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hiphop Why the poetry of hip-hop is tragic

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You know the old trope: if Shakespeare were alive today he would be living in a beach-front house in Santa Monica, an obscure genius writing blockbusters for the major studios; right now he'd no doubt be twiddling his thumbs in the aftermath of the screenwriters' strike, and regretting perhaps that last email to the good-looking son of the studio head.When I got to university and began to read beyond Shakespeare, I was instantly drawn to the bleak and brutal verse drama of Thomas Kyd and John Webster. The more I read, the more I found something eerily familiar about the register of feeling and thought his work contained.Then one evening, missing the big city and digging around in a box of old CDs, it occurred to me that the tragedians might find their modern equivalents in the dark energy and verbal dexterity of the rappers whose work my generation had been drawn to as teenagers: the Wu Tang Clan embraced and vilified by the media in equal measure.Before we go on, a warning – matching rappers with writers in this way can become fiendishly addictive. I could not count the hours I've frittered away in the subsequent years sitting in libraries staring into the middle distance, pontificating over whether a young John Donne was closer to Lil' Wayne or Lil' Jon. (For the record, the latter I think is more like Rochester, the former, like Donne, more prone to the conceit, but the defence of both I'll leave to Chris Rock.)But there's a serious point here too: as someone whose currency is language I'm interested in where it finds its most intense expression and is made to work hardest. For me, the Wu Tang's apotheosis is the album Liquid Swords, the masterpiece of Clan member GZA, a record I first heard as a schoolboy in a friend's attic room.It was harrowing and compelling; we were mesmerised by the dystopian cityscapes, the nests of paranoia and the closeness of extreme violence its wordplay conjured. But for a long time I found it hard to square with my nascent attraction to poetry on the page.The album's stand out track, Investigative Reports, employs dramatic staples: the scene is set as we overhear a TV report describing how "a battle was fought today …", before a pained litany is delivered as if by a Greek chorus: "Rugged rhymsters, crooked crimesters, dime droppers, Twenty-five-to-lifers, backstabbers, low blowers, illegal cocaine growers" – it's a world Kyd might have recognised as "Oh world, no world, but mass of public wrongs, confused and filled with murder and misdeeds".These patterns stemming from verbal expression exist across high art and low culture; antidiplosis, antithesis, stichomythia, anaphora, epistrophe, anthypophora and a whole bunch of other hard-to-remember terms can be found in the bombast and rhetoric of the album. I return to it as I would go and see Medea. or the Bacchae, for just as they argue against the notion of "progress" in human experience and cultural production so rap at its best challenges the divisions we lay down and baffles the cultural compass that prescribes what we should revere and what we should condemn.The medieval Scots poet William Dunbar's Lament for the Makars, with it's chilling refrain 'timor mortis conturbat me' (fear of death confounds me), lists the fallen poets and their reputations, and it's this same vein of mythologising that I hear in Jay Z's lyrics when he lists himself in greatness alongside the hip-hop "martyrs".And when it comes down to it, how dissimilar is Kool Herc cutting together two records at a block party in the Bronx to Braque and Picasso cutting up and reassembling images, or Ezra Pound seeing the text as palimpsest to be reworked?Travel broadens the mind, but today "cultural tourism" is a pejorative term. It shouldn't be, because at heart that's what consumption of any art form is; a way of getting closer to the experience – imaginative and actual - of others, whether their voice echoes from the courtyards of renaissance Europe, the choruses of ancient Greece or a dilapidated housing project in the Bronx.http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/...bster-thomaskyd

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