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Are You Picking Up That Which I Am Throwing Down?

July 9, 2010

In honour of my inaugural rap performance tonight, I’m reposting one of my blog entries of yore. It’s probably my finest hour as both a classicist and a hip-hop superstar, and I wrote it long before anyone started reading the Beard. I just think it deserves a little more play. Especially today.

I am so, so, so, so excited about whatever’s going to happen four hours from now. Unquestionably, the looks on the faces of the people in the audience will be unlike anything I have ever seen or will ever see again. Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.

How to Gangbang a Muthafuckin’ Dragon (August 2009)

The literary community or whatever it’s called has been lamenting the demise of poetry since long before I was born. And it makes sense that people who write killer verses are upset that their talent doesn’t even come close to paying their automobillz when two thousand years ago they would have been living high on the hog in Rome, getting their bisexual orgy on with Augustus and a couple of his serving wenches, using truffles as ass sponges and ass sponges as thrush ass sponges. But probably the most obvious thing ever is that life is unfair. The fact is, we don’t need poetry the way people used to. In a preliterate world where you have to remember stuff the first time you hear it, poetry is vital. It’s the most powerful mnemonic device available. But now that the human brain is far from the only information storage business in town, poetry has lost its usefulness. The oral society that created it doesn’t exist anymore. Poetry is still beautiful and culturally relevant and all that, it’s just not necessary, because now there are books and Google and Wikipedia and academic journals and hard drives and rewritable DVDs and memory sticks and and and. Here’s some good news, though: Indo-European poetics are thriving. Gangsta rap is keeping our poetic tradition alive.

I listen to way more rap than anyone realizes. My tastes are mostly rock ‘n’ roll, with the occasional warbly-voiced harp dominatrix mixed in, but the number one most played song on my iPod is “Brooklyn’s Finest,” and there’s a simple reason for this: at 7:15 a.m. as I’m chugging five litres of coffee and getting mentally prepared to kick the ass of the day, there is nothing I’d rather listen to than Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls shouting about the inherent superiority of the west side. For a long time I was pretty weirded out by my fondness for rap. I’m a white girl from small-town Saskatchewan. I have never sipped Cristal or been to an after-party. One-night stands are not my cup of sperm, and I don’t agree with most of the philosophies or life strategies endorsed by the artists in question: I’m not down with misogynist bullshit in any of its forms, I’ve never shot or been shot by anyone, and in my experience, the saying should be “Mo’ money, fewer problems.”

So, all things considered, I felt like I had no right to know all the words to Mack 10’s “West Side Foe Life.” And then one day back in ought-seven, thanks in part to the works of the overwhelmingly brilliant Dr. Professor Sir Calvert Watkins, I realized that I was actually listening to the modern version of the ancient poetry I’d been worshipping for years. In terms of both subject matter and use of language, there are some pretty incredible similarities between Homer and Jay-Z.

Just as ancient poets were expected to draw heavily from the works of their predecessors (plagiarism only relatively recently became immoral and illegal), rappers sample other artists on virtually every track and often mention the works of fellow rappers as well as other works in their own. (Remixes of one’s own work are also par for the gangsta/R&B course, of course.) Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” and Jay-Z’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Kills You” begin with some version of the 23rd psalm; the opening of Jay-Z’s “Encore” is a soundbyte from the movie “Gladiator”; the opening of “Brooklyn’s Finest” is a send-up of a scene from “Carlito’s Way,” etc… There are thousands of examples, but my favourite such appropriation and repackaging of well-known material is Ice Cube’s creative use of the Almond Joy/Mounds jingle: “Sometimes I feel like a nut – don’t give a fuck when I open ya up.” Hell fucking yes! And when you’re as badass as Jay-Z, you can even go so far as to sample children’s show tunes and render them hard as fuck simply by “tak[ing] the bass line up…uh huh” (“It’s a Hard-Knock Life” – in which Hova later ingeniously rhymes “stay on my toes” with “prey on my foes”).

In the ancient world, the lyric poets of the 7th(ish)-6th(ish) centuries BC moved away from the relatively rigid epic metre and invented complex and more fluid rhythms that allowed for greater poetic freedom and linguistic/syntactical creativity. Likewise, rap always has a powerful rhythm despite not usually conforming to any obvious rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Like the ancient Greek language, and unlike most modern poetry, rap is delivered in a much more pitch-conscious way than regular English speech – it’s a sort of midpoint between speaking and singing. I suspect this is because, like archaic poetry, rap is created to be delivered orally rather than read. Rap also makes amazingly enthusiastic use of common ancient literary devices, in particular alliteration, flagrant overuse of similes/comparisons (“I ___ like ___,” “I’m ___er than ___”), and all manner of internal vowel play that goes way beyond the relatively tame and obvious assonance of yore. No one fucks with vowels more elegantly than Biggie Smalls, as far as I’m concerned (listen carefully to “Hypnotize” sometime), but in the lyrics of almost any track you can find numerous lengthy passages in which nearly all the words contain an “a” sound, an “o” sound, or the like. The most common ancient device embraced (probably unconsciously) by gangsta rappers is the tricolon: rhymes and concepts tend to come in threes. Sometimes the ascending tricolon gets some play; my favourite example is from DMX’s (fucking hilarious) “Up in Here”: “Listen, / yo’ ass is about to be missin‘. / You know who’s gonna find you? Some old man fishin‘.”

