Move the Crowd
For the effect of elevated language is, not to persuade the hearers, but to entrance them; and at all times, and in every way, what transports us with wonder is more telling than what merely persuades or gratifies us. The extent to which we can be persuaded is usually under our own control, but these sublime passages exert an irresistible force and mastery and get the upper hand with every hearer. Inventive skill and the proper order and disposition of material are not manifested in a good touch here and there, but reveal themselves by slow degrees as they run through the whole texture of the composition; on the other hand, a well timed stroke of sublimity scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and in a flash reveals the full power of the speaker (361).
When Rakim, the rapper of the Hip Hop Group Eric B. and Rakim, first pondered, “How can I move the crowd?” he was asking a question that Longinus in the epigraph above sought to answer. Quintilianus, Cicero and countless other rhetoricians throughout history have weighed in on the topic as well. While many orators differ on how “moving the crowd” is done, I think they all would agree that it is one of the chief goals of the rhetorician. Without this accomplishment the efforts of orators are futile. However, when “moving the crowd” is achieved, it is not done through emotion alone (think of the ineffectiveness of blithering idiots and raving madmen); it is done through the determined execution of the intellect. The aforementioned point is just one of the many similarities between the orators of old and the urban orators/poets of the present also know as rappers. With that in mind, I present the assertion that Hip Hop, specifically the “Golden Age” (1984-1989), is an art form that has carried on the intellectual tradition of rhetoric but has kept it intelligible to the masses or to those that would otherwise be termed “fans.” I will discuss how in using rhetoric Hip Hop manages to “move the crowd” and conclude with the challenges that face Hip Hop with respect to rhetorical tradition.
The proof of my claim that Hip Hop is part of rhetorical tradition lies in the five canons of rhetoric: Inventio (Invention), Dispositio (Arrangement), Elocutio (Style), Memoria (Memory), and Pronuntiatio (Delivery) for they are all used in varying degrees by rhetoricians and rappers, but for the purposes of my argument I will focus exclusively on style.
Once an idea is formulated and arrangement is decided upon, a style must be chosen that will help facilitate the “movement of the crowd.” In the Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition we read that, “Style is the canon that is concerned with the arrangement and depiction of words in discourse” (698). There are three levels of style: plain, middle, and grand and it was Cicero’s position that each level of style corresponded to the three duties of the orator: to teach (plain), to delight (middle), and to move (grand) (699).
Within each style there are varying degrees of the use of tropes (figures of speech). Certainly when teaching the instructor uses fewer tropes as not to bewilder the student. The information communicated can be abstract but is largely factual, so there is less of a need to use figures of speech. Students may get caught up in the style and lose the substance. Still, it is possible to abandon style for substance which is ineffective as well. Consider the following examples. In the song “Why is That?” KRS-ONE presents the argument that Jesus was black because his ancestors were enslaved in Egypt and that Moses, one of Jesus’ ancestors, passed for a prince of Egypt. This argument is based upon the assumption that Egyptians (actually Kimetans, Egypt was the Greek name for the people of Kimet) were a black people. KRS goes through a long proof citing biblical sources to support his claims. In the entire song he uses one trope in the form of a clichéd simile:
Mental pictures, stereotypes and fake history reinforces mystery,
And when mystery is reinforced that only means that knowledge has been lost.
When you know who you really are peace and knowledge shine like a star.
I’ve only shown you a simple fact. It takes a nation of millions to hold us people back.
Were it not for the fact that he rhymes the lyrics and that there is music to go along with the words you would really question whether or not he chose the right medium for the information he was trying to disseminate. Lyrically speaking, it’s one of his poorer efforts, but he wasn’t trying to entertain or move; his goal was to teach, and he did just that. Now, whether the listener bought the proofs is up to debate and depends upon whom you ask. If the material was rendered in another style we would doubt its validity on the basis that “scholarly” work generally gets straight to point and shuns the use of flowery language relying instead upon sound logic and reasoning to build its argument.
In his fourth album Edutainment KRS-ONE coins a new term: “edutainment.” Interestingly enough Edutainment was the least entertaining of all his albums. Why? His lyrical dexterity and use of tropes had made him well known among Hip Hop circles, but he abandoned his usual style to pull off the album. The album had its moments, but it’s safe to say that education should be a subtle aspect of entertainment. That is, if we’re not enjoying ourselves, no one is going to stick around to benefit from the lesson.
