Revolutionary Lessons in De-Feet: A Conversation with Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones

For most people, the name Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones is synonymous with the film Breakin’ and its lead character Ozone. But for street dance enthusiasts the world over, Shabba-Doo, 53, is the link between street dance as art and street dance as big business, between the rise of soul dancing and the explosion of b-boying/girling across the world. First as a member of the pioneering dance troupe, the Lockers in the early to late ‘70s. Then as a solo artists, taking his brand of locking to the Broadway stage to major network television to film. In the late 70’s, as a kid growing up in Newark, NJ, I was used to hearing the name Shabba-Doo tagged to any light-skinned cat who could rock a dance floor with unconventional moves. I recently caught up with him to have a conversation about his journey.

Anarchist Graffiti: When and how did you get into locking and street-style dancing, in general?
Shabba-Doo: I started, professionally, circa 1971. It was a sort of happenstance meeting between me and Campbell Lock Jr. (No relation to Don Campbell, who pioneered lock dancing) at what was called the BSU or the Black Student Union at Fullerton College in Fullerton California. I’d just moved out from Chicago. Me, my two sisters and my mom came to stay with my cousin, who was a staff sergeant. And one night, my sister, Fawn, saw there was a dance contest at the BSU and suggested we get into it. So, to be blunt about it, we stole my mother’s car and drove to the dance contest. We took second place and Campbell Lock Jr. took first. He was an original member of the Lockers, and he told us how good of dancers we were. And he brought us on the show Soul Train. Me and my sister became one of the original Soul Train gang. That was the beginning.

Actually, when the Lockers were formed by Toni Basil, as a professional dance troupe, my sister was an early member. Before Toni, the Lockers weren’t formally a dance group by name. It was just by association until Toni—being a choreographer for the Roberta Flack Television Special, produced by Dick Clark—hired my sister, along with eight to ten other (lock) dancers, which included Campbell Lock Jr. and Don Campbell. Afterwards, it was such a smash that Toni realized that she should form a group. That became the Lockers.

What year was this?
It was around 1972. The Campbell Lockers were formed in ’72 as a professional dance troupe. That was Toni’s idea. That wasn’t really Don Campbell’s idea. So—and it must be told—there would be no Lockers, as we know it, and there wouldn’t be a Shabba-Doo, if there wasn’t a Toni Basil.

When did you join the Lockers, and how did you get into the group?
I joined in ’72. When Toni formed the group, I was made a member.

How did you get the name, Shabba-Doo?
I originally had the name Sir Lance-a-Lock, which was giving to me by Campbell Lock Jr. Eventually I would change it because of an inspiration I got from the R&B band Bloodstone. I grew up in a time when bands were playing clubs. There was no such thing as DJs. The only time they would play records was in between the band’s set so they could rest. But you danced to a live band. Well, during Bloodstone’s set, the band would say, “Shabba dabba doo bop! Shabba dabba doo!” So, I thought my name should be Shabba Dabba Doo Bop. There was another gentleman by the name of Scooby-Doo. And Campbell Lock Jr. said to me, “You should call your self Shabba-Doo.” He thought the other name was bit too long, and I agreed.

Most people either don't remember or don't know how huge you and the Lockers became in the mid to late 1970's. How fast was that journey upward, and how did the popularity/success grow?
Well, the popularity was instantaneous. We were literally stars over night. I’ve often been asked in conversations, if the Lockers were starting off today, and they were at the top there popularity, how big were they? What would you compare their success to? And I would say that the group was on the level of any popular boy band (laughs). You probably could say, pound for pound, we were on the level of a New Edition. And, keep in mind, we were doing this without record sales. It was purely on our dancing ability. No hit movies. No television series. Just on dancing ability alone. It was pretty remarkable that we could demand the kind of salaries we were getting.

Also, the kind of marquee value we had with our performances. Opening for Frank Sinatra, Bill Cosby, John Davidson, all at the MGM’s main show room, on title marquee out front. In Las Vegas. You would drive down the main strip and see, on the main marquee—not in the lounge, not in the hallway (laughs), not dancing out front or in the court by the restaurant—that in the main show room you were going to see Dean Martin and the Lockers.

