featured interview

Adam Bradley Poetics of Hip-Hop Assistant professor of English literature at Claremont McKenna College in California and dedicated rap fan, Adam Bradley, wrote a book that has actually managed to uplift rap lyrics to an interesting level of scholarship. Examined with an insightful view on its poetical relevance, rap lyrics seem more poetical than you ever could imagine. Rap is art, rap is literature, rap is sociology as well as anthropology. These statements are underlined in the writings of Adam Bradley. Not yet a course at uni, but students will already have a coursebook: a ‘Book Of Rhymes’...

There are few rap books that actually talk about lyricism in such a deep and thorough manner, what was the biggest motivation for you to write this book?

I wrote this book because I felt that for all the ways that hip-hop has shaped our culture over the past thirty years, we often overlook its influence on our language—not just poetry- but how we speak to one another every day. You have major media outlets like CNN asking ‘Hip Hop: Art or Poison?’ as if it’s an open question. I mean, the level of ignorance is staggering. So part of my motivation was to help illuminate the art of MC-ing for a wide audience.

My own musical background—or lack of one—was quite important, I think, in shaping the book. I’m a frustrated musician. I’ve never had the discipline to master an instrument, but I’m a fierce lover of music. I hope the book reflects just how much I love music and how much attention I’ve put on making myself a good listener, even if I can’t play a note.

Just as I challenged myself, I want my book to challenge the hip-hop community as a whole to become a more conscious and sophisticated audience of rap’s poetry. Over the years, we’ve developed ways of judging good and bad performances, yet most of us tend to express these judgments in the limited vocabulary of ‘dope’ and ‘wack’ and so forth. ‘Book Of Rhymes’ provides hip-hop heads with a common vocabulary for debating what makes one performance excellent and another run-of-the-mill. It calls for a revolution in consciousness so that rap fans will become more acutely aware of their own aesthetic values, and consequently, of the poetic richness that rap has to offer.

In what wrong way exactly do you think that rap music is discussed about nowadays?

I think that a lot of the discussion about hip-hop from outside of the hip-hop community is focused on only a small part of the culture—namely, the violence, consumerism, sexism, and homophobia. These are all virulent scourges on hip-hop, just as they are in our world as a whole, and yet hip-hop is so much broader than these sorts of limited critiques would allow. I want ‘Book of Rhymes’ to help reframe the discussion of hip-hop, turning our attention to the many positive contributions hip-hop has made to our world.

With the release of Eminem's latest album there's a discussion going on about the fact that he got inspired by serial killers...

It used to be the other way around. They used to claim that serial killers got inspired by rap. On the real, though, Eminem has always been an instigator. If he isn’t pissing somebody off, he isn’t doing his job. All I know is that Em’s a serial lyrical murderer.

Do you think/hope that this book will be read by a lot of non-rap-fans?

As I’ve been touring in support of the book for the past two months or so, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how many non-rap-fans have expressed interest in what I’m saying. I think just about everybody is at least curious about rap—if only to understand why their friends, or their kids, or whomever else likes it. So while the book is not explicitly written for people who don’t like rap, I think it can be read by them in such a way that it might challenge some of their assumptions.

The preparations for this book must've taken a lot of hours (re-)listening to a lot of rap. Could you count on a big personal collection or did you borrow, bought and searched a lot of (new) albums?

People are always putting me on to new music. Friends, family, my students, all sorts of people have expanded my musical range. That’s certainly true where hip-hop comes in. Sometimes it won’t even be introducing me to a new artist, just helping me to listen to a familiar artist in a new way. For instance, one of my students is a huge fan of Big Pun. So he made me a mix with some rare tracks I’d never heard and some other ones that I had, but that somehow sounded different in this new context. Don’t get me wrong, I have a solid collection: a bunch of old vinyl and maybe 50,000 songs in my iTunes library.

So you had a real network?

All of us who love hip-hop music tend to create networks of fellow heads. I’m also fortunate to teach at a college where there are hundreds of students interested in hip-hop. When I was writing the book, I’d even assign the students taking my poetry classes to do lyrical analyses of rap. Also, in working on my next project, the ‘Yale Anthology of Rap’, I’ve assembled an unbelievable advisory board of writers, scholars, and performers. So I can reach out to Jeff Chang or Bakari Kitwana or Chuck D or whomever and get their perspective on things. You can’t beat that.

