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; in other songs, rappers drop the names of famous poets who’ve inspired their 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 albumHard 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 himself to Hughes when citing his style, the line “when I cruise” serving 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, shows not only a restructuring of the line (Coolio’s song opens with the image, while in Psalm 23 in appears midway) but a re-interpretation as well: 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, though: “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.
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