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.