I'm in the Brooklyn home of Danny Simmons, artist, novelist, poet and creator of HBO's groundbreaking Def Poetry. Danny's living room is like an art gallery -- no, it's like three art galleries all packed together in one room, and the good-natured eclectic chaos I see around me reminds me of the welcoming attitude of the long-running TV show I'm here to ask Danny about.
Danny doesn't seem to care if anybody thinks of him as a media mover-and-shaker or not, but the facts speak for themselves: the only successful TV show about poetry ever created has just begun its sixth season on HBO. But Def Poetry wasn't born from a business plan or a power-lunch napkin sketch. It grew and evolved out of a nucleus of Danny's friends, who would gather and perform open mic's at art galleries (visual art seems to be Danny's original passion) in the early 1990's.
1. STRICTLY BUSINESS
A swirling blast from a wind tunnel breaks into I Shot The Sheriff, and we hear the distinctively unsmooth voice of Erick Sermon -- the E of EPMD -- for the first time. E's thick, flat enunciation is what makes this duo's sound so recognizable (the other rapper is P, or Parrish Smith of E and P Making Dollars, who can rap as well as E, though you don't spot his voice a mile away like you do with E's).
Erick Sermon likes to rhyme. The fact that he doesn't have a great voice isn't going to stop him, and he takes lines like this at double speed:
Yo, yo, you're still pickin' on that four-leaf clover?
Bring in the sandman, sucker, because it's over
My name is Erick Sermon and I'm back again
I see the heads still turnin' of my so-called friends
They smile in my face, behind my back they talk trash,
Mad and stuff because they don't have cash
Like the E-Double or the PMD
He drives a Corvette, I drive a Samurai Suzuki
It's E's erratic rapping that makes this duo work. You can almost hear his tongue tripping over itself, but the sly, dexterous rapper always manages to pull it off, and this stuttering style keeps you wondering what's going to happen on the next rhyme. Or the next track:
"Strictly Business" was good, but the second track is a masterpiece. Parrish Smith kicks off "I'm Housin'" with a tale of a neighborhood battle:
P. Coolin' in the scene like a horse in a stable
Brother got ill and tried to snatch the fat cable
I stepped back like it wasn't no thing
Punched him in the jaw with the fat gold ring
I had an ace in the hole when it came to that
E: Yo, P, you was packing?
P: You know I'm strapped
The story comes off as unintentionally hilarious because you don't really believe for a minute that this happened. As in many hiphop songs, the tension in these lyrics is enhanced by the visible gulf between the rapper and the character the rapper is playing. They play it up all the way here. After P exits the conflagration by spraying gunfire, E seems impressed:
E: What a way to go out
out like a sucker
Of course, anybody can tell that these guys are more interested in sampling vinyl than shooting guns, and I really doubt that Parrish Smith ever killed a bunch of guys, but somehow this doesn't harm the song a bit.
3. LET THE FUNK FLOW
The Beastie Boys "Let It Flow" is chopped up to create the backbeat for this track. "Let the Funk Flow" introduces one of EPMD's singature lines:
Lounge homeboy, you in the danger zone
which will appear twice more on this album.
4. YOU GOTS TO CHILL
Beat: perfect. Bassline: perfect. Lyrics ...
Relax your mind, let your consciousness free
and get down to the sound of EPMD
and you should keep quiet while the MC raps
and if you're tired then go take a nap
Destroy and employ
You're rhymes I avoid
Never sweatin' your girl
E: Why, P?
P: cause she's a skeezoid
This track also brings out the echo machine for the first time, to epic effect.
5. IT'S MY THING
This is the song. If you only listen to one EPMD track in your life, make it this one. We begin with the whirl of a helicopter's propellors, and then the repeating samples fall into place: "It's My Thing" ... "Goddam" ... "Louder!" ...
