Friday, December 3, 2010

What Rhymes with George? (In Which I Tumble to a 30-Plus-Year-Old Art Form)

Guess what I found out.
It rhymes. It rhymes the INSIDES of words. It looks into words like looking inside sugar Easter eggs for the magic scene. Then it sets them spinning like tops.

It is so cool.

I had no idea.

I haven't paid much attention to music since Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, you know, in 1975, and anyway, here's what I'd heard about rap: it's violent & racist & misogynistic.
So I gave it wide berth.
Except sometimes I'd hear guys rapping in the back of the city bus and it was clear to me this was living poetry. But still, I never once sat down and listened to it.

Then a couple weeks ago I heard Tish Jones rap at a media conference. I was only there because of The Book [current status: sticking bamboo splinters under the nails of my psyche], but she was the thing. She stood with her toes over the edge of the stage, and so did her words.

Soon afterward, as these things go, I was wasting time in Barnes & Nobles and I saw a clerk directing a young black guy in a hoodie to a book he was looking for, commenting, "This is selling a lot."
Curious what the only person in the store not carrying a Starbucks was buying, I looked at the book. It was rapper Jay-Z's Decoded.

(You know I'm musically ignorant when I tell you I had to look up Jay-Z on Wikipedia later. (Billboard ranked him in the top 10 most successful artists of this century. Plus, he's Mr. Beyoncé. (Even I know Beyoncé.)))

I skimmed through Jay-Z decoding his lyrics and his life, and on p. 161, I read this sentence:

"The larger point was, I wasn't going to be a partner to my own invisibility."

I bought it.

I bought it because I recognized that. I saw that same refusal to participate in one's own obliteration in bink's DVD to ART project, and, yes, in Trekkie culture ("I don't care, I'm wearing my Starfleet uniform in public"), and in every other culture of authenticity.
Also, it was on sale.

That week everyone was talking about the Jay-Z interview on Terry Gross's Fresh Air. When I heard his remix of "Hard Knock Life" from Annie, I thought, this is as audacious as mixing John Donne & Star Trek.

So, intrigued and attracted, I added going to the open mic Tish Jones hosts at a local coffee shop to my List of Stuff to Do, and tonight I, who almost never go out after dark, went.

And was smitten.

It wasn't so much what anyone was saying (which varied), it was how they were saying it--along the lines of pulling doves out of top hats.
And the rhymes! I went up to a couple of the rappers afterward and burbled on about how cool the rhymes were.
I was like, "You guys! This is so neat! Your stuff RHYMES!!!"

They took it really well.

I've been working in the word mines for the past ten years in publishing, and this was like coming up and seeing the open sky;
like stepping out of the word sweatshop and seeing words at play.
Really, I had no idea.
No idea how cool rap can be and no idea how much I've been feeling like a sharecropper in my writing work.

Well, maybe a little bit I did, this week.
Maybe you remember me working on the Frindian War book. I'd tried hard to show what a complex scene it was.
So... I saw the final version. It got edited into a book about George Washington. The title got changed and everything to add his name.

As a book about GW in the war, it's good. (Hey, I hope it sells a lot! I get royalties.)
But it's not the book I wrote.

GW is not important to the war; I didn't even need to mention him, and now I wish I hadn't. I'd only used him to frame the story, as a fun "waddya know?"
The thing is, it's not my book, it's the publisher's.
Says so on the contract, signed by me.

Hard knocks.

If I could rhyme, I'd rap about it.


femminismo said...

Interesting. I heard part of the Jay Z interview with Terry Gross, and it had to do with the "B" word and how he was using it as a female dog or something so it was OK. I still don't get Jay Z, even if he rhymes and he "got" Beyonce. I'm not saying I've really listened to rap, and I'm sure now there must be something to it if you are interested. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood. You know ... that happens. ha! word verification: warmede (something you drink before battle!)

Fresca said...

Hey, Fismo!
I've loved the high-voltage creative energy I've seen so far, but yeah, rap can be really harsh too.

Maybe for 30 years I was in the wrong mood for it too, but just lately, I've been in the right mood to appreciate some hard-truths set to amazing word play. None of the stuff I've heard so far has been hateful or assaultive, just authentic.

And the rhymes! The rhymes! SO FUN!

Margaret said...

Rap, when it's good, is really good.

My philosophy-enthusiast friend directed me to Aesop Rock's song None Shall Pass. Talk about rhymes within rhymes, alliteration, word play -
(I just looked up the lyrics and he uses the word "clusterfuck"!):

Emma J said...

Assaultive and hateful is maybe necessary to tear down imprisoning walls? I can't say I've felt comfortable with most rap (what would you expect,I'm over 40 and overly pale and the mother of vulnerable children. On principle I don't like talk or song that favors any violence at all.) But I realize there's more going on in the rap scene. And I do admire and envy the grace and energetic intelligence of the wordplay.

I've been reading The Rest is Noise about 20th century classical music and am thinking your Jay Z book would be an interesting juxtaposition to follow up with.

deanna said...

Whoa, about the book, that's got to be harsh. Sorry. Congrats for sounding grace-ful about it.

As for rap, I could relate to what Emma said -- when my kids were small I cringed at the thought. But later a Gutenberg College grad did a several-weeks class for anyone about rap -- its history (came from disco!), with different, converging story lines on east and west coasts, Eminem's role in it -- I was fascinated and wish I remember more of what I learned.

laura b. said...

after reading this the other day, saw beginning of Charlie Rose, PBS interviewer, the other night- he was sitting with Jay-Z doing a promo for show, poking fun at himself, saying "Who is that?", then Jay-Z surprised him by turning it around, saying"Who's Charlie Rose". Then they both laughed. Whoa, I thought I was on FACEBOOK, so was trying to write in shorthand.