Thursday, April 16, 2009

Thursday Evening in Harlem: Adam Bradley & "Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop" at the Hue-Man Bookstore

It was a nervous day at Dumbo Books HQ since one of our two favorite brothers had been admitted to the Mountain Vista Hospital near our house in Apache Junction the day before and this morning he told us he'd be having surgery as soon as an OR could be found. By late afternoon Marc was back in his room, but groggy and in bad pain.

Since there wasn't much we could do from here, we decided to get out of the house and we're glad we did: We went to two great readings tonight for two different books we are excited about reading. Both relate to music and some of the most important cultural movements of our adult lives: hip-hop culture, punk culture and queer culture. First we took the A train to Harlem, to the wonderful Hue-Man Bookstore for the second time in two weeks.

We were there for a 6 p.m. presentation and book signing by Adam Bradley, author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop.

We'd gotten an email from Marva Allen that Adam's appearance from yesterday (when we had to teach) had been re-scheduled for this evening. Consequently, the crowd was probably smaller than it should have been: maybe about 20-25 people, mostly African American and white men of a certain age like ourselves and a few women. Robert Guinsler, Adam's literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, was sitting behind us, and he got a call that the author and his wife were coming out of the subway and went to fetch them.

After Marva welcomed Adam from L.A. and gave a brief introduction to Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop, he apologized for this misunderstanding he had regarding the date of the reading. After a book tour that had taken him to seven cities, he admitted being tired but said that as the plane touched down at LaGuardia this afternoon, he felt energized again being in New York, where hip-hip was born.

His thesis is that perhaps the most exciting poetry today is being created by young MCs of all colors, classes and types, and that rap lyrics have fused the African-American oral tradition with the traditions of formal Western poetry. Reminding of us of Nas' "hip-hop is dead" statement of a few years back, Adam said that for most people today, poetry is dead, that apart from a couple of poems in each issue of The New Yorker, poetry doesn't reach the average person today.

Although it is National Poetry Month, Adam said, much American poetry ignores the American people, just as the people ignore poetry. (Those of us who teach literature to first-year college students have known this for decades.) Most poetry is too removed from people's lives, too recondite - and it uses words like recondite, familiar to enough to us or to a Harvard Ph.D. like Adam but which most of our students can't define.

Adam spoke about the clueless negative reactions from some mainstream like CNN's report Hip-Hop: Art or Poison?. (We go back to the day when hip-hop music was actually banned by federal judges: see our 1990 New York Newsday piece, "A Rap Smuggler Sings the Blues.") Hopefully, this ignorance can be countered with books like Adam's -- and the first academic anthology in the genre, The Yale Anthology of Rap, forthcoming from Yale University Press, co-edited by Andrew Du Bois and Adam Bradley himself.

Adam admitted that as a kid growing up in the late 1980s home-schooled by his grandmother in Salt Lake City, where trends from the coasts took five years to finally reach, he might be an unlikely exponent of hip-hop (he admitted still being into Bobby Brown's late-80s Gumby cut as late as 1994).

But Adam sought to reconcile the Romantic poetry instilled in him by his grandmother - the work of Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats - with the music he listened to: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, and "when I was being adventurous," NWA.

The author discussed his semi-hapless adolescent attempts to DJ, to be an MC, to tag, to break-dance, none of which were really his forte. Studying at Harvard with such brilliant professors as Henry Louis Gates - whom we first heard expound on rap lyrics in October 1990, when he was an expert witness at a hip-hop obscenity trial we were covering in Fort Lauderdale) and Cornel West showed Adam how he could bridge the gap between the Western poetry tradition as taught by his grandmother (and by the "close reading" of his Harvard professor Helene Vendler) and his love for hip-hop. The great Afrika Bambaataa, after all, finally posited a fifth element to hip-hop: doing the knowledge.

And "doing the knowledge" was what was going on this evening and which goes on every day at places like the Hue-Man Bookstore. We figure Adam must be a great teacher - he's a professor of English at Claremont McKenna College - for he gave a brilliant talk. His book has two parts: first, about rhyme, rhythm and wordplay, the elements of both rap and traditional poetry; second, about style, signifying and story-telling.

