Hip Hop in Aotearoa as a Contemporary Art-form
An earlier version of this essay appeared in JAAM 19 (Nov 2002): 86-94
Truly fine poetry must be read aloud. A good poem does not
I have hidden abilities and refuse to show it:
The relation between Hip Hop lyrics and poetry is not a new topic in this country: in his introduction to The NeXt Wave, Mark Pirie discusses the influence of Hip Hop on poetry in New Zealand and includes in his anthology a selection of lyrics from the work of Dean Hapeta/D Word/Te Kupu.(1) In response to the current boom in local rap music, I would like to provide some further arguments for considering Hip Hop lyricism to be an art-form that can stand alongside poetry as a subject worthy of serious analysis.
One might ask: why focus on Hip Hop rather than song lyrics in general? Certainly, in the 1960s and early 70s a number of folk musicians had their lyrics published in the style of poetry – for example, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen (who also gained some success with his collections of more standard poems). Bob Dylan, in particular, was a strong influence on poets in 1960s Aotearoa.(2)
One reason for the attention that was directed toward these musicians’ lyrics was the ‘serious’ nature of their subjects. Political issues were brought to the fore and personal experiences were presented in depth rather than the ‘once over lightly’ manner of pop songs. Another factor was the simple instrumentation in folk music (usually just a strummed acoustic guitar) which placed an emphasis on the lyrics. In many cases, a song would rest on a single chord for long periods and lyrics would be delivered in a repeating melody line (this is particularly noticeable in many of the early Dylan songs). Folk songs were also longer than average pop songs, which need to be around three to four minutes to be played on radio, and thus folk music allowed more room for lyrical content.
I would argue that Hip Hop music places importance on lyrical content in a similar way: its lyrics often tackle ‘serious’ subject matter; they are presented over minimal musical backing; and the speed at which the lyrics are delivered in a Hip Hop track usually means they have a larger quantity than the average pop song. The first two of these claims may seem a little contentious to some readers so I will now look at them both in more detail, starting with the second.
The use of minimal musical backing in Hip Hop can be traced back to its origins in the Jamaican act of ‘toasting’ which involved MCs speaking over someone else’s record in order to create a new ‘version.’ In particular, it was the newly introduced lyrics that allowed the old song to be brought to life in a fresh form. Early New York rappers adopted this approach and further refined it by sampling particular sections of others’ songs and introducing drum machines. This produced a musical style that was low cost and required little or no musical training.
As Hip Hop progressed, more intricate backing tracks were introduced, but it still remains common for a track to have little more than a beat, bass line, and single melody line. In this way, the raw delivery of the lyrics remains at the core of Hip Hop. An extreme example of this is the Deceptikonz track, ‘White Sunday Prelude,’ in which a single voice raps unaccompanied.
Unlike other vocalists, rappers do not deliver their lyrics within a certain melody and instead follow only rhythmic restraints; it is only during choruses that a melody is introduced into the vocal line and this often forms the ‘hook’ of the track. This is particularly interesting since the history of poetry can be seen as taking place in the middle ground between speech and song. In his book on the subject, (3) James Winn cites evidence that the first steps towards the creation of poetry occurred when primitive tribes began to fit words into existing melodies previously sung with meaningless sounds. Thus songs progressed from simple sounds to repeated phrases, then on to more complex stanzas which could repeat in patterns. By standardising language in this way, information could be held in a form which was more easily memorised and passed down. A similar method can be seen in the oral traditions of Maori and other Pacific peoples, and is interesting to keep in mind given that Hip Hop has been so widely taken up by artists with a Pacific heritage.
Winn argues that the ancient Greeks began with a conception of poetry that was far closer to music and this is supported by the fact that the word they used to describe the poet as a singer (aoidos) was older than the one describing the poet as a maker (poietes). Only later did poetry more clearly separate from song; standardised verse was still used as an aid to memory but the use of melody became a separate art. Nonetheless poetry and song remained more closely related than in modern times due to the fact that the Greek language employed pitch emphasis in its pronunciation and Greek verse was purposefully arranged to create patterns of these changes in pitch. What's more, songs of the period had melodic structures that were far simpler than modern music (they did not have musical scales as we do now) and this meant that songs would have sounded similar to recited verse.
