I knew it would be one of my last rap battles, so my girlfriend invited a friend from university to see me in action. I could sense Anna’s apprehension. She wasn’t a hip-hop fan, saying she despised its homophobia and sexism. The match was a two-on-two written battle – a set-up where the rappers prepare material and research their opponents. It’s basically debating, with more “fucked your mum” jokes. There were the usual insults to start off, but in the second round our opponents zeroed in on my tertiary studies. They compared their lives selling drugs to mine studying and writing, saying that I would finish uni with a useless piece of paper and a debt while they were banking money tax free.The crowd roared and cheered. Of course the diss didn’t bother me – this was a rap battle – but afterwards I realised who its real victim was. Anna was shaken. How could that whole crowd think that having a degree was a bad thing?
What Anna didn’t understand was that the knife cuts both ways. I am a rapper. I have a university degree. I work for highbrow magazine The Monthly. The problem with this combination is that if you are perceived by educated or literary people as adequately intelligent, yet you are committed to a genre known for chauvinism, competitive machismo and materialism, it is expected that you articulate on demand a justification for your musical appetite. “I love rap, but I’m tired of defending it,” said Chris Rock. Amen. When I tell people that I rap, the statement is half apology. Explaining the intellectual merit of Notorious B.I.G. is no simple endeavour. I don’t mind debating the worth of hip-hop, but sometimes I just want to hear ‘fuck bitches, get money’ without having to validate it.
I’d always felt like the odd one out in my creative writing classes. Baggy jeans, Air Force 1s and fitted caps weren’t too common in my lectures, so I really alienated myself when I said that Yeats was nothing next to R.A. the Rugged Man. I had discovered hip-hop before literature, after all – I was a student of Shakur before Shakespeare, Big Pun before Crime and Punishment, A Tribe Called Quest before A Streetcar Named Desire. In tutorials we studied poetry and fiction for narrative, voice and metaphor, but when I recognised those techniques in the music I listened to, and asked why albums like Nas’ Illmatic weren’t on the syllabus, the response was usually muted.
I argued often that rap was poetry. The odd tutor encouraged it – one allowed me to analyse Jedi Mind Tricks’ ‘Uncommon Valor: A Vietnam Story’ when studying war poetry – but my beef was that rap wasn’t automatically part of the literary canon. My poetry tutor in second year said she liked what I listened to because it “wasn’t like most rap”. When I first met my girlfriend, I was introduced as “not like most rappers.” The expectation seemed to be that hip-hop involved nothing but black Americans with lots of jewellery rhyming about money and hoes and guns. I would sometimes point out that we lived in Australia, where there were not a great many African-Americans. I would also point out that while black America was the source of rap’s most vibrant culture, it was also the source of its most obvious stereotypes. For literary and scholarly types, a lot of these motherfuckers were limiting their perceptions of hip-hop to MTV. If Stephanie Meyer doesn’t speak for fiction and Nickleback doesn’t speak for rock music, why does Flo Rida speak for hip-hop?
For a long time, I used the common tactic of talking up rappers who literary types could appreciate for their craftsmanship and subject matter. These days I say fuck that. If you like 50 Cent and Rick Ross, it’s a sell-out when you only put your friends onto ‘conscious’ artists like Immortal Technique and MC Lyte. If you want to extol Chuck D, Intelligent Hoodlum and Lauryn Hill, you can’t pretend you’ve never heard of 2 Chainz, Lil B and Nicki Minaj. I’m not saying there’s not rap that I think is garbage (sup Pitbull?), but if you ignore Lil Wayne because he makes pop songs and uses auto-tune, you miss out on lines like “life is a bitch and death is her sister / Sleep is the cousin, what a fuckin’ family picture.” Who’s gonna tell me that’s not an evocative metaphorical image? With hip-hop often reduced to its worst elements, and the diversity of a global culture lost behind caricature, hip-hop heads are prone to develop a victim complex about their representation. But it needn’t mean we selectively present what we think will satisfy our questioners. I want to embrace my culture for all its complexity and contradictions.
One of the common lines from doubters is that they can’t relate to the music. If you even dress hip-hop in Australia, self-appointed comedians will remind you that you’re not black, not gangsta, and not American. So you have to match the subject matter of art to enjoy it? It’s completely irrational. I can appreciate the violence, poverty and desperation in a Wu-Tang Clan song as much as I can in Crime and Punishment, and I’m as much an outsider to 1990s Staten Island as 19th century Russia. How closely applicable to their own lives is the world of Helms Deep to Lord of the Rings fans? Is a reading of Pride and Prejudice more or less anachronistic than a rotation of ‘Fuck tha Police’? You’ll more likely meet a drug dealer than a hobbit, or a corrupt cop than an English society gentleman. In the current era, educated literary people agree furiously that crime narratives like The Wire and Breaking Bad are some of the best television ever made. So why is it any different listening to gangsta rap? The drug-dealing turf war commanded by Marlo Stanfield or the ascent from humble drone to criminal kingpin of Walter White are stories native to the rhymes of Raekwon and Pusha T.
