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Classic Lyrical Cage Match…

Me and my lady’s dad go at it from time to time because he is a classic jazz aficionado and I of course, am not. One thing we both agree on however is that John Coltrane was a gift from God. Coltrane was a consummate artist whose work ethic was nothing short of ridiculous. ‘Trane was enveloped by his art and cared nothing for the fame and trappings that came with popularity. Dude was also just a beast on the saxophone. If you haven’t ever fucked with any John Coltrane music do yourself a favor and open up some of that shit. You won’t be disappointed, unless you are a retahd.

Our argument, rather discussion this weekend centered around the excellent poetry contained in Hip-Hop lyrics. My talking points dealt with rap music’s employment of poetic conceits to describe things like wealth, women, drugs, etc. His argument was that rap does little more than to describe things in order to sell shit. He declared that rap music lacked the ability to describe society the way that poetry does because the use of music negates and meaning to the lyrics. He argued that the purpose of music was to make you dance and not make you listen so therefore any statements that were important were being issued to deaf ears. I corrected him by saying that deaf was actually spelled ‘Def’. He had no idea what the eff I was talking about.

Now while I would generally agree with his overall assessment of rap music in that it is used to sell things to people, from actual products like Courvosier, to more esoteric items like lifestyle choices, when Hip-Hop has attacked social injustice it has done so with aplomb and success. Furthermore, classic poetry itself has been lent to musical accompaniment and that has not diluted its message or intent. I decided I would take a minute to extract some classic poetry that was shaped for musical presentation and compare it with some rap lyrics that I consider a great socially relevant poem. I pulled up some of James Langston Hughes collected works since my lady’s dad made a book with him fifty years ago called ‘The Sweet Flypaper of Life’. The piece I used as an example of the musical nature of poetry is called ‘Po Boys’ Blues’

When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
Since I come up North de
Whole damn world’s turned cold.

I was a good boy,
Never done no wrong.
Yes, I was a good boy,
Never done no wrong,
But this world is weary
An’ de road is hard an’ long.

I fell in love with
A gal I thought was kind.
Fell in love with
A gal I thought was kind.
She made me lose ma money
An’ almost lose ma mind.

Weary, weary,
Weary early in de morn.
Weary, weary,
Early, early in de morn.
I’s so weary
I wish I’d never been born.

This is a blues song if I have ever heard one. As a matter of fact I can hear Muddy Waters already on the hook singing this joint. Blues songs love to repeat their refrains to drive home the central idea that the story they are relating is really fucked the fuck up. I chose a blues song for my Hip-Hop entry as well. Blues songs lyrics are clearly where popular American music gets its DNA from. From the chanted call and response to the repeated rhyming patterns which are all Blues innovations.

Especially considering the themes of love, loss, reconciliation and redemption when they are contained in one song owe their roots to the history of storytelling from Africa. The Hip-Hop song I used as my example was the final stanza from Melle Mel’s universal ghetto classic – ‘The Message’.

A child is born with no state of mind,
blind to the ways of mankind.
God is smiling on you but he’s frowning too,
because only God knows what you’ll go through.
You’ll grow in the ghetto, live as second rate,
and your eyes will sing a song of deep hate.
The places you play and where you stay,
looks like one great big alley way.

You’ll admire all the number book takers,
thugs, pimps, and pushers and the big money makers.
Driving big cars, spending twenties and tens,
and you wanna grow up to be just like them.
Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers,
pickpockets, peddlers, even panhandlers.
You say, “I’m cool, hell I’m no fool!”,
but then you wind up dropping out of high school.
So now you’re unemployed, all null and void,
still you’re walking around like you’re Pretty Boy Floyd.
Turned stickup-kid, and look what you’ve done did?
Got sent up for a eight year bid.

Now your manhood is took and you’re a May-Tag.
You spend the next two years as an undercover fag
Being used and abused, and served like hell.
Until one day you were found hung dead in your cell.
It was plain to see that your life was lost.
You were cold while your body swung back and forth.
So now your eyes just sing the sad, sad song,
of how you lived so fast, and died so young.

You can’t tell me that shit isn’t everlasting fire. Ha! I beat the old man this time. This joint is on some profound ‘Strange Fruit’ type shit. At its height, Hip-Hop tells a truth that gives knowledge and empowerment to those that heed its message.

What classic poetry would you choose?
Which Hip-Hop song would you select as a comparison?

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