Chapter 5 Singers, Toasters and Rappers



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Chapter 5

Singers, Toasters and Rappers
if the music of the Negro in America, in all its permutations, is subjected to a soci-anthropological as well as musical scrutiny, something about the essential nature of the Negro's existence in this country ought to be revealed, as well as something about the essential nature of this country, i.e., society as a whole. Leroi Jones (now Amira Baraka)
Some Americans embrace Black English (albeit subconsciously) only when it's delivered over the FM dial, crooned in a ballad or draped atop the thud thud of a funky baseline. Not that the vernacular's pronunciation and syntax are somehow obscured when set to music, for those elements often take on an even grander flavor--becoming even more evocative and in-your-face--when jazzed up for twelve bars, or worked over a catchy hook. It is then that Spoken Soul's aptness, for expressing the exotic in the plainest of terms, for expressing the mundane with great flamboyance, and indeed, for expressing concepts that standard speech simply cannot, becomes most obvious. This might have been what Duke Ellington was getting at when he observed in 1932 that, "It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing." With that revelation, Ellington lent the Swing Era its jingle and proclaimed all of mainstream America square. (And she was square when compared to the dancing, jazzing culture then emerging from New York and other cities, a culture in which Black English was the parlance of the hip).

All types of folk tend to talk trash about soul talk, even though it is the guts of the black music they so relish, even though it encodes ideas that do not readily translate into the standard tongue, and without which America would be a dreadfully dull place. It is an absurd schizophrenia, and as we observed one drizzling May morning in 1997, it often goes unnoticed.

It was commencement time at Howard University, and the temporary bleachers set up on the Washington, D.C. campus arched under the crush of bodies. African America appeared to have sent delegates from every city block, cul-de-sac and country lane, and the air sifted snatches of slackened English. After the faculty procession, African American broadcast news pioneer and keynote speaker Carole Simpson broke into her speech, coddling her words with broadcast-style diction. She blurred through a medley of race matters, praising affirmative action and snubbing biracial blacks who had petitioned the federal government for a census classification other than "African American." Such individuals were threatening to undercut black political clout by denying a part of their heritage that society would ascribe them entirely to anyway, she suggested. The audience offered scattered "Amen's." But the anchorwoman drew the most universal murmurs of support when she breezily lampooned Ebonics. Just about everybody, it seemed, could agree on at least that issue.

After Simpson had wrapped up, members of the student choir rose and offered their rendition of this spiritual, their voices buoyant as the crowd again murmured approvingly:

Lord, I don' don',

Lord, I don' don',

Lord, I don' don',

I don' don' whatcha tole me ta do.

It wasn't long before the final remarks of the ceremony had been made, the last strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" had subsided, and the graduates had dashed down the hill with their extended families in tow. No one, it seemed, had caught the contradiction. No one appeared to realize how odd the crowd's shared disdain for Ebonics was when paired with its shared delight in a spiritual that flaunts such utterly idiomatic phrasing--a spiritual that clearly draws much of its poignancy and soul from the vernacular itself. But alas, getting blacks to consciously celebrate their ancestors' innovations on English--the living evidence of an African encounter with a linguistically hostile New World--can be almost as exacerbating as getting them to confront the legacy of slavery itself. There will probably always be an astonishingly large number of blacks in this country who applaud Black English only when they don't realize that it is Black English they're applauding.

Should you really contemplate that Howard audience's appreciation for the spiritual's ebony phonics and its simultaneous distaste for "Ebonics" (again, this was taken to mean the speech variety as well as Oakland's public relations nightmare), you may come to the following conclusion: Appreciating the sung soul is one thing. Appreciating the Spoken Soul is something else entirely. It might well be said that music which draws heavily on non-standard English (and by this we mean almost ALL popular music, including jazz, blues, rock and roll, soul and rhythm and blues) has generally been embraced by the mainstream. Though its lexicon and sensibilities have seeped into mainstream talk for centuries, however, non-standard English itself has generally been scorned or ridiculed by the dominant culture. In fact, middle America has quite often jeered those who speak "jive" in the same breath and with the same enthusiasm that it has grooved to black sounds à la Bessie Smith and Ray Charles (both of whom were far less concerned with conjugating verbs "properly" than with capturing soul unabashedly).

