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The Reinventing Wheel
On Blending the Poetry of Cultures Through Hip Hop Turntablism
by Wayde Compton
A rebirth of black vernacular has appeared since the 1970s with the rise of hip hop - a development that paralleled the rise of remix culture. Ever since DJ Kool Herc invented hip hop DJing, the freedom to fragment prerecorded records also opened up a new attitude, and a new emphasis toward so-called "broken English". This essay traces the relationship between hip hop's broken Englishes, the remixing of present and past cultures, and my ongoing turntable poetry project The Reinventing Wheel.
When I started writing the poems comprising my first book, 49th Parallel Psalm, I was attracted to the languages of black North America (ie, "black Englishes"). This was partly because I was writing several poems about my father, or about black men like him who came to Canada from the United States in the mid-20th century. And part of it was that I was also writing about the first blacks who came to British Columbia in the 19th century. Often I was writing poems "channelling" these people, and so I needed to create imaginary versions of their voices. (I was, at the same time, also interested in the Voodoo religion as a cosmological source culture - for the way that it features possession, the idea of spirits speaking through a person using one's voice and body from a position far away in the spirit realm. It was a good formal metaphor for the historical recovery I was practicing in my poems.)
But at the same time that I was writing these poems about my father and black immigrants like him, I was also writing contemporary poems - poems about myself and my black and mulatto friends. For these contemporary poems, I was also using black Englishes - though I think in a different way, and for different reasons. I was writing about the voices of those children of black migration born in B.C. in the 1970s, and about the ways that they both have and have not inherited oral traditions from other nations. One intervening factor that I found myself dealing with - the source that skews these lineages, and even skews the brokenness of these lineages - was hip hop.
Hip Hop Oralities
Hip hop has changed the world. Black American culture has been flung around the globe before, due to the position of American power in world cultural trade. But hip hop is the conduit of a new kind of black American voice, and therefore a new globally-known black voice. I believe that hip hop's forms are reflective of (to name a few important things) the failure of the American Black Power movement, the marginal success of the American Civil Rights movement, and the near totalization of electronic media in black expressive life in the first world. hip hop's trademark vocal tone is a sort of seething aggravation. This vocal trope is loaded with history, namely the dashed promises of utopian black nationalisms. But at the same time, this voice exhibits an uncoded starkness that is distanced far enough from the furtive, masked complaints of the blues to show the gulf between then and now, in terms of collective self-confidence. The contradictory space between these facts accounts for a creeping nihilism in black expressive culture, as well as an unprecedented degree of freedom-of-speech presently being seized upon by black speakers, and the passing of communal renewals of black languages in favour of a standardizing dialect disseminated worldwide through the media.
For black writers in North America, these conditions constitute a new relationship to the old and treasured orality of our collective memory. While writers like Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka looked to blues and jazz as their sources for memory and form in both poetry and prose (blues and jazz were received as much live as they were from recordings), black writers today have hip hop as their musical concomitant, their living extension of orality. Ironically, it is a type of music that is never quite completely live, but is plugged into a vast media machine that extends into every home and every ear individually more than communally. In the small culturally isolated black communities of western Canada, this individualization is exacerbated.
Upon thinking further about these issues of contemporary black Englishes here in Vancouver, I noticed that the formal element of hip hop that I was most attracted to was turntablism: the manipulation of received sound and received culture. In my particular corner of the black diaspora, this system for carrying orality forward seems the most fitting, moreso than emceeing (the direct speaking of these Englishes), because the continuance of black Englishes here rarely comes out of direct lineages.
I also liked what I saw in the dualism of the turntables as a possible metaphor, in and of itself, for a reflective mise-en-abyme of influences. If I could find a way to make poetry on the turntables, then elements of ancient, non-literate, vestigial African culture could be blended directly into textual poetry, and both could be blended back into hip hop. The back-and-forth reflection of forms and conditions seems evident in the very imagery of the "ones and twos": the cornerstones of hip hop, the DJ's materials - the left and the right turntable, two halves of a dichotomy. The poetry would arise through the cultural "feedback" these loops would spark.
I wrote a poem about these issues, and then read and recorded it in Trevor Thompson's Vancouver bedroom studio. I sent the digital recording to a plant in Colorado that makes one-off test pressings known as "dub plates", and had this a capella rendition concretized into two playable records. Then, while enjoying a writer-in-residence stint at Green College, UBC, I practiced mixing these two dub plates live with various instrumental hip hop and spoken word records. Having no background as a DJ at that time, this was a learning process for me. What resulted was a performance "mix" of the poem entitled The Reinventing Wheel. I call that first mix, which I performed in Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary in 2001-2002, the Cargo Cult Mix.
Cycles in Spin
Both titles speak to the formal and cultural issues at hand. I am fascinated by notions of African cyclicity and reincarnation as metaphors for culture. Kamau Brathwaite speaks of "tidalectics" - his scrambled neologism for a dialectic that does not move forward, but rather transforms statically. I think he means that each person, each beat, each stage of culture is a version of the last one, and is not a progressive disjuncture. If this is the case, then the orality of temporally- and spatially-removed Africa can also be this new electronic orality. The idea is not to break, or even to preserve, but to repeat; and to celebrate repetition, knowing that you will mis-duplicate - and that the mis-duplications are the closest achievable thing to an actual you. Where is agency? Perhaps in the doubling: I enjoy the idea of transforming my voice (myself, that is) into a static disc to be manipulated by the later me, the next me, from above. The remix is a way of - in one moment and one performance - re-enacting the manipulation of history and source culture. In The Reinventing Wheel, this happens in the body of one man made into two voices by the turntables.
Or two men and four turntables: I've begun working with a partner, a second DJ named Jason De Couto, so the turntables will now be quadruple in the second stage of this formal experiment. De Couto is both Japanese and white, and so is like me of a racially-mixed background. Because of this, the new performance, with its multiplying reinventions, will suit an even wider discussion of this country's socially and culturally re-mixed character. We call it The Reinventing Wheel: Rolling Wave Mix.
Wayde Compton lives in Vancouver and teaches English at Coquitlam College. He is the author of 49th Parallel Psalm (Arsenal Pulp Press, 1999) and the editor of Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2002). With Jason De Couto, he is one half of the Contact Zone Crew, a turntablist poetry performance project. Their recording of The Reinventing Wheel: Rolling Wave Mix appears here as a special commission for HorizonZero.