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Poetry in the age of hip-hop

Music courses through the new anthology Breakbeat Poets



Hip-hop was built on four basic elements: MCing, DJing, graffitiing, and breaking. Then came the fifth element, knowledge. Influential rapper KRS-One introduced four more in 2003's "9 Elements," but knowledge holds a place of supremacy among the elements, at least to me: it's the circumference within which the other elements are able to coexist, the lens hip-hop devotees use to see the world. Hip-hop is a lifestyle, and those who adhere to it don't stop living once the DJ packs up for the night or their spray-paint cans run dry. These are the devotees who contribute to The Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop.

In his introduction, coeditor Kevin Coval invokes KRS-One as one of the older statesmen who inspired him and also this book, which he calls "the first anthology of poems by and for the hip-hop generation." Coval is well versed in the crisscrossing worlds of poetry and hip-hop; he founded the youth poetry slam festival Louder Than a Bomb and is the artistic director at Young Chicago Authors. He's also mentored hundreds of aspiring poets and writers, some of whom are molding the future of rap: Mick Jenkins, Noname Gypsy, Saba, Chance the Rapper. Some of the youngsters who came up in Louder Than a Bomb and YCA are among the 78 writers who appear in The Breakbeat Poets.

Coval and his coeditors Quraysh Ali Lansana and Nate Marshall organized the poets chronologically by their birth year, beginning with University of New Haven professor Randall Horton, who was born in 1961, and ending with Onam Lansana, who was born in 1999. It's hip-hop that unites these poets, and the music courses through The Breakbeat Poets even though it isn't always explicitly mentioned. But it's also in the long breaks between words and stanzas, a tangible space that gives the reader a very clear sense of how the poems are supposed to be performed. Hip-hop is in the words of protest throwing a light on poverty, police brutality, drone warfare, and climate change. Hip-hop is in the perspective of those who intimately understand what it's like to exist on the margins of culture.

Hip-hop is also in the poems about music that's coexisted with hip-hop. In "An Excerpt from Crank Shaped Notes," Thomas Sayers Ellis chops up the history, social politics, and musical blueprint of Go-Go, a D.C. funk subgenre. Go-Go's been a vital part of D.C. culture for decades—its iron grip on residents partially explains why the capital has been slow to build its rap scene—and it hasn't had much luck expanding beyond the Beltway. Ellis makes the frisson and ecstasy of a misunderstood genre come alive; in his hands Go-Go makes sense.

But hip-hop artists are most regularly referenced. Coval draws inspiration from Molemen beat tapes, Kristiana Colón nabs a couple lines from Drake's "Headlines" in a clever wink to sampling, and Franny Choi rearranges the lyrics of Lil Wayne's "Pussy Monster" in order of frequency. Michael Cirelli describes the moment Melle Mel began writing "The Message": like the weight of the world was resting on the MC's shoulders. The best parts of The Breakbeat Poets exert the same force.  v

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