African Americans themselves pay tribute to those and other dialect-slingers precisely because of the abundance of their soul (that gift for articulating US, our most intimate spiritual and esthetic selves, with the drama, irony and sincerity of black semantics). In fact, most blacks will acknowledge their own conventionally soulful characteristics (such as a fondness for certain foods and prowess on the dance floor), even if they denounce the soulful shadows of their most private speech. Many soul people feel quite at ease rooting on outsiders who ridicule or condemn Black English, but most would bristle if anyone dared try and dismiss as primitive the notional attribute of soul itself, or suggest that it didn't even really exist.

The idea of "soul" as an endowment to which black folk could fasten a very proprietary affection reached new heights in the 1960's (when Negroes became "soul brothas and sistas"), and found a champion in James Brown. Festooned in capes and bodysuits, Brown would tattoo the stage with magical feet, slinging sweat and exchanging almost indecipherable calls and responses with his band. That sapsucker had him some soul--a fact that he articulated most succinctly with his 1971 hit "Soul Power":

I got something that makes me wanna shout

I got something that tell me what it's all about

I got soul, and I'm supa-bad.

When Brown did his "thang" he so impressed himself that he would exclaim, "Good God! I gotta jump back and kiss myself!" Such is the exuberance of soul power. And it sells, too: Brown had 56 R&B top 10 hits, 18 number 1's and more than 40 million-plus sellers. Americans of all colors went wild for the audacious, outrageous performing phenomenon who dripped attitude and unspooled dialect. Now, imagine what those fans might have thought had they hustled to the music store for the latest James Brown album, and jetted home only to hear Carole Simpson's on-air diction emanating from their record-players: "I have something that makes me want to shout. I have soul, and I am super good." Sure, that sort of syntax suits the evening news, and Simpson is a diva of the crisp belly-talk of broadcasters. But such language probably would not have gone over real well with Brown's audiences. After all, when one wishes to verbalize the marvelous properties that make one hip, outta sight, cool, funky, bad and, more recently, fly, the most appropriate language to use is often Black English, which, by virtue of the experience that produced it, is uniquely qualified to convey the intoxicating way possessing those properties feels.

The point was not lost on the Rolling Stones. The Stones, like other bands to emerge while rock and roll was young, got famous by borrowing black styles and black talk, and mostly without attribution. Even the name of the group was plucked from a song originally recorded by blues great Muddy Waters (see "Mannish Boy" excerpt below). Several of the Stone's hits can be loosely traced to black standards of the South, but a few are just plain knock-offs. When recording "You Gotta Move" in 1971, for instance, the band did nothing more than lay a grinding electric guitar behind old, old lyrics:

You gotta move, you gotta move, child

Oh, when the Lord gets ready

You gotta move

The original "I Gotta Move," was sung in black churches for years, and is likely still being performed. The song contains many of the classic characteristics of "ring shouts," those praise sessions of slaves who rekindled faith and resisted misery by drawing themselves into animated worship circles. Ring shouts tended to carry simple messages and contain simple lyrics. It was their rendering that was adorned. The following version of "I Gotta Move," recorded in the 1960's during a live, acappella performance by a group of Georgia Sea Island women, began at an almost lilting pace, with booming voices, syncopated claps and stomps on a naked floor creating, in the truest sense, an orchestra without instruments. One woman kicked off each line, but she was quickly accompanied by the harmonizing wails of the others. Then, a few bars into the plaintive melody, the plodding footfalls sped up and the clapping went double-time. The resulting sound was layered and throbbing and sepulchral, as if it had wafted up from a sad, sad netherworld:

I got ta move, we got ta move

We got ta move, we got ta move

O, when the Lord, get ready

You got ta move
You may be rich, you may be poor,

You may be high, you may be low,

But when the Lord get ready,

You got ta move.


