Everyone from Jay-Z to Bill O’Reilly has expressed an opinion on whether rap constitutes poetry, but it seems that Americans can’t reach a consensus. Whether or not you believe that Kanye West is the contemporary Sylvia Plath, it’s impossible to deny poetry’s influence on hip hop; the number of allusions in rap to literary figures and works, especially those related to poetry, are staggering.
In celebration of National Poetry Month, these are several shout-outs to poets and poetry from hip hop songs over the years. Some are reworkings of texts, highlighting the relationship between rap lyrics and poetry, while other songs include name-drops of famous poets who've inspired each rapper's work. Before you make a judgement about whether or not hip hop deserves a place in National Poetry Month, read through the list; you might be surprised by just how literary rap can be. (And if you’ve been looking for an excuse to explain your Nicki Minaj fandom to your friends, this might just be it.)
1992: “DWYCK” by Gang Starr References Langston Hughes
“A poet like Langston Hughes and can’t lose when I cruise out on the expressway”
In this track that first appeared in 1992 and then was later re-released on the album Hard to Earn in ‘94, Gang Starr — a duo consisting of MC Guru and DJ Premier — boast about their ability to produce hits. In Guru’s second verse, he compares his style to Hughes's, using the line “when I cruise” as a metaphor for rapping. Though Hughes probably wouldn’t have used a line like the one Guru spits before this one — “I got more props and stunts than Bruce Willis” — the fact that the rapper includes a poet alongside references to actors and athletes (he also name-drops Muhammad Ali) shows the significance of poetry’s influence on hip hop.
1995: “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio References Psalm 23
“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”
Okay, so this re-working of Psalm 23 might not be on par with giving Virginia Woolf a shout-out, but psalms certainly are poetic works, and it’s interesting that Coolio — and so many rappers after him, including Kanye West and J. Cole — chose to cite the Bible by reinterpreting the Old Testament. Coolio’s song, in which a man laments the life he’s chosen, re-interprets the line's original message: Psalm 23 brings up the valley of the shadow of death to demonstrate the power of God; here the rapper uses the image to show just how desperate his protagonist’s situation is. Because its use is so different, the line is less a calling to God and more of a reference to the poetic imagery of this well-known psalm.
1995: “‘Ol Evil Eye” by Insane Clown Posse References Edgar Allan Poe
Whether you love or hate the infamous ICP, you have to admit they have good taste in literature. This track off their album Riddle Box is a retelling of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and though a remix that begins with the intro “Alright, shut the fuck up” might not be totally in line with the poet’s style, ICP’s take on the story is an interesting interpretation of the metaphor. Instead of being plagued by a heartbeat, the protagonist in the rap group’s song is haunted by another man’s “evil eye.” The group plays homage to Poe’s original narrative with their final line: “I placed my hands on the heart and there for many minutes there was no pulsation.” (In Poe’s original: “I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation.”) Insane Clown Posse’s use of a classic short story as their rap song’s inspiration makes a statement about the story-telling capabilities that both literature and hip hop share.
1999: “Still I Rise” by 2Pac References “Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou
2Pac’s emotional 1999 track is a homage to the rapper’s difficult childhood growing up in the projects and his experiences with racism. It takes its title from the poem of the same name by Angelou and her poetry collection, And I Shall Rise, published in 1978. Like 2Pac’s rap, Angelou’s poem discusses the bigotry that she encountered in response to her race and gender. 2Pac and Angelou actually met in 1993 while working on the film Poetic Justice, and though the poet didn’t know who 2Pac was, she had an inspiring conversation with the young rapper. Angelou says that, after hearing 2Pac using derogatory language on set, she said to him, “When was the last time anyone told you how important you are?” and he wept in her arms. The poet obviously had a strong influence on 2Pac; his song title is a calling to the type of change that, 20 years after Angelou wrote her poem of the same name, he and others were still waiting for.
2002: “Rush” by Talib Kweli References Langston Hughes
“I’m Langston Hughes’s ‘Dreams Deferred’ seen and heard in the flesh ‘cause so many people believe the word even when it seems absurd”
Kweli draws comparisons between himself and Hughes even before he invokes the poet’s name, opening his song with the line “They come to me for the lyrical, spiritual, raw shit I spit at you,” implying that there’s a much deeper value behind rap than just a catchy beat. In referencing “A Dream Deferred,” Kweli points to a shared theme in his work and the poet’s: Although the dreams of racial equality may seem unreachable to both men, Kweli hopes that his work, like Hughes’s, will inspire listeners to continue to dream.
