On Hip-Hop, A Rhapsody

On Hip-Hop, A Rhapsody

Michael Jarrett

Michael Jarrett practices an Ulmer-inspired heuretics to write about rap.

Lori Emerson:

While Jarrett argues for rap as rhapsody, Rob Wittig presses for a future revival of hip-hop as the art of the troubadour.

Lori Emerson:

It’s no surprise, then, that Daniel Reiss claims in his ebr review of Roger Chartier’s Forms and Meanings that the greatest insight afforded by Ong’s scholarship is that altering the forms by which thought is expressed and disseminated alters the process of thought itself.

Lori Emerson:

Echoing Jarrett’s claim for hip-hop as montage, Marcus Boon’s “Sublime Frequencies’ Ethnopsychedelic Montages” drives home to us that hip hop emerged out of the B-Boys’ taste for African polyrhythms purloined from old vinyl reshaped and engineered on turntables and mixers.


Or else perhaps he may invent
A better than the poet meant,
As learned commentators view
In Homer more than Homer knew.
Jonathan Swift, On Poetry: A Rhapsody

One must be an inventor to read well.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

In a word, Gregory Ulmer has recommended heuretics. As the paradigm that we have come to know as “literacy” shifts to something else, which Ulmer calls “electracy,” heuretics is a readiness strategy. It is more than that, certainly. But from the start, I want to emphasize that heuretics is a way to prepare for writing in - both in the sense of “ushering in” and “working within” - an emerging digital culture. It is a practice - an orientation or attitude toward texts - worth trying out now.

Before I practice heuretics to write about rap, let me briefly explain the word. It originated in the Middle Ages as a theological term, the flip-side of “hermeneutics,” in structuralist terms its Other. One could interpret scripture, filter it through a hermeneutic, an institutionally established and sanctioned grid that enabled literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical readings. Doctrine would result - verifications of truth - or the application of doctrine in the form of lessons or homilies. One could also employ scripture as a means of invention. Which is to say, one could read it heuretically (Ulmer, 1989:15). Such “readings” might seem revelatory (‘Eureka!’). Conversely, they might seem heretical, depending on how interpretive communities responded to what was invented (see the case of Joan of Arc). The point is, hermeneutics yielded “readings” that seemed discoverable in scripture. They seemed to have been placed there. The interpreter showed his audience what the text (and, by implication, its author and its ultimate Author) said. Meaning was not imposed upon the text; meaning arose from the text. Or at least that was the general idea - contested and critiqued now for a few hundred years. Heuretics, then, was hermeneutics that failed or sounded dubious. Such a reading practice seemed a lot like writing. It generated the sneaking suspicion that “readings” were not recovered; they were made - made from the text. The interpreter (consciously or not) had used the text to say something - used it as a pretext for his own purposes. In effect, hermeneutics turned into heuretics - turned reading into writing - any time an interpretation was received or regarded as an invention.

Hundreds of years ago, the term “heuretics” dropped out of usage. Who needed it? It appears that we do. In Teletheory (1989), Ulmer reintroduced “heuretics” as a concept and practice useful for reading and writing in electronic culture. He suggested that interpretation pushed to a place where it became invention was ideally suited for the development of electracy. In Heuretics (1994), Ulmer explored and detailed the ‘logic of invention,’ going so far as to demonstrate a heuristic for heuretics (when he labeled the CATTt). Implicit in his writing and in the writings of those influenced by Ulmer is the assumption that tomorrow’s writing would necessarily seem avant-garde today. Accurate or not, this assumption is useful. It generates willfully experimental writing. Its problem is scope. The myth that today’s avant-garde is tomorrow’s mainstream unnecessarily restricts the reach of Ulmer’s audacious ideas. They are equally applicable to writing that we might consider ordinary. As a mild corrective or, better, as an attempt to balance a larger equation, I want to model writing familiar to a print-oriented audience. It does, however, proceed according to an illogic of sense, and it is designed to function in (and as) electronic media. What follows is an extended - and false - etymology (a particularly electrate “genre” worth developing). It expands a couple of shorter items I wrote for popular music publications: one, originally, introduced a guide to rap recordings; the other examined hate-filled song lyrics (Jarrett, n.d. and 2001). It is mutated journalism, my response to specific assignments and, as such, a blend of dictions. The essay points toward a hybrid form of writing that we might label the “theoretically informed feature” or the “popular experiment.” It is heuretics, then - interpretation pushed around. Gangsta writing, then. The connection between rhapsody and rap is an invention. It is grammatologically motivated; predicated on what Ulmer calls a “puncept.” The goal of such alignments or, at least my goal, is to create knowledge (or even truth and eureka) effects. Treat any type of writing - in this instance, the etymological essay - heuretically, and it will function as theory.