E: Style of the rap makes your hands clap
Take care of myself because the lines are strapped
They mean business, no time for play
If you bite a line, we'll roll your way
The more you bite, your body gets hot
Don't get too close, because you might get shot
Gnawin at my rhyme like a poisonous rat
Don't play dumb, boy, you're smarter than that
P: The rhythmatic style, keeps the rhyme flowin
Good friends already bitin, without you knowin
Can't understand, why your body's gettin weaker
Then you realize, it's the voice from the speaker
The mind become delirious, situation serious
Don't get ill, go and get curious
E: Nuff about that, let's get on to something better
And if gets warm, take off the hot sweater
And if you want some water, I'll get you a cup
And if you don't want it, then burn the hell up
I'm tellin you now boy, you ain't jack
Talking much junk like Mr. T at your back
but he's not, so don't act cute
Cause if you do you in hot pursuit
Everything works right on this astounding and highly danceable track.
6. YOU A CUSTOMER
How can they follow "It's My Thing"? Well, here comes Erick:
E: Knick knack paddy wack, give the dog a bone
Yo, don't give him nothing but a microphone
Don't stop, I'm not finished yet
You said I'm not the E? You wanna make a bet?
Remember this? "Lounge, you in the danger zone"
I figured you would, now leave me alone
Steve Miller's "Fly Like An Eagle" provides an eerie backing track that works better than it has any right to.
7. THE STEVE MARTIN
This track totally dates the CD, because Parrish spends most of it explaining that he wants to replace the recent "Pee Wee Herman" dance craze (this was the 80's, my friends) with a craze of his own selection, based on Steve Martin in The Jerk. This is probably the worst song on the album, and I bet it's the one both members of the group wish they'd never put on this classic album. But even "The Steve Martin" turns great at the end when Sermon and Parrish start spontaneously yelling into the mic:
E: Awww yeah, Steve Martin in full effect
P: EPMD striking once again, funky fresh in the flesh
E: I think this is the last record on the album! We made it!
P: Yo, yo, what time is it
E: 1988 was so great ...
It's a great fadeout:
E: Cause we in there
and we're outta here
I don't even know what "outta here like gladiators" means, and I don't care. And, of course, despite yelling "I think this is the last record on the album", it's not. Three tracks left to go ...
8. GET OFF THE BANDWAGON
Many EPMD songs express a single theme: "stop biting my rhymes". Apparently, getting your rhymes bitten (stolen by other rappers) was a major hazard back in the 80's, and that's why this song exists. It's not the most inspired cut on the album, and even E seems confused at times:
While my volume was swaying, you were saying
"Who was that brother?" while the record was playing
I felt kinda happy like an ego trip
I had to lounge cause my image is hip
Or maybe he's just trying to come up with rhymes that nobody else can bite.
9. DJ LA BOSS
This is the obligatory "scratch song" that used to appear on all hiphop albums, in which they all tried to prove they could rock a party like Eric B on "Eric B. Is President". DJ La Boss was EPMD's original D.J., and this track is all him. Scratching solos don't always translate well to albums, so it's good that hiphop albums stopped including tracks like this ... hmm, right around the time this album came out.
This is probably the second best track on the album. It opens with a dialogue bit: Erick is refusing to take the album up to their producers, even though the recording is done, because, he says, "I gotta dis this girl". We then hear the long, sad saga of Jane, a fine woman with a haircut "like Anita Baker" who ended a night of wild love with a note telling Erick he had to be "better, bigger, stronger and much faster", to which P replies:
P: And you don't quit,
EPMD rock on with the funky shit!
And that's as far as they go with the sad story, since it's just another excuse to rhyme. In the world of EPMD, the only things that matter are the beats and the rhymes, and the never-ending struggle for respect in the land of the biters. Jane is a great choice for the closer on Strictly Business because it captures the combination of joy and humor and defiance that has made EPMD resonate with listeners like me for two decades.
