Malik Ameer Crumpler is a poet, fiction writer, rapper, and music producer who has released a multitude of albums, short films, and books of poetry. Those books include Inevitable Mutations Act II (BAM, Paris, 2015), Locked Language (BAM, Paris, 2014), Little Everywhere (Satori Ideas, New York, 2014), and Amber Hymns (Satori Ideas, New York, 2011). In addition, Inevitable Mutations Act I is a music project (On point, Brussels, 2015), Little Everywhere has a live musical performance version, and Amber Hymns has an accompanying auditory experience available for download at Bandcamp.
Malik founded Satori Ideas Media and co-founded the literary journals Madmens Calling, Visceral Brooklyn, and Those That This. He co-curates Poets Live and performs regularly in Paris and New York. He also wrote several musicals, ballets, and arias commissioned by Harvestworks, Liberation Dance Theater, Firehouse Space, Panoply Lab, B’AM Paris, B’AM Vancouver, and Double Wei Factory.
Malik took part in two live showcases organized by Nomadic Press at Pine Box Rock Shop in Bushwick, including Pine Box Poetry on December 13th, 2015, and Nomadic Press Poetry at Pine Box on May 7th 2016. Ahead of the release of his musical collaboration with Thatmanmonkz for the track "Every Lil' Bit" on the b-side of Zen the Sharpshooter's BBS001EP, and while visiting his family in Oakland, California, I interviewed Malik about his diverse artistic pursuits. He discussed the poetic perks of living in Paris, France, capturing the mindset of underground rap on paper, the mutating streets of Oakland and Harlem, and why gentrification is really class warfare.
On Inevitable Mutations Act I & II
It started with Alex Deforce, who is a painter, and does a lot of journalism with these newspapers out in Brussels, Belgium. He is also a record label owner. So I had worked on a project with Leron Thomas called "Take It.". Alex, being the owner of this label, put that album out. Then, after he put the album out, he found out that I do other things besides music. He saw a video I did called "A Selfy Supreme," and he featured it on his website and interviewed me about it. After that, he contacted me for a show he was doing in Brussels of some new pieces he had that were like a new form of painting he had gotten into. He said, “You should read at it.” I was like, “Why don’t we do something together? I’ll write about the paintings.” He was all over that. I was in Paris at the time, and I wrote it up. He kept sending me images of the pieces he was working on because I hadn’t gone to Brussels yet. I hadn’t even met him yet in person. We had talked online. So I wrote up all this stuff, sending it to him to match pieces, and he was sending me stuff to match pieces. Then when I got to Brussels he hung a show, and then I revised most of it once I saw him live because the textures and color variations looked different in person than online. After that we did the reading, and then the video, and then he decided to press up a book of it, which was exciting as hell.
"For you to do anything, you have to grow beyond where you were originally. You can either call that maturing or developing, or you could do something drastic and mutate."
The title has to do a lot with three levels. One, he paints on three levels in the beginning. Basically, it goes into the time period we are living in, with technology changing humans into part machine, part human cyborg. It’s dealing with trans-humanism, the inevitability of us putting tech in our bodies, bio-nano instruments to help us mutate into something bigger than mankind. That being a new concept, when in reality it’s old. Because any human being that wants to better themselves, or learn anything, has to go through a form of mutation, of transformation. So in that sense, it’s another attempt at bringing Ovid to the now with a lot of tech. Then bringing it back to painting, because painters go through mutation all the time just like writers. So it’s functioning on several levels in that sense.
Also, it’s like a personal thing. For you to do anything, you have to grow beyond where you were originally. You can either call that maturing or developing, or you could do something drastic and mutate.
On moving to Paris
My wife is in Paris. I fell in love in Paris when I moved there with a wonderful woman. So that was one of the main things. But as a little kid, I always wanted to move to Paris. I knew I was going to move to Paris and study all the 20th-century, 19th-, 18th-, 17th-century writers. It was inevitable, or mandatory. It kind of accelerated after I started going out to Paris to do readings. The audience and writer scene out there is a lot more receptive than the United States, unless you are talking about certain topics Americans are obsessed with hearing. By the United States, I mean the pop element of reading or writing or anything.
