“Spoken Floz,” Prisoners Retake Over of Hip Hop

Prisoners through Spoken Floz, a Rap hybird, want to reassert their place as the orginators of Hip Hop’s Rap.

Hip Hop is in the reporting sphere of Darealprisonart. We are a subsidiary of Artist Social Network, and its flagship in a consortium of Street cultural blogs, websites, podcasts, and seller of Prisoner Art prints. We are responsible for publishing Darealprisonart Magazine (The online magazine of the visual and literary artistic musings of prisoners. Stories in the movement to end mass incarceration through art),[1] the online news daily, Da Real Hip Hop News (From da Hood to Hollywood and Everything in-Between),[2] and the websites, The Street Poetz (Poetry from thoz in the streets),[3] and Mprisond Poetz (Poetry from thoz mprisond).[4] We have been alerting the public to the Art scene inside of American prisons, and if anyone doubted such a scene was taking place, we would simply state the obvious, “If the 2.3 million American prison population were a city, it would be the fourth largest behind New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, all known for very vibrant art scenes.” Roughly five-years-ago, we began publishing stories on a hybrid form of Hip Hop called Spoken Floz. When we asked Jimmy “Natidapoet” McMillan, to define for us Spoken Floz, he visibly became frustrated. He stressed, it wasn’t for reading, it was for hearing. California prisoner, and Oakland native, Natidapoet, who is credited with developing this artform, defines Spoken Floz as an eclectic blend of Hip Hop, Poetry, and Spoken Word. “It’s a new form of music that truly must be experienced through the words of the artist.” To get a clearer picture of this artform, it must be put into a context.

Poetry, Spoken Word, and Rap, have different rules, but two things in common, word flow and storytelling. Rap resembles Spoken Word, but is very different in it’s sound and culture. Rap’s focus is on the rhythm, rhyme, and musicality. Poetry is based on word flow and rhyme alone. Spoken Word is not based on rhyme, although rhyming is allowed. More recently, more artists are merging it with music, but it’s not necessary. Spoken Word is one of the most uninhibited word based art forms. It virtually has no rules other than word-flow and story line. Though it’s word-flow is poetic, it’s rules are not the same as poetry. Spoken Word has a special swagger and most of all it is written to be spoken.[5]

Hip Hop is made of many elements, of those elements, four, has the most consensus. These are Graffiti, Breakin, DJing, and MCing. The founding father in Graffiti, Daryl “Cornbread” McCray,”[6] and in MCing, Kool Herc,[7] owe the start of their careers to African American prison culture. Kool Herc is not only the founder in MCing, but in DJing as well. Herc is Jamaican born, and emigrated to America at 12 with his parents and six siblings. In those days in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, street parties would occur whenever a truck showed up carrying a generator, huge speakers, and turntables. These turntables would be operated by a deejay who would accompany their music with a speech, called a Toast. Toasting in the Jamaican musical style of reggae or dancehall, is a musician known as a deejay (DJ), who sings and “toasts” to an instrumental rhythm. During his innovation called the merry-go-round, of extending the instrumental portion of a record’s beat break, Herc is attributed by several scholarly works to have introduced the Toasts heard coming out of U.S. prisons.[8][9]

Bruce Jackson (May 21, 1936), the Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York, Buffalo, in his 1974 book, Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: African-American Narrative Poetry from the Oral Tradition, Include CD,[10] in the Chapter “Telling And Learning Toasts,” describes Toasting as:

Toasts are not recited, they are acted; the teller does not just say a toast, he performs it. His voice changes from the various personae of the poem, and sometimes there is another voice for the narrator. There are differences in stress, and accent, and clarity of articulation for various characters. The toast is a kind of Street Theater, a theater involving only one performer at a time. People who can say the lines but cannot act them get little opportunity to perform, because they are boring.

While Toasts are told at parties, weddings, lounging around bars, street corners, naval ships crossing a boring ocean, they seem to have been told in county jails more than anywhere else. In the mid-90s, the lead man to the avant-garde art rock band, King Missile, John Hall, was also a member of the Defy Jam Poetry Slam circuit. Hall, who is white, once said in an interview, “When I was going to poetry readings in New York 10 years ago, there was a lot of great writing, but there weren’t great readers, and they weren’t particularly interested in how they were presenting their work. I saw this as an opportunity. I could go and maybe not write so well, but I could scream or have some urgency to my delivery that could get some kind of response. A couple of people complimented my writing. But mostly it’s a matter of being noticed. Presentation.”[11] The New York band’s best-known material were spoken rants over music, done with a passion that took them out of the realm of mere readings.