Our first gig, formally as the Lockers or the Campbell Lock Dancers—as we were also called— was The Carol Burnett Show. It just snowballed after that. We blew up like…like…like Jiffy Pop Popcorn (laughs).

When did you leave the Lockers and why?
People started leaving the group to pursue their individual goals. First it happened with Rerun (from the TV show What’s Happening!!) or Fred Berry, who we used to call “Mr. Penguin.” After he left the group, Toni left shortly thereafter to pursue getting a recording contract, which was a dream of hers. She eventually had the hit “Mickey.” I started going back and forth between working with the Lockers and working with Toni as her choreography assistant and starring in her shows. By the time she’d had left the Lockers, I had grown up in the ranks and was now the leader of the group. When I joined the group I was 16, the little guy amongst men. I was the little Michael Jackson of the group. And they were the older guys.

But while working with Toni, I’d learned some valuable skills. And it was Campbell Lock Jr.’s idea. He’d approached Don Campbell and the rest of the guys during rehearsals at my house and said, Shabba-Doo should manage and lead the group. His argument was that I’d been doing all the management work since Toni left. Anyway, this didn’t sit well with Don Campbell. Don and I were polar opposite members of the group, the epitome of old school vs. new school. Don led the group with an iron fist. He wasn’t a nice person, per se. Very intimidating. Very scary guy, especially from a 16-year-old’s perspective. Well, he said he should be leader, and the rest of the group said no, Shabba should. Then one thing lead to another, and he was like, “F---- you and f---- this, and Shabba, you should go form your own f----in group. This is my group.” He said, “You should call them the Shabba-Doos.”

And a light bulb went off. I said, “I think your right.” By then I was like 22 or on the verge being 22. At that time we were rehearsing for The Dick Van Dyke Show. When we did the show, that was our closing moment on a fantastic, almost magical time in my life, and in all of our lives. That was in 1977.

After you left The Lockers, how was your transition into a solo career? What did you do afterwards?
My son, Vashawn, was just born. It was a very trying time for me. Again, I love the Lockers, and I loved the camaraderie of the guys. What we were able to achieve, as a group, was pretty intoxicating. Then, suddenly, to be without them, I found it to be very sobering and not a very pleasant experience as a soloist, initially. I quickly found out that I was just a guy who used to be in an incredible group, as most soloist find out when they leave groups. So I had to reinvent Shabba-Doo. I often thank Don, though a bit facetiously, for encouraging me to form my own group and be my own man.

After I left the group, I became a professional dance contestant. I would go all over the United States or wherever, and dance against who ever for money. So I won a bunch of really high profile championships in Los Angeles and Orange County. By then I had encountered what I considered the sister act to the break dance movement. This was happening with the whole locker, Soul Train thing. And it was in the gay community. I came across it when I was in a dance contest. I had to go up against this kid name Andrew, who was doing a really flamboyant dance called Garbo.

He came in first. I took second. It was the first time I’d ever been beaten in my own club (laughs). And I was like, what is this dance? This guy beat me in full drag and make-up and platform shoes, and he was fearless enough to be in this hardcore, pimp, gang member kind of joint. And you know in the ‘70s folks weren’t really too friendly to gay people. He was brave to come in there. And to flaunt his sexuality…And for these hardcore people to recognize that he could dance. It was testimony to this kid’s ability. Anyway, he told me about the dance. Then he and his friends taught me how to do the dance called Garboing, which eventually became known, the world over, as wacking. Not voguing. Wacking.

I then took this Garbo dance and infused it with locking. And where, in the gay dance community, it was about imitating a famous female—Greta Garbo—or whatever the case may be. My idea, since I grew up watching silent films or older films, was to be like Douglas Fairbanks or Errol Flynn or Zorro. So my style of wacking took a more swashbuckler approach. It’s what you would call debonair or like a player attitude. And that became the Shabba-Doo style. And that’s the style I popularized in films like Breakin’ or in music videos like Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long.”