The grand style, being used to persuade or move, is liberal in its use of tropes and other style mechanisms such as repetition. Bringing about an emotional reaction in the listener is paramount, so oration in the grand style might be highly charged as in a pastor’s sermon or president’s call to war.
Several of Hip Hop’s patriarchs have used the grand style effectively. Chuck D. of the Hip Hop group Public Enemy in “Prophets of Rage” yells, “With vice I hold the Mic device/ with force I keep it away of course/ and I’m keepin’ you from sleepin’/ and on the stage I rage ‘cause I’m rollin’/ into the poor I pour in all my metaphor.” The rap is delivered at a frenetic angry pace that embodies the spirit of the title. Chuck D. maintains a stranglehold on the microphone as if to lose his “voice” or rather the extension of his “voice” would be to lose his life. He moves the crowd by “pouring” his metaphors into the poor. It doesn’t take much imagination to conjure the image of words emptying into a funnel that is stuck inside the listener’s ear.
In another song, “Caught, Can I Get a Witness,” Chuck D. authors a scathing criticism of singers who’ve accused rappers of stealing music, “You singers are spineless/ as you sing your senseless songs to the mindless/ your general subject love is minimal/ it’s sex bought profit/ scream that I sample/ example Tom you ran to the federal/ court in the U.S. it don’t mean you/ yeah, ‘cause they fronted on you.” Hip Hop, under fire from a slue of critics, had a champion in Chuck D. He effectively points out that singers use sex to sell their music, incorporating inane lyrics that don’t challenge the listener. His use of alliteration incorporating the “s” sound mocks vocalists. Flava Flav of the hit TV show “Flava of Love” chimes in on the last line providing a humorous change of tone, before giving way again to the always angry Chuck D. Public Enemy doesn’t apologize for their livid outbursts either, citing that, “We have a right to be hostile, our people have been persecuted.”
Not to be outdone, Akinyele (pronounced ah-kin-nelly) takes rage to horrific heights in his nihilistic, irreverent, and violent rant entitled “Akinyele.” He spits, “I do it for PC/ the shit like feces/ my trigger finger lights niggas up like E.T.” He barely comes up for air as his rap spans the entire length of the recording. His intent: to render a rhyme so repugnant as to shock and offend even the most degenerate fans. In this aim he is successful for the listener lends an ear or two for the sake of guilty pleasure. While we wince we’re wishing we can be as irreverent and get away with it.
Rappers used the grand style for other purposes besides expressing anger and violence. In Ice Cube’s notable ode to his Dead Homiez he laments, “Up early in the mornin’ dressed in black/ don’t ask why, but I’m down in a suit and tie/ they killed a homie that I went to school with/ I tell you life ain’t shit to fool with/ I still hear the screams from his mother/ while my nigga lay dead in the gutter.” This morose illustration of one experience of inner-city African American life is delivered in a style to match the subject matter. The mood is remarkably consistently somber as we are inundated with image upon image of despair.
The middle style is often described as being a combination of the plain and grand styles. The effect of going back and forth between the two or even blending them takes the listener or reader on a Taoist-like excursion through the cycles of Yin and Yang. Two of raps greatest stars, Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., were well known for there conflicting messages. The struggle between “light” and “dark” was most pronounced in Tupac as he would encourage “Sistas” in one song to “Keep Your Head Up” and in another song remind refer to some women as, “Fake Ass Bitches.” It would be correct to assume that rappers use the middle style most often, because the goal of music, of course, is to entertain.
In the duet “Live Now,” featuring Nas and Scarlett in a demonstration of the middle style, Scarlett pleads for her listeners to make every moment count because we’re not promised tomorrow. She details her fun and carefree early days after dropping a bombshell. Her account is gut-wrenching:
Now I see that you’re a man after all you been through
A stand up dude held me down after Sekou
Need more brothers like you in the hood
Would’ve wifed you if I could
But the white cells in my blood were no good
…Its ill Se passed the way he did
Didn’t know how to tell him
Just happy it didn’t get in our kid
But all the things I did was the flyest
Experiences was priceless
Remember days of diamond cuts
Nugget rings, clubs in queens
Jetta cars…use to love them things
Barbados, Belize. I stayed overseas.