Strictly Business is EPMD's first and best album. Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith grew up together in Brentwood, Long Island, a fairly run-down suburban neighborhood about three miles from where I grew up (in the neighboring town of Hauppauge). E and P both mention Long Island frequently on this album, and they also name-check institutions like New York Tech, where P went to college. One of the most beloved rap groups of all time, EPMD kept their style fresh by never changing it much, always choosing great funky guitar beats to rhyme over, and avoiding the urge to act overly "hard core" in the gangsta era. The duo has broken up several times, sometimes bitterly, and their solo works include Erick Sermon's excellent Chilltown, which tells us:
I sound like me
You sound like Jay-Z
They also reunite occasionally, and this article was probably prompted by the fact that I am going to see them at B. B. King's on 42nd Street in Manhattan on October 14. I'm definitely psyched, and I'll be sure to file a report.
Goines' gritty novels enthralled Queens-based cocaine kingpin Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff while he served eight years of a twelve-year sentence for drug trafficking. Upon his release in 1995 McGriff made it his mission to re-invent himself as an entertainment mogul by producing movies based on these books. He befriended two younger record company entrepeneurs, Irv and Chris Lorenzo, who ran the Murder Inc. hiphop label. He acquired film rights to two Goines novels, Black Gangster and Crime Partners, and began working closely with the Lorenzo brothers, who styled themselves "Irv Gotti" and "Chris Gotti", to get the films into production.
Snoop Dogg, Ice T and Ja Rule were in the cast of Crime Partners, but by the time production was completed there wasn't enough money to spend on a theatrical release, and Crime Partners was released straight to DVD, gathering little attention from cinephiles, and too much attention from federal prosecutors, who viewed ex-con McGriff's involvement as a sign that Murder Inc. was laundering money for known criminals.
The case went to court in Brooklyn earlier this year. Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Russell Simmons and others from the hiphop community came to show support for the Lorenzo brothers, as did a large contingent of family members. The prosecution's case turned out to be surprisingly weak, and the brothers were cleared of all charges last Friday.
In essence, what was on trial in Brooklyn was the right of entertainment figures to hang out with criminals. There's no doubt that the "Gotti brothers" tried to embellish their street cred by kicking around with a legendary neighborhood drug kingpin, but the prosecutors were wrong to assume that McGriff was leading his younger friends into a life of crime when in fact indications are that the brothers were trying to help their older friend establish himself in a legitimate business.
What seems dirty about this is that the federal government never seems to mind when white entertainment figures play the same game. It's well-known that ex-convicts like Joey Gallo were employed to lend authenticity to Mafia movies in the 1970's. There was a hilarious episode of the Sopranos about this a few seasons ago, in which young gangster Christopher Moltisante shows up on a fictional Jon Favreau movie set and is treated like a god.
The Lorenzo/McGriff case got a lot of publicity in recent weeks, but unfortunately the novelist at the core of the controversy got little play. Donald Goines is widely read among African-Americans, but his books are largely unknown outside that population. The rapper DMX starred in another movie based on a Goines novel, Never Die Alone in 2004, directed by Spike Lee acolyte Ernest Dickerson, and another Goines title, Daddy Cool is also in the works, though this film probably won't smash through any racial barriers either.
Well, I'd like to explain why I think this is true, and why I find Jay-Z's work so exciting from a literary point of view. It's not that I think Jay's the best poet in the hiphop world. That title probably goes to the late Biggie Smalls, who could effortlessly toss out lines like "there's gonna be a lot of slow-singing and flower-bringing if my burglar alarm starts ringing", or "Poppa's been smooth since the days of Underoos". What I admire about Jay, on the other hand, is his single-minded dedication to a truth-telling mission. His entire body of work is a mirror gaze -- he has never written about anything but himself.
We haven't seen any of these books yet, but one rapper just kept his mouth shut and quietly got a serious new book out on the shelves: From Pieces to Weight : Once Upon a Time in Southside Queens by the crafty Queens native 50 Cent.