So now you’d re-established yourself on the dance scene. When did work in the media begin to pick up again?
Once I gained a lot of popularity on the grassroots level, then I received a phone call one night from Kenny Ortega. He was choreographing a show for Bette Midler, and he called me up for the show. Midler was actually on the phone with him. He asked how much I charged, and I quoted him some astronomical price.

I didn’t know who Bette Midler was, and I think she’d just finished filming The Rose He said let me call you back. He called back and said, “She (Midler) wants to know why are you that electrifying that you can ask for that kind of money.” And I said: “You tell that broad (laughs) this and this and that.” So she’s on the phone and she says, “motherfucker, come down then.” I went down to meet her, and I don’t know what she looks like. I’m waiting around and waiting around. Finally, I get impatient. I’m dressed in a full zoot suit. I say I’m about to go. Then Kenny tells me she’s here, and points. And here’s this little white lady sitting there with these big Gazelle-like glasses. I’m not impressed. She slams her book down, stops everybody from doing what they’re doing, and says let’s all see what Shabba-Doo is doing. I dance for her, and she’s like, “that was fantastic. When can we start work?” I say whenever. She asked could I start that day, and I said yes. I rolled up my sleeves and started that day. That show, Bette Midler’s Divine Madness, was my first job as a solo dancer after the Lockers.

Did that lead to other work?
During one of the performances, Brandon Tartikoff, the president of NBC at the time, was in the audience and cast me in their his program called The Big Show, which was skits and performances. Aside from starring on the show, I was in charge of putting together the huge production numbers every week, choreographing them, envisioning them, and starring in them.

The way my name began to get out into the public was from a skit I did when Flip Wilson was a guest. I did a dance/song number with his character Geraldine where she rapped a song called “Do the Shabba-Doo.” Gerladine would ask, “Can I call you Shabba?” And I said, “Doo!”

What did you think when you began to see street-dance, in the form of b-boying and electric boogeying, blowing up in the form of hip-hop in the mid-80s?
Actually, we knew about it a little bit earlier. During my time with the Lockers, we were in New York opening for Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall. One night we went out to a club, and we encountered, I felt, the east coast version of the Lockers. But they had their own style. The group was called the Brooklyn Rockers. This was 1974, before the Rock Steady Crew. This crew was doing a style of dance called "applejacking.” It was less ground moves and more footwork and uprocking—what they used to call boyoinging. They would bounce down and touch the ground, do a couple of moves then bounce back up. But they were wearing applejack caps, baggy pants with vests and t-shirts. The whole baggy suit thing.

So here we were with the knickers and the striped socks with a west coast look. And we went head-up against the Brooklyn Rockers. It was a non-threatening, non-malicious kind of one-upsmanship sort of competition that happened in the moment.

Who won?
In my opinion, it was a draw. I didn’t feel like the Lockers beat them or they beat us. I felt we both put it down.

So you weren’t surprised when you saw b-boying blowing up in the 1980’s?
No, I was surprised when I saw b-boying. I wasn’t able to connect the two until later. I mean, again, we encountered these east coast counterparts putting it down. And we didn’t think anything of it. Then some years go by, and now we’re in the ‘80s. And I see this super version of what we saw in ’74. I couldn’t connect the two. It just looked like a whole new dance in the way they were doing it. They were dancing on their heads. I had never seen that before (laughs), spinning on their heads or on their back like a top. That was pretty unique. I couldn’t liken that to anything.

As you know, street dance is all about the battle, and you're recognized as a pioneer. Did you have to battle any young-guns back then?
Before b-boying came about, I came up in a different mindset in the 1970’s. It was a different in Los Angeles during that time than what was to come out of New York later. The mine set in LA, back then, was more about love, peace, and Soul Train. We certainly engaged in friendly competition. But the New York dancers brought a bit more aggressiveness, in terms of anger. That wasn’t prevalent on the Los Angeles side. We weren’t angry like that. We’d actually dance and hug each other. New Yorkers dance and act like they’re hitting each other in the mouth. When LA dancers encountered the first New York invasion, if you will, it was like a bunch of thugs showed up. We were acting like a bunch of Hari Krishnas (laughs), and they were acting like a bunch of gangsters when it came to dancing.