When the Greek poetic structures were transferred into Latin, the tonal element of verse was lost, since Latin, unlike ancient Greek, did not employ pitch emphasis. The fact that rappers have moved away from melody can be seen as a similar step; in both cases, the rhythmic qualities of song remain and are constructed around the rhyme structure of the lines as they progress.(4)
In order to write lyrics that do not rely on melody and which require only minor accompaniment, Hip Hop artists have adopted many traditional poetic devices, a process which appears to have been organic rather than intentional. For example, consider the following set of King Kapisi lyrics:
…thoughts bewitched like Salem's Lot
In this fragment we can see a number of the common elements of Hip Hop poetics: regular use of alliteration and assonance; metaphors/similes drawing from popular culture (in this case, the Stephen King novel Salem's Lot); a loose structure of rhyme and metre. Interestingly, many of the poetic devices that rap lyrics have reintroduced are relatively uncommon in contemporary English-language poetry, which has adopted a style that is closer to everyday speech. Contemporary poetry, in its written form, also tends to use line-breaks in order to emphasise certain meanings; clearly this technique is less relevant in rap since it is an oral form and is written out according to the points where the rhyme (or assonance) falls.
Nonetheless, Hip Hop does introduce one purely textual technique: it uses the deliberate misspelling of words in order to individualise the use of language (this can be seen repeatedly in the above quote, copied directly from the album sleeve). In other cases, alternative spellings of words may be used to disclose new meanings, as can be seen in the name of the Wellington group Foot Souljahs, which reinvests a low-ranking soldier with suggestions of soulfulness and Rastafarianism.
The stylistic form of the King Kapisi lyrics quoted above is clearly an essential part of their efficacy; a feature they share with poetry. Returning to my first claim, we can also see that the subject matter (religion) is serious and is dealt with in a thoughtful manner. Indeed, religion is a common subject for Hip Hop artists with a Pacific Island heritage, though it is often perceived in a more positive light, for example:
Man, lessons to life are found in the most awkward places
Another common source of Polynesian lyrical content is the issue of migration. Once again, the issue is double-edged; there is a desire to acknowledge the extensive voyages of the Pacific peoples, but also a memory of the harsh stance taken in the 1970s by the New Zealand government towards Pacific immigrants who stayed past the expiration of their visas. The effort not to forget this struggle is reflected in the record label of the previously quoted group (Dawnraid) and by King Kapisi's use of the term ‘overstayer’ as a positive moniker.
Both religion and migration are also present in the lyrics of the female MC, Nemesis, who is of Maori descent:
My inner vision, I seek the mic
Hip Hop has also provided a way for young Maori to present their language and issues pertinent to them. DLT begins his album Altruism with a karakia and Che Fu recorded a track entirely in te reo Maori (‘He Kotahi’). Te Kupu has extended his previous work by releasing two versions of his latest album, one in English and the other in te reo. Following in this tradition, the relatively new MC, Live Live, incorporates Maori terms into his rap and addresses colonialism, for example in his track ‘War’ on the first Southside Story compilation: ‘Colonialise: dominate and divide the people to process … lifted mind-frame to understand the kaupapa: the whole protocol, like the ta moko.‘
The last few years have also seen the rise of the female rap group, Sheelahroc, who bring other modern issues to the fore:
Remember back in the day
Lost innocence on unworthy men -
Forcing true emotion
The first few lines concentrate on the tension between wanting to protest against oppression and seeing oneself as a victim: the song is about a girl who focuses too much on the latter and loses her belief in herself, eventually spiraling into other problems. The real-life drama of the middle section is contrasted with the fairytale references in the last few lines. Later in the track, Sheelahroc perform a classic Hip Hop act of appropriation by taking one of King Kapisi’s choruses (‘Now you might look good, but your crew is not red-I [ready]’(5)) and changing it to: ’The boys look so good but their minds are not ready. I'd rather talk to a man 'cause his mind is rock-steady.’
Social issues also come out in the Deceptikonz track ‘Broken home’; the lyrics tell the personal (and true) story of a son whose father has abandoned his family. In the Scribe/P-Money track, ‘Remember?’, a case of childhood sexual abuse is told from the perspective of a woman who regards the event as a deep betrayal of trust.