[In Paris] I go to the Anglophone stuff. It’s SpokenWord Paris in Belleville. It’s also Open Secret, which is in Saint-Michel. It’s funny because everything is run by Davids. David Barnes runs SpokenWord Paris, and then David Sirois runs Open Secret. I want to make it more to Paris Lit Up, but I’m never really around. That’s another one. Most of the time, I’m with the group of people in an organization that I’m curating now, which is Poets Live. We read out of Berkeley Books of Paris in Odeon, which is wonderful. One, it’s a bookstore, and the other places are like bars and caves. So you are surrounded by those books, which is a vibe. Two, Phyllis is there. This is Phyllis’s bookstore. Phyllis is an amazing human being, and thus an amazing bookseller. So it’s like a concentration of vibe. She doesn’t just work with Poets Live. She does a lot of work in her own store with incorporating the community of writers that frequent her store. So I read there probably more than any other place.
On Locked Language
"What happens when you are locked out of language? Then what happens when you lock language off on purpose?"
Locked Language is a chapbook that I did when I got the residency at BAM. At BAM, you stay for one to three weeks and you just work or hang out, but you have to produce something at the end because there’s a presentation or an exhibit. I was there with Jonathan Randall Grant and all these inspiring people, and it was my first time in Paris. Another David who co-runs BAM, David Simard—he and Anne Vegnaduzzo were very supportive with their insights into art. They were up for anything, and you hang out all night talking about Cocteau or Sartre or Romare Bearden or Delaney. Everyone’s trading ideas, and then everyone’s like, “So what the hell are we going to do?” It was a situation that you would love to be in without feeling arrogant or egotistical, because you are literally just like, “OK, so if we are supposed to be a part of history, and we are history, then what are we going to do with it?” So they were very inspiring about language. I kept tripping on language because I don’t speak French. I’m learning French. At the time, I really didn’t speak French, and I didn’t plan on moving there. I didn’t think I could move there. So I was constantly sitting around people speaking French. I was like, “Damn, I’m locked out! I’m locked out of language.” Then when I would speak English, even though everybody spoke English too, they didn’t speak it at the rate that an English speaker would speak it. But then they also do not speak Oakland slang or New York slang or Southern vernacular like I do. So then I would see them locked out. Then it was like, "What happens when you are locked out of language? Then what happens when you lock language off on purpose?" Which is the ancient way writing used to be, since most people couldn’t write except for the priesthood and the aristocracy. So it was just getting into that, and then the book also dealt with the fact that French people don’t speak their original language (like most people) when they were the Gaulois or the Celts. I was asking a lot of French people, "Who are you, actually? Who were you before you were French?"
So Ann, David, my wife, and a whole lot of people in Paris when I first got there were very receptive to explaining to me what they thought they were while going in the Louvre, and going to sites, and figuring out who the hell were the “original” inhabitants of France, which speaks to all of us because none of us speaks our original language, if that even exists. If it does exist, then we are all locked out from our original language. Then it also goes back to people always telling me that they don’t understand what I am talking about, and they feel locked out of my writing or my raps.
On Every Lil' Bit
That’s with Black Beacon Sound, this label in England. They are a new label, and they are working on some stuff, and my man Zen the Sharpshooter put together this instrumental album. A lot of DJs in England are rocking instrumentals more. They are going heavy with it, and my man Thatmanmonkz from Sheffield, with whom I’m working on a project, got hit up from them to remix one of his dance songs. He did it, and since he and I are working on the project (we finished, and are shopping it right now), he was like, “Do you want to put a song on this? It’ll give people a clue into what we are doing.” So we did it, and it’s like everything else I do: fun. Odd language, but not as locked as it used to be. Because after I finished writing Locked Language, I was like, “OK, I’m going to stop. I don’t need to be so esoteric and hermeneutic anymore.” I’ve done enough of that with my books. So now I’m going to go on to common language instead of locked language. Because a lot of that locked language stuff had a lot to do with hermeneutics and rapper stuff. I’m from the period of rap where, when you rapped, you had to say something that no one had ever heard before. Clichés were illegal and biting was illegal. So you can’t sound like anybody, you can’t talk like anybody, you can’t have the same tone of voice. Everything has to be different, and if no one gets it, that means you are dumb when relating to people. When people would go, “Oh, OK,” or be able to predict what you are going to say next, then you were wack. So you would come up with a kind of flow. Especially on the West Coast, because we were back then trying to prove ourselves to the East Coast. Lyrically, you could not predict anything we were going to say. So it locked out a lot of people. It also has to do with when rap music became simple, with Snoop Dog and all of them. They kind of turned the light off of complicated lyricism. So [Every Lil' Bit] is much simpler than my older work and a lot simpler than some of the stuff that’s on the project that that song came out of.