Having established the different cultures, and the different cultural differences in delivery, where did their content derive?

Africans who were sold into slavery in the United States were predominantly from West Africa, there they had a rich oral tradition. These oral storytellers are known by the French term grios. In the United States, slaves were not allowed to read nor write for fear of forging passes to escape to non-slave States, and for fear of insurrection. Nat Turner’s insurrection only exasperated this fear. With everything, there are exceptions to the rule.

Oppressed people create fictional tales whereby their bully gets bullied. Since the bully generally represents an oppressor, whose oppression is part of the norm, and legal, the anti-bully can either come from the ranks of the bully in the form of a hero, or come from outside of the oppressor’s legal framework, in the form of an anti-hero. Think Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich but gave to the poor. Think George Washington, although not fictional, he fulfills the duty of, “One man’s terrorist, is another man’s freedom fighter,” as he was a terrorist to the British Crown, but a freedom fighter to the colonists. Art Spiegelman in the Guardian writes, “The young Jewish creators of the first superheroes conjured up mythic, almost god-like secular saviours to deal with the threatening economic dislocations that surrounded them in the Great Depression and gave shape to their premonitions of impending global war. Comics allowed readers to escape into fantasizing by projecting themselves onto invulnerable Heroes.”[12]

In 1881, journalist, fiction writer, and folklorist, Joel Chandler Harris published Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, a collection of animal stories, songs, and folklore, collected from southern black Americans, told in a Deep South Negro dialect. The book was well-received, and Harris published five more Uncle Remus books between 1883 and 1907. In the books, Uncle Remus, a kindly former slave, tells stories to a group of children, passing on the folktales of his culture. The stories involve Br’er Rabbit, a trickster figure who eludes captivity and danger by outsmarting the more powerful predators, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. Uncle Remus and His Tales of Br’er Rabbit was an American Disney comic strip that ran on Sundays from October 14, 1945 to December 31, 1972.

One West African trickster is known as Anansi, and represents a spider. In film it’s Harlem Nights, in television it’s Breaking Bad, in African American prison folklore, it’s the hustler. In the 1984 book Hip Hop, Herc states the inspiration for his rapping style was James Brown and the album Hustler’s Convention. The Hustler’s Convention by Lightnin’ Rod, the pseudonym of Jalal Mansur Nuriddin of the Last Poets, is a 12-track tale of “Sport,” who goes from a gremlin league hustler to death row. Here are excerpts from the first track, Sport:

It was a full moon in the middle of June

In the summer of ’59

I was young and cool and shot a bad game of pool

And hustled all the chumps I could find

Well now they called me Sport cause I pushed a boss short

And loved all the women to death

I partied hard and packed a mean rod

And could knock you out with a right or a left

I had learned to shoot pool playing hooky from school

At the tender age of nine

And by the time I was eleven I could pad-roll seven

And down me a whole quart of wine

I was making it a point to smoke me a joint

At least once during the course of a day

And I was snorting scag while other kids played tag

And my elders went to church to pray

I’ve pitched pennies and downed bennies. . .[13]

These are the heroes to the low skilled Black men who are locked in a system that deprives them economic mobility in gaining access for them and their family to the middle class. As Frantz Franon wrote in The Wretched of the Earth, “Pushing a cart down the Garment district is unAmerican, driving a Cadillac is not.” The hustler ain’t wearing a cape, ain’t wearing no tights, and ain’t taking no shorts [short money], as Jennifer Lane writes in her essay, “Social Context and Musical Content Rap Music, 1979 -1995”:

“hardcore rap lyrics feature a ‘hustler’ as a protagonist. The hustler dominates or victimizes others using force and seduction; hustlers personify accomplishment against the odds; they live in a world of reverse power where the oppressed are powerful” (486) While the traditional trickster would often steal, typically they subverted power through the careful employment of intelligence. By contrast, the hustler subverted the power structure forcefully, brazenly, and unapologetically, gaining wealth and reputation in the process. The strategy of choice for hustlers was crime, which is intrinsically subversive.[14]

In Once Upon A Time…, this generation of Great American prison poets, Donald “C-Note” Hooker, the King of Prison Hip Hop, who has been compared to urban poet Tupac,[15] and folk song writer/poet Bob Dylan,[16] gives us a glimpse of the ultimate hustler, who roams the streets in the ultimate badass vehicle, a Humvee, and at the barrel of his pistol lets you know, “What’s yours, is mines.” Like Sport in Hustler’s Convention, who found himself on death row, C-Note’s protagonist ends his story with a life sentence term of imprisonment. In 2015, a music version of Once Upon A Time… was released on Soundcloud. It was the first time Spoken Floz had been set to music and published. C-Note delivers his lyrics over a Dr. Dre inspired beat, produced by returning citizen DJ jRiZzz.