My brother move, my brother move

My brother move, my brother move

O, when the Lord, get ready

You got ta move.


Sometime I'm up, sometime I'm down

Sometime I'm almost to da groun'

O, when the Lord, get ready

You got ta move.

There are layers of meaning here as well as sound. You got to move when the spirit says move, the song suggests, like when the Holy Spirit winds you up on Sunday morning. But you've also got to move on home to Jesus when He says it's time to rest. And this is the great equalizer, for as is observed, the rich and high-ups must go before Him when He gets ready, same as the poor and low-downs. Such a profound faith in the equal opportunity of mortality should have scraped a slaver's spine like an icy finger. Lord knows all men were created equal, the lyrics seem to imply. And eventually you will too.

But to fully understand the song's intent, we must also scrutinize its grammar. Tense in particular must be considered at some length, for it forces us to wrestle with this question: When those sea island women sang "My brother move," were they applying the present participle (my brother moves) or the past (my brother moved)? In Black English, "he move" can denote either. Yet the significance of the song hinges largely upon which of the verb's two forms was originally intended. Did the first soul to wail these lyrics mean to convey that his or her brother was moving at that moment--which would suggest that the sibling in question was still present--or that his or her brother had already "moved," and was, as the old folks say, "resting in the bosom of Jesus?"

Maybe both. Clearly, human capitulation to the will of the Lord is the song's main concern. But "I gotta move" might also be viewed as a carry-over from the African faith system that tells us that departed kinfolk inhabit a dynamic spirit world, a realm from which they can participate in and guide the affairs of the living. If your brother had passed on, or even if he had escaped or been purchased by a plantation owner far away, you two would still have been wrapped up in a quilt of co-dependency, a notion perhaps articulated by the haunting phrase "we got ta move."

So the vernacular serves as a survival tool. It is a vehicle for encoding a semantic dualism, a "double consciousness" that envisions the world as it is and as it could be. It can camouflage as well as elucidate. Its sleight of tongue can hide a message from members of the larger culture, or feed it to them on the sly. It is, necessarily, the language of double entendre:

Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,

Steal away, steal away home,

I ain't got long to stay here.
My Lord, He calls me,

He calls me by the thunder,

The trumpet sounds within-a my soul,

I ain't got long to stay here.


Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,

Steal away, steal away home,

I ain't got long to stay here.
Green trees a-bending,

Po' sinner stands a-trembling,

The trumpet sounds within-a my soul,

I ain't got long to stay here.


Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,

Steal away, steal away home,

I ain't got long to stay here.

The slaves who uttered those words were not just gazing longingly into the firmament, but picturing a homecoming they intended to experience during their lifetime. The scene of redemption could have been a free state in the northern United States, or it could have been Canada or the continent of Africa. No matter where the jumping off point, the belief that the sons and daughters of Africa could "fly" out of bondage manifested itself both in everyday oral abstractions and in real designs to flee the plantation. Though many of us went barefoot here in North America, the old Negro wisdom said that, "All God's children got traveling shoes." The implication, perhaps, being that some fortunate Negroes were even going to get their running shoes here on earth.