How many of your colleague literature (assistent) professors are fan of rap music, and how do they react to your book?

Hip-hop fans are everywhere. Particularly people of my generation—in their twenties and thirties—we grew up with the music. So a number of my younger colleagues know and love the music and enjoy my work on it. And every now and then an older prof will surprise me. I was at an event last week when one of the most distinguished (read: oldest) professors on campus quoted 2Pac to me. You just never know.

In your book you talk about a student who gave a demo of his to you? Have you received many more demos after this book being published?

I’d say that at every other appearance I make, somebody will hand me some music or link me up to their MySpace page. Of course, I can’t put them on, I’m just a mild-mannered professor, after all! But what I really think they want is for someone to acknowledge their work. That’s something I’m glad to do. I have the utmost respect for anyone who takes time out of their day to make art, even if it sucks.

How do your students react to your book?

Well, for one, I assigned it to them. I taught a poetry class this spring where we did several weeks on hip-hop, so I used my book as a teaching tool. They seemed to dig it. They even had the nerve to critique it here and there, which I’m proud they did, actually.

If a hip-hop would be a course at uni, would it be a part of sociology, art or literature studies?

A course on hip-hop could be the ultimate interdisciplinary class. It could draw from sociology, art, literature, economics, political science, even biology (some scientist needs to explain what makes our heads nod to the beat). There’s been a real flowing in recent years here in the States when it comes to university courses dedicated to hip-hop. They can approach the subject from any number of disciplinary perspectives. I’m teaching one this fall in the Literature department.

Now back to the book. Its chapters are divided into lyrical parameters like rhyme, rhythm, wordplay,..). Did you know which parameters you were going to use in advance and how did you decide to use these?

I knew that I wanted the first part of the book to break down the raw materials of rap poetics, the musical and linguistic elements of ‘rhythm’, ‘rhyme’, and ‘wordplay’. The second part took a bit more thinking. I finally settled upon ‘style’, ‘storytelling’, and ‘signifying’. ‘Style’ is a way of talking about what individual artists do with the raw materials discussed in the first half of the book. ‘Storytelling’ breaks down the narrative component that’s so strong in rap, from Slick Rick to Andre 3000. And ‘signifying’ was a way for me to explore the battle, freestyling and so forth. Once I got the basic structure in place, it was just a matter of sitting down and doing the work.

Which of these parameters are you always looking for in a rapper?

I’m big on rhythm. Without a tight flow, even dope rhymes and wordplay won’t matter that much. So while I’ll admire an MC who has impressive lyrical content, I’ll probably prefer listening to someone who does interesting things with his vocal cadence. That’s the reason I dig somebody like Lupe Fiasco. Just listen to ‘Go Go Gadget Flow’ and you’ll know what I mean.

Have you gained more insight into a particular rapper's style after writing this book, if yes who? 2Pac?

I’ve gained insight into just about every rapper’s style since writing this book. And, yes, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for 2Pac. Even a fairly commercial ‘Pac joint like ‘California Love’ shows just what a talented poet he is. ‘Out on bail, fresh out of jail, California dreamin. . .’. What a fantastic opening line!

Did you appreciate hip-hop even more after having written this book or were you already convinced of its ingenuity?

I always appreciated hip-hop. The thing that changed, though, is my respect for the work ethic of the best MC’s. The level of attention they put into their craft. That’s something that might surprise some folks. The best rappers hone their skills as much as a concert pianist.

But do you think that most rappers actually think about and specifically know using enjambment, assonance, a ballad meter or a trochaic octometer?

I think that there are a good number of MC’s who consciously employ specific elements of poetic form. They might not always use the technical term to identify it, but they know what they’re doing. And besides, if you’re effectively using assonance, it doesn’t matter what you call it. You could call it ‘Kool-Aid’ if you want to, as long as you know how to do something with words. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not the job of the MC to define the terms of what they do. That’s our job as writers, critics, and active listeners.

Are you aware of any rappers who are fan of Shakespeare, Dante, Keats or Lord Byron?