How did you become a part of the movie Breakin’? Did you have any say in pickin' the dancers? Did you have any say in the story?
Well, I’d done the Lionel Richie stuff and the tours and…I actually wasn’t supposed to be in Breakin’. It was, again, a series of happenstances. One was I that I was pegged to do this other movie for New World Pictures called Body Rock. But I was taken off that picture because they wanted a guy the girls would like, a heartthrob—that’s what they told me. So they hired Lorenzo Lamas for the role.

Then my agent told me they needed a choreographer for this new movie at Cannon Films called Breakin’. So I went over there to meet with them about choreographing the movie. And while I was there, I was dressed with a bone earring in my ear—kind of like I was in the movie. And Menahem Golan, one of the producers, looks at me and says, “Uh, can you act?” And I replied, “I’m from Chicago.” Don’t know why I said that, but I did. And he says, “OK, Shabba-Doo, from Chicago. Can you go over to the casting persons office.” So I went over there, and I had the hat on and the whole thing. Got there, smoked a cigarette, and stood there until someone said, “You can start now.” And all I had to say was one line. Some one asked, “Who’s next?” And I said, “Ozone. Street Dancer!” Then it got quiet in the room. Well, after I left, I got about two or three blocks in my car when I got a phone call. (Laughs) It was on one of those big old car phones that look like suit cases. And they told me they wanted me for the part of Ozone.

At that time, I was about 30 years old, and I was gonna play an 18-year-old in the movie (laughs). I guess I looked young for my age.

But for people who knew of Shabba-Doo before the media explosion of b-boying or hip-hop, you were the reason a lot of us, on the east coast, saw the film. As an OG, so to speak, you lent the film credibility.
Yeah, and the producers knew that after the fact. They had to eventually realize that. Recently, I was meeting with the writers—because they’re talking to me about doing a Breakin’ 3—and the writer for the film said to me: “You know how that whole thing came down? Although we thought you had a presence and real leadership qualities for the film, you know we had to ask Ice-T what he thought. We’d actually thought about Ice-T being Ozone.” Then the writer said that Ice-T told them that the role should go to Shabba-Doo. They asked why, and Ice said because he IS that role. And that’s how they gave me the part.

Did you have any say in picking the dancers for the film?
Yeah, of course. After that, I got to pick almost all of them. Ana Sanchez. Pop N’ Taco. Poppin’ Pete. All of these guys were a part of my dance crew at that time.

After Breakin’ you parleyed your dancing career into a pretty hefty career as a choreographer. What were some of the huge tours and videos and shows you worked on or choreographed?
I started touring with everybody. Whodini. The Fat Boys. Lionel Richie. Madonna. I danced for Madonna and choreographed for her world tour and her videos. I also did fashion videos for designers—cutting edge stuff—like Norma Kamali.

What do you think of the 21st Century's version of street-style dancing (locking, b-boying, Electric boogeying, etc.)?
Hmm. Let me see. Well, I’ll first ask you this question: Are you aware that fruits and vegetables, today, lack the nutritional value they had 60 years ago?

Nope, was not aware of that.
It’s due to how messed up the oxygen in the air is, and that air is not oxygenating the soil properly. So while you can go out and eat lots of fruits and vegetables, you’re still going to lack those nutrients. So you’re going to need supplements. And what we’re also doing is “super growing” or trying to feed lots of people in a short amount of time. And not I’m saying this to give a science lesson, but to make a point.

We do have some dancers, today, that are doing some pretty spectacular things. You look and think, wow, look at that guy fly. Or, wow, that guy can do 50 head spins as opposed to the little Puerto Rican guy who could only do three back in the day. The big difference is the guy doing 50 head spins lacks the nutritional value. And that nutritional value can only come with time. We’re not allowing the soil time enough to repair itself, organically. If you have people who are viewing dance steps on YouTube so readily and quickly. What you have is people just copying from one another. Just copying, copying, copying. And we never get a sense of your own neighborhood.