A few thousand years ago, there was no such thing as writing - no blazes on trails, no diagrams scratched in sand, no paintings on cave walls, and no totem poles or bas-relief murals that told stories of days gone by. I am not sure about songlines. But people definitely did not write books. Libraries didn’t exist. There weren’t any music guides. People were “illiterate.” Aimed at your last boyfriend, illiterate might mean “stupid.” More historically, the word was a print-based way to say that oral cultures were “unfamiliar with literature.” Go back far enough, and none of our kinfolk wrote. But they read all the time: worry in the eyes of a child, reassurance in the kiss of a lover, husbandry in the sweetness of a fig, warning in the blast of a horn or the clang of a bell, a promise of rain in the smell of a spring breeze. A pile of feces could tell you everything there was to know about a person - past, present, and future. In oral cultures people lack not the ability to read, but technologies for recording. They lack all means of fixing memory. They can’t “graph” the past - not as chirograph, photograph, phonograph, or cinematograph.

In Greece, where alphabetic writing developed, what label was assigned to epic poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey? Answer: ‘Rhapsodies.’ And who threw down dactylic hexameters and was a sex machine to all the chicks? Homer. He “rapped odes,” which literally meant he wove or stitched together songs (Ong, 1982: 2). He did not invent poems whole cloth. The poems Homer recited had been passed down for centuries (and ‘set down in the new Greek alphabet around 700 - 650 BC’). Rather, Homer reworked and preserved set expressions - what we would call prefabricated parts, mnemonic formulas, set phrases, or clichés - according to metrical purposes associated with particular performances. Tale-stitching bards were the MCs of the ancient world. Their job was to praise or to blame. They were prophets, venerated not for compositional ability or originality - both print-based concepts - but for verbal agility. They could string together metrical units like beads on a copper wire. And they kept it real with crowd-pleasing stories bolstered by spiraling body counts, gratuitous obscenities, and treacherous women. ‘[S]tandardized formulas were grouped around equally standardized themes, such as the council, the gathering of the army, the challenge, the despoiling of the vanquished, the hero’s shield, and so on and on’ (Ong, 1982:23). Even so, street-level credibility did not guarantee memorable, dramatic performances. Words had to flow. Bards, across the globe, were duty-bound to rock a house party at the drop of a hat. Their skills and exploits were later documented in printed accounts such as The Mwindo Epic (West Africa), The Tale of the Heike (Japan), the Bible (for example, in both the story of Balaam and the Song of Deborah), and Iceberg Slim’s Pimp.

Archilochus and Aithirne the Importunate are still notorious for free-styling lethal rhymes. Robert C. Elliott tells their stories in The Power of Satire. Archilochus was a Greek rhymer of the seventh century B.C. He is credited with inventing iambic verse, ‘the measure in which “ruthless warfare ought to be waged” ’ - and with using words to draw blood. His father was a priest of Demeter and a politician; his mother was a slave. As the story goes, Archilochus was betrothed to marry Neobule, but right before the wedding, the bride’s father, Lycambes said, ‘Let’s call the whole thing off.’ Archilochus went berserk. At the festival of Demeter, he chanted iambics against Lycambes and Neobule. They promptly hanged themselves. Archilochus, for his part, went on to establish ‘a towering reputation as a poet’ (Ong, 1982:7).

