Hip-hop as artistry

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Single Page|
  • |
Text size +

'Hip-Hop Is Dead," as one of the music's most innovative provocateurs, Nas, declared in an album title a few years ago. They were saying the same about poetry long before hip-hop was born.

Nothing could be further from the truth, argues Adam Bradley, a Harvard-trained professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. Not only is poetry not dead, he believes, it's alive and well in the much-maligned form of rap music, the most polarizing genre of popular music to come along since the inception of rock 'n' roll.

For years, the argument against hip-hop has emphasized content - the transgressive fantasies of thug life, glorified by rap stars from Ice-T and Notorious B.I.G. to 50 Cent. It's Bradley's self-imposed assignment to shift the emphasis to form, and he lays out a nuanced, academically rigorous argument that the best hip-hop deserves attention as genuine artistry.

Rap, he writes, is "poetic meter rendered audible." If traditional poetry is in fact ailing, Bradley suggests as the culprit the last century's disavowal of structure and rhyme. "Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people," as he quotes the late poet Adrian Mitchell. As indicated in the book's title - a "book of rhymes" is an MC's lyrics notebook - hip-hop has reintroduced the simple pleasure of hearing a surprising rhyme scheme.

This observation leads to an authoritative discussion of poetic technique - the origins of internal rhymes, chain rhymes, "slant" rhymes. In noting rappers' crowd-pleasing technique of devising intricate "broken" rhymes (pairing a single multisyllabic word with several monosyllabic ones), the author compares examples by the pioneering rapper Big Daddy Kane (" 'Cause I never let 'em on top of me/ I play 'em out like a game of Monopoly") and Lord Byron: "But - Oh! Ye lords of ladies intellectual/ Inform us truly, have they not hen-peck'd you all?"

From the strictures of rhythm and rhyme, Bradley moves into the more loosely defined elements of style and storytelling. Here the book steps from the classroom into the arena, as the author lets his undeniable enthusiasm for his subject take over. In the eternal Biggie-vs.-Tupac debate - style vs. substance - the author is a Biggie man. For him, it's not the words so much as the sound of the words.

A rapper's "flow" - his rhyming choices, how he accentuates the beat, the qualities that make his voice unique - can be influenced in many ways. 50 Cent didn't emerge from the rap underground into superstardom until a gunshot wound in his cheek left him with a distinct clenched-teeth vocal delivery. Another unmistakable rapper, DMX, developed his gruff sound by emulating his aggressive guard dogs.

Such real-life details naturally lead to the topic that hip-hop can never seem to shake. "Most hip hop fans find themselves at one time or another in the position of defending the indefensible," the author acknowledges, "of making the case to excuse the coarse language and the misogynistic messages behind some of rap's best-known lyrics." He calls on the words of Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, among others, to defend the rough slang and graphic realism of the art.

If hip-hop's illicit tales should be considered acts of creation just as the macabre stories of Stephen King are, Bradley notes that "horror music" is just one of hip-hop's many literary approaches. If some MCs are like screenwriters, he suggests, others are investigative reporters, biographers, and memoirists, even comedians, children's authors, and spiritualists.

If the argument still needs to be made that hip-hop is hardly the first form of human expression to indulge in audacious challenges to polite sensibilities, well, Bradley is happy to make it. The Greek practice of "capping," he notes, pitted two or more poets against each other in the ancient world's prototypical version of rap's freestyle battles.

He traces the word rhythm from the Greek rheo, or flow. Biggie had flow; Jay-Z has flow. For an English professor, Adam Bradley got some flow of his own.

Globe contributor James Sullivan is the author of "The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America."

BOOK OF RHYMES: The Poetics of Hip Hop By Adam Bradley

Basic Civitas, 248 pp., $16.95