Any attempt to deal with the relationship between spoken-word poetry and rap must at some point collapse into semantics. What distinguishes a rap verse, delivered acappella, from a spoken-word poem? Is it “rap” when it’s on the beat, and spoken-word when not? Is “rap” distinguished by the requirement to match the cadence of the lyrics to the rhythm of the beat, and the requirement to rhyme? Where then do rappers who experiment in disjuncture between lyrics and beat, and play with assonance, consonance, and half-rhyme, fit in?
I don’t have the answers to these questions – and if I did, I don’t think I could communicate them in a single blog post. I’m just raising them to show that the distinctions between spoken-word and rap as lyrical/poetic/verse-based (there’s the semantics; take your pick) artforms are, to say the least, blurred. I think rappers should engage with the spoken-word scene, and I think poets should engage with hip-hop.
What I can try and do in this blog post is provide an extremely cursory introduction to some exciting stuff that’s going on, and speak about some areas where I think the hip-hop scene could learn from its spoken-word scene cousin.
Despite the great work that initiatives like Brighton’s “Poets vs MCs” clash have done to bring the poetry and hip-hop scenes into active, face-to-face engagement with each other, and despite Mark Grist’s admirable work in the battle scene right now, there’s still a lot of prejudice. I think a lot of hip-hop heads’ image of spoken-word still looks a lot like this, and in the poetry scene there’s still a lot of tired, hackneyed misconceptions about hip-hop being all about “guns, bitches and bling.”
Although poetry is hardly a mass cultural pursuit, spoken-word scenes are burgeoning in the UK and there’s almost certainly something exciting going on right in your back yard. London is the hub for a lot of what’s going on right now. Again, that’s not a value judgement, just a recognition of where things are at. There’s plenty of dope stuff going on outside the capital – Bournemouth’s Freeway Poets, Nottingham’s Mouthy Poets and Sheffield’s Word Life are just three off the top of my head. Hammer & Tongue and Apples & Snakes also run events across the country. But London’s where I’m at right now so I’ll write on what I know.
Regular nights like Chill Pill, Bang Said The Gun, Wordamouth, Kid, I Wrote Back, Tongue Fu, Come Rhyme With Me and many more showcase an incredibly diverse range of poetic talent. Importantly, most have an open mic attached. As someone with a foot in both camps, so to speak, this is an area in which I think the hip-hop scene could learn from the poetry scene. Although London does play host to some great regular hip-hop open mics (Fat Gold Chain, Lyricists Lounge and Don’t Flop’s new “Don’t Hog” event, for instance), the atmosphere there is highly competitive. That’s not a bad thing; that’s always been an aspect of hip-hop and the same culture exists in poetry too in the form of slams. But the spoken-word scene is also home to open mic events where aspiring writers can test out new material, hone their stage skills and get some constructive feedback in a supportive environment. If an equivalent exists in the rap scene, I haven’t encountered it yet.
Something else I think the spoken-word scene does incredibly well that hip-hop could learn from is stylistic diversity. At a spoken-word night in London you might encounter Rachel Rose Reid (a poet, singer and storyteller whose performance subtly weaves different folkloric traditions together) performing alongside Anthony Anaxagorou, an intense writer and performer who writes about, among other things, the history of modern racism. You can catch Raymond Antrobus, whose back-catalogue includes heartfelt poems about his grandmother as well as Dali-esque image-scapes about surreal dreamworlds, holding it down alongside Bridget Minamore, speaking on Palestinian rights, Häagen-Dazs ice-cream and hiding from boys at house parties (sometimes in the same poem). You’ll find artists like the Musa Okwonga/Giles Hayter collaboration “The King’s Will” and Joshua Idehen (of Benin City) conducting experiments in poetry and sound. You’ll find Simon Mole and Polarbear writing one-man spoken-word shows and selling out theatres.
There’s a kind of official, sanctioned diversity in the hip-hop scene which often feels incredibly sterile. You can rap how you like, as long as you fit into one of a series of pre-determined boxes – “conscious” rapper, “street” rapper, “comedy” rapper, “horrocore” rapper…
The poetry scene has its formulae and dogma too but it’s incredibly rare to hear anyone claim that they write “real” poetry, whereas everyone else doesn’t. Flip that up and think about how many times you’ve heard a rapper claim that they make “real” hip-hop, and everyone else is “fake”. If you’re a rapper who finds that kind of artistic dogmatism and conservatism tiresome and cosseting, you should think about venturing the way of your nearest poetry open mic.
Something else I think the poetry scene has up on the hip-hop scene is its political culture around gender and sexuality. Put bluntly, there are more women and LGBT people involved in the poetry scene – both as artists and in other capacities – than there are in the hip-hop scene. I think that’s a good thing. If you think the hegemony of straight men over the rap scene is something to be maintained, then we need to have a different discussion. But if you think it’d be good if that hegemony was challenged, then a closer engagement between the hip-hop scene and the spoken-word scene is at least a potential way to begin doing that.
The kind of crossover and engagement that I’m talking about already happens in an incidental way. I’ve played a hip-hop set at Chill Pill, and Mystro’s playing there in March. Poets like Simon Mole, Polarbear and John “Berko” Berkavitch can rock a track as well as a page. Scroobius Pip is signed to Sage Francis’s record label, Kate Tempest is selling out tours with her band, Taskforce vet Chester P is gigging with a spoken-word set now and Akala is equally at home smashing an SB.TV F64 as he is schooling people about Shakespeare (his “Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company” show has a nice bit in it where he reads out various snippets of verse and asks the audience to guess whether they come from Shakespeare or a rap lyric. The answers are always surprising).
This article has been written for hip-hop heads. I didn’t quite intend this when I started writing it but it’s ended up being a mild polemic for why rappers should engage with the spoken-word scene (I added the title retrospectively). Certainly, I could write an equivalent article that shoots in the other direction; there are still an awful lot of hang-ups and prejudices, some of them latently racist and a lot of them classist, in the poetry world about hip-hop, grime and other lyrical artforms. They need challenging too.
Personally I’m pretty libertarian in my attitudes to art; ultimately I think people should make the art they want to make and we shouldn’t put restrictions on it by insisting on dividing everything up by “genre”, “scene” or even form. But while such divisions exist, I think we can help create a better, more liberating artistic culture by trying to erode them by dynamic engagements between artforms and artistic communities that, to return to the point that opened this article, already have a great deal in common.
The engagement won’t be seamless. Of course there’ll be tensions, clashes and contradictions; that’s fine. In fact, a lot of the time, that’s where the best art gets made.
The Ruby Kid is a hip-hop artist and poet based in London, but originally from Nottingham (via Sheffield, and with roots in New York’s Jewish community). On Monday 19 March he will host, and perform at, “Out-Spoken” at Proud Galleries, Camden. “Out-Spoken” is a showcase of some of London’s best spoken-word and hip-hop talent, featuring Anthony Anaxogorou (with Godfly), Raymond Antrobus, Nia Barge, Brotherman, Nate, and The King’s Will.