"...Millennials and Gen X is actually obsessed with quality, some of us, because nothing sounds better than an album—other than a two-inch tape, which no one can get.
Now that we are in the age of dead mediums with everything from the 20th century supposedly going out of style, it’s hilarious that vinyl of all things resurfaced when that was the first to go. I also think it has a lot to do with proving that Millennials and Gen X is actually obsessed with quality, some of us, because nothing sounds better than an album—other than a two-inch tape, which no one can get. So I think that’s a great thing. I’m waiting for liner notes to come back on albums, too. That will be fly. Same with books. Books are supposedly dead. All these dead things come back because, one, the quality, and two, being able to touch something, since we all live in screens now. Even when virtual reality pops, you are still going to need to touch something, and to actually interact with an object that has information on it other than a computer is exciting. Most people think that’s going away. Old people aren’t concerned with it. There is that layer to it, and then the other layer would be that being a child in the '80s, music was on records. So as time went on, especially in the underground, we put our albums on tapes and you always wanted to get on vinyl. It was very hard to get on vinyl because it was very expensive. Then once you got on vinyl, it was like, "OK, I’m on vinyl." So once I started getting on vinyl, I’m always excited that I’m on vinyl. But I don’t have any of it because I gave my record player to my man John, so I haven’t even been able to listen to the album.
On Little Everywhere
I wish that would have been recorded. It was a weird day because all of the electricity went out. The gig started, and six minutes into it, all the electrical instruments died. Then they turned back on later, but my mic was off. The interesting thing is that Daniel Belquer and Kevin Ramsay over at Harvestworks—they just wanted to go out. Harvestworks is amazing in the sense that they fund and give you a space to work out whatever it is you want to do. They trust you to go out, and Daniel and Kevin and Matt Fidler—they all were committed to doing something that’s never been heard before. So all of the music was generated by a computer program called MaxMSP. It dialogs with human beings. We had our instruments, and we would dialog with the computer. There was also a visual set-up, and my man Asukaya Bailey was doing this weird drum programming that would respond to the acoustics of the room. So it was really just once again that trans-humanist music.
We’re all obsessed with what happens if the computer really gains awareness in that sense. Then it would gain creativity and imagination. So why don’t we start working with these things? Plus, everybody has done everything possible that you could do with a musical instrument. So you are going to pick up this guitar in 2016, and do what? Or you are going to pick up this microphone and try not to be derivative, if you are even into that. So to break the derivative element of it, or the imitation, we used things that no one used before. So it sounded absolutely nuts, and I love it. From that, Daniel and Matt and everybody, we did another one called "Jacobz Ladder" that was even more out. It’s playing on this theme of improvisation, rehearsing to improvise.
So Little Everywhere was great because we had like 35 rehearsals. We were blowing out speakers and blowing out lights and everything. It was great. The lights were synced to the breathing. Everything was synced. The computer was in direct response with us, which had a lot to do with the theme behind Little Everywhere. Because Little Everywhere—it absorbs like "big data." Little Everywhere can be anything, but the way I was writing it was that there’s an entity that’s everywhere and it’s absorbing information without value judgments or consideration for "Is this good? Is this bad? Is this person saying that?" So that’s why it’s so much monologue, and then from time to time it just blurts out numbers and designs like computer code, which is like computer art.
"You really think that a computer is going to get up and paint like a human being? Why would a computer paint like a human being, when a computer sits around and deals with numbers and information in a completely different way than humans do?"