That’s what I talked about earlier. Back then, you had east coast going on and you had the west coast going on. We didn’t know what you guys were doing.You’d seen some of the stuff we were doing because we were on TV, we had Soul Train. But we had time to let it settle and sink in. That’s no longer the case now. Now you got YouTube, which is a big problem. True art needs time to reflect. It needs time for these feelings and thoughts to inculcate themselves in our minds and our bodies. With technology, there’s no way for art to grow properly. Arts needs to be allowed to mature and enrich itself. Life can only be reflected in art if it has time to grow.

So that’s what you have out there: a lot of junk, a lot of cotton candy. And YouTube is the McDonald’s of art and culture. Anybody with a camera can put anything they want on there, and it doesn’t have to be tested.

It’s like break dancing now. You don’t have break dancing. You have break flying. What made it beautiful back then was that they were bringing their experiences and those frustrations from the boroughs to the dance. Not the high flying stuff. It was organic, rich, my-momma’s-whooping-my-ass- I’mma-go-out-in-the-street-and-let-out-this-frustration kind of dancing. All that other stuff, based on tricks and flips, is Olympic dancing.

What stuff are you working on now?
Now I have my House of Shway. Basically, Shway is short for Shabba-Doo’s way. In it is my urban workshop and performance workshop program that I market all over the world.

Nostalgic after "Notorious"....

Just saw Notorious and, besides loving the film, it made me feel crazy nostalgic for more than just Biggie, but that whole era which surrounded his rise and his success. The early to mid-'90s, as a journalist covering the urban explosion, was a funny and exciting time looking back. But I won't bore you with the memories. I just wanted an excuse to throw up this video of my favorite Biggie freestyle.

A Shoe and a Boo!

During Bush's second term I often wondered, with such dissatisfaction among most Americans about his policies, why wasn't there a massive display—done by ordinary Americans—of that sentiment. I had more of an angry demonstration in mind, something a bit more, hm, Then, yesterday, I heard (and I know Bush heard) 2 million people, of all different races and backgrounds booing as he was about to leave office, and I thought: Wow, what simple, sweet justice. For a president who'd been so insulated—both politically and mentally—from how people felt (telling the prez poll numbers does not have the impact), the swell of boos from that little nation waiting below him was a powerful way of breaking that bubble. I couldn't have painted a better ending....

Yes He Did.....

Have spent the whole day glued to the TV...And am so happy!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Because It's King Day....

I had to put up one of my favorite speeches—King's talk against the Vietnam War in 1967. Though it's the least celebrated speech, it so speaks to America today. As most of you out there, I'm so looking forward to the inauguration...

The Year of the Anarchist: Welcome to 2009!

Happy '09 my fellow Anarchists. Last year was an amazin' and an eventful year, to say the least. The nation got a F'ed -up economy and responded by electing a black prez . And I got a baby, a book and, oh, a black Again, I'd like to everyone who supported Somebody Scream and who gave great feedback—both positive and negative. (Now, I'm gearing up for the coming of the paperback edition in March and another trek on the book promo grind).

2009 will also mark the start of this blogging venture, one that has, surprisingly, proven to be both enlightening and fulfilling. On the one hand, I got to vent about events in the news (like alot of damn bloggers), big-up my favorite pop culture phenoms, as well as promote my book and book events (also like alot of damn bloggers). Not to mention cutting a deal to share my content with But on the other hand, I got to witness how far-reaching (with much impact) this blogging thing can be. Shout-out to my readers from Cali to Russia! So with that, I've thought to make some changes and implement some focus within Anarchist Graffiti. The first being a cut back on commentary. While I love my politics and my rants, there are a zillion bloggers raging against the machine, and I just want to see what's the deal with the new administration—and how society and the media reacts. What I will do more of is interviews. After the great response I received from the Adam Bradley post, I got the idea to get back to my journalism digs and bring readers the conversations they want to hear, with figures I think they might want to hear from. Setting up my wish list now, so stay tuned.