Near the end of her rap she begins to cough. It’s an effective way to use nonverbal stylistic elements to enhance the communication of emotion. Her voice takes on a somber tone. We hear regret and sorrow in her words as the beep of the Electrocardiogram slows to a halt.
Common uses the middle style very effectively in his song “Testify” as he tells the story of a woman who sets her husband up to be sentenced for murder. He maps the scene well with apt description weaving a mystery plot. In the last verse he raps, “The court awaited as the foreman got the verdict from the bailiff/ emotional outburst tears and smeared make-up/ he stated he was guilty on all charges/ she shakin’ like she took it the hardest/ a spin artist, she brought her face up laughin’/ that’s when the prosecutor realized what happened/ all that speakin’ her mind testifying and crying/ when this bitch did the crime/ the queenpin.” Common’s delivery is initially subdued. Then he builds to a crescendo by quickly pronouncing words in succession. By the time he says “queenpin” at the end we are swept up by the momentum of the song and even find the narrators shock at the outcome believable.
Kool G. Rap takes a stab at story telling in “Road to the Riches” and does a splendid job of executing the middle style in this old tale made new of a man who in order to get ahead has to resort to crime to do so. It begins with a young man working hard (honestly) but getting nowhere. He’s the butt of jokes and he’s shunned by women. He takes to crime to make ends meet, but the money comes faster than expected and he’s swept up. In the end, however, he realizes that the road to riches has led him down a path that will lead him to ruin, and he gets out just in time. He writes:
A thug who mugs for drugs
He eventually bugs lookin’ for crack on carpets and rugs
A stealer tells but a dealer still sells
To little spoiled kids inheritin’ oil wells
I was the type on the opposite side of smokin’ a pipe
In the beats I got hyped
Cause rags to riches switches men to witches
Then come stitches body bags in ditches
Bloodshed… I painted the town red
People fled as I put a dreads head to bed
That means dead in other words deceased
Places got erased bullets got released
Bombs were planted kids were kidnapped
In fact this was a way to get back at
Enemies who tried to clock G’s on my block
Now they forever knock Z’s.
This rap is delivered in a relaxed tone that swings like a pendulum between high and low points. In the preceding passage we get an example of a crest that spans the entire verse until the last four lines when the narrator becomes reflective. “Not my lifestyle so I made a U-Turn/ more money to earn the more money to burn/ pushin’ on buttons pullin’ on switches/ my name is G-Rap; I’m on the road to the riches.” At this point of the song the narrator has transformed from the “high roller not giving a damn” type to a confessional stance. With some bravado he details the extent of his depravity. He is not so much sorry for what he’s done (it’s more or less viewed as a part of his job description), but he has realized that the path he’s chosen will lead him to destruction. His delivery mimics this discovery.
With respect to pronunciation the delivery is varied as well. Kool G Rap uses a staccato approach at times for emphasis: “in-fact–this-was-a-way-to-get-back-at.” He often uses internal rhyme, rhyming twice and sometimes three times inside a line: “A thug who mugs for drugs…” or “Plans for rampages went for ages. Some got knocked and locked inside cages.” Kool G Rap uses pauses to accentuate a phrase. “He likes to eat hearty, party, be like John Goti…and drive a Maserati.” In the following excerpt accelerated speech and internal rhyme seize the ear of the listener. “Rags to riches switches men to witches then come stitches body bags in ditches.”
There is further evidence of Kool G Rap’s use of stylistic devices to “move the crowd.” Hyperbole makes mundane phrases vivid as in the following excerpt: “Bloodshed…I painted the town red.” Analogy often has a similar effect as hyperbole but is less heavy-handed. Ex: “Rough in the ghetto but in jail he’s jello.” Alliteration tickles the ear and has the result of focusing the listener’s attention. Ex: “In god we trust now rots to rust.” When combined, as in the larger excerpt above, the listener is left spellbound. Chill Rob G., a contemporary of Kool G. Rap, said it best: “My rhymes, as I kick them, leave you victim to the beat.”
