Made You Look-a conversation between Adam Bradley, author of Book of Rhymes-The Poetics of Hip Hop and Angelica LeMinh, College Dropout disciple.**
After months of good intentions, life and geographical shifts, two heads finally get together to wax so verbose that this interview must happen in two parts. Big thanks to Skype, Macbooks (though Adam’s is faulty despite being new and smaller than toast), hip hop, Shaq of all trades (master or none), and all the other jokes, “You’re handwriting? That’s really quaint. You should be doing this on your Blackberry, I heard that Drake writes all his lyrics on his Blackberry….”
ALM: “Were it not for an accurate transcription, these poetic effects would be lost.” (xxi) Is transcription necessary when it comes to hip hop? Is it the same relationship with poetry? And not all transcriptions are created equal. Whose responsibility is it to ensure that accurate transcriptions are available?
AB: A lot of poetic elements are not lost on hip hop listeners, but transcriptions are the gateway into the moderations on the craft that offer a shortcut to even close listeners. You can listen to a track three times instead of fifty, and using your eyes and ears enhances the experience beyond just using your ears. I guess the responsibility to make sure that transcriptions that respect the MCs’ voice and protect the line goes to me. But you don’t have to have a high level of education to do it, you just need to train your ear. I have a high school kid pumping out transcriptions for me, and he’s really come a long way. (*Bradley fully acknowledges his use of child labour, and kid, you should at least find a way to get school credit out of this exercise)
ALM: Let’s talk about the “underground to the masses”. As you quote stic.man, “Just because you are a starving artist does not mean that you automatically have more skills or that you lack them” (195), but so much is put into maintaining this image, especially now when it’s not so easy to distinguish the underground because it’s not about pot and pan beats, but Mos, Common, and Kweli.
AB: Audiences have always had the need to be able to claim the cachet of “underground”. I remember when The Roots (the epitome of this label) were just becoming popular, and it was fashionable to throw around, “Yeah, you listen to Biggie, but I listen to The Roots“, it was a major trump card. It’s kind of like now, when it is still regarded as avant-garde to report about hip hop on CNN, when there really isn’t anything avant-garde at all, it’s reality. But yeah, underground used to mean no hooks, and a lot of words. That’s one of things that I tried to do with my book- it would’ve been a very different book if I went to lyrics that are more obscure to the general audience, but I decided to write the book that anyone could access, regardless of where they are in relation to the underground, because the poetry is there.
ALM: Do you have a synonym for “rapid-fire”? You used the adjective twice in three pages to describe the flow of two rappers (Busta and Kane, 27).
AB: Damn. Obviously not. You got one? That’s your homework, get me five that I can put in the next book.
ALM: I am not a high school kid that can be exploited for free labour. And I want a name credit should you choose to use “underground to the masses” too, I heard you write that down.
ALM: Do you really think that Tupac is one of the best emcees of all time? Or has death immortalized him?
AB: Did I say that? Or did I just say that people say that? I’m going to get in trouble here, but I don’t think he is. The genius of him though, is that voice. It makes him stand out, it is a pure instrument. On top of that, he knows how to use it, his every intonation. He really shapes his voice around the music.
ALM: What makes Wayne a great Scientologist, er, lyricist in your opinion? I know he’s got good devices, but I’m not entirely convinced. There’s a lot of focus on his volume, but is quantity quality?
AB: No. First of all, why did Record Collector downgrade my review just because I used him as a point of reference, too many times in their opinion? Look, he’s an artist, with a signature perspective, signature in what he says and how he says it. You can’t say that about most. I think of him as the Rain Man of rap. He is lyrically compelling, and he plays with and conceives rhyme in the way that only someone who doesn’t write down lyrics can. He uses the logic of the ear. He doesn’t have profound lyrics, but doesn’t pretend to. His meaning is in his sound, the play of his syllables. If you don’t like that, it’s an aesthetic decision. It would be interesting to live in a parallel universe though, where he would only pick his best 10% of music to release. But it’s a testament of his success if, through all the leaks and such, he can still have such a cult fan base and sell the records that he does. If you peel back the layers of that fan base, you’ll find the outer layers as those who like pop music that will probably leave when he releases that rock and roll album, the middle that appreciates his contribution, and at the core are those that have seen him grow up and develop.