You really think that a computer is going to get up and paint like a human being? Why would a computer paint like a human being, when a computer sits around and deals with numbers and information in a completely different way than humans do? Then if that’s what you take in, and if we can say that an environment makes a person produce something, then wouldn’t their paintings be numbers, numbers, numbers, dash, dash code? That’s their language. So when we went to do the musical, it was like, "How can we get the computer to improvise?" Daniel, Kevin, Matt, and everybody involved in that musical got the computer to improvise, and that was bizarre as ever. Because then when we pushed too hard, the electricity went out. Which I thought was great, because it was like the computer is laying out. Like in any band, when you don’t know what to play, you lay out. Or when you really want to say a profound statement, you don't say nothing. So the computer just said, “Fuck it.”
That book took like four years to write, or maybe 14 years, because there’s some stuff in there from the late '90s. But it took two years of revision. That book was huge at first. It was like 780 pages. It was a novel at first, and then I realized I didn’t have the chops to write a novel. I had the chops to put words on a page, but I didn’t have the chops to revise it. I also didn’t have a community of writers yet, because I wasn’t reading. I stopped performing for like eight years. So I wasn’t bouncing anything off of anybody. I was just sitting there like a little helmet, and working at the bookstore, and putting my work up against the gods, and then being like, “It doesn’t work,” because that’s that period where you think you’re supposed to be on the level of somebody else. So with that book, and through the revision process, I learned someone else elects the level. So in the book form, that’s just extreme revision. It’s destroying the traditional narrative voice. I hate it. I wanted to get rid of grammar, do something different. So the concept was looking on the Internet—nobody uses grammar on Facebook. It’s very rare that you see people using grammar or punctuation correctly. So big data must be taking this in like, “Well, some people use these symbols and some don’t.” So I attempted to write it from the perspective of the way big data sees it. So some characters or voices in the book have punctuation and grammar, some don’t. Some don’t know how to write, but I don’t explain that.
"Listening to models talk a lot, I was always like, 'You all are actually speaking in great poems.'"
I eventually developed a community of writers to share it with, and I was just bringing it to everybody. Most of them were musicians and models, because I was hanging out with a lot of models for a period. It was great because models are brilliant people, actually. When you put up with as much shit as a model has to deal with and you can stay focused, you’ve got some special mind in your head. And since models rarely get to talk, because they (the powers that be) don’t want them to, I wanted to see how they would respond to poetry. Listening to models talk a lot, I was always like, “You all are actually speaking in great poems.” So a lot of the things in that book are models talking, too, but I don’t say it. I was hanging with choreographers a lot, too. So I was around Jacinta Vlach a lot. The way she approaches choreography, in our talks we had about choreography (because we did a piece together called "Love and Money: Egypt to New York"), I learned a lot about revision from her. Because she was like, “If you come out to move, you can do any move you want. But if you do every move you want, you’re just going to look ridiculous.” The book originally was everything I could come up with, and she was like, “Nope. You need to do specific movements.” So basically the whole community of New York (just a bunch of different artists, and not so much writers) helped me write that book. My buddies in Brooklyn—they’re journalists and advertising people. Particularly Ruth Reader and Giovanni Serrano, they really helped me shave the book, too. They were just cutting it because they were like, “No one wants to see how confused you are. No one cares about how much you’re struggling to write this. This is going to make us struggle to read it, and we don’t want to struggle when we read.” That was the book when, in those four years, I had a serious community of everybody, not just writers.
On Satori Ideas Media
"The musicians and the writers were together, which is something I find very weird now, because all the writers and musicians aren’t tight anywhere I go. I don’t know what that’s about. I don’t see musicians at readings like I used to."