Therefore, it was advantageous for a rapper to be proficient in the use of poetic devices as they were equivalent to an arsenal and the principle tools of the rapper’s craft. How well a rapper uses tropes is what differentiates the rapper from the pack. The ability to form metaphors or similes elicited the “wow” effect. The audience, filled with awe, spurred on the rapper. Let us examine further the use of a few these figures of speech.
Similes (comparing dissimilar objects using like or as) are a simple trope, easily formed by children of elementary school age. Its timely use can have a strong impact as well as assist in the clarification of an argument, used in excess it strains credibility. KRS-ONE uses similes when he raps in such a way to punctuate the preceding sentences. In “Criminal Minded” he gives us an example: “However, I’m really fascinatin’ to the letter/ my all-around performance gets better and better/ my English grammar comes down like a hammer!” The stanza steadily builds until the “hammer” is dropped and the tension hits a high point then is released. Chill Rob G. deftly uses similes as well in his classic track “Let the Words Flow.” Consider the following lyrics: “I take a page write a phrase and rephrase it/ treat it like the national flag and upraise it/ so a nation of people can feel proud/ about a brother who speaks out real loud.” In this excerpt Chill Rob G. extols the virtues of revision and how the correct “phrasing” can rally people to a cause or inspire self-respect. His love for “the word” is evident in his decision to treat it as sacred as a “national flag.” In Eric B. and Rakim’s “Musical Massacre,” Rakim raps, “How can I keep my composure/ when all sorts of thoughts fought for exposure/ release, then veins in the brain increase/ when I let off make a wish and blow the smoke off my piece/ unloadin’, unfold and the rhymes are explodin’/ and the mic that I’m holdin’s golden/ cordless cause the wire caught fire like a fuse.” The rap begins here with Rakim almost in a state of rapture as he searches for ideas to write about. Then as the ideas become written words they practically “explode” off the page or out of his mouth. He states that his microphone is cordless because the wire, which he compares to a fuse, has lit the “explosives (the mind).” There are numerous such examples of similes throughout Hip Hop, but rappers use metaphors as often and with as much success.
Bosco, on his track “Room to Breathe,” states, “It’s crowded but they still can’t cramp us/ and if your checkin’ for style you’ll be checkin’ for a while/ wearin’ a smile you’ll start to sway/ I might float but won’t drift away/ from the topic, that would be catastrophic to bear/ the trick is to break it down and make it disappear into thin air.” Using metaphor Bosco creates the illusion that he is a magician, that he explains the ideas so well that the listener gets caught up in the song and is not aware that he/she has absorbed the concepts, and it is through this illusion that he makes the claim that his style is non-discernable. Aristotle said as much in the following quote reprinted in Reading Rhetorical Theory:
We must disguise our art, then, and seem to speak naturally, not artificially; the natural is persuasive, the artificial is the reverse; for men are prejudiced against it, as against an insidious design, just as they are suspicious of doctored wines. The difference is the same as between the voice of Theodoros and that of other actors; his voice seems to belong to the speaker,--theirs, to other men. A successful illusion is wrought, when the composer picks his works from the language of daily life; this is what Euripides does, and first hinted that way to do (181).
Aristotle makes the point that the illusion is successful when the speech is natural as disingenuous communication is often ferreted out for what it is: disingenuous. When a rhetorician or rapper speaks from their center or rather from their voice, the “illusion is wrought.” Similarly, Bosco’s illusion would not be possible if he did not speak naturally.
There are even examples of extended metaphors in rap. The two most notable examples are Common Sense’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” and Tupac’s “Me and My Girlfriend.” In “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” Common Sense tells the tale of a loving relationship with his girlfriend. He takes us through her changes from a playful youthful stage to coming of age to political zealousness and ultimately to materialism, hedonism, and nihilism. At the end of the song the listeners are shocked to find out that Common Sense is not talking about a girl at all, but that he is really talking about Hip Hop. The suspension of disbelief, so masterfully executed, sustains the illusion. However, in the next example the goal is not to sustain an illusion. The writer, Tupac Shakur, is overt in his comparisons, so much so that we are forced to come to the conclusion that the song is a celebration of the intimate relationship the subject has with his gun which is unlike the regret we feel in “I Used to Love Her.”