And then, there is Aithirne - Aithirne the Importunate. Equally despised and admired, he is the most celebrated rhyme slinger in Irish saga: a bad ass of truly global proportions. People cowered in terror whenever Aithirne made an unannounced stop during one of his “bardic tours” of the Emerald Isle. (It is helpful to picture him riding on a rock ‘n’ roll tour bus.) Aithirne and his two sons used to travel ‘lefthandwise from kingdom to kingdom,’ exacting outrageous favors. Their weapon of choice was the glám dícind, a metrical malediction with magical powers. When they rocked the mic, everybody ran for cover. For example, when Aithirne rolled into the town of Connaught, he was met by the one-eyed King Eochaid. The king figured he would appease the poet. Legend says, he offered ‘whatever his people had of jewels and treasures.’ ‘ “There is, forsooth,” saith Aithirne, “the single eye there in thy head, to be given to me into my fist.” “There shall be no refusal,” saith Eochaid…So then the king put his finger under his eye, and tore it out of his head, and gave it into Aithirne’s fist.’ Later, in Leinster Aithirne took a notion to get very down and intimate with the queen. He shared this reasonable fantasy with the king. For ‘honor’s sake’ and to avoid a verbal beatdown of epic proportions, the king agreed to grant Aithirne his wish. (What the queen had to say is not recorded.) Finally, Aithirne got wind that another king, a fellow named Conchobar, was engaged to marry Luaine. Aithirne and his sons planned to crash the wedding party, drink a few pints of stout, and cop some cash. Complications arose when they spied Luaine. They were smitten and ‘besought her to play the king false.’ She refused. In retaliation Aithirne ‘made three satires upon her,” and ‘the maiden died of shame.’ The story does not end there. After the funeral, King Conchobar and his posse followed Aithirne the Importunate. They tracked him to his compound, walled up his crib, and set fire to the place; toasted the poet and his entire family - shock and awe. And get this: local poets were pissed senseless. Imagine the king’s disrespect! Had he forgotten the magic power of words? (Ong, 1982:27).

‘Art,’ to cite an explanation coined by Wyndham Lewis following Freud, ‘is a civilized substitute for magic’ (quoted in Elliott, 1960: 92). Rhapsody signifies that space where and when magic passes into art. It sublimates the hostility inherent in spells and curses, redirecting aggression into socially acceptable forms such as wit and humor. ‘Wit,’ wrote Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, ‘permits us to make our enemy ridiculous through that which we could not utter loudly or consciously on account of existing hindrances’ (quoted in Elliott, 1960: 264). To which Eminem replies, ‘I’m like a head-trip to listen to, ‘cause I’m only giving you things you joke about with your friends inside your living room. The only difference is, I’ve got the balls to say it in front of y’all, and I don’t got to be false and sugar - coat it at all’ (“The Real Slim Shady,” The Marshall Mathers LP).

By the beginning of the 18th century in Europe, rhapsody was recognized as a literary term. It had pretty much completed the passage from spoken to printed language, from magic to art. Or rather, rhapsody always represents a case of literacy looking back to an oral “form” and simulating this form on the page, often with a tone of regret signifying mourning. Rhapsody referred to a medley, a hodgepodge, or a farrago of various writings cobbled together without logical connections (Rogers, 1972: 246-47). Its free-wheeling, irregular form suggested improvisation, and its association with “rapture” connoted emotional intensity or an effusive outpouring of sentiment (Holman, 1980: 379-80). All of these meanings and more play out in a poem Jonathan Swift published in 1733. It was titled “On Poetry: A Rapsody,” and that was the original spelling of ‘rhapsody,’ too. Dropping the ‘h’ from ‘rhapsody,’ Swift played off a double pun on ‘rap,’ a slap upside the head, and ‘rapp,’ a widely circulated, counterfeit coin (Rogers, 1983: 869-78; OED). Swift was a classicist (a satirist in the Juvenalian mode), a politically-connected Tory, and the Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. His point in “On Poetry: A Rapsody” was predictably conservative, even reactionary. It referred back to Plato’s Republic, which banished song-stitchers and ode-rappers, and forward to C. DeLores Tucker’s mid-1990s war against the hip-hop nation. Contemporary poetry, as Swift saw it, was in a terrible state of decline. It had degenerated into sophistry. The empty panegyrics of Grubb Street poets inflated language the same way that worthless money - in a scheme that Swift helped to foil - had almost wrecked Ireland’s economy. Unprincipled poets - the Grubb Street blokes - wrote raps characterized by ‘trivial turns’ and ‘borrowed wit’ - by ‘similes that nothing fit’ (Swift in Rogers, 1983: 151-52). Their productions - stamped out like cheap copper coins (Wood’s halfpence or rapps) - contributed to a degenerate, materialistic society. Instead of accepting time - honored truth - for instance, that ‘heavenly influence’ was required in order ‘to strike the muses’ lyre’ - modern versifiers seemed to regard poetry as a DIY or do-it-yourself industry (Swift in Rogers, 1983: 31-32). They were counterfeiters (‘faking the funk,’ ‘raping rhapsody,’ and ‘pimping the pleasure principle’). They substituted junk rapps for the genuine, time-honored article. They employed the technology of writing and, especially, the increasingly available technology of print for financial gain. Everybody seemed to be taking up the pen - rhapsodizing and getting paid in full. Or as Swift put it, ‘In every street a city bard / Rules, like an alderman his ward’ (Swift in Rogers, 1983: 301-302).