Many a slave master must have dismissed the dirges of his bondmen and women as wishful thinking, as cryptic pleas for the deliverance of death, or simply as quaint noise-making, never suspecting that his singing slaves were tacitly resisting psychological bondage, concealing subversive messages, perhaps even plotting uprisings or escape. Nevertheless, ALL spirituals can be linked to philosophies of liberation, and their genealogy traced back to the first moment a kidnapped African paused from the white man's labor to observe the ancient custom of chanting one's discontent.
Makers of black music have always defined themselves, with the gloss of Spoken Soul, in terms of who they were to become once they had reached The Other Side. Whether The Other Side was seen as a trouble-free afterlife or an earthly life of liberation, a wistful paradise or a destination well worth holding on for (or throwing down for) in this world, black folk have always used their music to project themselves into a place where they are in control. A place where they do not have their humanity gouged out for having simply been born black. A place where they overcome, or get even:

Monday morning, gonna lay down my cross, get me a crown

Late in the evenin', Oh, I'm goin' home, live on high

Soon as ma feet strike Zion, gonna lay down ma heavy burden

I'm gonna put on ma robe in glory

I'm goin' home one day an' tell ma story

I've been comin' up hill and mountain

Gon' drink from the Christian fountain

Mahalia Jackson, hailed (not unreasonably) as the world's greatest gospel singer, recorded "I Will Move On Up A Little Higher" in 1947. The song explores the exhilarating conviction that black folk will shed earthly constraints and be richly rewarded on that "great gittin' up morning" when they see Christ and are reunited with long gone kinfolk. An end to the toil of slavery and poverty is envisioned and expressed in rather physical terms. We shall be opulently clothed in Zion, the lyrics suggest. The once dispossessed and overworked shall walk and not get weary, and a bottomless well shall offer cool, cool water.

These are powerful Christian ideas, and sanctified Mahalia expresses them with every ounce of her attitude. The phrase "get me a crown," for instance, conveys a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness that the standard English translation (I'm going to get a crown for myself) simply cannot. But not all representations of The Other Side have been so pious. When the black man set out to articulate his heartache and vision for deliverance in secular terms, what he came up with was foot-thumpin, name-takin, raunchy, bad and blissful. It was the blues:

Now when I was a young boy, at the age of five,

Ma mutha said I was gon be the greatest man alive.

But now I'm a mahn, way past twenty-one,

I wan choo ta believe me baby, I have lots of fun.


I'm a mah-yun!

I spell M, A child, N

That represent man! (Yeah)

No B (Whooo), O child, Y (Yeah)

That mean mannish boy!

I'm a mah-yun! (Yeah)

I'm a natural born lover's man!

I'm a mah-yun!

I'm a rollin' stone!

I'm a mah-yun!

I'm a hoochie coochie man.

When a young boy is giving too much lip, getting too big for his britches, showing out, acting up or generally behaving "too grown" for his own good, a black grandmother is likely to snap, "Quit actin' so mannish, boy!" So with this song's title, "Mannish Boy," Muddy Waters was playing on an expression that is organic to African American childhood. It's easy to hear this blues classic and attribute it just to braggadocio. But between the ecstatic cries from the audience heard on the original recording, beneath the gusto of the blues legend's voice and the virility with which he growls "I'm a mah-yun" a deeper message percolates. We must not forget that at the time of this recording (1955), black men were still being called "boys" well into their advanced years, an indignity that Waters--born the son of a Mississippi sharecropper in 1915--was no doubt all too familiar with. Stripped to its core, then, "Mannish Boy" is actually a rousing proclamation of black manhood, the unequivocal resolution to the Negro plea: "Am I Not A Man And A Brother?"

Of course, with boasts such as "The line I shoots, it will never miss--when I make love to a woman, she cain't resis'," Waters also exemplifies the swagger typical of the

"signifying" tradition. Eclectic, artful and ubiquitous, this ritualized wordplay, this highly stylized lying, this joking and carrying on with verbal virtuosity so as to inject one's message with metaphor and eloquence while elevating one's social status, goes on everyday in the backyards and front porches of soulsville. It's tough to attach a textbook definition to such an inclusive speech event, but one scholar suggested that it is "a way of encoding messages or meanings in natural conversations which involves, in most cases, an element of indirection." She went on to say that:

The black concept of signifying incorporates essentially a folk notion that dictionary entries for words are not always sufficient for interpreting meanings or messages, or that meaning goes beyond such interpretations. Complimentary remarks may be delivered in a left-handed fashion. A particular utterance may be an insult in one context and not in another. What pretends to be informative may intend to be persuasive. Superficially, self-abasing remarks are frequently self-praise. The hearer is thus constrained to attend to all potential meaning carrying symbolic systems in speech events--the total universe of discourse.

