Finding the Poetry in Hip-Hop

Categories: Essay, New Yorkers

Homeboy Sandman | Photo by Lauren Jaslow
By the time I began studying English and creative writing at NYU, I had already started to identify myself as a poet. I lived and breathed poetry; it was the only way I could compute and make sense of my surroundings. Simultaneously, I was also an EDM head, before electronic music had become so wildly and widely popular again, and before EDM was really a term. But I was sick of the scene and asked my roommate to give me some new music. "Here," she said, "Why don't you give this a listen." She handed me a copy of Homeboy Sandman's album Actual Factual Pterodactyl.

See also: Homeboy Sandman Assembles New York Avengers

I almost immediately fell for Sandman's strange vocabulary and even stranger beats. His sound was different than the hip-hop I listened to as a kid; strange was the only word that, at the time, aptly described his music. Case-in-point: from his Actual Factual Pterodactyl track "Mambo Tail Tale," Sandman raps, "My oh my! This chick is just about as fly as I am / One of a kind short look dime / 5 plus 5, 1 plus 9 / Chilling in the cut like iodine / I rose up right, shimmied by her side / Started talking that jive." 'Chilling in the cut like iodine'--excuse me? I didn't know rappers could rap like this. I was enthralled.

It took delving through Sandman's full discography and subsequent projects for me to become fully convinced of hip-hop's poetics. As I followed his career and continued to listen to his music, the growth of his subject matter steadily proved that there was only one type of rap I should be listening to, and that's the kind of rap that said something. As I became more and more convinced of this, I began to explore the work of New York rappers who had something to say and whom I could connect with in some way, who spoke to my sentiments as a writer, poet, and who spoke to my identity that I could only pinpoint as 'other.'

I continued to relate to Sandman's raps, especially from his album The Good Sun, the title itself a play on words, something I deeply appreciated. From the track "Yeah But I Can Rhyme Though," he openly talks about himself and his place in hip-hop, bemoaning various labels and presenting a refreshing kind of honesty. "You're not exactly a backpacker / You're not a gang banger / You're not a swagger rapper / You're not a hustler and you're not a slacker / Not a half stepper and you're not a kappa / You're not a trapper even though you kept a Trapper Keeper / You don't hug the block or smoke a lot of reefer / You're not a pimp, you're not a hipster / Even though you got a lot of sneakers, you don't fit the box so how you gon' get out the speakers? / Good thing I can rhyme though."

Sandman's talents reminded me of Black Star, whose album had been sitting in my iTunes library for years. While I knew the raps and rhythms by heart, I had never really taken the time to sit there and unpack the words. I took another listen and found that the hook from "Definition" said it all. "I said one, two, three / It's kind of dangerous to be an MC / They shot 2Pac and Biggie / Too much violence in hip-hop, Y-O."

I explored more emcees, my appetite voracious and never satisfied. I thrived on honesty, and that's what New York rappers like YC The Cynic, J-Live, and Von Pea of Tanya Morgan gave me. One of the first songs I heard by YC was "Rude Boy Jamaican," which I felt promoted authenticity in rap. "Just a kid tryin' to make it / Single mom household, pops couldn't take it / Moms on the outs like alps in Jamaica / Pops didn't pay shit, Mom losing patience / Stop visitation; locked it / Lived my whole life in his absence, bastard / Only thing he left was an accent; dropped it."

I began to look at hip-hop through the lens of a poet and became a kind of purist, only seeing certain rappers as true to hip-hop and viewing the genre in a narrow scope. I held onto these perceptions for a few years, not realizing that this was a flawed perspective. Every sub-genre of hip-hop has its place and purpose in the culture.

See also: Homeboy Sandman + Friends - Gramercy Theater - 1/18/14

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