By the end of the 18th century, Swift’s world had essentially vanished. He had seen it coming. Sense yielded to sensibility; the ancients to the moderns. With the rise of Romanticism, rhapsody as a ‘freer verse style’ won the day. But not without a final irony. The Romantic Movement “effectively obliterated” rhapsody as it had been practiced by poets - and institutionalized in Europe - for centuries. As an analogy, simply recall that Rousseau’s theories of education eventually displaced a pedagogical regime founded on classical rhetoric: rhetoric that was thoroughly informed by oral habits of thought and expression, relying on formulaic elements (Ong, 1982: 26). And so with Romanticism comes a modernist fascination - to the point of obsession - with endangered or disappearing primitive worlds (hence, the birth of ecological consciousness). Modernists are astonished by - that is, they simultaneously admire and fear - the mind that rhapsodizes. (See Book IV of Gulliver’s Travels: In it the savage minds of Swift’s shit-slinging Yahoos is an object of obsession for the hyper-rational Houyhnhnms. Further, the Houyhnhnms have never seen anything quite so amusing and entertaining - and deeply perplexing - as Gulliver, a ‘wonderful’ and ‘perfect’ Yahoo (Swift, 2003: 218 - 19). And by the way, neither Yahoos nor Houyhnhnms are literate. Yahoos are not capable of reading. They are preliterate. And Houyhnhnms do not need to read. They are postliterate.) The modernist infatuation with staged savagery - with the unrestrained zeal and free - associative logic projected onto the primitive - sustained black-face minstrelsy for 100 years - in the USA. It prompted the mass (white) acceptance of R&B - derived forms of music (which is to say, rock ‘n’ roll), and it lies at the heart of gangsta rap’s continued and global popularity. Modernist infatuation with staged savagery charges hip-hop with sexual and violent energy. Or look at it this way. Modernism makes people of all races feel like they are losing stuff - stuff basic and vital to our humanity, to our sense of self, to our planet. Marx called this effect (or affect) “alienation.” Hence, any art that feels like recovery or like an evasion of ensuing loss will very probably seem like a return of the native. The primitive arrives in the nick of time to save the world.

Cultural guardians, such as Swift, may rightly fear rhapsody as linguistic inflation: the tendency of words to mean less and less; the need for more and more words to purchase meaning; the wide-spread penchant to talk shit. Perhaps our culture is turning primitive, going native, our thinking becoming less rational and more magical. Certainly, in their allegiance to invective and verbal abuse, modern rhapsodists - from Furry Lewis to Rudy Ray Moore and Iceberg Slim, all the way up to Ice Cube, Howard Stern, and Eminem - recall ancient satirists. There is, however, a more coherent and compelling way to understand contemporary rhapsody. It follows from a basic observation about electronic culture. The dominant mass-media technologies of the last century - the telephone, radio, phonograph, cinema, and television - which are now converging in the digital circuitry of the computer, reemphasized modes of communication formerly identified with oral cultures. We now live in an age that Walter Ong calls “secondary orality” (a repetition of orality but with differences). Rhapsody may have ancient roots in magic, but rhapsodists are not pagans or primitives. They denote neither the fall of civilization nor some presumed loss of moral fiber. On the contrary, rhapsodists emerge whenever and wherever oral skills - primary or secondary - are valued. In Orality and Literacy, Ong writes:

When all verbal communication must be by direct word of mouth, involved in the give-and-take dynamics of sound, interpersonal relations are kept high - both attractions and, even more, antagonisms. (Ong, 1982: 45)

Electronic communication extends and develops this tendency to use words combatively.

