Let It Flow

Def Poetry is coming back! The sixth season of this underrated cable TV show begins midnight Friday, featuring a guest appearance by DMX.

As my longtime readers now, I think Def Poetry is well worth watching, not to mention worth reviewing. It’s the only television series featuring original poetry on any major TV outlet, period. The show isn’t perfect, and can sometimes drag down into predictable spoken-word ruts. But there are always at least a couple of memorable performances during each half hour show, and you never know who’ll show up to read a poem. Past performers have included Sharon Olds, Alicia Keys, Shappy from the Bowery Poetry Club and the TV debut, long before “Golddigger”, of Kanye West.

I got a chance to meet Def Poetry mastermind Danny Simmons at a Brooklyn book festival this summer, and he was nice enough to invite me to a taping for one of this season’s shows. I think I’ll get in touch and see if I can interview him on LitKicks sometime soon.

I need some new literary hiphop thrills, because neither the new Jay-Z or the new Nas is pleasing me very much. But at least there’s the White Rapper Show, in my opinion the best and funniest new reality show we’ve had in years. Literary? Hell, yeah — the key challenge in the show involves composing spontaneous verse and reciting it from memory, usually based on a topic chosen by the show’s host, MC Serch of 3rd Bass. If you’ve ever tried this, you know it’s harder than it looks.

The inability to flow tripped up the show’s best contestant, Persia of Far Rockaway, Queens, in this week’s episode. She looked like a favorite to win the whole thing, and Serch clearly liked her best (I did too). But when it came time to stand and rhyme without paper, she couldn’t do it. This is extra ironic because Persia’s nemesis is Jon Brown, the dopey-looking “king of the burbs”, who can’t write anywhere near as well as Persia. But when it’s time to flow he turns into Busta Rhymes, and that’s why he’s still on the show and Persia is gone.

Why is it so important to be able to rap or recite from memory? Well, that’s the wrong question, because when you’re flowing you’re not going from memory at all. The purest freestyle comes when you feel comfortable enough to actually compose new verses in real time. If you can’t hit that zone, reciting from memory is second best. But to “flow” is to be in a state of grace, as every rapper knows, as Jack Kerouac and James Joyce knew too.

Maybe this is why the Beastie Boys — those other white rappers extraordinaire — used to open every concert with this chant:

Let it flow
Let yourself go
Slow and low
That is the tempo

4 Responses

  1. European SlamsThe European
    European Slams

    The European poetry slam shares many of the traits American slams exhibit. Especially the high-intensity energy. I have sat beside Johnny Depp at several French slams but let us not go there. He’s infamous for showing up. I told him he ought to try performing. “I get stagefright,” he said.

    Me, too.

    Although I’m experimenting with poetry on video. I think I’m awful.

    Do not watch me on YouTube.

    I understand the “state” Levi is talking about — that flow — but when I play it back (especially the garbage I do not post) I think: who is that faggot with the femmy voice.

    Oh, it’s you, you idiot.

    I also cringe when I do any poem that deals with sex or sexuality or even sensuality and note that writing it down feels much safer. In “slam format” you are o-u-t there, baby. N-a-k-e-d; it’s all hanging, and I note the poem is either limp or it’s not.

    My safety net is that when I fuck up (ten zillion times) I get to retape until I want to throw the camera at the wall. I am doing a long series of pieces called MY DERELICT HOTEL and I do a little filming around my derelict hotel and the derelicts would like to slit my throat with a broken bottle.

    At the slams I try to hide but it’s hard next to Depp. I call him Le Flashbulb. I don’t know why there seems to be more poetic diversity than in the States. It has to do with voice.

    The Irish knock me out. There is a black undercurrent to the poetry and I swear you feel like you are walking down a Belfast alley at night with your head down. It is sort of amusing that the Irish are so alienated from their own urban decay. Their poems are as black as the decay. Are the Irish constantly clinically depressed or is it just grey in Ireland all the time. The Brits will hate me for saying this (but it’s true). The Brits are kinda nerdy even when they wear hip hop attire. The hip hop does not fit (they never win) and they look like they would be more comfortable in a thick-wool three-piece suit with knickers and wool socks and a pint.

    There should be a law against British poets wearing hip hop.

    The judges DO judge what you wear (I hate that).

    Which is why there are ten men for every woman performing at a slam. Women are set to higher standards than men in appearance. Which is crazy but there it is.

    The French don’t exactly have “theory” in what they perform but it’s lurking in the shadows. Proust would not have approved but he would have been rivited.

    The performers frequently wade into the audience and facilitate audience participation. You’re thinking: Oh, god, I hope he doesn’t come over here, and then he does, and sits on your lap.

    In France, these things are very hip and they happen in nightclubs.

    Sometimes people sing but no music is a big rule.

    They dance. The Finish should never dance. I think there is already a law against it.

    Muslim poets get more silence. People want to be nice but I don’t think they know what to do with the Muslim poets. The applause is like the applause when Martin Amis reads at an English lady’s tea. There’s a certain menace there. You don’t want Martin to go off.

    I recently heard a muslim poet speak to why it is Muslim women have to beg for money from tourists in Paris. Tourists run. And then he waded into the subject of muslim female prositution. There were people who got up — threw their chairs against the wall — and left the room. I don’t know if you see that in the States. Maybe you do. I have just never seen poetry in the States actually rile up a lot of turbulence but what do I know. The poet did not end there. Poets are like that. Get OFF the stage. But no. He had to address muslim boy prostitution. His conconclusion was that the West was ruthless and decadent.

    Well, shame on us.

    There’s more baiting by poets. There’s more of the poet attempting to interact with the audience and sometimes I think I might be the only person in the room (a Yank) who wants to sink into the floor when they do that. My cultural skin wants it to be a One Way Performance and leave me alone.

    The French continue to write poems about Love. Love, love, love. Gag me. The Swiss like You Better Pick Up Your Litter or You’ll Be Arrested.

    I have seen German poets eat pages from the Bible. Whatever. Gulp. I have seen poets rip dolls apart. These are always men. You figure.

    I will make an ideological jump here. And I will admit I am guessing on some of this. There is one HUGE difference between European slams and American slams and this goes to what else money.

    In France, a slam will almost ALWAYS get government support. The French government will wine and dine the poets and then it will give them money. Cash.

    Have some money and go home and write more poetry. The poets, of course, go home, get drunk, and write.

    And I mean the government will wine and dine you in places poets never eat or drink in a thousand years. Very expensive. Most poets don’t make in a year what the government spends on you at one dinner. And they get invited to perform in front of French political society. When was the last poetry slam at the White House.

    I don’t think we WANT a poetry slam at the White House. The point is that there is an attempt to support the slam as culture. Maybe Yank Poets SHOULD have dinner with Laura Bush.

    Maybe not.

  2. that’s my guilty pleasureman,
    that’s my guilty pleasure

    man, i’m glad that i’m not the only person watching that show. after top chef ended i didn’t know where i was going to go, but the white rapper show is fairly absurd. but jon brown isn’t nearly as bad as Jus Rhyme, who not only has no rhyming skills, but his structure is incohesive and all over the place. i really wanted Serch to get rid of him rather than Persia. i hope/think $hamrock will win. he actually has some great rhymes.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!