still rap artists that are keeping true to the tradition, and the lineage of the oral poetic.

Def Poetry Jam's producer, Russell Simmons 
It is my belief that because what is played on mainstream radio doesn’t reflect the spirit of the tradition, and often fails to encourage the values that make “good art,” and is justifiably kept out of the academy. With this in mind though, open mics at coffee shops don’t hurt poetry, neither do poetry slams, or Def Poetry Jam. This is because what the academy deems as “important” is not affected by the social life of poetry, and therefore MFA programs continue to thrive, and the guild continues to influence what is published. However, the same qualities that make bad poetry, make bad rap. What constitutes “good rap” has to do with good values in the form. Those values usually stem from literary traits such as language, tone, or devices. In rap lyrics, being “fresh” is considered one of the most reputable qualities to have. This can be true for poetry, however it would most likely be called “originality.” It is through these two concepts, freshness and originality, that I am gauging what I call “radical,” and therefore champion those types of lyrics in their inter-relation with poetry, as well as their own independent status as poetry in the rap form.

Because judging sincerity, or genuineness, is a subjective undertaking, I am more compelled with how a story is told in a work of art. It was out of a sincere need to tell one’s story, that this genre (rap) evolved, and still thrives in American youth culture, as well as slowly being recognized in the academic world. A well known maxim in the rap world is the concept of “keeping it real.” Because rap has not been picked over by the academic world, there are less measures for genuineness, and sadly enough, legitimacy. This is not the case in hip-hop culture though, as opinions, lambastes and just straight “hatin’” run rampant in the rap world. It is through this concept of “keeping it real” that rappers judge each others’ genius. In Hua Hsu’s Village Voice article [19], he claims:

Hip-hop is for, by, and about the people, while the university assumes elitism. Hip-hop is about keeping it real and being true to experience while the university regards "realness" and truth as mere social constructions.

Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Furthermore, the “truth” that is revealed in rap lyrics is hardly ever born out of social constructions (except to challenge them), but rather the innate desire to express one’s story. In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released their seminal song, “The Message.” This song became the bridge to the music that was being made pre-disco era, that followed the tradition of the griot, and championed the storytelling that defines the rapper’s experiences:

Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just
Don’t care
I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkie’s in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far
Cause the man with the tow-truck repossessed my car

Don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge
I’m trying not to loose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under

With the emergence of confessional songs, the reemergence of music as a vehicle for social change, status and community, rap began to transition from the party music associated with disco, to an art form that was able to convey the feelings and emotions of a culture rooted in the South Bronx, and spread throughout the NYC boroughs. In rapper KRS-One’s first book Ruminations [20], he states, “Rap is the verbal expression of an inner city culture known as hip-hop.” Furthermore in a recent issue of Jet Magazine, Russell Simmons claims:

Hip-hop has transcended beyond just music. It has become a lifestyle and/or a culture for people worldwide. Hip-hop is an attitude and hip-hop is a language in which a kid from Detroit can relate to a kid in Hong Kong. Seventy-five percent of our audience is nonblack kids. Now you have kids in Beverly Hills are now sensitive to situations in Compton.

Aside from the profound sociological affects that hip-hop culture has nationally and abroad, its implications in our literary traditions run deep. Not only are the roots of this culture traced back to the earliest civilizations, but the cornerstone of this culture, rap music, is one that is steeped in language, vernacular and form. What we are witnessing is an entire generation of young people that are not only impacted socially, economically and politically by hip-hop, but also by their alignment with the language arts that are at the core of the rap form. If the belief that “imaginative freedom can flourish amid self-imposed restrictions and that originality starts from a mastery of tradition" [21], then today’s rappers have mastered the tradition since birth. Because hip-hop is a culture, today’s emcees have grown up listening to and mastering the techniques of the form. In Brad Leithauser’s essay [22] “Metrical Literacy” he argues, “poetry is a craft which, like carpentry, requires a long apprenticeship merely to assimilate its tools.” This apprenticeship happens naturally because hip-hop is a culture, and the language of rap, is spoken from a young age. The terminology of rap has become a normal part of Black American vernacular (and now all American vernacular), and has also made its way from being considered slang, to having words included in the Oxford dictionary. Leithauser further states:

"Never before in the long line of English verse have we seen the ascendancy of generations of poets who have at no time in their careers worked seriously with form…Poets tend to resent, often rightfully, being reviewed by non-poet critics, who may not fully compass the actual ways a poem is constructed; but having once sacrificed a first-hand knowledge of poetic forms, these poets themselves are, when passing judgments on the formal masters of the past, in precisely the same position as the non-poet critics they resent."

This argument can hold true for critics of rap as well. When we examine the demands on the form of rap, we will see that rap is a highly complicated and intricate form. Along with maintaining a primarily 16 bar form, which is usually on verse consisting of 16 end rhymes, the artist also incorporates rhythm, tone, internal rhyme and meter. Professor Alim explains [23]:

As poets, Hip Hop MCs (rhymers) have both built on and expanded far beyond the American poetic tradition, using a form that is highly intertextual and that demonstrates multilayered poetic complexity. While Hip Hop MCs draw upon alliteration and assonance and other traditional rhyme forms, they also employ new rhyme strategies that require new categories of knowledge, such as compound internal rhymes, primary and secondary internal rhymes, chain rhymes, back-to-back chain rhymes, and bridge rhymes. Hip Hop MCs also employ various literary techniques, such as wordplay, simile, metaphor, narrativity, flashback, role-play, suspense, irony and imagery in their lyrical compositions. Often reconstructing these rhymes in a multirhyme matrix, Hip Hop MCs offer a vast corpus of linguistic texts to be analyzed.