Consider the case of Sunnyland Slim. In 1947, this black musician from the Mississippi Delta recorded his song Johnson Machine Gun for Aristocrat Records, a Chicago-based label owned by two Polish-born Jews, Leonard and Phil Chess. The lyric, writes Robert Palmer, was ‘a violent urban fantasy with a touch of sinister humor.’ It opened with a boast: ‘I’m gonna buy me a Johnson machine gun and a carload of explosion balls / I’m gonna be a walkin’ cyclone, from Saginaw to the Niagara Falls.’ It closed with a threat: ‘Now, little girl, the undertaker’s been here, girl, and I gave him your height and size. / Now if you don’t be makin’ whoopee with the Devil tomorrow this time, baby, God knows you’ll be surprised’ (Palmer, 1981: 147).

A reasonable examination of this tune might focus on Sunnyland Slim’s rage (and downplay his tongue-in-cheek humor). Some bitch did the bluesman wrong - or rather he feels he’s been done wrong, and he can’t hold back. The song becomes a delivery system for verbal and sonic venom directed toward a perceived or projected agent of offense. Pretty obviously, this is true of all rhapsody in a satiric vein. But any examination that stops here is not being reasonable. It has forgotten (or conveniently ignored) that the song was manufactured for sale to a mass audience. The song was made to be heard as something overheard. Like a rapp - one of those Irish coins - it is supposed to circulate. We need to take into account both the distribution and the consumption of the song.

Johnson Machine Gun was the result of a contractual arrangement between a black artist and two Jewish entrepreneurs (plus an unseen network of listeners). Think about it. In 1947, the year of the song’s release, Sunnyland Slim and the Chess brothers represented two groups of people more often the target of hate than its perpetrators. It is a dubious honor, but songs such as Johnson Machine Gun - and there are a good many of them - signal what we might call the “democratization of rhapsody.” Distributing venom and bile is no longer the exclusive privilege of vested power. Electronic culture, which brought us both phonograph records and internet downloads, gives everybody the chance to vent their spleen. And in the bargain intention gets awfully slippery. As Plato noted in the Phaedrus, the author of a written - printed or digitally recorded - rhapsody no longer controls meaning. Who is to say that the ‘I’ of Johnson Machine Gun - the song’s narrator - coincides with the song’s author? With very little effort we can interpret the song, not as a misogynistic attack on the ‘little girl” that did Sunnyland Slim wrong, but as an example of the satirist satirized. As an artist, Sunnyland Slim fashioned a narrator whose quick resort to violence makes him appear ridiculous. The narrator becomes the target of the song’s satire. If this reading seems preposterous, it is no fault of the text. Rather, it is because we as listeners, even in the 21st century, cannot imagine a bluesman that cagey and crafty (most probably an assumption grounded in racism) or because we do not understand how music circulates in electronic culture.

Bile is a commodity easily and regularly monetized. But that does not mean everybody’s bile is equally valuable, exchangeable in the marketplace. On this point Johnson Machine Gun is illustrative. Market forces governing electronic culture typically reward rhapsodists who choose traditional, innocuous, or personal targets. Sunnyland Slim and the Chess brothers settled on the generic ‘little girl’ (a target that may or may not make the singer/narrator appear psychopathic). This was a wise move. Even today, the lyric still passes - like a rapp - for transgressive. Sunnyland Slim wasn’t fool enough to take on the white-racist establishment (though he might venture the occasional metaphor for white hegemony). Getting lynched is three times worse than going broke. By the same token, it is hardly likely that a cabal of gangsta rhapsodists is hatching out an attack on the white corporate executives who finance the production of rap to sell to masses of pink ‘n’ pimpled high-schoolers. Marshall Mathers in the guise of Eminem or Slim Shady would rather attack Moby, boy bands, or Britney Spears. But I digress - which might be the point with a rhapsody.