That came up out here [in Oakland] when I was in my teens and 20s. I was really heavy into the Oakland and San Francisco scene in the late '90s and early 2000s, like around North Beach and downtown Oakland, when it was an entirely different Bay Area. The interesting thing with Nomadic Press, and GAMBAZine, and The Opiate, and some stuff that goes on over at KGB bar and Bowery Poetry Club—there’s a community of people where you can go and put your work out at least once a week, and you can do that every week. So you get to workshop your stuff, and also hear it outside your mouth in front of people, which is different from just sitting in your house reading it to yourself. I didn’t get back into that community until three or four years ago, after Amber Hymns came out, but more so after Little Everywhere came out. Prior to that, in the Bay Area, it was every night in the late '90s, early 2000s. It was always a place to read, it was always a place to perform, and you just worked it. Back then, there were a lot of elders. Or maybe it was because I was just younger, but everybody was older than me, and everybody was doing readings. It was readings every night, it was music every night. The musicians and the writers were together, which is something I find very weird now, because all the writers and musicians aren’t tight anywhere I go. I don’t know what that’s about. I don’t see musicians at readings like I used to. I never see poets or fiction writers at musical gigs. Maybe I just listen to weird music, but I don’t see them hanging out after. I don’t see the connection, and through the history of music and writing there was always the two together, and that shit is broke for some reason. I don’t know what that’s about, and all of us are suffering from that. Because you can see people are writing shit, but if you say it out loud, it’s horrible. People are also writing shit that if you read it on paper, it's terrible, unless you say it out loud. Which has to go back to musicians, who if you write your lead sheet, it has to sound good out loud and it has to be good on paper. Otherwise, it is not going to sound good out loud. It’s all this stuff. Then no one is really trusting improvisation, except comedians. It’s almost like comedians and improvisational musicians are the last people who are really continuing the legacy of the arts, so to speak.
On visting Oakland
It’s crazy because, instead of my old haunts, I am haunting Oakland and San Francisco. Everything is gone. It is crazy. Everything is gone, and all the old buddies all have kids, so you are not going to be hanging out like we used to. It’s also inspiring—perhaps this period that we are from has to be written about because it doesn’t exist any longer. It’s like sci-fi. It’s like a black hole. Everything is gone from when I was in, except for the hills, and except for some untouched areas where no one hung out anyway. I went to the First Friday with my man Otayo, and I didn’t recognize Oakland at all. I thought I was in Bushwick, except the music sounded different. Then I came by a gas station and I saw old Oakland with the drop tops, and the car show, and the side-show feeling, and everybody partying and smoking in the streets. I was like, “Wow! There’s old Oakland!” But I’m too old to get down in that part of Oakland anymore, and it made me think. I don’t miss old Oakland, or old San Francisco, or old New York, because New York is not the New York I’m from either, or that I did time in. A lot of people miss the so-called "charisma" or "energy" of a place that was actually dangerous. This doesn’t have anything to do with the demographic. It was just dangerous, and it was dangerous because we were kids and we were into dangerous shit. If Harlem was the way Harlem was when I moved there, I wouldn’t move to it in my 30s. That has nothing to do with some racial or artistic situation. It is just the simple facts. When I was younger, I was into bigger physical risk, and now I do all my risk in my writing, and in my work, and in the videos.
On gentrification and class warfare
"I didn’t succeed in a way that would allow me to be in New York. If my parents didn’t live [in Oakland], I wouldn’t be able to be in the Bay Area either."
Artists can’t live here anymore. This isn’t the first time this happened. It will not be the last. The real issue is not gentrification. The real issue is, "Where are you going to live?" and, "Why is it that human beings are accelerating financially in one way, and others aren’t?" and "Is that going to be what humanity is about to be like?" Because when people keep holding themselves attached to this victim notion of “Oh, it’s just gentrification. That’s horrible.” That’s not what's horrible. What’s horrible is that this is what’s happening with money and human beings, which is a return to the ancient times of serfdom and rulers. So Harlem changed. Harlem in the early 2000s, late 1990s was completely different from the Harlem that Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker frequented. What actually happened there? Did the artists get run out then, too? Yes, they did. Did the artists get run out again now? Yes, they did. This is inevitable. So now this is a change that is inevitable—what are you going to do about it, and what does the change actually mean? Because saying that the change is just racial—of course it’s racial. But if it’s racial, it means it’s financial. Racism means nothing if you are not financially or physically hurt by it. So what is actually happening there? My whole issue, and from having being in the Bay Area and in New York, is this is class war. We can play games with race all day, and it’s not going to get us nowhere, and history shows us that race has gotten nowhere. But the real inevitable mutation is the class situation, and it’s always been that. As people get classed out of these places, and artists go away, well, that’s class. That’s what I keep tripping on in the Bay Area. That’s also bringing it back to why I left New York. Because class-wise, I’m of a class that New York is not for at the moment. I didn’t succeed in a way that would allow me to be in New York. If my parents didn’t live [in Oakland], I wouldn’t be able to be in the Bay Area either.