ALM: “MCs don’t just rhyme sounds, they rhyme ideas.” (54) For you, MCs vs. rappers, or is it all semantics?
AB: I used the terms interchangeably in the book because I didn’t want to make things more complicated than they needed to be. An MC rocks the crowd, has skills to freestyle and write, and it’s all about the craft. A rapper is a product of commercial hip hop culture, the emphasis is on performance alone. Rapping is an action, MCing is about identity.
ALM: I just saw a video of De La Hoya fighting Shaq on Rap Radar. What do you think of Elliot’s move to be the Perez Hilton of hip hop?
AB: I think we need that. Let’s face it, we live in a cult of celebrity. Not only the factual celebrities, but all of us who think we are celebrities, which, these days, is everybody. Any vehicle that can capitalize on that will be successful.
ALM: Well, yeah, and it is fueling a one-income household right now. Any comments on the death of Vibe? What about those two, or any seemingly well-matched couple? Andre and Erykah? Nas and Kelis….
AB: Aw, don’t even get me started on Nas and Kelis. And yeah, we’re still mourning Andre and Erykah, aren’t we? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been following Vibe for a long time. It has been a lot of different things over the course of its run, and I think it was just a casualty of the evolution in journalism in general. The saddest thing was that it used to have a gossip column, and by the time it went to print, the gossip was four months old. But that’s where Rap Radar is filling in the blanks. And we don’t have to look that hard into how/why relationships fail, it’s hard enough to keep them going when not in the public eye, let alone with everyone blogging about you. But Beyonce and Jay-Z, that’s a prime example of folks that do it well. My good friend Davey D always says that people look to hip hop like they must be living so much differently than regular folk, but it’s not true. I think that in every relationship, there has to be moments when each person is the star.
ALM: So, you’ve never dated another writer?
AB: I have, and it’s almost always been disastrous.
ALM: I think I could take Judd Apatow to the next level in his bromance empire, and do a movie about the emcee partner, the original hip hop bromance. No Homo.
AB: Hasn’t that film already been made? It’s called How High? And what would you do with Dre and Big Boi?
ALM: Man, those two have been sleeping in separate rooms for so long that the kids aren’t fooled anymore and they just need to break up.
AB: It’s funny how “no homo” has been making the rounds, I saw an article about it on Slate magazine, Slate. There’s nothing more mainstream than that.
ALM: “The Bible itself is not above the pun.” (97) Let’s talk about why you took it here.
AB: It was probably just my good Christian upbringing. The pun is looked at as the lowest form of literature…
ALM: Isn’t that sarcasm? Oh, that’s humour. And I don’t think that’s true, by the way, I think it’s just something that stupid people came up with because they didn’t get the joke.
AB: I think you might be right. But yeah, I just wanted to show that puns appear in every form of literature, even the first ones.
ALM: “After all, the reason MCs conceive elaborate rhymes in the first place is not to show how clever they are, but to put words together in such a way that they do something to the listener.”(61) Is this true of Gift of Gab? What about the difference between this and stage presence? Because truth be told, we can’t really hear lyrics (unless we know them) on stage, and it’s all about feel, which is a totally different experience.
AB: It is totally different. It’s the visceral experience of being at a show when the beat is pounding through your body and the emcee is in full command versus being at the gym lifting weights to The Clipse and feeling their presence through their lyrics, and some people just don’t translate. Talib Kweli, for example, though he’s gotten better to his credit. I saw him open for Lauryn Hill, and he was just standing there spitting lyrics (much like the situation you described with Gift of Gab). But we don’t expect an artist to do both, because it’s rare.
ALM: Unless you’re Lauryn Hill.
AB: Lauryn Hill in her prime was that. In a cipher, she got you. On stage, she got you. In your headphones, she got you.
