Last week, thousands of authors met up in Minneapolis for the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference (also known simply as “AWP”); while many panels and readings delighted the crowds, one of the highlights of the conference featured local artists Dessa and P.O.S, as well as agile poet Adrian Matejka and hip-hop expert/Rhymesayers executive Kevin Beacham. Titled “Literature and Hip Hop: An Investigation,” the panel promised a closer look at the differences and similarities between written and spoken words. Moderated by Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer, “Literature and Hip Hop” provided a space for critical conversation as well as beautiful artistry.
On Friday at 1:30 p.m., several fans gathered in the Minneapolis Convention Center’s airy auditorium to watch the panelists speak from their leather chairs on stage. Despite its title, the “investigation” played more like a rap fan’s variety show, featuring poetry readings, vocabulary discussions, and a special segment that asked, “Rap lyric or poetry line?” P.O.S dominated that competition, naming the MCs behind several of the hip-hop lyrics.
The conversation soon turned to a popular resource, the website Genius (formerly known as “Rap Genius”—and even earlier, Lorberer noted, “Rap Exegesis”). The audience giggled in their green, upholstered seats as P.O.S read a few choice interpretations of his lyrics on Genius, encouraging some but mostly sticking with, “That’s totally wrong.” (“And it’s hot too” actually is a Pootie Tang reference in “Wanted/Wasted,” but “No meals worth mentioning” from “Get Down” is less a “reference to strange ingredients in the food we eat,” as one Genius contributor asserted, than a critique of celebrity-dependent culture. It’s all in the context of the verse.)
P.O.S laughed about the misinterpretations, and he said it would be easy for him to write back to Genius contributors, effectively setting them straight. But “part of being an adult musicmaker,” he said, is accepting that “it’s not really yours after you put it out.”
Lorberer noted that covers don’t pop up too often in hip-hop, though samples certainly do. He asked Matejka to read “Mulatto Ego Remix,” a sort of cover of another poem. And later, Dessa performed “The Maidservant at the Inn” by Dorothy Parker, whom she name-checks in “Crew” on A Badly Broken Code. Dessa is proud of her literary heritage, having cited Sylvia Plath, Alexander Pope, and Arthur Miller’s work in past verses; during the panel, she joked about her formative teenage experience of sitting in the basement, reading Othello while high on marijuana.
The point was that artists tend to draw from their inspirations, be they literary, musical, or personal. When Dessa needed help remembering a Fab Four line, P.O.S said, “I don’t listen to the Beatles.” But he clearly does devote time to hearing punk and hip-hop. And regarding lyrical inspiration, Dessa revealed that an ex-boyfriend was the one to come up with the label “part-time criminal,” now part of a line in “Warsaw.” In this way, poets and rappers are alike, paying homages and otherwise responding to those who influence them.
Lyricism in hip-hop is real, said Beacham while talking about his research and passion for rap. He’s the soon-to-be author of Microphone Mathematics, a book that will borrow from Beacham’s time as a radio host (check out H2 on The Current), local music fixture, and DJ in order to dive into past and present rap rhymes. Beacham spent a few minutes talking about the encoding of hip-hop and poetry and how they rely on a common understanding between the consumer and the producer.
P.O.S read an F. Scott Fitzgerald piece that he’d slightly rewritten, effectively turning a poem into a rap piece, which the audience loved. After he highlighted a few of the changes he made, saying, “you can rearrange almost any of this stuff,” Dessa laughed. “I like that that poem wasn’t rap until you added the word ‘gallantry.’”
The audience became more and more comfortable with the panel as time went by, and P.O.S especially seemed to sway the crowd. More dressed-up than usual, he wore a black-on-black T-shirt/button-up combo and jeans. Meanwhile, Dessa’s signature silver necklace seemed to focus all the energy from her chest as she performed “Dear Sir or Madam” from her chapbook A Pound of Steam.
“We have two members of Doomtree here,” said Lorberer near the end, “and we’d love to hear from them before we go.” From their chairs, Dessa and P.O.S launched into an a capella version of “The Bends”—the performance became a conference highlight for many in attendance. On the chorus, P.O.S stayed low and Dessa flew an octave higher on the same notes; the contrast between the different registers soared. Also, the pair’s verses on “The Bends” provide some of the best imagery in the Doomtree oeuvre, which the crowd of writers surely appreciated.
After an “exploration of the fibers and tendrils that connect literature and hip-hop,” as Lorberer described the panel, the audience hiked the aisles to the two auditorium exits. With music and poetry on sale at the bookfair’s Rain Taxi booth, many conference attendees (most from out of town) picked up merch and proceeded to the signing table. By the end of the event, some literature/hip-hop questions were answered, and others were just coming to light.
Cecilia Johnson is studying English and Spanish at Hamline University. Her favorite things include travel memoirs, Lyndale Avenue, and Ella Fitzgerald.