Hip-Hop as New Dead Poets Society: A Discussion with Adam Bradley

When it comes to publicly discussing the lyrics of many a rap tune now-a-days, most hip-hop enthusiasts take the position of comedian Chris Rock when he says: “I love rap music, but I’m tired of defending it.” Though most who groove to the crude words of an MC as much as the social conscious ones will tell you: it’s not what the artist is saying but how he/she says it. The rhythm of the words. The use of metaphors and similes as well as a host of rhyme styles. The impact of the stories. Thus, you enter another level of discussing hip-hop lyrics—rap as poetry—that never makes it into the national discussion. But literary scholar Adam Bradley is looking to help folks focus on the literary power of rap music with his new book Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. I recently sat down with Bradley to discuss this link between rap music and the often-misunderstood world of classic poetry.

Rap has been recognized as urban poetry since the beginning. What inspired you to finally put this idea in a book?

I wrote this book because I felt that for all the ways that hip-hop has shaped our culture over the past thirty years, we often overlook the transformative influence it’s had on the language arts. You have major media outlets like CNN asking “Hip-hop: Art or Poison?” as if it’s an open question. I mean, the level of ignorance is staggering. So part of my motivation was to help illuminate the art of MC-ing for a wide audience.

At the same time, I wanted to challenge the hip-hop community to become a more conscious and sophisticated audience of rap’s poetry. Over the years, we’ve developed ways of judging good and bad performances, yet most of us tend to express these judgments in the limited vocabulary of “dope” and “wack” and so forth. Book of Rhymes provides hip-hop heads with a common vocabulary for debating what makes one performance excellent and another run-of-the-mill. It calls for a revolution in consciousness so that rap fans will become more acutely aware of their own aesthetic values, and consequently, of the poetic richness that rap has to offer.

What was your process of picking which artists/songs as the best examples of poetry?

I’m always listening to music so the examples undoubtedly reflect what was on my ears at the moment. I’d be driving down the freeway blasting Biggie or Rakim or Pac and I’d hear a hot line I’d long forgotten about, or I’d be at the gym listening to Weezy or the Clipse or UGK and something would catch my attention. Of course, I also strove for a balance of old school and new school, underground and aboveground, different geographies and styles. The goal was to draw a representative sample of hip-hop’s poetry, broad enough to suggest the range and complexity of the art form. In the end, the book isn’t really about my examples at all, though, but about the points I’m using the examples to illustrate. I encourage anyone who reads Book of Rhymes to apply the knowledge within to the music that matters most to them.

Who’s your favorite literary figure of rap music? Why?

It has to be Jay-Z. He’s one of the most compelling figures in hip-hop poetics to me; his influence on culture has been so profound. One of my teachers once said that you’ll know you’ve been influence by an artist when you realize they’ve taken up residence in your mind—that their distinctive voice has seeped into your consciousness, that they speak to you. That’s happened for me with Jay-Z. His rhymes affect the way I see the world. I’ll think of this line: “Nigga, please, like short sleeves I bear arms.” Or these: “Blame Reagan for making me into a monster / Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra / I ran contraband that they sponsored. . .” He helps me to see the complexity in language and in life.

Who would you say is the most important poet/literary figure of rap music? What makes them important?

Man, it’s tough to pick just one. . . I suppose as far as influence on the craft of MC-ing, you could say Melle Mel. After all, he pretty much codified the basic elements of rhyming. And then, of course, there’s Rakim whose style influenced a generation of artists to follow. But when it comes to reading their words on the page, I’d have to go with Nas. He does more innovative things with poetic forms than any other artist out there. He’s not afraid to play with space and time like he does on “Rewind” or “Blaze a 50,” narrating his stories in reverse. He’ll spit verses from different points of view, like when he raps from the perspective of a gun on “I Gave You Power.” He’ll even play with the tone and timbre of his voice like he does on “One Mic.” Hate him or love him, Nas is the ideal artist to study if you want to understand rap’s poetics.