Simply put, signifying is the verbal pomposity you'll overhear at the fish-fries or cookouts of many black family reunions. It's part of an appreciation for "rapping," for fluid speech that brings the speaker and the listener immeasurable pleasure. "The Signifying Monkey," "Stagolee" and "Shine and the Titanic" are all examples of "toasts," one of the signifying tradition's most outlandish genres. Narrative monologues recited by such badmen as Rudy Ray Moore, toasts (which may be compared to the less-than-genteel 'Twas the Night Before Christmas knock-offs found in Chapter 4) almost always contain outlandish profanity, lawless capers, improbable sex romps, and other exploits of indomitable male hustlers. One such tall tale (told and retold in countless versions) recalls the saga of Shine, a black man who stoked the coals in the belly of that ill-fated cruise ship, the Titanic. Once Shine sees the boat taking on more and more water, the lore goes, he wastes little time leaping overboard and beginning to swim:

After a bit the captain saw the boat

was gon' sink.

He said, "Shine, Shine, save poor me,

I'll make you the Captain of the

seven long seas."

Shine said, "Captain on land, captain

on sea

If you wanna live, motherfucker, you



better swim like me!

In almost every version of this toast, Shine also turns down more than one white woman who, from the deck of the doomed ship, offers him her affections in return for salvation. Shine swims on, besting a shark in the open sea and making it to shore, where it is said that he gets himself good and soused by the time the Titanic goes under. Clearly Shine possesses the superhuman abilities typical of the toast protagonists. The same incredible traits are exhibited by Dolomite, a notoriously misogynistic character (portrayed by entertainer Rudy Ray Moore) who was so bad that he kicked African lions in the ass "to stay in shape" and conquered scores of women (who were almost always presented as loose and scurrilous) in bed. It was said of Dolomite that:

At the age of one he was drinkin' whiskey and gin,

at the age of two he was eatin' the bottles it came in.

Now Dolomite had an uncle called Sudden Death,

killed a dozen bad men from the smell of his breath.

When his uncle heard how Dolomite was treatin' his ma and his pa,

he said, "Let me go and check on this bad rascal before he go too far."

Now one cold dark December night,

his uncle broke in on Dolomite.

Now Dolomite wasn't no more'n three or four,

when his uncle come breakin' through the door.

His uncle said, "Dolomite,

I want you to straighten up and treat your brother right,

'cause if you keep on with your dirty mistreatin',

I'm gonna whup your ass till your heart stop beatin'."

Dolomite's sittin' in the middle of the floor playin'.

He said, "I see your lips quiver, Unc, but I don't hear a cocksucken word

you sayin'."

This made his uncle mad.

He led off with a right that made lightnin' flash,

but Dolomite tore his leg off, he was that damned fast.

For black men, who have been physically and psychologically castrated during their intern in North America, assertions of manhood--of strength, of potency and of bravado--must be larger-than-life. The badmen of toasts thus represent irreverent heroes of redemptive proportions. They're immortal, and they're worth mentioning in a chapter on singers because they help us to understand 1) the continuum of oral dexterity that blurs the mediums of black speech and song, and 2) the wicked self-aggrandizement found in the new folklore: hip hop:

When rap begin then I gotta join in and

Before my rhyme is over, you know I'm a win

Cool J. has arrived so you better make way

Ask anybody in the crowd they say the kid don't play
Sparring competition that's my hobby and job

I don't wear a disguise because I don't own the mob

Got a pinpoint rap that makes you feel trapped so many girls on my jock I think my phone here is tapped
I'm bad

(Cool J)


(Cool J)

(Cool J)


(C C C C Cool J)

