Well, it’s crossed over that’s for sure. For a while there most of us weren’t certain where this thing was gonna end up…back on the stoops of brownstones and on the corners or in as a serious musical institution. Coming from a freestyle, whim of the moment, into a full-fledged genre of music hip-hop—or at least its divergent marketable corner, rap—ain’t going nowhere. Of course, beyond being music (which many people of my parent’s and grandparent’s generation would argue against) it’s also a form of poetry. Hip-Hop relies heavily on meter and rhyme (more of the former than the latter) to comprise what is known as “flow”.
A flow is something unique to a particular MC—and someone who can really truly spit should have two great qualities to their flow: the ability to sound like nobody else in cipher and the ability to sound like anybody else in cipher. An MC must be connected to the rhythm of the beat in order to work in it, and as such they should have their unique connection and taken but also be able replicate those of others. An MC, like a poet, has to use their words sparingly because the beat and the meter limit when you’ve gotta have your point made. As a writer that works primarily in prose, I can tell you that this is a rare restriction—perhaps I am truly only limited in my verbiage on Twitter and other than that I can drone on and on (as my students will readily tell you). The poet and the MC have the arduous task of working entirely in metaphor and simile, which leaves the door open to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
People are often quick to judge the MC with the pop rap star. They are leagues apart, distant cousins linked at some muddied juncture in gangsta rap. The pop rap star, the radio rap star is a fabrication, as much a part of the music industry machine as boy bands. The MC is an artist with a voice, a message, and a mission. Their goal like any writer, musician, or artist is to hone their craft and enlighten through entertainment. It’s the same spirit shared but broken through a prism of idiosyncratic talents and preferences.
Hip-Hop of course is commenly traced to the Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, and the freestyle mic dealings from party MCs in the 70s but careful inspection sees the roots go back even further to spoken word poetry, and political bongo beating. I first became keenly aware of this when I first read The Color of Water by James McBride and he brought my attention to the Last Poets. The Last Poets (and those like them) were a group of politically active and vocal African American Men from New York in the 1960s. They would shout powerful statements as bongos blared. Their stylings can be credited as precursors to both the entirety of Hip-Hop as well as the work of artists such as Gil Scott Heron. If you don’t know them, you should check it out. Your Hip-Hop education will never be complete without them.
Case in point are the two MCs I use in my Creative Writing class when we cover poetry: Chino XL and Canibus. I use Chino’s Ghetto Vampire, a song about being a vampire in the ghetto, old as sin and twice as evil. Through a series of examples and comparisons it becomes very clear (and clearly stated) by the songs end that Chino is talking about the institutional vampires that keep people in the ghetto down. He does so through a series of amazing rhymes and lines that really is exciting to listen to and thrilling to understand as it comes together.
The Canibus song I use is Poet Laureate II, which is actually three or four songs wrapped into one. Canibus’s song is actually about the difference between Hip-Hop and rap and, if it wasn’t a song it would certainly be a poem or three. Canibus is an undeniably intelligent and passionate about his craft and he brings it to every track, but for me Poet Laureate II is the apex of expression in the genre.
Of course, there are many talented MCs that are popular and get radio play, and have in the past. Eminem and Nas for example are talented, intelligent, and passionate. Eminem has an unusal and distinctive flow and Nas has a consciousness that defines his style as much as his sound. But its not all about pizzazz and flair—you can always take someone like the George Foreman of Hip Hop: The Notorious B.I.G. Like Forman, you may see the punch coming from a mile away but it still hits you like a freight train. That’s a power, and ultimately it’s the goal of any form of expression, but without a doubt poetic.