What hip-hop era would you say best exemplifies rap as poetry?

Right now. There are more MCs doing interesting and sophisticated things poetically today than at any other time in rap’s history. This is a little hard for me to admit, though, because I’m a golden age guy. I’m just about the same age as hip-hop, so the music I was listening to when I was a teenager in the late-1980s, early-1990s holds special significance—Rakim, Tribe, De La, PE, Black Moon, all of those acts. But, for me, rap’s greatest period is always going to be the present. Part of this, of course, is a direct result of all that’s come before. Think about it in literature: You couldn’t have Toni Morrison without Zora Neale Hurston and you couldn’t have Hurston without Phyllis Wheatley. It’s the same in rap. You couldn’t have Lil Wayne without Jay-Z and you couldn’t have Jay-Z without Rakim and so forth. It’s not that the artists today are better than those of the past, but rather that rap as an art form has evolved and expanded. This is what we call tradition. Rap’s poetry is at a place right now that is at once perilous and promising. The best art often emerges out of such moments of crisis.

Book of Rhymes delves deeply into rap music’s use of literary techniques and devices, a subject more so studied in college classes than on street corners. Is this book aimed solely at the academy?

Rap’s literary form is rarely studied in depth at all—anywhere. When it is studied, though, I’d say it’s just as likely—maybe even more likely—to be happening on the corner than in the classroom. So I wrote this book with true hip-hop heads in mind, wherever they may be. Of course, there are plenty of heads in the academy nowadays. That said, it was important for me to find a voice that could go from the seminar to the street corner, from classroom to the cipher. I wrote Book of Rhymes with the conviction that profound discussions of rap’s poetry can happen anywhere you can hear the music.

Will there come a day when rap will be recognized by academia as poetry to be seriously studied?

I think it’s already happening. There’s a vanguard of writers and academics who are demanding that rap have a place at the center of literary studies. And we have some unexpected allies. You never know who might be a rap fan on the low. A couple years ago I had dinner with the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney. He’s one of the most distinguished poets alive. You’ll find his work in any respectable anthology of contemporary poetry. Well, after a couple drinks we somehow got to talking about rap and he started saying how much he admired the poetic skills of Jay-Z and Eminem. I even promised to make him a mixtape to introduce him to some new artists. Here was a man pushing seventy who didn’t listen to rap that often, but still couldn’t ignore the miraculous way that MCs play with words. More and more, I think people are coming to realize that rap is where poetry lives today.

How is the reception at colleges and universities when it comes to studying rap as literature?

Students can’t get enough. And I’m not just talking about students who already listen to rap. I teach a class on contemporary black poetry where we do just one section on hip-hop. Every time I offer the course I have a waiting list. And I don’t think it’s because I have such a great personality, either. They’re lining up to talk about hip-hop. I’m not alone in experiencing this. The last several years have seen an explosion of courses on hip-hop across the country. There’s an element of fad to it, of course. But I think there’s something far deeper than that: people are starting to realize that rap is one of the most vibrant forms of literature we have.

It’s getting a lot easier to study rap as literature because so many writers and scholars are laying the groundwork. Jeff Chang, Imani Perry, Scott Heath, Samy Alim, you—I could go on and on. We’re experiencing something like a Hip-hop Renaissance. My next project will, I hope, make it much easier to read rap as poetry. I’m editing the Yale Anthology of Rap along with my colleague Andrew Du Bois from the University of Toronto. When the anthology’s published in 2010 it will be the first comprehensive collection of rap lyrics—more than four hundred in all from hundreds of artists. Our purpose is to help establish a canon of rap lyrics so that future generations of students will have a way of studying rap as poetry. To have the support of a major academic press like Yale is tremendous. It signals a transformation, I think, of rap’s place in literary studies.

What can the academy gain from studying the poetry of rap?

