When I was around 15 or 16, I heard a track on Radio 2. It was unlike anything I’d encountered before.There was no singing, yet it wasn’t recognisably rap music. Rather, someone was speaking words over an acoustic funk groove, telling us that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. At this point, I knew nothing about Gil Scott-Heron and I didn’t understand the majority of his references. Nonetheless, in a little over three minutes, it had shown me something that I didn’t know could be done with words, a relentless stream of passion. When I was at university, I bought the album featuring the track. This was a good 10 years or so before I started to write poetry. But together with the first two albums by The Streets, my mind was stretched in a different direction. Fast forward to the present day, and I’m more selective about what I enjoy and more critical of what I hear. However, these eye-opening moments still happen every so often. Last week, I went to an event in Birmingham held by Out-Spoken Press. I’d initially heard about this through Harry Josephine Giles, who rotated the book while reading from it. I bought it afterwards, and I could see why. The words curled, or were set vertically, or were occasionally run together in a massive heap, whereas it would never have occurred to me to do anything other than start a new line. Birmingham is a more multicultural place than where I’m from, and racism is something that Anthony Anaxagorou tackles head-on, just as Scott-Heron did in the 1970s. Meanwhile, Ollie O’Neill spoke frankly about her experience of Britain’s mental healthcare system, a common theme among poets. Unfortunately, neither of their books are published until next year, so I’ll have to wait. However far my writing career goes, I don’t want to turn into one of these idiots who think they know it all and who stop learning or who taking constructive criticism on board. I want these moments to keep happening to me, the ones that hit me like Gil Scott-Heron did when I was a teenager.
It must have been about fifteen or so years ago that I was listening to a portable radio – perhaps tuned to Radio 2 – and the DJ played an incredible track. It was simply a wall of words shouted by an incredulous, angry voice. I caught the name of the artist: one Gil Scott-Heron with his poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.
I use the word poem very deliberately, as that’s how he wrote it. It contains many of the elements of performance poetry, being light on metaphor but heavy on wordplay. Today, it would probably be classed as rap because it also embodies many of the hallmarks of a modern rap track, with repetitive backing music and rapid spoken words.
Even if you don’t remember the racial tensions of the 1970s, he conveys the spirit of the time in just over three minutes. I also have the rest of the eponymous album on vinyl. If you seek it out, do listen for Whitey On The Moon as well.
I was just as surprised listening to Radio 1 in 2002 as some ska-like sounds started to play. The trumpets of Let’s Push Things Forward made me a fan of The Streets for their first two albums. I recommend avoiding the last two, as Mike Skinner appeared to have run out of ideas by then.
His first CD Original Pirate Material (OPM) was hailed as ‘Shakespeare for clubbers’ as he spoke about urban life in the UK, painting an uneasy sense of civil unrest bubbling under the surface. For this, the BBC also made the comparison to Never Mind the Bollocks, an unfair comparison because Skinner is far more intelligent than that.
For a start, each track on OPM quotes a lyric from another track, while his second album A Grand Don’t Come For Free is a proper concept album, each track adding a little more to the story arc. Between the machine-gunning internal rhymes, Skinner also surprises with the beautiful ballads It’s Too Late and Dry Your Eyes.
Even when you move past the radio-friendly Skip to The Good Bit and Put Your Two’s Up there isn’t a duff track among them. I Love You More Than You Think is about unrequited love, while Me Around You explores the awkwardness of acting normally around an ex-girlfriend. It’s hard for lads to talk about things like that, yet they acknowledge this difficulty while expressing themselves in such a fluent way.
The point I’m trying to make is that not all rap should be dismissed as rubbish spouted by overpaid bigheads. If you know where to look, there is some good quality writing out there that we can all learn from. At the very least, it can help bring on the right mood or give just a small suggestion to expand upon. I openly admit that poetry is my weak point, so I mainly listen in awe of how these artists construct their words and phrasing.
Of course, inspiration can come from the strangest of sources. I have a short story that came from watching an RSPB advert, and a poem that was helped along by Corona’s dance track Try Me Out.
And that’s a wrap.