Monday, October 01, 2012

Kristoff Krane & Guante: "Pushing Boundaries" (prod. by Big Jess): Free DL and a Close Reading

Big Jess of the Unknown Prophets is creating an ambitious series of projects called “Honorable Mention,” wherein dozens of different MCs are rapping over his beats across multiple installments. Me and Kristoff Krane (who will also appear on two songs on the new Guante & Big Cats album) got together to record this track, “Pushing Boundaries.”

Our song is track 14; Kristoff is the first verse and I'm the second.

For fun, I’m going to share a “close reading”/analysis of my verse. I think sometimes we skim over MCs’ work, just appreciating the rhythm or the tone of voice or whatever and only vaguely paying attention to the content underneath. As someone who puts a ton of energy into the craft of rapping and constructing substantive lyrics, I wanted to share some of the process here.

Partly, this is to show how talented I am (I mean, let’s be honest, haha), but it’s also to show that a lot of rap bars you hear probably have more in them than you catch—it’s not just me. Rapping can be an incredibly complex form of poetry, but it can also be very rewarding because of that. There are a ton of really wildly smart MCs out there and I’d love it if we all starting to pay closer attention to what they’re saying. So here are some footnotes for my verse:

1. The primary structural conceit here is that my verse is written as a mirror to Kristoff’s verse. If you played them simultaneously, there’d be about ten spots where things would link up and we’d be saying the exact same words. He wrote his first, and I tried to play off what he wrote, stretching thematic points, taking ideas in different directions, etc. Think Aesop Rock’s “Daylight/Nightlight” songs, or any mixtape rapper’s re-imagining of a popular rap song. It’s structured as parody, almost, but the substance goes way beyond that.

2. The first four bars are about the word “movement,” both in a literal sense and a larger metaphorical sense. The “keep it real estate” line is about perspective and understanding where you are in a larger context, but with the added element of movement (if you don’t know, “location location location” is a traditional saying in the real estate business) in order to emphasize and illuminate the relatively straightforward couplet of bars three and four.

3. “The difference between runnin’ away and just runnin’” is a reference (or “sample,” more accurately) to my poem REACH, which shares a lot of thematic and tonal elements with this song.

4. The floorboards line is a reference to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” The implication here is guilt, which is the primary idea being explored in that story. In the context of this song, that guilt is the byproduct of a life lived “just enough,” without the reaching for something larger or pushing boundaries that is required to truly make the most of a life.

5. “Reachin’ for some meaning, but homie there’s meaning in the reach” is a line about the process/product divide that is a pretty big deal in art philosophy—is the value of art the finished product, or the journey to get to that finished product? In one quick bar, I’m trying to create room for both. Naturally, it’s not a super in-depth deconstruction of this debate, but I thought it was important to have in here because of the overarching thesis statement of the song. It’s also a good example of internal multi-syllable rhyme and assonance—this is stuff a lot of MCs do but often goes unacknowledged; when it’s done really well, you probably don’t even notice it.

6. The angels and demons line is more of a visual metaphor—in cartoons and stuff, you often have a character with an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other. In this song, I’m saying those two characters aren’t there and instead I have a city on my shoulders, which is a common hip hop phrase referring to the support you have from a community (and the responsibility that comes with that support). It’s about rejecting outside influences and focusing on the self and the self’s relationship to his or her community.

7. I’m not sure if “my feet only walk forward” is a reference to something else or a famous quote, but I’m just shouting out Brandon Lacy Campos’ blog, haha.

8. The heroes/saints/prophets section is trying to do a couple things: showing that true heroism usually goes unacknowledged, that true heroes are often flawed and imperfect people, and that there’s more value in actively trying to make our present circumstances better than just waiting for something to save us (whether that’s heaven or a better world that just happens to come into being). Obviously, there’s a also a shout to Big Jess there, since his group is called the Unknown Prophets.

9. The numbers (16, 24, 32) are how long most rap verses are. I don’t know how much this is common knowledge, but the standard rap verse is 16 bars (measures) long, composed of eight couplets. While most stay at 16, some verses stretch to 20, 24 or 32. Multiples of four tend to sound the coolest; there’s just a natural arch that can happen in there and it fits into the rhythm/structure of how most beats are produced better than, say, a 14 or 18 bar verse. Both mine and Kristoff’s verses here are 32s.

10. Quick note—the internal rhyme in “it’s a 32, it’s a college ruled holy book” plus the “hands wavin’, translatin’” part.

11. “Spiral bound like we are.” So notebooks are spiral bound, and I’m comparing that to humans being spiral bound, to the idea that we are bound to a history that goes in circles, but those circles are imperfect and have a forward direction too—like a spiral. This is a subtle callback to the idea of movement in the first few bars.

12. “Translating past into future through Sharpies and CDRs” is about the idea of art—especially music and verbal arts—as part of a tradition. When amateur rappers make mixtapes, they often use CDRs and write their names on them with Sharpies. I’m just trying to connect this practice to the practice of griots and storytellers throughout history passing down information and values and mythology through the spoken-word. Whether we know it or not, we’re taking part in this tradition.

13. Here’s where we get to the real meat of my verse. I’m playing with associations when I take the four elements of hip hop (“the DJ, the rapper, the writer and the dancer”) and place them next to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. That’s just kind of a cool little juxtaposition there. But add to that the line about Vandals sacking Rome, and it takes on added significance. The Vandals were one of the “barbarian” tribes that moved into Roman territory as the Empire was crumbling; the word “vandal” is also used for graffiti writers. These four bars are showing that “outsider art” like hip hop has the power to help destroy empires, (think Woody Guthrie writing “this machine kills fascists” on his guitar), and that “apocalypse” can also refer to transition, to the end of something unhealthy and the birth of something better. There’s a lot going on in those four bars.

14. “Winter is Coming” is a reference, of course, but it’s also meant to be taken literally. This is Minnesota, after all. It’s a callback to and concrete example of the “spiral-bound” line, in a lot of ways.

15. Overall, I tried to make my verse compliment Kristoff’s while also addressing the primary theme of the song, the idea that pushing boundaries is hard (it’s like pulling teeth) but necessary work, that it can have huge implications and ripple effects not only for the art itself, but for the community in which that art exists. As you can hopefully see, this verse is built on a bunch of different little images and ideas, but all of those images and ideas impressionistically illustrate that larger point.

I hope this close reading helps illuminate not only my own talent and meticulousness (the new Guante & Big Cats album is absolutely filled with this kind of stuff), but the talent of all rappers. Rapping is a beautiful art form, an often complex and intricate form of poetry as deserving of attention and appreciation as any other. These kinds of close readings aren’t the point, obviously—rapping is a sonic art form and should be appreciated in the moment; but this is about illustrating the possibility, the potential and the depth of the form.

1 comment:

IBé said...

Nice!! I wish more rappers did this. But I guess this is what you get when poets becomes rappers. Not saying rap is not in of itself poetry. You know what I mean :)