This is a theme that’s happening in the world, and if I was just to say it's race, or if I was to say it's technology, I’d be missing the point. This is actually just the class situation that is affecting the world, and it is about to affect it even harder. Another thing that trips me up about being here is how easy it is to lose the point because everything is so good. The food is great, the trees are great. I'm looking at this a lot, too: There are tons of tents in the Bay Area now. So if you are in the tents, we got a whole different conversation. But that’s more proof of the class war, and every ethnicity is in the tents down there. But there’s classes that aren’t in the tents. You go to Paris, you go to Berlin, you go to London, wherever you go, there’s the tents now—if you're lucky. Otherwise, there’s beds. This is a class situation. There are all sorts of races in those beds. I was in San Francisco and I was like, “Damn, the homeless people are back.” This almost looks like the '80s again in San Francisco. And who is not down there? Tech cats, Wall Street cats. The same cats who were never down there. There was a little moment in history after World War II where poor people could appear to be not poor, and that’s all around the board. Now, we are back to pre-World War I. Poor people have never been liked by the world. By "poor people," artists are always in that bag, unless you are Percy Shelley.
"America is not willing to deal with the class issue. I find in Europe that everyone knows about the class issue. They are very clear on that."
Basically, the other great thing about this situation is there’s a confusion about what wealth is. Celebrity confusion. I’m watching that out here, too. I was watching it with students in the Bay Area and a lot of writers, too, when they do these poems about celebrities. Celebrities are not rich people. You don’t ever know who the rich people are. You have to do some research to figure out who a rich person is. So it's the mass confusion on the class situation and the distraction of race. Another thing I find very interesting about what is going on, again, is with racial discrimination and police brutality. I have not heard about any wealthy people being murdered by the police. When wealthy people get arrested, their lawyer is called and they are released on bail. When wealthy people are arrested, they are not thrown on the ground, even if they were eating people. America is not willing to deal with the class issue. I find in Europe that everyone knows about the class issue. They are very clear on that.
For instance, in the States, this is iPad capital of the planet. iMac, iPad, iPhone. I, I, I. No wePads. Whereas, most poetry going on out here is memoir. Because I know a lot of this political poetry that’s happening again, this is not new. The racial rant poetry, the gender rant poetry, all of this me, me, me, my friend, my friend—that’s typical American poetry. That’s literally what Americans brought to poetry when my man Walt Whitman said "Song of myself." That was our addition. So poets from other places that aren’t on this song of my selfie situation are writing about issues more of the human condition. Even if you hear a refugee get up and do a piece, it's about refugees, it’s about them as a refugee. It’s not this cloaked psychological language where me as a black person, or me as a white person, or me as an Asian person. No, it’s about their experience and their environment, and I don’t see that over here, because as one of my good friends and fellow writers Khalil Anthony said, "Most of what America produces is pain porn poetry." A lot of that has to do with the way slam poetry went. "I’m going to get up on stage and try to make you cry. And if I can’t make you cry, I know I am going to make myself cry." Which is cool. There’s a time for that. But when the only way you can get on is by making people cry? That’s not even a problem if there was an alternative to that. But in the States, this is all about Mandingo warrior stuff. You’re going to put two poets in a ring, have them beat each other to death on the stage, give them a trophy, and then determine who is the good poet out of survival of the pain poetry-est. I have never seen that in other countries. Not just in Europe. In South America, in Central America, even in Canada—I have never seen anybody do that, except for the States. But that goes along with everything else in the States.
"An American poet's biggest dream is to be the Donald Trump of poetry."