2005: “Sofa King” by Danger Doom References William Shakespeare
“They came to ask him for at least some new tracks but only got confronted by the beast with two backs”
Danger Doom’s humorous track shows another way literature is incorporated into hip hop. In this song, the rapper alludes to Othello when he narrates a scene in which producers from Doom’s label come to discuss his new album and catch him having sex. In Shakespeare’s work, the line appears as “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” Doom follows this line in his song with an assertive request to “KNOCK” — pretty solid advice for Shakespearean characters, too.
2010: “Nutmeg” by Das Racist References Ralph Waldo Ellison & Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Where’s Ralph Waldo, Ellison, person of color, y’all can’t see me”
Depending on whether or not you consider Where’s Waldo? to be a literary reference, this one line in Das Racist’s rap packs three calls to literature in four words. By mentioning the character in his verse, Das Racist member Heems makes a point about what it’s like to be a person of color in American society; his invocation of Ellison’s name is a further assertion that, like the character in Ellison’s classic Invisible Man, people of color experience no validation of their identity. The line is also a play on words: By incorporating “Waldo,” Heems also gives a clever shout-out to transcendentalist poet Emerson.
2011: “Pac Blood” by Danny Brown References Rudyard Kipling
“Spitting like Kipling with a tooth missing”
This track off Brown’s album XXX has shout-outs to everyone from Sarah Palin to Shakespeare, but perhaps the most surprising reference in this song is to Rudyard Kipling. “Pac Blood” is all about Brown’s language skills, so it makes sense that he would pay homage to the poet. In addition to his poetry, however, Kipling was also well-known for his involvement in the First World War; much of his work, such as The New Army in Training, promoted the notion of service. He also experienced a deep sense of loss because of the war, as Kipling’s son was famously killed while fighting at his father’s encouragement. Brown’s name-dropping adds another level to his work, then, as he often raps about war-like fighting on the streets of his hometown, Detroit. Lines like “Rhymes that make the Pope want to get his dick sucked” might not be the strongest testament to Brown’s lyrical skills, but using Kipling to function as a symbol on multiple levels of meaning does justice to the rapper’s assertion that he is, indeed, “spitting like Kipling.”
2011: “Freaks and Geeks” by Childish Gambino References E. E. Cummings
“E. E. cummin’ on her face, now that’s poetry in motion”
Would the poet have been offended by the derogatory use of his name in this track? Maybe. Is this rap song an ode to Cummings’s contributions to literature? Maybe not. But I’d still like to think that Cummings might have been secretly pleased with the rapper’s crass pun on his name, if for no reason other than it being unexpected. Besides, it’s not that far a cry from some of Cummings’s more sexually explicit work, like his poem “the boys i mean are not refined,” in which he creates an image nearly as explosive as Gambino’s line with the words “masturbate with dynamite.”
2012: “You Have to Ride the Wave” by Heems featuring Danny Brown & Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire References Arundhati Roy
This track is filled with allusions to literature, but it takes its name — and its intro — from a quote by poet, writer and activist Roy spoken in conversation with Howard Zinn. The song is an ode to all three men's biggest literary influences and muses; eXquire, for example, cites Dostoevsky, Zinn, Daniel Goines, Philip K. Dick and Dr. Suess (yes, seriously). Roy’s quote at the beginning of the song references marginalized racial identities that are a large part of the track’s drive. The artists' choice to begin their ode with a quote from a poet and writer in conversation — much like the one they partake in throughout their song — suggests that they think of their work as within the same realm as literature.
R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” likely wasn’t inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on self-reliance, and I wouldn’t argue that “Laffy Taffy” by D4L is evidence of rap’s metaphorical capabilities. The fact, however, that so many rap songs include shout-outs to poetry suggests that much of rap is incredibly literary. Poets (who, let’s be honest, we all imagine were probably pretty dorky) are given status in these songs as the inspiration and idols of rappers who make their messages accessible to the masses through quick rhymes and catchy beats. It’s not unlike Shakespeare’s use of theatre to make his literary genius a social staple; you can almost imagine a contemporary version of the bard writing his own raps to appeal to a larger audience (and, given the amount of sex in his Elizabethan-age writing, they’d probably be dirtier than anything here).
So what do you think: Are these rappers justified in their interpretation of famous poetic works? Do they deserve to be compared to the likes of Kipling and Cummings? Are there any famous rap song shout-outs to poets that are missing from the list? Let us know all about it in the comments below!
Adina Applebaum is Michigan native studying English and creative writing at Barnard College. Her crowning achievements in life are memorizing all the lyrics on The Slim Shady LP and eating an entire gallon of chocolate-covered raisins during orientation week of college.
(Image credits, from top: Flickr)
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