Today, when we think of Victorian poets a number of words spring to mind, most of them synonyms for boredom. But did you know that some poets were hard as fuck, and had 19th-Century rap battles that put modern beefs to shame? Competing poets would don different heights of bowler hat like modern hip hop artists wear gang colors, and spit rhymes (although in those days “writing them down” was preferred) that would make their butlers blush!
Consider the following early influences on some of our most popular rappers of the last three decades:
This verse by poet Cholera Hound was loosely referenced by Dr Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg in their hit from The Chronic (1992, Priority Records), “Bitches ain’t shit”:
“Women have no value in our society, except as fornicators: the only variable being are they amateurs, or do they get paid for their promiscuity and lack of morality?”
The Opium-Den Clan were the obvious inspiration when the Wu-Tang Clan wrote “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin Ta Fuck Wit” on their album Enter the Wu-Tang (1993 RCA Records):
“If you would like to be involved in a contretemps, then make haste to my locale. We are the incorrect choice to start a dispute with! We come direct from some truly poisonous and crowded tenements, a broken demographic, and we are intransigent, almost pathologically so. We are the incorrect choice to start a dispute with.”
This excerpt shows that poet Ha’penny had already written “In Da Club” 150 years before 50 Cent (from Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 2003 Interscope Records):
“I will be available in the saloon (for that is my mode d’emploi) with a snifter of brandy, although let me inform you mater that if you enjoy something a little more stimulating, I may well have some laudanum available for your imbibing. I find sexual congress preferable to romantic involvement, so you will find an embrace waiting for you should you be desirous of frottage.”
And finally, possibly the most seminal rap group of them all, NWA, took inspiration from this poem by Teapots With Vim when they wrote “Compton’s N The House,” from 1988’s Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless Records):
“How would you designate a writers-collective who write in this manner?”
“Well we would brand those incestuous paillards abhorrent.”
“Please explain further, for the temporal environment is conducive — why would we assign them as such?”
“Ah, because, they have an awful manuscript and they themselves are dreadful.”
“And what of their vernacular?”
This poem was hugely successful, especially on the West Coast (of England, for example in the counties of Cornwall and Devon), because it ably described how wacky wack a lot of other poets and their crews were.
This was a fertile era for poetry and indeed for rap music. If it’s any indication of how closely these two cultures fit together, consider the zeitgeist of the time, written by any number of so-called poets, and compare it to modern-day rap artists’ assertions that they haven’t “sold out”:
“Do not assume that I have vacated the environs and moved to a dwelling on the hill — I still live in the topographically-lower and more overpopulated neighbourhood.”
Even then a house in the hills was a reason to distrust a poet who had made their name with verse from the streets.
Truly a case of different times, same problems.
Simon Pinkerton is a contributor at Queen Mob’s Tea House, duh. Also at McSweeney’s, Minor Literature[s] and Maudlin House among others. Love him @simonpinkerton on Twitter and www.simonpinkerton.tumblr.com on, um, Tumblr.