Well, years ago Q-Tip delivered this line: ‘The Abstract Poet prominent like Shakespeare. . .’. So, yeah, I’m sure there are rappers who are fans of literature. These are, after all, men and women of letters. I’ll tell you this, though. I bet Shakespeare would have been a fan of rap. Shakespeare would have been a hip-hop head, no doubt. After all, he was known for spitting slang, making lewd plays on words, mixing a lot of sex and violence and swagger into his poetry. Shakespeare was more gangsta than most so-called ‘gangsta rappers’. Most of all, though, Shakespeare wrote for everyday people. Nowadays, people sometimes get the sense that you have to read his lines with a fake British accent or something. But for his time, he was writing in a voice that his audience could easily understand and in a way that delighted and entertained them. If that doesn’t sound like rap, I don’t know what does. As for the MCs Shakespeare would like, they’d need to have lots of witty wordplay, an ear for rhythm and rhyme, and a profound sense of the human condition. So I’d want to put him on to someone like Jean Grae, for instance. He’d have his hands full with the Wu-Tang Clan, too.

In hip-hop there's always been a discussion between commercial and non-commercial rap, rap made for the clubs and rap that wants to stay as far away from the clubs as possible. In this book you try to moderate this duality by explaining it from a style register 'high concept' vs 'low concept', that's a pretty smart move. Were you fed up with this discussion and do you think you can give some hardcore stubborn heads some insight on this matter?

Look, hip-hop has always had plenty of room for both the conscious tunes and the club bangers. It’s always embodied the duality. For every Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s ‘The Message’ you had the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I want to listen to music that stimulates my mind, and sometimes I want to listen to music that stimulates my behind. What’s wrong with that?

You often quote Lil Wayne throughout your book, a lot of hip-hop heads (even artists) hate on Lil Wayne, did you quote him on purpose in your book, to showcase a broad possible range of artists and to convince haters of his abilities?

As a general practice, I wanted to include as broad a range of artists as possible in my book so as to make the point that lyrical excellence is lyrical excellence. Whether they were pop artists or underground MCs, whether they’re representing Brooklyn or Belgium (although I need somebody to put me on to some dope Belgian MC’s). As for Lil Wayne, I think he’s a gifted -if still evolving- MC. He does amazing things on the mic. You can’t deny his abilities any more than you can deny his limitations. No defense needed.

Are you into graffiti and/or breakdancing?

When I was a kid, I tried my hand at all four of the basic elements—DJ-ing, MC-ing, B-boying, and Graf. I was no good at any of them. Thank God there’s that fifth element—doing the knowledge.

Which are some of your favourite producers?

I’m a fan of 9th Wonder. And haters aside, Kanye can lace a beat. I think that ‘808s and Heartbreak’ is a brilliant album, particularly when you listen to it as an instrumental.

What's the first rap album you bought?

The first one that I actually went out and bought with my own money was De La Soul’s ‘Three Feet High and Rising’. I can still remember it -that day- glo yellow tape. I wore that thing out!

What are some of the latest rap albums you uploaded unto your iPod?

I just uploaded the new Eminem, the Red and Meth joint, Drake’s mixtape, the solo disc from Big Pooh from Little Brother, some Moroccan hip-hop one of my boys gave me. Lots of stuff.

You were talking about a new book earlier on, when can we expect that along with other endeavours?

Look for the ‘Yale Anthology of Rap’ next year. I’m editing it with my boy Andrew DuBois, who’s a professor at the University of Toronto. When the anthology’s published in 2010 it will be the first comprehensive collection of rap lyrics. More than four hundred in all from hundreds of artists. Our purpose is to help establish a canon of rap lyrics so that future generations of students will have a way of studying rap as poetry. To have the support of a major academic press like Yale is tremendous. It signals a transformation, I think, of rap’s place in literary studies. I also have two books coming out soon related to the late, great African American novelist Ralph Ellison, author of the 1952 classic ‘Invisible Man’. Seems pretty far from hip-hop, but Ellison was one of the most profound writers on music in the 20th-century. Hip-hop heads can learn a lot from his essays on jazz and the blues. I sure did.


Always. I just want to thank Platform8470 for taking the time to chop it up with me. Hip-hop needs you, Belgium! Shout-out to all the hip hop writers who lead the way for me to write a book like ‘Book of Rhymes’, especially Tricia Rose, Jeff Chang, Bakari Kitwana, Imani Perry, and William Jelani Cobb. Let’s all keep hip-hop alive for good.

Thanks a lot!

Thank you. Peace.


POSTED 05|01|2009
conducted by Cpf

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