What doesn’t exist for those watching The Wire, but does exist for those blasting N.W.A., is an assumption that playing that media equals endorsing its content. It’s an illogical concept. I don’t like getting drunk or high, but I heavily fuck with ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ by Kendrick Lamar and ‘iBETiGOTSUMWEED’ by Schoolboy Q. I don’t eat meat but ‘Fried Chicken’ by Nas and Busta Rhymes makes me hungry. I’m a pacifist but will scream ‘How About Some Hardcore’ by M.O.P until my lungs give out. I’m not homophobic, but rap along to Scarface’s “we ain’t working on this corner take your ass on, dog / ‘fore you make me feed your ass to my hogs, you fucking faggot.” I’m constantly in conflict with the music I like, as others are with whatever art they enjoy. Johnny Cash’s “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” is no different to KRS-One’s “I knew a crack dealer by the name of Peter, had to buck him down with my nine millimeter”. Nick Cave’s ‘Stagger Lee’ and Scarface’s ‘Jesse James’ are pretty much the same damn song, complete with folklore references and ample use of the word ‘motherfucker’. For all the talk of keeping it real, rappers can write as fictionally as David Bowie or Nick Cave; no-one has to explain that the former wasn’t an astronaut and the latter didn’t bash Kylie Minogue’s head in with a rock. The difference is that Bowie and Cave don’t necessarily offer themselves beside their content. Rap’s poignant literary device of first-person narration is taken as an uncomplicated confessional. The singer’s voice is the distant omniscient narrator, the rapper’s is the gonzo journalist merging fiction and reality. But if Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-fuelled hysteria can be celebrated for its literary merit, why not Redman’s ‘How To Roll a Blunt’?
There’s an intense double standard at play. As Michael Eric Dyson stated in Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop, “it’s true that those who fail to wrestle with hip-hop’s cultural complexity, and approach it in a facile manner, may be misled into unhealthy forms of behavior. But that can be said for all art, including the incest-laden, murder-prone characters sketched in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and King Lear.” I can only conclude that the simplicity of listening to music as such a direct sensory experience results in a simplistic absorption and response. Watching a television series or reading a novel, where there is a larger narrative framework and clearer plot, allows for a precise judgment on a character’s morality. The stream of consciousness represented in many rap lyrics creates ambiguity.
Of course you can’t neatly divide people into literary and hip-hop camps. For anyone under 30, stating some appreciation of hip-hop is a compulsory part of being cool. People constantly tell you they love hip-hop – as long as it’s “intelligent”. The rest of it forms a pariah sector of ‘bad rap’, characterised only by references to bitches, hoes, and guns. The assumption is that the kind of dialogue entered into by exponents like The Notorious B.I.G has no literary merit, that its hedonism and violence is devoid of creativity. But art has always confronted us with our own humanity. Drugs, death, sex, money, violence, narcissism, homophobia, sexism, racism, the more taboo the better – show me the cold facts of life. Hip-hop’s strength is its brutal honesty. Nabokov’s Lolita, Suskind’s Perfume and Easton Ellis’s American Psycho all focus on objectively immoral and ‘evil’ characters who provide no less interest or insight than a moral hero. True, these books weren’t immune to criticism, but it seems that many of their class of defenders – literature professors, readers and writers – are likely among the voices accusing hip-hop of moral degeneracy.
My university had one book on hip-hop: Todd Boyd’s The New H.N.I.C. (Head Niggas in Charge): The death of civil rights and the reign of hip-hop. The conflict between literature and hip-hop was right there on the page; the blend of ebonics and academic jargon was jarring and difficult to digest. Born To Use Mics: Reading Illmatic led to more disenchantment. Essays on Nas’ album describing “weed-induced philosophies” and “noir discontent” didn’t fit the mood of the music. I got far clearer insight from my best friend Quinny’s screwed-up face, hollering “I’m a addict for sneakers, twenties of Buddha and bitches with beepers” as we drove to high school. I didn’t need to be told about slang for “sport shoes or trainers”, or the social dominance of beepers in the early ‘90s, or the many-varied usage of the word ‘bitch’. The study wasn’t written for a hip-hop head, it was a description for an outsider. But if they didn’t fuck with the music, why were they picking up the book?
The divide has made me intensely aware of stereotype and assumption. Literature is not an impenetrable fortress, and hip-hop is not “some giant living in the hillside coming down to visit the townspeople,” as Mos Def might say. Yet both worlds seem at odds with each other. In literary circles I represent an idiotic and materialistic culture, but in hip-hop I’m a smug, out-of-touch academic. I go to work to read political and cultural essays where the only whisper of hip-hop is in my own headphones as I walk to my desk in the morning. I go to open mics and get treated like Richie Rich on excursion.
As far back as I can remember I wanted to be a rapper and a writer. It was one ambition for me. Hip-hop was more than culture and music, it was my translator, how I identified myself. To call myself an MC was more than a label. Freestyling, writing, performing, punchlines, braggadocio, storytelling, battling; only having mastered all these elements does the rapper become the MC. It implied a whole doctorate in a unique field of study. And part of this meant being a writer. Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra weren’t writers; they were singers. The term ‘singer-songwriter’ never impressed me – what else would you be? Rappers write their own lyrics. So if a rapper is a writer, and rappers tell stories, my being a writer and a rapper beneath the one title ‘MC’ made more than enough sense.
Not long after the two-on-two versus Barry Bonza and Mike Pipes, I retired from battle rap. A rumour circulated, intended as an insult, that I had quit to write a novel. The irony was that I had retired to focus on my music. I had been dividing my time between writing fiction and writing battles, so I decided to axe battles and let songs creep back in. But the rumour was telling; the assumption that wanting to be a writer was something to be ashamed of. Unimaginative people thought I had finally decided I was above hip-hop. In fact I hit the studio hard and am now four tracks deep into my debut EP. After laying down the final verse of a song at Stronghorn Studios, I was listening back to the vocals with the engineer, JD, while bouncing out the mix. Kwasi, a local rapper/producer and the second engineer, was sitting on the couch at the back of the room and digging the track. “You’ve got a mad vocabulary, man,” he said, nodding his head to the beat. That struck me. If it’s dope that a rapper has a big vocabulary, maybe I’ve got this shit backwards after all.
Defron won the Revolver MC Battle in Melbourne in 2009 and was short-listed for the Judith Rodriguez Prize in 2010. He’s been published in Voiceworks and Verandah, and is The Monthly’s online content co-ordinator. Listen here.