Almost 30 years have passed since Kool Herc wove danceable tunes out of “breaks,” stitching together melodic and rhythmic snippets isolated from various r&b, soul, funk, and disco records. With disco, records replaced live musical events. With rap, records formed a node that organized - or around which coalesced - new types of live events. Mass-reproduced music became music for reproducing. Copyright became the right to copy (Ulmer, 1983: 96). More than 20 years have passed since Grandmaster Flash popularized scratching and Afrika Bambaataa formulated hip-hop as an aesthetic, if not a worldview. But people continue to debate the merits of rap, the music of hip-hop culture. Is it positive? ‘Schoolly D is still the shit, man.’ ‘Listen to anything by KRS-One. It is the vernacular poetry of urban streets. The man’s a teacher.’ Or is rap negative? ‘Eazy-E first peddled drugs; then he peddled the musical equivalent of crack cocaine.’ ‘Soul is the sound of African Americans leaving church; rap is the sound of them not coming back.’ Or is hip-hop neutral? ‘MCs are reporters, pure and simple. Public Enemy’s Chuck D should’ve won a Pulitzer prize for “war correspondence.”’

Whatever. Because whatever valence we assign to rap, it is conventionally understood as a late manifestation of rhapsody, even by people unfamiliar with that term or its history. It is easy to see why. Hip-hop recommends making new recordings by rhyming over stitched-together fragments appropriated from already made records. It is a compositional methodology tailor-made for - arising from - electronic culture or secondary orality. Rhapsody stands as an alternative to models and methods of textual production that emerged out of literacy. For at least two millennia, much of the labor involved in composition - whether written, visual, or musical - has been devoted to effacing traces of labor. This is a fairly basic observation, easily illustrated. Hollywood movies are most often enjoyed when they appear less constructed by film crews than magically conjured out of thin air (delivered to theaters in a manner similar to God handing Moses the Ten Commandments). Much of the work in freshman writing courses is devoted to crafting clear sentences, cohesive transitions between sentences and paragraphs, and coherent arguments. Popular music is hardly different. Studio wizardry - from tape splicing to multi-tracking to compositing vocals - aids and abets the creation of seamless products. Rap deviates from this venerated tradition by validating rupture, the performance that seems stitched together (whose seams show). Its break with music is as decisive as the break Picasso made with painting when he exhibited his first collage in 1912. The sonic productions of DJs - Steinski, Marley Marl, Jam Master Jay, Eric B., Premier, Terminator X, Shadow, Prince Paul, Mixmaster Mike, Danger Mouse, and Kid Koala - are not about masking or suturing seams. They are about collage or montage. They embrace a cut ‘n’ paste, rhapsodic aesthetic: a rapsthetic. (Oh, and did you know that Jonathan Swift used more than forty pseudonyms during his life?)

Parallels between the mnemonic formulas of epic poetry and the methods of contemporary MCs and DJs are uncanny. They are impossible to ignore. But it is a mistake to understand hip-hop as a revival (or as the atavistic survival) of ancient poetic traditions. Snoop Dogg, Tupac Shakur, Queen Latifah, L.L. Cool J, Ice T., the Rza and the Wu Tang Clan, P. Diddy, Jay-Z, and Kanye West are not griots from West Africa. They are cybernauts. Hip-hop did not arise within an oral or ancient culture. It was made possible by - it was an unintended effect and an early expression of - electronic culture. Put historically, in the 20th century music-related technologies converted the practicing amateurs of the 19th century into purchasing consumers. Instead of gathering around pianos and singing popular songs, people huddled around radios, plugged headphones into record players and gazed at movie and television screens. Hip-hop imagines a reversal of this picture. Which is not necessarily unique. The electric guitar wrought similar changes by spawning countless garage bands. Hip-hop distinguishes itself by showing that machines designed to enable the consumption of music can be redirected as a means of producing original music. Hip-hop is one way to apply heuretics to music making: push playing records so far that it becomes a means of invention or composition. For anyone who accepts collage as a viable strategy for making art, turntables and samplers are, without qualification, musical instruments. They erode - they deconstruct - the distinction between making and listening to music. Rhapsody, as a form and methodology, seems especially suited to textual production within an emerging electronic paradigm.

