What converted me, a middle aged white guy with the jangling guitars of 1980s indie rock forever stuck in my ears, into a dabbling hip hop fan? Step one. A compelling review in Bookforum by Kevin Young, an excellent poet, of The Anthology of Rap, which I decided that I really should read to catch up with this insanely popular form that has succeeded where poetry has failed, i.e., in treating the public to the pleasure they naturally feel in listening to rhymes. Not that I write in rhyme myself, but I was curious to read the pros who do. Alas, this book, when it arrived from the Woodstock Library, proved to be one of those hardcovers with sharp corners than dug into my palms when I tried to read it in bed before sleep. Step two. The Dodge Poetry Festival, decamped from its previous leafy green, lily white, rustic village setting in rural New Jersey to downtown Newark, offered a panel, “From Homer to Hip Hop,” that caught my eye. For years I’ve been writing my own epic poem, a fanciful, cartoonish, dystopian yet New Agey tale set in Gotham in 2063 that is delivered by a blind seer channeling the Homeric muses at an open mike. Reading Homer, I’d become fascinated by the epic oral tradition, a form of improvisation akin to what we now hear in jazz. Alas, the spoken word poets on the panel hadn’t read Homer since he’d been shoved down their throats in college. There was no connection from Homer to Hip Hop. Step three. All that hype for Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy got me to order his earlier CD Graduation from the library.
Then it happened. Second song. “Champion.” For five seconds, there’s a sample of Donald Fagan singing a line from Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” over a swooping synthesizer.
“Did you realize
That you were a champion in their eyes…”
Steely Dan was my college soundtrack in the late 1970s. The jazzy music full of catchy hooks. Donald Fagan’s sneering nasal vocals. The cryptic lyrics that mixed jadedness with pining for lost connections. That was the feeling of the time for privileged white kids like me, the sound of Holden Caulfied post-Vietnam and post-Watergate. (Steely Dan had met at Bard.) Nor was I alone in my fandom. At Stanford our marching band played Steely Dan’s “My Old School” as its halftime anthem. Blasted out on brassy horns and tubas and big marching band drums, “My Old School” sounded gloriously triumphant and liberated from the traditional halftime music that sounded so militaristic, but the song’s lyrics actually alluded to a drug bust at Bard. And “Kid Charlemagne” was a sarcastic lament about Owsley, the San Francisco pied piper of LSD whose charm had faded now that “All those day glow freaks who used to paint the face/They’ve joined the human race.” Donald Fagan meant “Did you realize/That you were a champion in their eyes” as cynical humor.
But then Kanye West jumps in with his own swooping strings and big beat.
Yes I did
So I packed it up and brought it back to the crib
Just a lil somethin’ show you how we live
Mmmm that’s that shit
So if you gon do it, do it just like this…
Irony was dead. Self-assertion was triumphant. Kanye West had overthrown Steely Dan’s jaded sense of privilege for rap’s story of striving for success, inevitably a melodramatic, perhaps narcissistic tale that mixes boasting and confessing, self-promoting and self-loathing. At that moment I was hooked. I loved the big emotions, the slang, the word play, the bold sense of hope. Listening to rap was like taking a shot of self-esteem. Not that I quit rock. This past winter I spent plenty of time listening to Destroyer’s Kaput, an homage to 1980s synthesizer bands in which Daniel Bejar sings wonderfully enigmatic lyrics that could be Steely Dan without the bitterness:
You terrify the land.
You are pestle and mortar.
Your first love’s new order;
Mother Nature’s Son.
King of the Everglades: Population 1.
I write poetry for myself. I write poetry for myself.
But then I’d flip back, say, to Notorious B.I.G’s “Juicy.”
It was all a dream
I used to read Word Up magazine
Salt ‘n’ Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine
Hanging pictures on my wall
Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl
I let my tape rock ’til my tape popped
Smokin’ weed and bamboo, sippin’ on private stock
Way back, when I had the red and black lumberjack
With the hat to match
Remember Rappin’ Duke, duh-ha, duh-ha,
You never thought that hip hop would take it this far…
Recently, I heard NPR’s Susan Stamberg deliver a rap written for her by Jesse Kramer, a rap ghostwriter from Los Angeles. So I commissioned him to redo “My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse.” Here she is, packed tight with rhymes, ready for radio play, our private encounter rewritten for the masses.
Puzzled by a rustle in the bushes, no it can’t be
A grouse, mouse quiet, with no riot or insanity
Sad to me, a longing in its eyes, caught the sun rise
A spark so familiar, made my heart stop, re-apprise
Could it be disguised eyes of my later mother’s soul
A hole through reality, her on an idol stroll
Eternity handed me a message from a distant sea
Can it be a signal from up high, heaven’s canopy?
Gotta be my vanity, it can’t be Christianity
A Buddhist’s second step, second breath of humanity
A Hindu’s second wind or second skim of Islam
Wanna say, “mom, know you’re here to keep me strong”
So she dance as she follow me, watching over all of me
Further down the trail, no avail, she’s still calling me
Her dove-like love fit like glove on my mourning heart
A morning to remember, fading ember in the evening dark