Studying rap’s poetics provides a bridge to studying more traditional poetry. Rap takes us back to some of poetry’s ancestral forms, from the strong-stress meter of Beowulf to the four-beat line of the ballad stanza. And then, of course, there’s the simile, rap’s favorite figure of speech. If you want to help someone understand the concept of figurative language there’s no better place to look than rap. “I got a question, it’s serious as cancer,” Rakim rhymes. Or “I flip the scrip like a dyslexic actor,” Tajai from Souls of Mischief says. You can diagram these similes so that you can understand precisely how they function.

For some, listening to rap is less intimidating than reading the Norton Anthology of English Poetry or something. This is particularly true, I think, for people under, say, thirty years old who have known rap all their lives. There’s a certain comfort level they feel with it as music that makes them more amenable to studying it as poetry. I notice it in my classes all the time. I’ll have a student who says to me “I hate poetry.” or “I don’t understand how to read poems.” I love when I hear that because I know that nine times out of ten that’s the last time they’ll ever say it. I’ll get them talking about their favorite rap song. I’ll ask them a few pointed questions. And then I’ll tell them, “Guess what? You just analyzed a poem.” It’s amazing to see how quickly students get it. Before long, they’re talking about stressed syllables and slant rhymes and metonymy. Those terms come alive when students first experience them in action. To me, the concept is always more important than the name we give to it.

You do a lot of comparative work in Book of Rhymes, dissecting the work of rap artists in the historical context of past great poets. Which great MC reminds you of which great poet and why?

Remember when Q-Tip rhymed “the Abstract Poet prominent like Shakespeare, or Edgar Allan Poe. . ..”? It’s fun to draw connections. I’ve actually spent more time than I’d like to admit speculating on MCs’ alter egos in the canons of Western Poetry. I’ll give you a few:

Rakim is Langston Hughes. Both draw from jazz and the blues. (Rakim played saxophone, and you can hear it in the way he riffs when he rhymes.) Both are forefathers of modern poetic traditions.

KRS-One is Amiri Baraka. Two geniuses who talk a lot of shit and spit off-the-wall conspiracy theories every now and then.

Tupac is John Keats. Literary stylists who were masters of their craft before the age of twenty-five and died far too soon.

Lil Wayne is Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Geniuses of rhythm and wordplay, and fond of mind-altering substances…

Lauryn Hill is Gwendolyn Brooks—Fierce lyricists who evoke strong emotions out of everyday circumstances. Only Lauryn can match the swagger of Brooks’ “We Real Cool.”

Andre 3000 is, well, Andre 3000. . . Not everybody’s got a match.

As a literary scholar, I’m sure you’ve spent more than enough time reading (and reading about) Shakespeare to get a sense of the man’s personality. How do you think he would react to rap music and which artist would he take the most interest in?

Shakespeare would have been a hip-hop head, no doubt. After all, he was known for spitting slang, making lewd plays on words, mixing a lot of sex and violence and swagger into his poetry. Shakespeare was more gangsta than most so-called “gangsta rappers.” Most of all, though, Shakespeare wrote for everyday people. Nowadays, people sometimes get the sense that you have to read his lines with a fake British accent or something. But for his time, he was writing in a voice that his audience could easily understand and in a way that delighted and entertained them. If that doesn’t sound like rap, I don’t know what does. As for the MCs Shakespeare would like, they’d need to have lots of witty wordplay, an ear for rhythm and rhyme, and a profound sense of the human condition. So I’d want to put him on to someone like Jean Grae, for instance. He’d have his hands full with the Wu-Tang Clan, too.

Given that, over the last 30 years, rap music has turned the written and spoken word every which way, has the music come to the end of its rope as far as innovating poetically? If not, where can it go?

I think you already know how I’m going to answer this in light of how I responded to your previous question about the best period of rap’s poetry. I really think we are living in the midst of a renaissance of the word with rap at the forefront. Poetry in general is making a comeback in a major way. There are more people writing, reading, and reciting poems today than at any other time in the history of the world. And more than a few of those folks are rapping. When I think about the future of rap as a literary form I think of what Andre 3000 said about it at the end of “Hollywood Divorce”—when our styles get stolen, “we just keep it going and make new shit.” That’s hip-hop’s injunction: make new shit. That’s the poetics of hip-hop.