(C C C C C C C Cool J J J J J)


I'm like Tyson icin' I'm a soldier at war

I'm makin' sure you don't try to battle me no more

Got concrete rhymes been rappin' for ten years and

Even when I'm braggin' I'm bein' sincere

The precise origins of hip hop are hazy, but there is no doubt that the originators were New York City youths who, in the mid and late 1970's, with nothing more than turn tables and their imagination, began mixing old-school jams by funk prophets such as James Brown and George Clinton. The parents of the new hip hoppers (who were themselves of the Dolomite generation) must have groused when their Ohio Players, Isley Brothers, O'Jays and Sly and the Family Stone records were returned all scratched-up. But by the time pioneers such as The Sugarhill Gang dropped "Rapper's Delight" ("I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast, but we like hot butta on our breakfast toast") in 1979, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had released "The Message" ("It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under") in 1982, rap culture was oozing, no, spilling from the streets of urban America.

But no creation in the Spoken Soul universe steps out of a black hole. L.L. Cool J., the "MC" responsible for the immodest lyrics above, is as much a son of Rudy Ray Moore as he is of Muddy Waters. The braggadocio of his 1987 ballad "I'm Bad" (which sampled the musical theme from the blaxploitation flick "Shaft") is, in a sense, the incarnation of a Dolomite chant, the ranting of a "Mannish Boy" for the 80's. Indeed, boasts delivered gattling-gun style remain the bread and "butta" of rap. In much the same way that Waters had run down his hustling credentials (I'm a rolling stone… I'm a natural born lover's man… I'm a hoochie coochie man) four decades earlier, Smooth Da Hustler, testified to his badness in a 1997 joint that earned him some underground acclaim:

The money stasher, gun blastin' razor slasher

The human asthma breath taker

Body dump waster

The glock cocker, block locker the rock chopper

The shot popper, the jock cock glocker

The face splitter, human disgrace getter

Hip hop artists also inherited the struggle to "get ovah" to the more satisfying existential plane we've called The Other Side. Some, such as bawdy material girl L'il Kim, envision "Money, Power, Respect," as the keys to transcendence. Others offer a more complex scenario. Nas' single "If I Ruled the World," (1996) for instance, imagines the ghetto turned B-boy utopia, and blends an appetite for luxury cars with a longing for the liberation of black minds:

Brand new whips to crash then we laugh in the iller path

The Villa house is for the crew, how we do

Trees for breakfast, dime sexes and Benz stretches

So many years of depression make me envision

The better livin', the type of place to raise kids in

Open they eyes to the lies history's tole foul

Nas pictures whips (cars) and dimes (fine women) as playthings for his crew (posse) on a track teeming with insider lingo. Slick lexicon is hip hop's Magna Carta, establishing the rights of its disciples to speak loudly but privately, to tell America about herself in a language that leaves her puzzled. This glossary is forever morphing, constantly reinventing itself, bumping off words that were considered tony just the other day (but have now been mainstreamed and co-opted by Madison Avenue to hawk everything from cereal to soda pop). Many of the more or less new hip hop monikers for, say, cash--including bank, bank roll, benjamins, cheddar, cheese, cream, dead presidents, dividends, ends, g's, loot, mail, papers, papes, scrilla--are guaranteed to go stale soon, maybe inside of a few years.

Any MC who intends to maintain his or her street validity had better be able to wield the most contemporary of colloquialisms. For this, along with a raw, staccato delivery, is what determines one's prowess when it comes to "freestyling" (a ritual in which hip hop heads form a circle and bust improvised rhymes "off the top of the dome"). Holding only a slightly lower profile than slang in the rap game, of course, is bona fide Black English, which encompasses vocabulary--and thus slang--but is also composed of distinct grammatical and phonological elements. There is no question that Black English provides hip hop's linguistic underpinnings, but seldom does it manifest itself as strikingly as in "The Day After" (1995) by the ultra-conscious Atlanta-based group Goodie Mob:

I been this way since birth

Heaven above sent a newborn to tell it like he see it

No lies through the eyes of an angel suggest you don't table

Every angle be obtuse, ain't no truce, it's war

It won't stop, to compromise wouldn't stop the bloodsheddin'

It's Armageddon in the streets of each inner city

Ain't takin' no pity on the unjust callin' it trust

I'm on the bus starin' out of a window

Thankin' 'bout them happy days I had

Rap aficionados gush about this group's talent for flowing in the "cipher," the supercharged circuit of rap knowledge and creativity (a phenomenon not too dissimilar--in the vein of highly communal, responsive rituals--from the ring shout). What many hip hop heads probably don't realize (and wouldn't, unless they stopped and thought about it) is that Goodie Mob owes Black English big time. Not just for its sledgehammer lyrics and the style in which they're delivered, but for its coveted, non-commercial status within the industry. After all, the Mob is regarded as "real" and truthful because of its image of fierce non-conformity, and nothing thumbs its nose at conformity like unrepentant dialect. Although white, suburban youngsters eat up hip hop's edgy tales of money, sexual adventure, ghetto life and racial injustice (while keeping ghetto rhymes locked onto the pop charts), black, urban youngsters are the genre's target audience. And black, urban youngsters follow artists who roam the world implied by the neighborhood language of black, urban youngsters. "Peep" (check out) rapper DMX's "How's It Going Down":

What type of games is bein' played, how's it goin' down

If it's on til it's gone, then I gots to known now

Is you wit me or what, they gon try to give me a nutt

Just honeys wanna give me the butt, what

The anthem reverberated from car speakers throughout 1998. It is a lovely example of hip hop's allegiance to both slang and the grammar of Black English. But it's safe to say that of those individuals who pumped up their radios when the jam played, few if any were contemplating hip-hop's ties to the blues, or old-school toasts, or jazz, or even considering its developing role as the new conventional wisdom of pop culture, or as folklore transformed. Few of those hip hop heads were inclined to trace the music to the fast-talking of Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, or even to the "scatting" of Louis Armstrong and other jazz greats (witness the euphony of nonsense words in "Rapper's Delight": "I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop a you don't stop a rockin' to the bang bang boogie said up jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie da beat"). They were simply bobbing their heads behind Spoken Soul. It is indeed a tribute to the resiliency of a people who resisted annihilation for centuries, then came out swinging, be bopping and now hip hopping, that they are able, with each new generation, to so guilefully reinvent themselves using the same essential mortar.


The Howard University crowd that found itself swept up in the spiritual's sentiment had unwittingly paid its respects to the language of "soul power." Some members of that audience must have experienced a flash of genetic déjà vu, a starburst of emotion from ancestral experience. If so, we should acknowledge that the disposition, the very organization of the phrase "I don' don'" helped trigger those feelings. And if the students in that audience had listened, really listened, to their own music, perhaps they would have found not only the growl of Muddy Waters, the vibrato of Mahalia Jackson and the wail of James Brown somehow embedded there, but the talk of the spirituals, as well. Examine Lauryn Hill's "Lost Ones," a hybrid hip-hop and reggae tune that did some serious radio rotation in 1998:

You might win some but you really lost one

You just lost one, it so silly how come

When it's all done did you really gain from



What you done done, it so silly how come [emphasis added]

As Hill herself submits, "not a game new under the sun." Her use of dialect features such as the completive tense (done done), and her deletion of the conjunctive "s" (it so silly), are natural, accepted, even appreciated elements of a linguistic convention that has sustained the soul. Of course, there are many black singers, including Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke, who produced exhilerating, beloved music in "proper" English. But if the Rolling Stones flattered the language of our black ancestors with constant imitation, why must the heirs to that language disparage it on the street? Why indeed, when the next hip hop generation busies itself sampling and re-sampling James Brown, and the parlance of soul crowns the pop charts?


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