Since its inception nearly 40 years ago, hip hop has often been regarded by dominant music culture as a base aesthetic. And hip-hop’s journey to “respectability” has been a long one: First, in the 1980’s, Yo! MTV Raps helped make it mainstream. Then it gained acceptance when DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince took hip hop’s first Grammy Award 10 years later. Most recently, Common performed at the White House and seized another legitimizing moment for the art form. But while hip-hop has become mainstream music today, its inherent literary genius is still suspiciously neglected.
TEDxMidAtlantic has chosen me to present an argument for hip hop’s literary feats during their third session of speakers on Friday, October 26th at the Shakespeare Theatre. The TEDxMidAtlantic Conference is a locally organized TED event. TED events are a special speaker series devoted to ideas worth sharing and has featured some of the world’s most prominent thought leaders. A browsing of the TED Web site can quickly turn into an entire day spent watching these speakers share their ideas.
Part of what I’ll explain is this: In 1797, William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge gave the world their masterpiece ‘Lyrical Ballads’. Their synergized aim of ‘bringing poetry to the common man’ and expressing the profound through the everyday person’s life proved to be revolutionary. Wordsworth especially changed the trajectory of poetry and ushered in new style, intent, and genre to the poetic aesthetic. With emphasis on expressing ‘high thinking’ from plain living, the individual’s increasing self-awareness, and an advancement of egalitarianism, ‘The Romantic Period’ was born unto Wordsworth. His influence endures today.
Hip-hop, as a 40-year-old body of literary work, should justly constitute a Neo-Romantic literary period. Its cultural aim wonderfully dovetails Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s. Its revolutionary soul mirrors the benchmark set in ‘Lyrical Ballads’. And its literary techniques, as explored in my program Words Liive, represent an evolution of the literary devices gleaned from the influence of the Romantic period. With the lofty ideas of a culture attempting to define its own niche in society, literary devices become important technologies to use.
Of course it is difficult for mainstream America to bestow the crown of ‘genius’ onto urban street dwellers who are commonly high school dropouts. However, in 1982 when Melly Mel ‘published’ ‘The Message’ which repurposed much of his work with Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five in the late 70’s, hip hop as an unrecognized literary gold standard was born. Consider, the average hip hop song is arranged in 3 stanzas or verses of 16 bars per verse for an average total of 48 bars per song. The average bar or line contains 15 to 20 words. When summed with a chorus or ‘hook’ the average hip hop song contains approximately 1,000 words. When you consider artist who create entire hip hop albums of a standard 12 song format, then the average hip hop album should very well be believed to contain approximately 12,000 words of literary composition.
Literary devices are the ‘technology’ of the language economy.
In our ‘Real’ Economy, we search for ever increasing efficiency through the production process of input transformation to output achievement. We’ve produced great inventors like Thomas Edison with the light bulb and Alexander Graham Bell with the telephone. But as technology progressed, we’ve also produced innovators who advanced those previous technologies like Oleg V. Losev with the LED light bulb and Steve Jobs with the iPhone. With current prevailing economic theory, we all operate in an environment of scarce resources and use decision sciences to govern how and what to produce and allocate in our society. Inventors are of paramount importance because they allow us to produce more efficiently and expand the total output from fixed inputs. We love our ‘Real’ inventors. They make life easier.
Our Language Economy shares a very similar model. The analogy goes: just as in the ‘Real’ economy, our methodology of using language to produce communication functions through scarce resources also. Decisions must be made on how to most effectively communicate in the given context. Grammar aides us here. But much less considered is the role of literary devices. Literary technologies like onomatopoeia, metaphor, alliteration, epithet, and stream of consciousness are crucial. Let’s consider the ‘technology’ behind literary devices.
To communicate an idea, thought, feeling, instruction, or description requires successful transference from the sender to receiver. Considering the finite alphabet, grammar rules, and relative consciousness we communicate in a language system of scarce resources. Producing successful communication is still something many of us fail at. Writers and communicators who can bring clarity to an idea, fullness to a description, and depth to our expressions of emotion are highly celebrated much like their ‘Real’ economy inventor equivalents. Poet-philosophers like Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, and William Wordsworth are the language equivalents to ‘Real’ inventors like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Extending the analogy then, hip hop artists like Jay-Z and Nas are the language innovator equivalents to the ‘Real’ economy innovators like Oleg V. Losev and Steve Jobs.
Consider the following literary device example of ‘epithet’. This device is a great technology as a mnemonic device and method of conveying an array of attributes onto a character. If one were telling a story with a complex arrangement of characters, then this technology would provide great efficiencies. Let’s look at an example of its use historically and in hip hop.
In ‘The Time Machine’, published in 1895, H.G. Wells masterfully uses a literary device known as ‘Epithet’ to give descriptive life to certain characters in his novel. Epithet is a powerful device which can be used for good or evil (i.e. racial epithets). Dialogue ensues with characters like ‘The Time Traveler’, ‘The Psychologist’, and ‘The Medicine Man’. By using descriptive titles, the character attributes are skillfully pinned onto each character of the novel as they act out their respective roles. Similarly, hip hop displays evidence of use and understanding of Epithet with the following four artists: The Notorious B.I.G., Jay Z, Nas, and The Game.
In 1997, New York City’s own The Notorious B.I.G. ‘published’ ‘You’re Nobody’ on his ‘Life After Death’ album and introduces us to ‘Dark Skinned Jermaine’. This character, ‘Dark Skinned Jermaine’ is given a set of socially awkward characteristics and for our purposes here is to be considered the socially lame individual who’s name isn’t worthy of remembering (Biggie repeatedly asks ‘What’s his name?). Ten years later in 2007, another NYC rapper, Jay Z publishes ‘Say Hello’ on his American Gangster album. On the song, Jay invokes the same ‘Dark Skinned Jermaine’ epithet to draw a sharp contrast to his advanced social status. ‘Dark-skinned Jermaine’ thusly became a ten year-old ‘character’ in hip hop.
Furthermore, in 2001, yet another NYC rapper, Nas published ‘What Goes Around’ in his ‘Stillmatic’ album. In the song, Nas presents the character ‘Ike with the Iverson jersey’. This character is paired with a host of unsavory conditions extending from a wanton sexual life. Interestingly enough, four years later in 2005, the Los Angeles rapper ‘The Game’, utilizes the epithet ‘Ike with the Iverson jersey’ in a song called ‘Runnin’ on his ‘The Documentary’ album to describe the situation of a woman in LA living with H.I.V. With weighty stories like these, ‘Ike with the Iverson jersey’ becomes a notorious ‘character’ in hip hop.
Epithet has pierced the literary work of rappers.
The above example is part of a growing database I’ve created of juxtapositions that delineate the evolution in dexterity over select literary devices used by our language’s most infamous poets and hip hop song writers. This method of teaching and presenting literary devices is something I call ‘Words Liive’. I’ll present this framework and a few other examples at TEDxMidAtlantic.
A final legitimizing moment for the literary genius of hip hop authors.
One sure-fire way to validate the literary genius of hip hop is to have the discussion on a larger platform. Presenting at TEDxMidAtlantic does this. By sharing the stage with many of the world’s thought leaders, hip hop will have yet another ‘legitimizing moment’ and this time the goal is to prompt a specific discussion about the literary mastery of hip hop artists. I’m sure debates will rage on over this subject, but the important part is that conversation has begun.
Gil Perkins is a Hip Hop Artist, PH.D. Economics Candidate, and Howard University professor. For more information about Words Liive, please visit www.sagesalvo.com.
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