Rhythm, he said, is perhaps the most basic element of rap. Adam related being on an isolated beach in Brazil, missing hearing the English language after several weeks and walking along the beach summoning the lyrics
I bomb atomically, Socrates' philosophies
and hypothesis can't define how I be droppin these
mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery
Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me
Battle-scarred shogun, explosion when my pen hits
tremendous, ultra-violet shine blind forensics

A 15yo Brazilian boy behind him called out, "Wu Tang Clan!" Adam tried to talk with him, but the kid had exhausted his knowledge of English and Adam's Portuguese was nearly nonexistent; still, they related the same way to the rhythm of the sounds.

Adam talked about the synergy between voice and beat being at the center of hip-hop when joined with rhyme. MC's don't just rhyme sounds, they rhyme ideas, and we value rap for its ingenuity, as in the classic Chuck D lyrics from 1989's "Fight the Power":
As the rhythm designed to bounce
What counts is that the rhymes
Designed to fill your mind

Adam noted the over-exposed Asher Roth's lyric
'Till I learn Yiddish,
Or find a little kid who likes spinach
Can't nobody beat me in Quidditch

is probably the first time anyone rhymed those three words before but that they represent the experience of a suburban white kid born in the mid-'80s.

Adam called rhyme "a form of coercion" in which the poet forces audiences to connect disparate words and reconcile them, both in sound and meaning, a process of recognition and differentiation which creates rhyme's pleasures.

In addition to rhythm and rhyme, wordplay is the last basic element of hip-hop and it includes simile, metaphor and other forms of figurative language that allows MCs to take the familiar and make it unfamiliar.

Anyone who still thinks hip-hop is just about girls and violence merely has to listen to its lyrics, but even within the stereotyped limited subject matter you can hear elegant wordplay like Jay-Z's
Nigga please,
like short sleeves
I bare arms

Or in this lyric from Clipse:
I move caine like a criple
Balance niggas through the hood
Kids call me Mr. Sniffles

Adam also cited Kanye West's poetry in "American Boy":
Dressed smart like a London Bloke.
Before he speak his suit bespoke!

which he said must have sent kids to the dictionary.

Discussing the asthetic values of hip-hop, Adam noted, may not pay as much as MC'ing but clearly, he loves what he does as much as the MC's who have day jobs. We are anticipating bringing some of what Adam Bradley does in Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop to our own students and hoping the book gets as wide an audience as he deserves.

Because we got a call from Arizona from our sick brother, we had to leave before the Q & A, but we're sure the discussion was as lively as the best of hip-hop. We'll close with excerpts from Adam Mansbach's review of the book in the Los Angeles Times:
[A] new paradigm of scholarship is emerging, and Adam Bradley's "Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop" is a solid contribution...[that] scrutinizes hip-hop's artistry with rigor and imagination.

Many scholars would characterize the use of these devices as a subversion of the canon. Bradley is more interested in the notion of rap as a Western poetic form and, as such, heir to all that's come before.

His argument is far too nuanced, however, to suggest that rap's legitimacy stems from its use of classical techniques.

Rather, Bradley asserts, hip-hop contains many techniques that "rappers didn't inherit; they created [them] for themselves out of the need for expressive freedom." He zeros in on metaphoric construction, word bending and the narrative innovations of hip-hop storytelling.

Because he knows "flow" is as important as composition, Bradley spends ample time on voice, style and attitude, making his analysis as three-dimensional as the music.

Rap is a competitive art, and fans are notorious for the fervor with which they parse verses and rank artists. Much of what devotees do instinctively, Bradley formalizes in "Book of Rhymes."

His insights are compelling. . . In his discussion of storytelling, Bradley pinpoints rappers' conflation of the narrative voice with the dramatic -- a fusion that allows for "intimacy" and "imaginative freedom" and finds its antecedent in "the tall tales of oral tradition."

Later, he connects rap's ethos of "battling" with similar traditions in ancient Greece, 10th century Japan and modern Namibia, pointing out that while much has been made of hip-hop's "stereotypically masculine" braggadocio, "here [are] young men boasting of . . . poetry, eloquence, artistry."

"Book of Rhymes" is well-served by Bradley's discipline. In limiting his focus, Bradley creates space for the kind of analysis often subsumed by polemics and grandiosity.

The result is a book equally enriched by his academic training and his years of studious listening -- not the last word on hip-hop lyricism, but an engaging first verse.

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