In Tupac’s “Me and My Girlfriend” he reminisces, “Picked you up when you was nine/ started off my life of crime with you/ bought you some shells when you turned twenty-two.” Tupac continues, “I love finger-fuckin’ you/ all of a sudden I’m hearin’ thunder when you buss a nut/...I’m waitin’ by the phone this is true love. I can feel it/ had a lot of women in my bed but you the realest.” Tupac tracks the age of his love from nine to twenty-two and even later on to forty-five. This clever use of the caliber of a gun to describe the passage of time in the relationship works well. His graphic image of the repetitive pulling of a trigger as “finger fucking” works even better. Historically, the relationship between warrior and weapon has always been a close one. Japanese samurai were taught that their katana (sword) was their soul. Tupac has managed to bring this warrior-weapon relationship to life in the song.
Tupac’s explicit and graphic depictions illustrate another choice that confronts the rapper: whether to use profanity or not. Some think that cursing is the only way to ensure that they will be heard by their target audience. Lauryn Hill in “Zealots” expresses sorrow and indignation at her choice to include profanity. She raps, “And even after all my logic and my theory/ I add a muthafucka so you ignorant niggas hear me.” This quote is not only poignant for its insight or skillful in its use of words, but it is also daring. Lauryn Hill insults the listeners who would otherwise tune her out if she were to not curse. By rendering this style “statement” so artistically she puts the listeners in an awkward position in which they must thoughtfully consider what she has said. If the listener is offended because she has “called them out” and chooses to not listen then they miss out on the pleasure of experiencing an exceptional work of art and tacitly agree that they are indeed ignorant. If they do listen because of the curse words there may still be tacit agreement of ignorance with the sense of not being able to turn the CD off because they are caught up in her “rhythmic flow.” There was even a song entitled, “Don’t Curse” featuring some of Hip Hop’s biggest stars. It was a backlash against the excessive use of profanity focusing on the use of literary devices.
One of those literary devices was the parts of speech and artists such as Channel Live had little problem using them or even evoking their name. They write in “Mad Izm,” “Wake up in the morning got me yearnin’ for herb (marijuana)/ which loosens up the nouns, metaphors and verbs/ and adjectives ain’t it magic kid what I’m kickin’.” Channel Live shows a clear respect for the resources of the rhetorician. They know what they have to use and where to get it. Now, the ability of hallucinogens to facilitate the writing process is beyond my expertise or experience, but it seems to have worked for Channel Live.
Although words that have similar meanings or words that sound the same are not parts of speech, they fall under the list of tools that are available to the writer. Kool G. Rap in “Poison” writes, “Whether antonyms words I’m blendin’ them, homonyms synonyms good like M & M’s!” Indeed, when crafted well words become “ear candy,” which is a Hip Hop term used to describe sounds and lyrics that are sweet to the auditory canal.
The D.O.C., a “Willy Wonka” of words, had his rap career cut short by a tragic injury to his throat. However, before the accident he authored one album, The D.O.C., and it is considered a Hip Hop Classic. On the song “The D.O.C. and the Doctor” he gives us a short blurb of lyrical prowess: “Certain to keep suckers hurtin when it comes to the drum.” The D.O.C.’s excellence lies in his ability to use alliteration and rhyme in a novel way. Notice how the sounds of the word “certain” are broken up and rhymed and alliterated with the words “suckers” and “hurtin.” It’s a simple but great achievement in lyrical style.
Style in general was very personal to rappers and was characterized by the way in which a rapper strung words together and delivered them. Fights and turf wars were started over disputes about whether a rapper’s style was “bitten” (copied) by another rapper. To sound like another rapper meant that you were opening yourself up to ridicule and exile. There was nothing worse in the eyes of the rap community than biting another rapper’s style.
Lauren Hill in “Zealots” raps, “Behold as my odes manifold on your rhymes/ two mc’s can’t occupy the same space at the same time/ it’s against the law of physics…” When she states that “two mc’s can’t occupy the same space at the same time” she is saying that a rapper may not use another rapper’s words or style. She goes on to say that that an attempt to do so was against the laws of physics but she might as well of said that it was against the laws of lyrics; it rhymes and the meaning only becomes more potent when “lyrics” is used. Her use of the word “physics” was probably done so because of the weightiness of the term “laws of physics.” It sounds so authoritative.