ALM: “You can’t write a book if you’ve never read a book…” (144) Ah, but you can. You can’t write a good book, but what happens when your audience doesn’t know the difference? Then who is there to check and balance? While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about Serato…
AB: Good artists are always better than their audience needs them to be. There are things that you didn’t need to know to appreciate the work, but the artists have to know how to do in order to create it. These artists are craftspeople, they know the impact of their art, even if they don’t have the terms to describe the process, but it doesn’t really matter. Both Crooked-I and Chuck D have commented that I described what they didn’t have the words to, but the important part is that they do it, I just wrote it to have a common vocabulary to talk about what they do. I want it to be clear that the relationship between western poetics and hip hop is informed, but not dictated. I approach the topic with equality between the two forms, not to get some kind of Emily Dickinson cosign on hip hop. I’m actually pissed at a 3/5 review that I got on Amazon because dood’s critique showed that he didn’t even read the book as he said that I did that, and it expressed my worst nightmare for the book- a whitewashing of hip hop, something that I would never do as a teacher, writer, and lover of hip hop. I thought I was explicit about not doing that, though I guess I must be extra vigilant, especially in the Yale anthology coming up.
ALM:When you were writing this, did you read it aloud? What’s your vested interest in poetry? How important is form to your content? (“-be it women and cars or prisons with bars-it is also a question of poetic form”)
AB: I was homeschooled until high school by my Grandma, who taught me to confront poetry as pleasure. The first things I wrote were poetry. Hip hop brought new life to the literature for me, and I knew I wanted to talk about the connection between them with language at the core. When I’m writing, I am flowing in an altered state, so a lot gets shaped in the revision process. Each sentence is read aloud, it has to work on the eye and work on the ear. Ellison read Invisible Man aloud when he was writing it, that’s a big inspiration to me, and I make my students read their work aloud. It’s interesting hearing you quote my book back to me though, because sometimes I’m like, “that’s dope!” and other times, I’m thinking, “that’s not true”.
ALM: “Those of us who listen to rap know that this just isn’t true. Rap has a broad expressive range, but who can blame those who are exposed only to hip hop’s commercial hits from drawing such limited conclusions?” I can. We live and purport to export the idea of participant democracy, and people who wanna complain are always the people who don’t know. I find no bliss in their ignorance.
AB: (Laughs). I suppose that in this day and age, I shouldn’t cut folks that much slack. You’re right, the music is out there if we want to find it. I recently read this book, The World in Six Songs by Daniel Levitin, and he revealed his ignorance by stating that youth listen to hip hop to have an outlet for their angst, then proceeded to quote “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio. The book came out this year. There’s no excuse not to have a better understanding of hip hop’s relevance in music, especially as someone who claims to know and love music as much as to define the world in six songs. But, I think that our cultures make it so that we’re supposed to be able to talk a little bit about everything, and I blame my fellow academics because we write about stuff that we don’t really understand, and claim an authority that we haven’t really earned. I’m proud that one of the faults of my first book, and there will be some because it’s my first book, will not be that I approached it from anything but a place of loving and knowing the music. It was a hard book to write and publish, because I did want to do so academically, but couldn’t because it’s not a book that’s about making a point. I was lucky that Basic Books allowed me to keep it fairly academic for a popular press. I didn’t fail (success is not to be decided by me) because I have gotten positive feedback from old white doods that have been writing poems for fifty years and a 14-year old kid who showed up with a dog-eared copy for me to sign in DC.
Sometimes, it’s just good form to give the author the last word, and the first quote just trumped Neruda as my email signature, so: “In the hands of unskilled poets and MCS alike, rhyme can be an impediment, an awkward thing that leads to unnatural sounds and unintended meanings.” (57) “The battle in rap is not simply between competitors, it is also between the MC and the words themselves. Mastering language before it masters you is the first contest an MC must win, even before the real competition begins.” (178)
**that remains unfinished like the second Ellison novel. and that’s a good thing. keep reading, hip hop.
-another one that i decided to go out on my own with, i just can’t wait forever on dc. more hip hop and books coming soon….don’t sleep on toronto!