Subject-matter-wise, gangsta rap is the closest thing the modern world will ever have to Homeric epic. The first thing a character in Homer does upon meeting someone else is to ask where that person is from. It’s the number one most important question: “Where is your city?” Often a character’s epithet will pertain to his birthplace. Lyric poets often paid poetic homage to their own birthplaces, and rap is, if anything, even less subtle in this regard. It’s a challenge to think of a single track in which the artist fails to mention his hometown numerous times. Many songs are dedicated entirely to proclaiming the superiority of the rapper’s birthplace or geographical location (“California Love”; “Brooklyn’s Finest”; “West Side Foe Life”; perhaps most hilariously “Deja Vu,” Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz’ self-proclaimed “national anthem of the world” in which crazily over-the-top homage is paid to the Bronx). Along with the “where are you from” obsession, in rap as in archaic poetry, comes a lot of trash talk about how you’re comparatively stronger, more attractive, better dressed, and more sexually potent than anyone from another part of town (“New York niggas got crazy game, but outta town niggas is all the same” – Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz) and therefore, if it comes to violence, you and your friends will kick the shit out of outsiders. The West Side/East Side rivalry, harped on ad nauseam by pretty much every rapper who wrote anything in the ’90s, echoes the xenophobia of the ancient world: Greece vs. Troy, Athens vs. Thebes, Rome vs.  everyone who wasn’t Roman, etc. In ancient poetry (particularly the Iliad) as in rap, violence is emphasized: particular weapons (“Can I bring my gat”; “cannons in their Mark Buchanans”; “pull out my Wesson”; etc.) are often mentioned and grisly details are enthusiastically provided.

The symposiastic lyric poets of the ancient world have rappers as their modern counterparts: today’s Anacreontic verses come to us courtesy of Lil’ Flip (“eyes like a Chinee, I’m drinkin’ on the Heini”; later in this track he refers to “purple”, i.e., heavily spiked grape Kool-Aid), Snoop Dogg (“rollin’ down the street, smokin’ Indo, sippin’ on gin and juice”), Ice Cube (“pass the Hennessy and give me energy”), and the innumerable rappers who have paid tribute to Cristal, the unmixed wine of our time, apparently. Drinking almost inevitably leads to fucking, and another similarity linking ancient with modern is the almost formulaic negative attitude toward women: segregation of the sexes is taken for granted (“We got bitches on the left, niggas on the right” – Mack 10, West Side Foe Life; “A sister can’t be backin’ me up; where my niggas?” – Jagged Edge in “Don’t Mess With My Man”). Women’s sole use in life is to be fucked: “Girls walk to us, wanna do us, screw us, yeah, Poppa and Puff.” But when they’re not pleasuring the “magic sticks” of rappers, they’re mistrusted as “bitches in the beauty shop talkin’ bullshit” (Mack 10, “West Side Foe Life”; see also Ludacris’ “You’s a Ho,” Kanye West’s “Gold Digger,” and many, many more), just as they were in the ancient world by fucking assholes like Hesiod and Semonides. Like (pre-Beyonce, one hopes) Jay-Z, many lyric poets happily endorsed a policy of “Thug ’em, fuck ’em, love ’em, leave ’em, ’cause I don’t fuckin’ need ’em.” Abducting a woman for the sake of blackmail or in order to incite violence is also a strangely frequent theme in rap (“Your daughter’s tied up in a Brooklyn basement” – The Notorious B.I.G.; “We got your woman, pucker up ‘fore we fuck her up” – Westside Connection), just as it is in myth: cf. Chryseis, Briseis, Helen, Persephone…

A predominant theme in ancient poetry, expressed most explicitly in the Iliad, is undying glory achieved through poetry. One wished either for one’s deeds to be set to verse and sung by future generations or for one’s own poetry to live on forever. Achilles’ deepest wish is immortality via song; he’d rather die in battle as a young man than die peacefully in old age because death in war is something to sing about: as Mase puts it, “Can’t stop ’til I see my name on a blimp,” and as Jay-Z puts it, “You’re nobody ’til somebody kills you.” This is a common attitude among rappers as well; the most obvious example is Biggie Smalls, who called his final album Life After Death, died violently soon after its release, and has indeed been kept alive in the works of his friends and proteges, particularly P. Diddy, the Patroclus to Biggie’s Achilles.

Rap isn’t for everyone. Fair enough. But disagreeing with what a poet says doesn’t entail dismissing the artistry of how s/he says it. Otherwise there would be way fewer classical scholars in the world, and those who did exist would all be total assclowns who endorsed rape, war, and intolerance of foreigners. I’m definitely not going to stop reading Homer or Archilochus or probably even that motherfucking douchebag Semonides, nor am I going to stop listening to “Brooklyn’s Finest” every morning. You don’t have to agree with the politics to admire the poetry. Some of it is absolutely fucking brilliant. And it’s more exemplary of our many-millennium-old poetic tradition than anything else around.

Keep your hands high. Shit gets steeper.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Joachim Ayala permalink
    July 11, 2010 7:56 pm

    This is very clever. The theme of your blog entry reminds me a great deal of Camille Paglia’s work. I’m not sure if you have read this paper:
    Semonides lives on.

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