Signifying Rappers, Signified.

You can feel the lyrics,
the spirit coming in Braille.
— Chance The Rapper, “Ultralight Beam.”

The narrative of bridging differing aspects of a culture ‘that doesn’t get hip hop’ versus ‘a culture that does’ when it comes to writing about hip hop strikes me as boring. (Who’s left besides that guy who accused a guy who literally has a song about how much he loves his grandmother as representing ‘gangster rap?’) An argument has long since been won here, but — but — just because something is obvious doesn’t mean it isn’t worth restating. Having a certain depth of narrative penetration or having access to the latest information doesn’t always translate into better audience comprehension. Look at the interview John Oliver conducted with Edward Snowden as a synechdochal case in point.

But knowing that does a weird thing to the merit of the matter, let alone acknowledging it right off the bat, as it implies that there’s a need for a perpetual historical redress, that there’s a need for Cervantes to write Don Quixote in one certain way and that there’s a need for Pierre Menard to also write Don Quixote in the exact same fashion a few years later as well. And who wants to do that?

I say this because I’ve been thinking about an essay David Foster Wallace (who — incidentally — I met years ago) co-authored with Mark Costello in 1990 called “Signifying Rappers.” I’m thinking of lines like —

… ideology in Hard rap is always informed by incident or named condition. This makes rap not only better than Punk, but way scarier.

— and what that means today when Chance The Rapper name drops Jason Van Dyke in the middle of a song about visiting his Grandmother after going to church on Sunday on Saturday Night Live in 2015 (As of this writing, Van Dyke’s lawyer has asked that his client be excused from attending court.)

Above: an excerpt from the documentary ‘Warning: Parental Advisory.’

Because think about the old ‘battles’: what on earth do you think Tipper Gore thinks of an album like Ice T’s Rhyme Pays today? Do you think she even thinks about it at all in that tragic dramatic irony sense? Would she try and blur the political differences between what she was advocating then and what safe space advocates are arguing today? Do you think she feels like a traffic cone of history, or will she surprise us all by proposing that the next poet laureate of the United States ought to be be determined by rap battle, and that Juan Felipe Herrera — the current poet laureate — better watch out?

What happens when you hit the moment when the world is shifting from the present to the idea of generations and a legacy? When we moved from defining to defined? When something like that is happening, how do we balance it with the present? Where does language go, memory go, class and popular taste go? Is it right to accept the inheritance of an essay like, “Signifying Rappers” as is, or is it suitably blasphemous to mess about with it?

I ask because I’m about to describe a UK reality of what originated as an American phenomenon. I ask because the idea of a seventeen year old freestyling on the streets of Brooklyn now has proselytizers in every language — and because some of the original pioneers of the art are starting to go. (Oh, Phife Dawg.)

Elsewhere, I’ve spoken with people who have studied the history of activist librarians who made the point that one way of giving power to an idea that inspires activism is to archive it, store it, and build it up in a way that will enable it to speak to time — to render it in its own space as it fights for space elsewhere in the present.

One of the current threads of the current moment of hip-hop is battle rap. And the one event you should check out if you’re ever in the United Kingdom is Don’t Flop.

Don’t Flop is a rap battle league based in the UK. It was founded in 2008 and claims to be the largest rap battle league in the country. They hold one show a month, most of them in the country itself, and — in early March — they had an event in Sheffield.

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The biggest misconceptions people have about battle rap, Adam Woollard — aka, Shuffle-T, who also competed at the Sheffield event — told me, were three-fold: that it was all freestyle (battlers get two-plus weeks to research their opponents), that “it will be aggressive,” and that “it’s serious.”