I hope that by singling out these tracks I have rejected the notion that the subject matter of Hip Hop lyrics makes them unworthy of serious investigation. While it is true that many rap lyrics are self-promoting battle rhymes, we can see that closer scrutiny reveals a varied range of subject matter. Even among the lyrics of a group like the Deceptikonz, who are primarily known as battle MCs, a number of interesting elements can be drawn out. Indeed, many of the subjects that are discussed in Hip Hop may be poorly represented in other disciplines; for example, issues facing urban youth are better represented in the Southside compilation Str8 from the Streets (6) than in any poetry collection I have seen. I would therefore argue that the subjects discussed in Hip Hop in fact make them more worthy of analysis.
Now I return to my earlier claim: Hip Hop music brings lyrics to the forefront, just as folk music did in the 1960s, through the introduction of serious subject matter and the emphasis on vocals rather than backing. For this reason, contemporary poets may find many interesting features for discussion in Hip Hop and draw inspiration from its lyrics just as poets in the 60s did from folk music.
I hope the historical reflections in this essay show that such a process is not new and draws on a long shared history between poetry and song. Taking an interest in song lyrics provides a way to re-examine poetry's relation to song and may help reinvigorate our notions about the forms poetry can take. Ezra Pound once claimed that ‘poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music’ and I believe that taking an interest in Hip Hop lyricism is one way in which poets can rediscover the ‘musical’ aspect of their craft.
Throughout this study, I have been careful not to simply equate Hip Hop lyrics to the status of poetry. I believe that Hip Hop is a valid art-form in its own right and does not need to be legitimised by being re-labeled to fit the traditional, European outlook. Lastly, I would like to apologise for focusing predominantly on Auckland Hip Hop crews and I hope that others will continue to explore this rich field of investigation in their own area. I am currently working on a book for Reed Publishing provisionally titled 'Beats from a Small Land: The History of Hip Hop Music in Aotearoa,' which will give a broader overview of the national scene and extend the material outlined here.
(My thanks to Jacob Edmond and Anna Smaile for their helpful comments on early drafts of this essay)
 Mark Pirie, ed.,The NeXt Wave. Dunedin: U of Otago P, 1998. The work of Te Kupu also appears in Vol. 3 of Witi Ihimaera’s anthology of Maori writing Te Ao Marama. Reed, 1993.
 See Murray Edmond, ‘Poetics of the Impossible,’ Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960- See Murray Edmond, ‘Poetics of the Impossible,’ Big Smoke: New Zealand Poems 1960-1975. Ed. Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond and Michele Leggott. Auckland UP, 2000, 19-33.
 James Winn, Unsuspected Eloquence: A History of the Relations between Poetry and Music. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1981.
 One theory about the etymology of the
words ‘rhythm’ and ‘rhyme’ assigns a common root in the Greek word rhein (‘to
flow’), which would make them closely related in their original meaning.
 Str8 from the Streets is a South Auckland community project run by Dawnraid. Students of this course are introduced to the basics of the music industry, taught business skills, and encouraged to consider wider life-issues. At the end of the course, the students put together their own album which Dawnraid then releases.
Che Fu. Navigator. Sony Music Entertainment, 2001. Artist profile http://www.che-fu.com/biography.html
DLT. Altruism. BMG, 2000. Artist profile http://www.nzmusician.co.nz/06_back/0400/0400_features_DLT.html
Footsouljahs. Stylz Deliveriez Flowz. 2much Records, 2002. URL http://www.nzmusician.co.nz/01_cissue/0202/0202_freq_djraw.html
Ill Semantics. Theory of Meaning. Dawnraid Entertainment, 2002. Artist profile http://www.dawnraid.co.nz/profiles-05.htm
King Kapisi. Savage Thoughts. Urale Music/Festival Records, 2000. Artist profile http://www.fmrecords.co.nz/viewartist.cfm?artistID=315
P-Money. Big Things. Dirty Records, 2002. URL http://www.kog.co.nz/dirty/
Sheelahroc. If I gave u th’ mic (single). Footnote Records, 2001. Artist profile http://www.nzmusician.co.nz/06_back/1001/1001_freq_sheelahroc.html
Te Kupu. Ko te Matakahi Kupu. Kia Kaha Productions/Posse Songs, 2000. Artist profile http://www.tekupu.com/PROFILE.html
Various artists, Southside Story. Dawnraid Entertainment, 1999. URL http://www.dawnraid.co.nz/discography-01.htm
Various artists. Southside Story 2: International. Dawnraid Entertainment, 2001. URL http://www.dawnraid.co.nz/discography-02.htm
Various artists. Str8 from the Streetz. Dawnraid Community Trust, 2002. URL http://www.dawnraid.co.nz/communitytrust