While oral traditions have produced both the trickster, who uses intellect, and the superhero, who uses brute strength, not everything is entrenched warfare against an opposition party, sometimes the stories are of internal battles. In Distorted Reflections, Natidapoet gives us his Spoken Floz’s  version of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, but with a twist, the mirror is distorted. He takes us on a journey of what is purportedly reflected back at him, and the internal struggles of how to best react to these distorted reflections. His performance emphasizes the theatrical nature of the Toast, Spoken Word, and Spoken Floz, Poetry that cannot be lifted from poetic text alone.

Flowin from The Strindberg Laboratory on Vimeo.

African American folklore is not solely about the trickster who tries to outsmart the system, or the hustler, who feeds off the community, there is a third, the anti Anti Hero. This hero is reflected in the fictional character of Kenyatta, in a series of books authored by Donald Goines.[17] Kenyatta’s goals were to liberate the community from the tyranny of Street crime by taking on the hustler, while simultaneously freeing the criminal and the citizen from the heavy hand of the law. In End All Hostilities, returning citizen Minister King X, aka Pyeface, known on the prison yards as the George Jackson of Rapp, takes on the criminal mentality that produces crime, and the system that created 25% of the world’s prison population, while only being 4% of the world’s population. King, who spent 24 years behind bars, six in the feds, and 18 in California’s maximum security prisons, with his messages of peace, was a thorn in the side of a Prison Industrial Complex, whose business model is reliant on a complicit criminal justice system to find citizens to fill the coffers of prison beds. King, who is an Oakland native, and has done time with both Natitdapoet and C-Note, employs all the tools of the African oral tradition by conjuring up the lion, the eagle, an armed gorilla on horseback, a fire breathing dragon, and a snake, animating and elevating them to their mythical status of creatures of contention, against a corrupt system that still holds the brave men who signed a peace accord to end all hostilities in California prisons and county jails amongst the races.

Work Cited

[1] Darealprisonart Magazine

[2] Da Real Hip Hop News
http://news.darealhiphop.org/#/

[3] The Street Poetz | Poetz from the streets
https://thestreetpoetz.org

[4] Mprisondpoetz | Poetry From Thoz Mprisond
https://mprisondpoetz.wordpress.com/

[5] “What is the Difference Between Spoken Word Poetry, Rap and Poetry?” WORD UP 411, 1 Sept. 2017, https://wordup411ng.com/what-is-the-difference-between-spoken-word-poetry-rap-and-poetry/#

[6] Cornbread (graffiti artist) – Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornbread_(graffiti_artist)

[7] DJ Kool Herc – Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DJ_Kool_Herc

[8] Mclaren, Peter. Revolutionary Multiculturalism: Pedagogies Of Dissent For The New Millennium. Routledge, 2018, Google Books
https://books.google.com/books?id=jf_EDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA156&lpg=PA156&dq=DJ+Kool+Herc+prison-style+rap

[9] Low, Bronwen. Slam School: Learning Through Conflict in the Hip-Hop and Spoken Word Classroom. Stanford University Press, 2011, Google Books
https://books.google.com/books?id=t5WHU-FjdCsC&pg=PA7&lpg=PA7&dq=prison+style+rap

[10] Jackson, Bruce. Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: African-American Narrative Poetry from the Oral Tradition, Includes CD. Routledge, 2004, Google Books
https://books.google.com/books?id=iD2TAgAAQBAJ&pg=PT16&lpg=PT16&dq=African-American+males+toasting+in+prison

[11] Catlin, Roger. “The MTV generation takes a literary turn by embracing rap-tinged poetry slams.” The Baltimore Sun, 21 Feb. 2004, https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1994-02-21-1994052139-story,amp.html

[12] Spiegelman, Art. “Art Spiegelman: golden age superheroes were shaped by the rise of fascism.”  The Guardian, 17 Aug. 2019, https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/17/art-spiegelman-golden-age-superheroes-were-shaped-by-the-rise-of-fascism

[13] Lightnin’ Rod – Sport | Genius
https://genius.com/Lightnin-rod-sport-annotated

[14] Lena, Jennifer C. “Social Context andusical Content: Rap Music, 1979-1995.” Poetics, vol. 85, no. 1, pp. 479–495

[15] [16] C-note
https://www.c-note.org/

[17] Kenyatta series – Wikipedia
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenyatta_series

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