Finding the Poetry in Hip-Hop

Homeboy Sandman | Photo by Lauren Jaslow
Homeboy Sandman | Photo by Lauren Jaslow

By the time I began studying English and creative writing at NYU, I had already started to identify myself as a poet. I lived and breathed poetry; it was the only way I could compute and make sense of my surroundings. Simultaneously, I was also an EDM head, before electronic music had become so wildly and widely popular again, and before EDM was really a term. But I was sick of the scene and asked my roommate to give me some new music. "Here," she said, "Why don't you give this a listen." She handed me a copy of Homeboy Sandman's album Actual Factual Pterodactyl.

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I almost immediately fell for Sandman's strange vocabulary and even stranger beats. His sound was different than the hip-hop I listened to as a kid; strange was the only word that, at the time, aptly described his music. Case-in-point: from his Actual Factual Pterodactyl track "Mambo Tail Tale," Sandman raps, "My oh my! This chick is just about as fly as I am / One of a kind short look dime / 5 plus 5, 1 plus 9 / Chilling in the cut like iodine / I rose up right, shimmied by her side / Started talking that jive." 'Chilling in the cut like iodine'--excuse me? I didn't know rappers could rap like this. I was enthralled.

It took delving through Sandman's full discography and subsequent projects for me to become fully convinced of hip-hop's poetics. As I followed his career and continued to listen to his music, the growth of his subject matter steadily proved that there was only one type of rap I should be listening to, and that's the kind of rap that said something. As I became more and more convinced of this, I began to explore the work of New York rappers who had something to say and whom I could connect with in some way, who spoke to my sentiments as a writer, poet, and who spoke to my identity that I could only pinpoint as 'other.'

I continued to relate to Sandman's raps, especially from his album The Good Sun, the title itself a play on words, something I deeply appreciated. From the track "Yeah But I Can Rhyme Though," he openly talks about himself and his place in hip-hop, bemoaning various labels and presenting a refreshing kind of honesty. "You're not exactly a backpacker / You're not a gang banger / You're not a swagger rapper / You're not a hustler and you're not a slacker / Not a half stepper and you're not a kappa / You're not a trapper even though you kept a Trapper Keeper / You don't hug the block or smoke a lot of reefer / You're not a pimp, you're not a hipster / Even though you got a lot of sneakers, you don't fit the box so how you gon' get out the speakers? / Good thing I can rhyme though."

Sandman's talents reminded me of Black Star, whose album had been sitting in my iTunes library for years. While I knew the raps and rhythms by heart, I had never really taken the time to sit there and unpack the words. I took another listen and found that the hook from "Definition" said it all. "I said one, two, three / It's kind of dangerous to be an MC / They shot 2Pac and Biggie / Too much violence in hip-hop, Y-O."

I explored more emcees, my appetite voracious and never satisfied. I thrived on honesty, and that's what New York rappers like YC The Cynic, J-Live, and Von Pea of Tanya Morgan gave me. One of the first songs I heard by YC was "Rude Boy Jamaican," which I felt promoted authenticity in rap. "Just a kid tryin' to make it / Single mom household, pops couldn't take it / Moms on the outs like alps in Jamaica / Pops didn't pay shit, Mom losing patience / Stop visitation; locked it / Lived my whole life in his absence, bastard / Only thing he left was an accent; dropped it."

I began to look at hip-hop through the lens of a poet and became a kind of purist, only seeing certain rappers as true to hip-hop and viewing the genre in a narrow scope. I held onto these perceptions for a few years, not realizing that this was a flawed perspective. Every sub-genre of hip-hop has its place and purpose in the culture.

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In many ways, the birth of hip-hop was meant to be. During the 1920's, the Harlem Renaissance pushed African-Americans to speak and write about the injustices their community faced, and born from that propensity to speak and write was the hip-hop movement, poetics rooted in the writings of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, among others.

In 1919, during the Red Summer race riots, Claude McKay wrote, "If we must die, let it not be like hogs / Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, / While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, / Making their mock at our accursèd lot." In 1921, Langston Hughes wrote, "I've known rivers: / I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. / My soul has grown deep like the rivers." How could a new movement--a musically- and poetically-inclined generation--not take shape from the words of these poets?

Hughes, McKay, Hurston and Wright brought awareness of the black experience to everyone's front door and made it elemental to American culture. And from them came a new breed of poets: DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy, KRS-One, Melle Mel, etc., whose mission it was to rise above McKay's hungry dogs and to expound on Hughes' rivers. What was birthed from the writing of the Harlem Renaissance were hip-hop subgenres that touted consciousness as the ultimate goal, commentary on the politics, socio-economics, and cultural foundation of America. This continues to be true in every reincarnation of hip-hop culture and rap music that we have witnessed over the years, regardless of the music's intent and content; whether gangster, political, alternative or experimental hip-hop, all have laid the bedrock for black expression in America.

Many now claim that we are seeing another golden age in hip-hop. Young rappers--Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era, Ratking, World's Fair, Isaiah Rashad, Vic Mensa, Chance the Rapper--are pushing boundaries, propelling us forward, simultaneously reminding us of the original golden age and giving us a glimpse into the future of the genre. Sub-genre labels like conscious, backpack, and alt rap are becoming irrelevant in today's culture--it's all just kind-of become rap, living under the umbrella of hip-hop, a genre that will always be entrenched in the imagination of the great writers and poets from the Harlem Renaissance.

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