An American poet's biggest dream is to be the Donald Trump of poetry. It is funny, because if you listen to Donald Trump, he’s running some really shitty slam poems. Basically, at least the people I go hear poetry from, and the spots I go to, it’s dealing more with imagery. It’s dealing more with showing you a feeling by using images, versus just telling you, “I’m fucked up.” It's not discreet. It’s like hieroglyphs. That’s the kind of poetry I like, or writing, or anything. Give me the hieroglyph. The same with painting. My eyes were not made to look at Warhols. I dig Duchamp, but Warhol, no. Richard Prince? No. I want to see what happens to the paint. I want to see the viscosity of the paint. I want to see how colors interact. I want to see hue. I want to see harmony produced through color, shape, form, modulations. I want to see what is happening with the paint on the canvas, or on the wall. I don’t need to see a photo of a celebrity. This is the way to sum it up: I don’t see poets writing poems for fame outside of the U.S. Luckily, in the U.S., there are curators like Nomadic Press, and GAMBA, and other stuff where you have to literally curate out all of the fame poets, because that’s what it means. Even at The Bowery Poetry Club, you go over there, and they vote on who was the most exciting poet. What does that mean? Then you see young poets who don’t win, disgusted and hurt. In what world did poetry become something you can win at? That shit is ridiculous. So the embarrassing shit is when you see the slam poetry fest come to Europe, or come to Guatemala, or come to Chile, because you see crowds coming to poetry. Which is exciting to me, because then I get to sit there and watch the crowd. Because I am not going to go in there and pollute my auditory system with that bullshit. But you see these crowds like it’s a movie. For what? It is a boxing match, and they get to vote. I’m still shocked (and maybe there has been, but I don’t keep up on TV) that there hasn’t been like that show where you had to vote for the pop star. American Idol? Where is American Poet? Did that happen yet? That shit would be hilarious. But that’s how it feels to go to most readings in the States. Then when you see the popular poets from the United States read in other countries, it is interesting, because at least in my experience they are used to the crowd responding like the slam poetry crowds.
"I see people who are not hung up on the fame game of poetry, or of writing. Just people who are enjoying writing."
There was Def Poetry Jam. First of all, If Def Jam is behind the situation, we already know what time it is. The other part of that is, there was this person when I was in school trying to tell me, because I am from before the slam era, that it's racist for me to not like slam. What was interesting to me was that, well, then that’s a racist statement in itself. Because if you think black people, or Filipinos, or Puerto Ricans created slam poetry, you’re ridiculous. "Slam," that word was created by a PR person. The real question, and back to the class thing, is how do you monetize whatever it is that you do? So what happened in a lot of these gentrifying communities, especially Harlem, is that previous inhabitants of Harlem didn’t know how to monetize their experience. How could they? Who had time to figure out how to monetize when you are working a shit job all the time? Who cares about all that? Cats didn’t monetize their situation. You got places down South, juke joints, now they are still there because they monetized their poverty. How does a poet monetize themselves? Well, you get in the game, and if the game is slam poetry, then that’s what it is. In the '60s, there was a game too, and that’s where slam poetry comes out of. If you remember that period, then you know that there is no such thing as slam. It’s just a bunch of Nikki Giovanni, Gil Scott-Heron and Amiri Baraka rejects calling it something else. Then they get up there, and they say shit like, “Well, now I am playing with the band.” No, that’s old as Greece. That’s old as Egypt. That’s old as the rings around Saturn, man. But according to the new nonsense, you've got to always say something is new. That’s what I see out there. I see people who are not hung up on the fame game of poetry, or of writing. Just people who are enjoying writing. In New York and in the Bay Area, you had to literally become Indiana Jones to find writers. You had to become a poet anthropologist to find a crew of people who are committed to craft, and not committed to celebrity.
On capturing rap on paper
"Everyone else’s world is pretty much out there. If it’s not out there in book form, it's out there on some YouTube channel."
The Little Everywhere book, and most of my books, and the novel I’m working on now, the language I’m dealing with is really getting the mind of rappers, and the mind of artists in general, onto paper.