De La Soul
And to this statement, I say, why wouldn’t they. In light of 3000 years of black poetry [24] , this lineage has incarnated today as one of the biggest cultural forces in the United States: socially, politically, and economically. The rapper Trugoy of De La Soul even proclaims in one of his songs, “I specialize in the art that pays!” The language of hip-hop is also largely the language of youth culture, not to mention the generation of marginalized people in the United States that have shaped its voice. When this language is viewed as “defective” [25], not only are we perpetuating hundreds of years of systematic white supremacy, but we are missing an amazing opportunity to enrich and diversify our profound American poetic canon. Our next step is to champion these “highly intertextual” forces and this “multilayered poetic complexity” as something to examine, study, critique, and most importantly, appreciate and respect.*

(A version of this article first appeared in New York Quarterly #66 under the title "The State of American Poetry: Hip-Hop.")

Michael Cirelli is the author of Vacations on the Black Star Line (Hanging Loose, 2010), which explores race, privilege, and whiteness through the lens of Mos Def and Talib Kweli's seminal Black Star album. His first collection, Lobster with Ol' Dirty Bastard (Hanging Loose, 2008), was a NY Times poetry best seller from an independent press and was featured in the "Debut Poets" issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. He is the Executive Director of Urban Word NYC, one of the nation's leading nonprofit presenters of youth literary arts programs, and has authored two curricula, Poetry Jam (Recorded Books, 2010) and Hip-Hop Poetry & the Classics (Milk Mug, 2004). His newest collection, The Situation: Jersey Shore Poems, is forthcoming from Penmanship Books

1. A hip-hop head is the commonly used term for a fan or aficionado of hip-hop; and a vital member of its culture.
2. These words will be used and interchanged to describe the poetry we are examining. Hip-hop is the culture that encompasses rap music. However, hip-hop can also refer to rap, or the rap lyrics. Rap is the music that we are exploring as another form of poetry. And lyrics are also the poetry of the rap, or hip-hop.
3. Cirelli, Michael, and Sitomer, Alan. Hip-Hop Poetry & The Classics. Los Angeles: Milk Mug, 2004.
4. Westbrook, Alonzo. Hip-Hoptionary. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.
5. Zanger, Mark. “The Intelligent Forty-year-old’s Guide To Rap.” The Boston Review Dec. 1991.
6. Hoagland, Tony. “Negative Capability.” The American Poetry Review Mar/Apr 2003: Vol. 32, No. 2.
7. Recently, the multi-platinum recording artist Nas, was pressured from his record company (with threats of shelfing the project) to change the title of his new album from “Nigger” to “Untitled.”
8. A remix is a new version of an already popular song that usually involves multiple rappers adding to the conversation.
9. See many of David Lehman’s “Poem(s) in the Manner of..” Some examples in NYQ 64
10. Alim, H. Samy. “On Some Serious Next Millennium Rap Ishhh.” Journal of English Linguistics Mar. 2003: Vol. 31, No. 1.
11. Again, these terms will also be interchanged and mean the same thing. MC has been broken down to mean a number of things: Master of Ceremonies, Mic Controller, “Move the Crowd.” However, MC or rapper is also spelled out emcee in many cases.
12. Rickford, John R; Arnetha Ball; Raina Jackson Blake; and Naomi Martin. “Rappin’ on the copula coffin: Theoretical and methodological issues in the analysis of copula variation in African American Vernacular English.” Language Variation and Change, 1991, Vol. 3, 103-132.
13. Padgett, Ron Ed. The Handbook of Poetic Forms. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1987.
14. Lehman, David. The Line Forms Here. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992, pg. 26.
15. Gioia, Dana. “The Future of Poetry Publishing.” Poets House NYC, October 1994.
16. Fergusson, Francis. Aristotle’s Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961, pg. 7.
17. Hoagland, Tony. “Negative Capability.” The American Poetry Review Mar/Apr 2003: Vol. 32, No. 2.
18. Gioia, Dana. “Can Poetry Matter?” Atlantic Monthly May 1991.
19. Hsu, Hua. “Hip Hop Scholars Bumrush the Academy.” The Village Voice Jan. 8-14, 2003.
20. KRS-One. Ruminations. New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2003.
21. Lehman, David. The Line Forms Here. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992, pg. 25.
22. Leithauser, Brad. “Metrical Literacy.” The New Criterion Summer 2000.
23. Alim, H. Samy. “On Some Serious Next Millennium Rap Ishhh.” Journal of English Linguistics Mar. 2003: Vol. 31, No. 1.
24. Abdul, Raoul, and Lomax, Alan. 3000 Years of Black Poetry. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1970.
25. Delpit, Lisa, and Kilgour Dowdy, Joanne, ed. The Skin We Speak. New York: The New Press, 2002.