I attended an interesting display of speed poetry last night at the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village, New York featuring two acclaimed practitioners of the verse form, Paul Muldoon and Brad Leithauser. An eager audience of literati, blogerati and peoplorati had gathered to watch, quietly munching on grapes and cheese or sipping wine, as the two poets nervously typed into laptops connected to QuickMuse.com. The odd experiment made for a good evening of spoken word, and the finished poems aren't bad at all.
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.
As my longtime readers now, I think Def Poetry is well worth watching, not to mention worth reviewing. It's the only television series featuring original poetry on any major TV outlet, period. The show isn't perfect, and can sometimes drag down into predictable spoken-word ruts. But there are always at least a couple of memorable performances during each half hour show, and you never know who'll show up to read a poem. Past performers have included Sharon Olds, Alicia Keys, Shappy from the Bowery Poetry Club and the TV debut, long before "Golddigger", of Kanye West.
I got a chance to meet Def Poetry mastermind Danny Simmons at a Brooklyn book festival this summer, and he was nice enough to invite me to a taping for one of this season's shows. I think I'll get in touch and see if I can interview him on LitKicks sometime soon.
I need some new literary hiphop thrills, because neither the new Jay-Z or the new Nas is pleasing me very much. But at least there's the White Rapper Show, in my opinion the best and funniest new reality show we've had in years. Literary? Hell, yeah -- the key challenge in the show involves composing spontaneous verse and reciting it from memory, usually based on a topic chosen by the show's host, MC Serch of 3rd Bass. If you've ever tried this, you know it's harder than it looks.
The inability to flow tripped up the show's best contestant, Persia of Far Rockaway, Queens, in this week's episode. She looked like a favorite to win the whole thing, and Serch clearly liked her best (I did too). But when it came time to stand and rhyme without paper, she couldn't do it. This is extra ironic because Persia's nemesis is Jon Brown, the dopey-looking "king of the burbs", who can't write anywhere near as well as Persia. But when it's time to flow he turns into Busta Rhymes, and that's why he's still on the show and Persia is gone.
Why is it so important to be able to rap or recite from memory? Well, that's the wrong question, because when you're flowing you're not going from memory at all. The purest freestyle comes when you feel comfortable enough to actually compose new verses in real time. If you can't hit that zone, reciting from memory is second best. But to "flow" is to be in a state of grace, as every rapper knows, as Jack Kerouac and James Joyce knew too.
Maybe this is why the Beastie Boys -- those other white rappers extraordinaire -- used to open every concert with this chant:
Let it flow
Let yourself go
Slow and low
That is the tempo
-- I have to admit: at first I wasn't sure what to make of Beat Reality, a new CD by poet Les Merton and the Moontones. I wondered if we'd pushed the idea of "Beat Reality" just about as far as it could go. In this new release, it's apparent that the beat influence has only just begun to be explored. Les Merton's Cornish accent alone would be enough to prompt you to let this CD play on, however it's the combination of his voice stretched over the jazzy, freewheeling style of his poetry that draws you in deeper, begging further inspection of the stories inside. Backed by the sounds of the somewhat quirky Moontones, Merton's poetry is Beat to the core, though it has moments where it comes dangerously close to clich
1. I've just been one listen through the new Jay-Z CD, Kingdome Come, which is released today. It's too early for a verdict as to whether or not this is another classic, but I can happily report that it's a well-crafted album, as musically complex and lyrically dense as a Jay-Z CD should be. The opening sequence evokes the opening of Reasonable Doubt, Jay's gritty 1996 debut album, and in many ways Jay seems to want to recapture that early work's spirit with this new work (three live cuts from Reasonable Doubt are also included with Kingdome Come as a bonus CD). Reasonable Doubt was Jay-Z's Dubliners, in a way; it's all about his hometown (Brooklyn, specifically the Marcy Projects), and it's filled with a rush of furtive confession. My favorite song on the new CD is "Minority Report", which contains some hard verses about New Orleans and world events. And I'm glad to see that Dr. Dre worked on several tracks -- basically, this is hiphop's greatest producer working with hiphop's greatest songwriter. Not bad.
2. I like Ed Champion's report on a new EC Comics archive series from Gemstone Publishing. Like Ed, I have found myself bizarrely attracted to the corny 1950's horror stories that made EC Comics a legend and also spawned the careers of cartoonists Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Jack Davis and many others. The stories were often garishly violent and pointless, but somehow beautiful as well. Beats the "Archies", anyway.
3. A certain luxury San Francisco hotel is on everybody's literary shit list for mistaking Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o for an undesirable alien last week. I find it incredible that this kind of thing can still happen in America (and especially in San Francisco, which is supposed to be an enlightened city).
The horribly ironic and totally unconfirmed ending to this story is that Thiong'o and his friends left San Francisco for Los Angeles, where they sought a relaxing evening at a Michael Richards comedy show.
I'm outta here ... Jamelah will hopefully post something tomorrow ... happy Thanksgiving or whatever it is you're doing on Thursday.
2. We're all catching Nobel Prize fever (the literary award will be announced on Thursday). Will Orhan Pamuk take it? Why hasn't John Updike won a Nobel Prize yet, and how can anybody possibly imagine the prize going to Joyce Carol Oates or Philip Roth if Updike hasn't won one yet? Finally, why does nobody ever, ever, ever mention Kurt Vonnegut as a Nobel candidate? Well, there, I just mentioned Kurt Vonnegut, so somebody finally has.
It's literary prize season. Kiran Desai has just won the Man Booker Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle is going to present its short-list for the National Book Awards tomorrow morning.
3. HBO's Def Poetry has begun filming for its new season! I know this for a fact because the good folks who run the show were kind enough to invite me for a taping last night. The air conditioner broke, so the room was hot in more ways than one, but based on what I saw the sixth season will be one of the best. As you already know if you've hung around here for a while, I have a lot of respect for this show and I'm really trying to spread the word. Not sure when the new episodes will air, but I will certainly keep you informed.
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.
1. I've long enjoyed the work of Sparrow, a journeyman spoken-word poet from New York with a gentle voice and a deep, calm sense of conviction. Ten years ago he took it upon himself to picket the New Yorker Magazine's offices in midtown Manhattan for not publishing him, carrying a sign that read "My Poetry Is As Bad As Yours". In fact, he was too humble to say so but his poetry is sometimes better. See for yourself: America: A Prophecy has just been published by Soft Skull.
2. I really like the cover of the new Saul Williams book, The Dead Emcee Scrolls: the Lost Teachings of Hip-hop. That doesn't mean I'll necessarily like the poems, but I'm usually a sucker for biblical pretensions so I probably will.
3. A small British publishing company called Diva Pictures has sent me a semi-homemade DVD of a complete 1995 Allen Ginsberg poetry reading. An Allen Ginsberg poetry reading was always a stunning, powerful event, a carefully calibrated mix of theater, music, verse, personality and religious symbolism designed, like an ancient Greek tragedy or a Pearl Jam concert, to produce a state of mass Dionysian ecstasy among all members of the audience. The show captured here was Ginsberg's last performance in England before his death, and I'm glad it has been preserved for future poetic generations to observe and learn from.
4. Is poetry news? Is news poetry? MacNeil Lehrer News Hour and the newly-flush Poetry Magazine are going to find out with their new joint venture. Poetry Magazine was given a well-publicized gift of $100 million not too long ago, and we're glad to see they're not just keeping it in the bank. I hope this turns out to actually be something.