Monday, February 22, 2010

Poets vs MCs

I'm often asked, what's the difference between a spoken word poet and a rapper? Or, to put it differently, why did you choose to be a rapper instead of a spoken word poet? Well, in January I had a chance to compete in an amazing event in Brighton called "Poets vs MCs" in which the hip-hop community and the spoken word community come out to represent their respective camps and talk some (good-humoured) trash about one another, so I took that opportunity to write a new rap/poem spelling out the difference as I see it. Brighton has an amazingly cohesive hip-hop scene and a parallel but equally cohesive spoken word scene and I don't know another city that could pull of an event like this with so much firepower yet also with such a good rapport on all sides year after year (it was the seventh annual!).

I was representing for the MCs, needless to say, and I got to spark things off in round one, but if you follow the youtube link you can watch the whole thing, round by round, and I have also posted the lyrics of my piece below. This one is dedicated to Shane Koyczan, who got more exposure for spoken word than any poet ever has before when he performed in the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Olympics with more than 3 billion people watching on television worldwide. Long live rap and poetry both, and viva la difference!

Click here to watch the video on youtube.

Poets vs MCs

Rappers are so obnoxious! Even the most incompetent

And most impoverished of us pose like we pimp hoes for profits

It’s simply implicit when we grip our own crotches

So excuse me for exposing the obvious

But poets are fascinated with self-flagellation

With exaggerated emotions and vocal masturbation

With layer after layer of phony fashion statements

Folded into their words – the proper verb is “invagination”

“In•vag•in•a•tion: the folding of a membrane or surface

In on itself to create a pocket or pouch”

But rappers are obsessed with form and function

With the intricate syllable structures of words

And the juxtapositions amongst them

For rappers, rhyme patterns are like sign-language instructions

Like computer hackers programming the crowd to have eruptions

But for poets that’s disgusting, pathetic approval-seeking

Poetry is supposed to be about truth speaking

About exposing your soul and letting go of control like the beats did

At the Nuyorican; it’s not about the response you’re receiving

But for rappers that’s exactly what it’s about

If you’re not in it to win it then get the fuck out

And if the shit that you’ve written isn’t sufficient to uplift the crowd

Then go recite the shit to yourself

But wait, isn’t that just the same old artistic debate

Over whether our creations come from a strange mystical place

That gives them an intrinsic weight that we can separate

From any attempt to measure them in a functionalist way?

Poets indulge in rank mysticism
Rappers recognize the direct connection

Between effort and discipline and getting recognition

Poets want to be exorcists instead of physicians

That’s the essential difference between rappers and poets

We’re all entertainers, but MCs just happen to know it

But, didn't I just re-define a “poet” as an “uncharismatic showman”?

Yes, so now it’s time for a diplomatic moment

When it comes down to battles and gets pushy

I can generalize, like: “rappers are arrogant rookies

They act like dicks, and poets are all just big pussies”

But up close, this definition isn’t so good looking

I mean, how can I speak with so much certainty

When my whole analysis is stolen from Team America World Police?

And why am I so determined to give the third degree

To my brethren who get their bread like me, from the words they speak

Here’s the reason we need poets and rappers to be contrasted

We need to understand our differences if we want to combat them

So here’s a definite to help with your thought patterns:

All rappers are poets, but all poets are not rappers

Rap is a sub-category, a sub-class of poetry

We both have talents with metaphors and allegory

But when it comes to rhyme and rhythm, rappers simply have authority

And as for hip-hop culture?
Well, that’s another story
Life is bigger than hip-hop, and hip-hop is bigger than rap

And rap is bigger than poetry, if you measure it by its impact

But if rap is a
limb of poetry, then poetry’s bigger than that
So pick a branch and swing from it, as long as you get ‘em to clap

