I have an unabashed love for hip-hop. Now this statement can invite a lot of ire from young Nepalis. For the most part, the urban Nepali listening soundscape, at least for the Western-inclined audience, is dominated by the arena rocking sounds of loud guitar riffs, bombastic drums and a variable singing style that ranges from the operatic styling of Freddie Mercury to the blues-inspired wailing of Robert Plant. The Deep Purples and AC/DCs have inspired many budding young Nepali musicians, many of whom first learned Smoke on the Water on the guitar. Now, this tendency has taken on extremes, in the form of death and black metal, which never quite appealed to me. Rap and hip-hop, on the other hand, has been much maligned. And this owes itself in no small part to the ubiquitous presence of mainstream rap music videos that feature gyrating posteriors, blinding gold chains and pinwheel spinning rims on wheels.
However, most things popular aren’t always the best representatives of an art form, especially in this capitalist age where, as the Wu-Tang Clan so aptly put it, “cash rules everything around me, dollar, dollar bill, ya’ll”. Just like the Twilight series might not exemplify the best of writing, neither are 50 Cent or Lil Wayne the best of rap. This is not to say that they aren’t skilled with the mic, some of Lil Wayne’s rapping is so sublimely out-of-this-world sublime that it is difficult not to marvel. And some of the most popular rappers out there—Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West—all made their bones the hard way, crawling up from the bottom whether as a young hustler dealing crack or a young trailer park whiteboy from Detroit. It was their dexterity with words and beats that got them out of their desperate lives. Now almost every rapper makes it a point to reflect on just how difficult it is growing up black in America. There might be a black man in the White House but there are still disproportionately more black men in prison.
Rap was born on the streets of New York City so it wasn’t surprising that I only really got into it when I landed in the City for college in 2008. In Queens, there was a building all covered in graffiti with the visage of Biggie Smalls, aka The Notorious B.I.G., scowling down like an angry god. Before New York, my experience with rap and hip-hop had mostly been Eminem and Tupac. Eminem’s manic insanity and Tupac’s socially-conscious storytelling both appealed to the writer in me. But Biggie was a revelation. The beats were sick but his rhymes were sicker. Biggie’s rapping was smooth and easy but the rhymes themselves were clever and complicated.
From then on, I discovered many favourites—Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Atmosphere, Mos Def, Black Star, N.W.A., MF Doom and most recently, Kendrick Lamar. It was all poetry. This wasn’t just words on a page but words come alive. Taking cues from jazz, blues, soul and funk, rap built on an inherited tradition of varied musical styles. Reaching out to Africa’s oral traditions and Jamaican reggae and toasting, rap evolved from rudimentary spoken word and beat poetry to the slick products we hear today. As such, rap has always been largely about cultural reference. One of the progenitors of rap, Gil Scot-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a labyrinth of references to America in the 60s, from the Vietnam War to the LA Watts riots and Johnny Cash to Jackie Onassis. Rap takes that much further and attempting, as a foreigner, to decipher much of the references can be taxing and ultimately, an exercise in futility.
The rhymes, however are there for all to hear. Like the poems I learned to dissect in Literature class, rap makes use of every literary and poetic device from assonance, consonance, alliteration, end rhymes, internal rhymes, allusions, analogies, metaphors, hyperbole, onomatopoeia and asyndeton. It requires an intricate familiarity with the English language (or whatever language you happen to be rapping in). Not just words and what they mean but how they sound depending on how you say them. Rap is so much about playing with pronunciation, cutting words off, swallowing the end consonants and breaking up the syllables. Eminem, on an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, admitted to reading the dictionary despite failing ninth grade three times. In the interview, he proceeds to dispel the ‘myth’ that nothing rhymes with the word ‘orange’: “orange, four-inch, door hinge in storage while I ate porridge with Geo-rge”. It all depends on how you say the words, twisting them just enough that they still retain their meaning while conveying the sound you want them to make. It’s a complicated balancing act and one difficult to do while also attempting to fashion some semblance of a narrative.
There is one rapper, though, who fascinates me endlessly. He’s a strange shadowy figure in underground rap, his origins as obscure as his rhymes. He has a host of personas that he rhymes under: MF Doom, King Gheedorah, Viktor Vaughn, Metal Fingers, Zev Love X. He takes inspiration from Viktor Von Doom, better known as Dr Doom, the arch nemesis of the Fantastic Four and his raps showcase a geek’s obsession with comic books, cartoons, TV shows and a whole host of American pop culture phenomena. Comfortable in this territory, he whips out raps that are among the most complex and nuanced pieces of poetry I have heard.
Doom’s multi-syllable free-associative rhymes in an idiosyncratic time signature recall jazz. And oh his references, from Dick Dastardly and Muttley to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, he jumps, whips, swivels and breaks. It is a pleasure to listen to his non-sequiturs do gymnastics.
I am comfortable in the English language but not at all in the way these rappers seem to inhabit it. I don’t how many professional writers know the language like rappers do. The vernacular of rap explores every possibility that English affords and then twists and subverts it. For anyone who likes to write and loves words, rap and hip-hop are mediums par excellence. But in the end, it is music and music is completely subjective. Either it appeals to you or it doesn’t. But for me, if this isn’t poetry in its essence, I don’t know what is.
(published on The Kathmandu Post, June 28)