Rappers are tied closer to musicians, supposedly. It didn’t used to be like that, but it is now. Also, if you are from a certain period of rap, everything is a battle. You went from battling another rapper to, then, as you grow older, you begin to battle yourself. So you have an extremely negative battle rapper in your mind constantly destroying you, and I haven’t seen that put on paper yet. You have Dostoyevsky, and you have a lot of stuff Jessica Hagedorn and Roberto Bolaño did, and John A. Williams did, which is great for that time. Because you’ve got John A. Williams jazzing it up (and by jazzing it up, I mean that in the best way), Ralph Ellison going there, you have Jessica Hagedorn incorporating punk rock, and incorporating all that heavy language. It’s the language of thought. It’s the interior language of a character. But I haven’t seen a rapper interior world put down in fiction or in poetry in a way that’s not celebrity-bound. That was the thing that Jessica, John A. Williams, and Bolaño did, is they dealt with the people who aren’t celebrities, which is the majority of the world. So my task with my new stuff, and in the new album, is to get down the non-celebrities. In that sense, I’ve been pulling a lot from indentured narratives of England and France, and stuff like the old slave narratives, just to get a way of delivering information that’s not locked again. It’s like underground rappers are so unimportant to the history now, for the time being, that even though that's most of the rappers on earth, people don’t even talk about it anymore. But they have a very rich interior world, just like everybody else. Everyone else’s world is pretty much out there. If it’s not out there in book form, it's out there on some YouTube channel.
"Social media really helps you feel like a failure."
When underground rappers put their world out there, it’s not paid attention to because they are underground. No one's ever paying attention to them. That’s why they are still underground. Also, I know rappers who are underground are expressing something deeper now in their 30s and 40s that all people can relate to, in the sense that we are in a culture of the I-I, me-me-me, and a lot of people feel completely irrelevant. No one feels more irrelevant than the underground rapper who never got successful, or maybe had a moment, but in their 40s completely failed at being a rapper. A lot of people feel like failures out there. Social media really helps you feel like a failure. So there’s that element of the new writing. So the new book that I’m working on rigorously is going to be about feeling anonymous and feeling irrelevant in the now, and the cloak for getting that information out there is the rapper. I think everyone’s actually a rapper. It’s just that some people were called wack because of this competition thing, and they let it go. But we know our generation, everyone raps. There is either a drunk, a high night, where everyone raps. So our generation was actually tons of rappers. We made rap exist, our generation. Rap is the biggest music on earth now. We did that. We globalized the world, even before the U.N. did. So what the hell are we doing now as rappers? That's what I'm working on.
On an underground rapper who influenced him
"The origins of the rap I come from were contrary."
One of my biggest inspirations in underground rap is one of my good friends who got murdered a couple of years ago. His name was Herman Roberts, III, and we did a whole bunch of music in the '90s. We had a lot of relationships with record labels, but we never came out because we refused to be gangster, misogynistic, murderer-rapist rap, which is what they wanted in the early '90s and mid-'90s, or glamour rap. A lot of people nowadays think that was a conspiracy theory. But no, they would call you, and they would tell you, “No. You are good, that shit sounds great, but we want Snoop Dog times 100. We want Snoop Dog on speed and coke.” The interesting thing about him is that he stayed underground for a minute, and then he flipped and was like, “No, I’m about to go all the way with what they want me to do.” Then based on "keep it real," which is one of the great diseases our generation created, he had to be what he was rapping about, and that lifestyle took him out. But this dude was a complete genius, with insane grades, perfect in high school, scholarships to universities. Then to keep it real with his music, he said, “Whatever, I’m going to go all the way into the street life,” went into it, and the street life took him out. But he was still a genius under all of that, and he was going to use the street life to maneuver back into the route we wanted. From knowing him as well as I did (he was a great Buddhist, and all this other stuff, since he was a little boy), to "keep it real' is what brought him deep into the streets. It brought a lot of us into the streets because it glorified being in the streets. So my whole concept was always, "What if he didn’t do that? What if he, instead of glorifying the street life, went completely opposite of what they wanted him to do?" So he is also one of the main characters in the book I’m working on. But that was the thing—it was always to be contrary. The origins of the rap I come from were contrary.