But if you can’t get applause in spite of your metaphors

Or if it’s lukewarm instead of uproarious because you hit writer’s block

Or creative menopause, then just get off the stage

In this regard, poetry and hip-hop’s the same

Ninety nine percent of all contenders get washed away

So whether you claim gangster or you’re in the conscious vein

There’s a direct line of descent from Dr. Faustus to Dr. Dre

And there was a time when poets made history, but it’s not today

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Phenotypic Plasticity

Fellow Bipeds,

Last week I did my first tour of the Southern USA with the Rap Guide to Evolution, performing in Houston, Texas and Springfield, Missouri. Brace yourselves. Controversy was brewing from the start when I got a "conditional" invitation to perform at Missouri State University, co-sponsored by the departments of Biology, Psychology, and Bio-medicine. The condition was that I had to "tone down the creationist jabs", and it was imposed by the head of the Biology dept, who felt it would be a turn off for the non-science audience if their beliefs were attacked from the outset. The primary offending material was of course the chorus of the song Natural Selection: "The weak and the strong, Darwin got it goin' on / Creationism is dead wrong!", plus the song's third verse with the line: "If there is a personal god, then he's been jerkin' off".

I must admit I was a bit indignant about this at first. I didn't mind dropping the third verse from the song, which I often do for the sake of pithiness anyway, but the chorus? How could a Biology dept not stand behind the statement that creationism is dead wrong? Was it my presentation that was controversial, or evolution itself? And even if they disagree, isn't it condescending to sanitize it for them? To see how the British react to the song, check out this video from the Cambridge Darwin Festival last July (a soft audience, I concede).

So here's what set me straight. My first stop of the tour was in Texas, where I did two different lunchtime shows at two campuses of Houston Community College. For the first show I did a mix of Canterbury Tales and Evolution, omitting the song Natural Selection along with a few other chapters as a necessary abridgement, and the show was an unmitigated success. Then on my second day in Houston I stepped to the stage in front of a packed crowd of over a hundred college students and bit the bullet. My cries of "creationism is dead wrong!" were met with incredulous (and mostly hostile) stares, and the call and response part at the end: "When I say 'creationism is...' you say 'dead wrong!" was virtually all call and no response. The half dozen or so brave souls who joined in at first quickly realized that a hundred of their peers were staring them down and their weak cries of "dead wrong..." quickly tapered off. In comedy parlance I "died on my ass", and then spent the next hour clawing my way back from oblivion.

To my credit and theirs, by the end of the show I had won them back and got a hearty round of applause, and I even got respect after the show from a few avowed fundamentalist Christians for the gutsy freestyle part of Performance, Feedback, Revision, in which I mocked: "My friends at home were all skeptics / Like: 'You're rapping about evolution in Texas? / You must have a death wish / Man, you're gonna get lynched!' / Why? No religions get disrespected / Unless they're specifically un-scientific." But talking to a number of the students after the show, the common theme was "great performance, but you almost lost me with that opening piece". Even more to the point is the fact that I did lose quite a few of them, since about fifteen people indignantly walked out in the first ten minutes.

Contrast that once again with the response I get in England. For instance, here's a version of Performance, Feedback, Revision that I did in front of 3500 skeptics at the Hammersmith Apollo in December, part of Robin Ince's comedy variety show "Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People" which was recently aired on BBC4. Click here to watch it.

So what did I do in Missouri? I decided that the "condition" imposed on my show was actually a pretty sensible adjustment, but what should I do with the song? Skip it? Water it down to something vague like "alternative theories are dead wrong"? Like a good academic I opted for strategic obscurantism, substituting specific individuals for the debunked theory as a whole. The Missouri State University students were treated to the first ever performance of Natural Selection where the chorus went: "The weak and the strong, Darwin got it goin' on / William Paley was dead wrong... Richard Owen was dead wrong... Etc". To my mind this preserves the strength of the statement without foreclosing on my opportunities to raise consciousness in the ensuing hour, and only the most historically astute creationists will get the dig. Think of it as a form of phenotypic plasticity, allowing the show to adapt to diverse environments rather than face local extinction. At least, that's what I told myself. What do you all think: sell-out or gracious compromise?

Oh, and by the way, the Missouri show was better received than I had imagined at my most optimistic. They even had me autographing CDs and flyers afterward! I fear the South no more.

Tonight I fly to Australia for twenty seven performances of the Rap Guide to Evolution at the Adelaide Fringe Festival, starting Friday. And yes, those Aussie festival-goers will be getting the wild-type, with extra vigor. All my best,


PS - If any of you have friends in Australia, please direct them my way, or send them to the Facebook event.