And it wasn’t. The host teasingly told the crowd off about livestreaming the event on Facebook — if only because he’d done the same recently. And in the first battle — a competition between Bobby Rex and Ambi — the crowd laughed from beginning to finish, whether it was at the fat jokes Red sent Ambi’s way or Ambi making fun of Rex for threatening Cameron on Twitter, ironically suggesting it was Rex’s fearsome street cred alone that kept the Prime Minister away from the streets of Manchester and Salford. When they were finished and the crowd broke away, I spotted the two of them in a brotherly hook hand and shoulder bump. ‘We crushed it, bro,’ Ambi said.

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“In the rare occasion that there is any violence or animosity,” Woollard continued, “it’s genuinely looked down upon. The crowd are always accepting of people’s performances and each other and the battlers are almost always nice guys who aren’t looking for a fight at an event. There are some serious battlers, of course, and overseas it tends to be a lot more on the serious side, but in the UK especially, it is very joke-rich and for people such as Oshea, Big J, Lefty, it is more like a comedy stand up set that just happens to rhyme. The whole scene is very self aware and funny with it.”

That was very much in evidence in the second battle, where — as a MC — Danny Jaqq took me completely by surprise, opening his figurative account by declaring that his opponent looked like the product of a father whose sole political views are informed by the legalization of marijuana, then went on to suggest that his opponent was “dressed like a poor middle-class Stormzy” before noting that he “was a financial genius / [whereas] you’re an accidental fetus.”

Above: Danny Jaqq versus J Dillion, 2015.

Jaqq, who listens to Chip, Section Boyz, and others, told me when reached by e-mail that he feels like “we as a country are starting to lack originality. We had Grime, we HAVE Grime! Even our Hip Hop is different to America.” (Which Shocka tried to figure out in a recent song.) “So I don’t understand why every UK rapper now is trying to recreate the American style of rap,” Jaqq continued. “Don’t get me wrong, I love trap music and UK ‘road rap,’ but at least they’re doing it in their own style. Every rapper I see on GRM Daily has the same music video, with the same style of beat and rapping about the same stuff, if anything at all. It’s boring.”

As to how all this began: the incident that took place between Busy Bee and Kool Moe D in December of 1981 is the consensus candidate for being the catalyst of battle rap. Listen for lines like, “If you was money, man, you’d be counterfeit.”

But how and why is a rap battle today different than a rap circle? Here’s Kendrick as a young man rapping away. Here’s a younger Little Simz in full flow. Here’s a young Kanye. Here’s a young Biggie. Here’s a younger Mos Def. Here’s Don’t Flop’s most popular video. Here’s something from King Of the Dot, another rap battle league in Toronto. And even if the home movies weren’t being shot as home movies, they’d still have the air of home movies. Through the disses and boasts, if you were the ideal outsider, you could see why something like that would be so appealing: it’s simultaneously chill, imbued with a schoolyard vibe, and seems about as open to the kind of in-performance metrical mess-abouts that used to haunt San Francisco poetry houses in the 1950’s.

It’s also fascinating to watch the older capitalist element regarding the drama in escaping the plight of economic circumstances (sometimes deliberately imposed) shift to a battle to hold your attention in an attention-based economy. Think of Chance talking about 10 Day, Stormzy labeling himself a #problem, or The Game noting the way in which some people are mourned.

And I’d say more — like, how will Bridge Da Gap, Check Your Head, AS220, and others fair tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, and the day after that? — but I’m mindful of the last shot of the music video for “Señorita” by Vince Staples —

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— and how — when Wallace and Costello wrote this —

Segregation was blame’s bullseye. Abolish the bullseye, and blame for the estrangement of the races flies everywhere, hitting the cops, or the courts, or the teachers, or the taught, or what’s taught.

— you can’t help but hold your breath at the sight of the racial essentialism; how — even with an all-capitalized Best Of Intentions, as was the case with Edward Curtis photographing the First Nation tribes of the United States at the turn of the last century — it still shows its head, and how it leaves you wanting to step onto the stage of the performative element and let the music speak for itself — passed back and forth on the streets and shared amongst friends — every single day. Jason Van Dyke.

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