Rakim coined the term “potholes” to describe the way in which his words and style were being plagiarized, leaving holes where before there were none. In a tribute to his lyrical prowess, De La Soul produced a song entitled, “Potholes in My Lawn.” They are adamant about the fact that “they don’t know that the Soul don’t go for that potholes in my lawn.” U.T.F.O. recorded “Bite it,” a song about stealing styles and lyrics which featured amplified apple bite sounds, and it’s pretty safe to say that most rappers at one point in their careers or another have weighed in on the plagiarism issue. And it makes sense, for if style is a writer’s fingerprint, a rhetorician’s identity, would you not protect it, keep it safe, believe it to be sacred?
Sacred is how the responsible rhetorician or rapper approaches the craft of writing and speaking. Words (a katana perhaps?) are powerful tools that should not be used lightly, and though I’ve shown that Hip Hop in using stylistic devices and even through the discussion of the use of said devices is an important part of rhetorical tradition, as Hip Hop continues to evolve there is concern about the direction of the art form. Nas, a rapper of much renown whose popularity is quickly declining, has recently released an album entitled, Hip Hop is Dead. Because rap music continues to be a commercial cornucopia of currency we know he’s not talking in terms of dollars and cents. The market for Hip Hop continues to expand. What he is talking about is the decline in the artistry or sublimity of rappers, particularly in terms of the “style of the sublime.” As I have discussed throughout this essay, rappers at one time were particularly concerned with how Hip Hop was rendered. Rakim in “You Got Soul” rhymes, “This is how it should be done. This style…is identical to none.” His statement wasn’t just a personal trumpeting of his own contributions; it was a declaration of method to the music world and other rappers in particular that Montell Jordan (not the talk show host) coincidentally championed on his hit track: “This is How We Do It.” And how is it done? Rakim explains: I start to think and then I sink/ into the paper… like I was ink/ when I’m writin’ I’m trapped in-between the lines/ I escape…when I finish my rhymes/ I got soul.” Rakim makes the point that he gets into his writing, so much so that the process for him is like pouring his soul onto the page. This style of pouring one’s soul onto the page, the style of sublimity, has been forsaken for commercialism.
KRS-ONE in “Step into a World (Rapture’s Delight) bemoans the trend towards commercialism as well. He spits, “Now quote this: mc’s are just hopeless, thinkin’ record sales make them the dopest (best).” Longinus weighs in on the topic by asking the following question in his treatise On the Sublime:
…why is it that in our age there are men well fitted for public life who are extremely persuasive, who are keen and shrewd, and especially well endowed with literary charm, and yet really sublime and transcendent natures are, with few exceptions, no longer produced (388).
Longinus is asking why when there is enough literary talent present in his time to produce great works there is still a deficiency of such great works? Then he comments on a possible cause in the next passage:
For the love of money, that insatiable craving from which we all now suffer, and the love of pleasure make us their slaves, or rather, one might say, sink our lives (body and soul) into the depths, the love of money being a disease that makes us petty-minded, and the love of pleasure an utterly ignoble attribute (389).
In the above quote Longinus points out that the love of money (avarice) and the love of pleasure (hedonism) “sinks our lives (body and soul).” Earlier in the treatise he writes, “…greatness of speech is the province of those whose thoughts are deep, and stately expressions come naturally to the most high-minded of men.” Because Longinus believed that great speech is the “province” of the “most high-minded” we can deduce then that he believed that the dearth of sublime literature comes from a love of money and pleasure (being “petty” and “ignoble”) which has infected his time and prevented them from forming deep thoughts and “stately expressions.” This idea that avarice and hedonism are at the root of the decline of Hip Hop is shared by many fans of rap who are old enough to remember when the art form produced sublime works regularly.
So what then, you ask. What is the outcome of this dearth of sublimity? Why have rhetoricians of the past and rappers of the present lamented this trend away from the style of the awe-inspiring, the style which “moves the crowd.” Why does it eat at all those concerned like a flesh eating virus? It can only be one thing. That after all the money is collected and spent, after all the pleasures have been indulged in and after all the material things have been gathered, the crowd remains…unmoved.
Longinus. On the Sublime.
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Akinyele. “Akinyele.” 1st Class. Def Jam Recordings, 2002
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