I've written elsewhere on LitKicks about 50 Cent's lyrics. Some find him controversial, but he's undoubtedly one of the funniest and most vivid writers in all of hiphop. I'm not sure if I'm going to love this book like a fat kid loves cake or not, but I'm definitely going to read it and find out.
This is good news, although we're still waiting for the rumored Black Book by Jay-Z and Nas's mythical autobiography, so I wouldn't bet money on any of these seven books actually existing at any point soon. And I'm kinda confused about this statement that he wants these books to set a good example for kids. Snoop thinks he's got seven volumes worth of good example in him? We are mystified but curious.
Kanye West disappoints me sometimes. Sure, he's a godsend for any literate hiphop fan, with his appearances on Def Poetry Jam and his confrontational lyrical style. Musically, though, the guy can't sing (a little pitchy, as they say on American Idol) and he relies way too much on that catchy high-pitched backing track gimmick. Enough with the squeaky dolphin voices. However, his new song is about Diamonds in the Sky, and it's at least better than some of those Kanye tracks that got played way too much on the radio last year.
Finally, Compton's The Game is taking hiphop's metafictional streak to new heights with Dreams, which quotes from at least twenty other hiphop classics from the near or distant past. Has there ever been any art form as insular and self-referential as gangsta rap? The Game takes the metaphysical metafictional to new heights with this song. It's like watching comic strip artist Art Spiegelman quote from Krazy Kat, Peanuts and the Katzenjammer Kids in his jumbled comic frames, or like Neal Pollack rampaging through the history of literature naming every name in the book. This song is itself based on a Jay-Z song, "A Dream", which was originally based on Biggie Smalls' song "A Dream". Does all this self-referentiality amount to postmodernism in practice? I can feel it in the air.
-- While Bob Dylan is up for a National Book Critics Circle prize (winners will be announced March 18), another music legend is making news in the publishing world. Yes, Sean "P. Diddy - Puff Daddy - Puffy - Bad Boy for Life" Combs is being sued by Random House over a dispute in which the publishing company claims Puffy decided just to keep the $300k advance it paid for his memoirs -- which he never completed. I'm sure he's been busy writing his stories of J. Lo, meeting the Bushes and flamboyant awards show arrivals and parties. I think he just didn't want to overshadow the success of Dylan's Chronicles, Vol. 1.
-- On the Road again ... Earlier this month, the 120-foot long scroll of Jack Kerouac's On the Road manuscript was again unfurled -- this time at the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Fans can catch a glimpse of the yellowed and fairly tattered literary artifact in Iowa City through March 12, then the scroll will continue its four year national tour of museums and libraries.
-- Possibly destined for a paper mill near you ... the towering oak that was known as "Kesey's Tree" in Menlo Park, CA fell victim to root rot last month. What would later become a local shrine to Ken Kesey, the gnarled oak reportedly shaded the cottage where Kesey began writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
-- Speaking of rot, this just in from the "please stop making horrible movies from books" department: It seems that the screenplay adaptation of Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections is floating around for review. And the reviews aren't good -- what a surprise. While I personally didn't care for this "must-read" novel, I'm not sure I want to someday find out that one (or all) of its characters will be played by Tom Hanks.
-- As many of you know, former president Bill Clinton won a spoken-word Grammy Sunday night for My Life. What you may not know ... in an effort not to be outdone, the rumor is that John Ashcroft may have his eye on another national office -- Poet Laureate. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.
-- What are they doing in the Hemingway House? Fear of being overrun with tourists has prompted Ketchum, Idaho residents to attempt to buy and move the last home of Ernest Hemingway. In 1961, Hemingway shot and killed himself in the concrete and wood house. The Idaho Hemingway House Foundation (which boasts Tom Hanks, ahem, as a board member) hopes to open the house to the public and opposes the move.
Of course the biggest news this week was the death of playwright Arthur Miller. We'll be posting a retrospective on his impact and career on Monday, but in the meantime -- which literary news items and events are on your mind today?