Why this new (w)rapping? (Part 1 – cultural estrangement)

Since you probably know me as a singer-songwriter / translator and this Global Village Bard blog as a song and poetry translation site, I thought I’d try to explain the new direction taken by my alter ego Thomas Riffmatch and his merry crew.

Like many, I’ve been exposed to rap (hip hop) music for a few decades now. I suppose my first realisation that this was a major form came with the brilliantly shocking 1988 N.W.A. album ‘Straight outta Compton’. After that, it lay dormant in my consciousness for a while. A while ago, I had an idea to investigate the link between rap and calypso, another genre that was born out of the idea of lyrical “battles”, but it never came to anything.

While always intrigued by the form, I tended to be put off by the themes of hip hop: talk of bitches and niggas, gang violence and glorified drug-dealing, while interesting as a form of escapism, somehow didn’t seem to include my own experienced reality. Call me a privileged white man…

A few years ago, my son Max introduced me to the music of Watsky, a young white rapper from San Francisco. We so loved the whimsical self-deprecating humour of his second studio album ‘Cardboard Castles’ that we went to his concert at Glasgow’s King Tuts. But after a while, I have to say, Watsky’s whimsicality started to seem a tad smug and none of his subsequent albums ever quite reached the understated genius of ‘Cardboard Castles’.

Much more so than Eminem, Watsky helped me to realise that the rap genre doesn’t need to exclude (middle-class) white people like me. Maybe this is because, while Eminem seems to have a chip on his shoulder about being white, falling over himself to show that he is down with his black homeys in terms of social deprivation, Watsky never tries to portray himself other than a goofy overprivileged Californian white boy.

Although I did eventually get tired of Watsky’s schtick, I had caught the hip hop bug. Somehow songs didn’t sound so authentic any more. Why sing when you can rap? I started listening to a very wide range of rap music from the 1990s to the present day, mainly in the form of playlists and compilation albums. Whenever something caught my ear, I stopped and made a note of the artist. Although I no longer felt excluded by the genre, I was looking for something that was not ALL about niggas and bitches, but that also sought to express bigger ideas about what it means to be a human being.

In short, I was trying to find out what had happened to poetry.

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