Like punk, hip-hop is a DIY art form. Or as the Beastie Boys’ Michael Diamond once told me, ‘The highest praise that you can give any kind of music - coming from both the punk-rock and the hip-hop sides - is that you’re actually creating music that inspires other people to make music, as opposed to sitting back and saying “Okay, I’m in the audience.”’ Chances are Jackie Wilson, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Donna Summer prompted jaw-dropping awe a lot more often than they inspired emulation. Who could match their artistry? But Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, MC Hammer, Biggie Smalls, Master P, Nas, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and Eminem? Or how about The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel, Herbie Hancock’s Rockit, DJ Premier’s Deep Concentration, and DJ Shadow’s In/Flux? Fostering the illusion - and it is an illusion - that anyone can make hip-hop, they have motivated countless 15 year olds to grab mic in one hand (crotch with the other) and freestyle, or to imagine themselves commandeering a matched pair of direct-drive Technics turntables. Right now, all over the world, kids feature themselves becoming André 3000 or Big Boi, Pharrell, Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, Nelly, Ludacris, Mos Def, 50 Cent, Kanye West, or Dizzee Rascal. Their dreams and resultant behavior may not qualify as revolutionary, but they do refresh and renew music.

Unlike punk, hip-hop does not inherit or follow an Oedipal script. That is not the myth that moves it along. It does not acquire credibility by denigrating or forsaking the music - r&b, soul, funk, and disco - that forms its foundation. It is not evolutionary. It is not about slaying fathers, burning bridges, and shattering icons. Sure, hip-hop is highly competitive (on and off the mic). Rivalries between crews and geographical regions structure its history. But hip-hop suffers from no anxiety of influence. It is more complicated than that. To its manifest black audience, hip-hop accrues authenticity by seeming not to accommodate its latent audience - whatever that audience may be (it is most often pictured as a soft, undifferentiated mass of paleness). That is how hip-hop keeps it real. It is a basic time-honored avant-garde strategy.

Take the example of N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton and, by extension, gangsta rap. It was not deemed authentic because of its origin: it oozed up from the mean streets of Los Angeles. Authenticity does not inhere in art. It is conferred. Perhaps the album’s black urban audience heard an accurate description - a representation - of its world and bore witness to the album’s validity. But that theory is naïve. More likely, Straight Outta Compton helped focus - and even re-create - African American identity by denying other audiences positions with which they could identify. That’s right. Who you are is determined by who you cannot become (by what theorists call the Other). White, suburban boys loved the album and gangsta rap because it so thoroughly excluded them. “Blackness” was thus opened up as a realm of fantasy. Rap supplied white kids with scripts that they found every bit as complex and enjoyable as a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Conversely, in the world of hip-hop, inauthenticity always results from a failed attempt to negotiate racial issues. Selling out - the counterfeit rap - means alienating one audience by accommodating another audience that wants to feel its Otherness. Hip-hop is one of the stages on which America plays out its drama of race. And rap is the most recent stage of rhapsody as a compositional strategy, a way to write in electronic culture.


Elliott, Robert C. The Power of Satire: Magic, Ritual, Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960).

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. ‘The American Scholar’, in Daniel J. Boorstin (ed.) An American Primer (New York: Meridian, 1966), 301-320.

Holman, C. Hugh. ‘Rhapsody’, in A Handbook to Literature 4th ed. (Indianapolis: Bobbs - Merrill, 1980).

Jarrett, Michael. ‘Hip-Hop - What It Is, What It Is’, in The Tower Guide to Hip-Hop (New. York: Tower Records, 2001), 4-8.

—. ‘In a Time of Hate’ music.com, (Spring, 2001):71-75.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Methuen, 1982).

Palmer, Robert. Deep Blues (New York: Penguin, 1981).

Rogers, Pat. ‘Shaftesbury and the Aesthetics of Rhapsody’ British Journal of Aesthetics, 12, (1972): 244-57.

—. (ed) ‘Notes on On Poetry: A Rhapsody’ in Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994).

Swift, Jonathan. ‘On Poetry: A Rhapsody’ in Pat Rogers (ed) Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

—. Gulliver’s Travels (New York: Penguin, 2003).

Ulmer, Gregory L. ‘The Object of Post-Criticism’ in Hal Foster (ed) The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Port Townsend, Washington: Bay Press, 1983).

—. Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video (New York: Routledge, 1989).