I’m getting ready for my spot this afternoon on the KWMR’s Rhythm and Muse talk show and thinking about where I was about a year ago with my poetics and its relation to hip-hop which was, in relationship speak, ‘we’re not talking but not cuz we’re mad, just cuz we got nuthin to say to each other.’
How’d it get that way? For one, I blame commercialized radio and the corporate music industry. Right before I left NYC, my apartment on Franklin Ave happened to be right above a $.99 store that insisted on playing Hot 97 all day long and their insistence became the defacto music in my crib on my days off. Now, if this was the Hot 97 of 1995, when they switched formats from dance to hip-hop, I don’t think I would have minded so much except—
1) The Hot 97 of 2005 was basically just the same six songs on repeat all day with the occasional old school track thrown in;
2) Their definition of “old school” was tracks from 2001.
Combine that with the fact that I hadn’t been properly clubbing for a few years, I was kinda broke so couldn’t really dig through CDs for non-radio rap, and you get a complete disconnect when it came to me and contemporary hip-hop.
The turning point came when I read Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. A scholarly look to the origins of the art form and some deeper analysis to the national political consciousness at key junctions in hip-hop history made me feel less of a crotchety old man and more of a witness to a cultural revolution.
Another touchstone was a bit more bizarre. In 1999, Liam Howlett of the British techo band The Prodigy released The Dirtchamber Sessions, Vol 1– a CD mix tape of founding break beats, old school hip-hop, 70s British punk, techno, and alternative. Hearing the party music of my youth jamming with more current tracks was an eclectic’s dream and I played the hell out of that CD.
So while hip-hop was at arm’s distance, it was still just within reach and it came back up to slap me in the face last year during NaPoWriMo. I thought I would spend the month writing invented prayers and expanding on the poetic track I was on with Heaven Below but that all changed when Barb let me know Malcolm McLaren had died. GURU passed away just a few weeks later and I felt the need to revisit my role as witness to hip-hop’s formation and expand it to documenter.
I’ve been working backwards ever since and been digging deeper into digital crates to find more break beats that eventually became the anthems we know today. The points of origin are as varied as the points of departure which is fitting for any true artform.
I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow and also sharing poems. If you want to listen along and chime in with questions, please do so.
If ya can’t, then here’s a little something extra. A digital mix tape of the music that helped me form To the Break of Dawn. Tracks 2-23 are what I hear in my head when I read the chapbook from beginning to end. The rest of the tracks are where my head goes when I think about hip-hop poetics. Track 1 serves as the true jump off, the song I heard almost non-stop through my youth as my dad, a college radio DJ, would blast Manu Dibango‘s “Soul Makossa” like if it was the truth. Which, even at the age of five, I knew it was.