In the late ’90s, my childhood friend and Rolling Stone colleague Holly George-Warren was editing a book for Hyperion Press on the writers of the Beat Generation and asked if I might be interested in contributing. Having grown up in the ’70s reading Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and begun my music journalism career in the ’80s covering hip-hop acts like Public Enemy and Stetsasonic, I jumped at the opportunity to connect these two cultures. I’d been thinking about this connection for years and talking about it incessantly with friends and fellow writers. Now, I was getting the chance to write about it for a book that also featured essays by some of my longtime favorite writers: Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Hettie Jones, Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Mikal Gilmore, Greil Marcus, Anthony DeCurtis, Patti Smith, and many others, including Holly herself. This piece appears in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture (Hyperion).
By Mark Kemp, Hyperion Press, 1999
Chuck D looked at me quizzically, his furrowed brow barely showing beneath the bill of his black Raiders cap. “Sure,” the rapper said as I handed him a yellowed copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. “I’ll read it. Sounds interesting.”
The year was 1994 and I had caught up with Public Enemy’s commanding frontman backstage at Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, where his group was about to open for U2’s Zoo TV Tour. For months I had been trying to facilitate a discussion between Chuck, the most compelling wordsmith of late-Eighties hip-hop, and Ginsberg, the most influential poet of the Beat Generation. This transgenerational summit meeting would be published for posterity in the pages of Option, the alternative-culture magazine that I edited at the time. Why did I wish to foist a young African American rapper who once declared Louis Farrakhan a prophet onto a sexagenarian, homosexual, Jewish poet? Well, because I believed these two men had more in common than most people might expect.
Take Public Enemy’s 1988 bombshell of a song “Night of the Living Bassheads,” in which Chuck D laments how freebase cocaine had weakened the hopes of his generation: “My man Daddy-O once said to me / He knew a brother who stayed all day in his Jeep / And at night he went to sleep / And in the morning all he had was / The sneakers on his feet / The culprit used to jam and rock the mike, yo / He stripped the Jeep to fill his pipe / And wander around to find a place / Where they rocked to a different kind of bass.” Rewind thirty-four years earlier, when Ginsberg, in “Howl,” so graphically and yet so tenderly voiced his similarly existential view of wasted youth: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by / madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn / looking for an angry fix…”
Rather than try to follow in the Beats’ footsteps, hip-hop artists simply are their modern-day equivalents. The Beats’ work expressed existential self-awareness through participation in the here and now — a message also found within the colliding beats, samples, and rhythms of hip-hop. The soul of Beat lingers in the rhymes of rappers, whose often willfully antagonistic language conveys — in the parlance of Norman Mailer in his 1957 essay “The White Negro” — the idea that “in a bad world there is no love nor mercy nor charity nor justice unless a man can keep his courage…”
You can draw a line from the original Beats to the New Beats — as writer S.H. Fernando Jr. dubbed hip-hop culture in his 1994 book The New Beats: Exploring the Music, Culture, and Attitudes of Hip-Hop — following each movement’s linkage of jazz to spoken-word poetry. Contemporary practitioners include the Blue Note beats of Us3, the bebop badness of Digable Planets, the boombastic big-band sound of the Dream Warriors, as well as the Native Tongues collective (Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul) and the avant-garde playfulness of the Disposable Heroes of HipHoprisy, the Beastie Boys, and Beck.
But Beat attitude, Beat consciousness, the Beat lifestyle is more about irreverence than obligatory jazz references or self-consciously arty literary devices, although those elements were surely part of the rebelliousness of the original Beats. The Beat Generation’s essence, for instance, reverberates in Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos” — the ability to survive in the face of hopelessness and despair. As Jack Kerouac once wrote and recited to the jazz playing of pianist Steve Allen, “Anyway, I wrote the book because we’re all gonna die.”
The original Beats surfaced just after the explosion of the atom bomb. The New Beats peaked as crack and AIDS had begun corroding an entire generation. So for the hip-hop generation, the phrase “keeping it real” became the mantra du jour, as much as “be here now” was used by the post-Beat hippie generation. Keep it real for yourself. Keep it real for your circle of friends. Keep it real for the survival of your culture. And, most of all, don’t trust The Man. It is a concept so nihilistic it’s downright spiritual — like Kerouac’s spirituality in the hour of his own generation’s chaos. It’s no wonder that the most foul-mouthed gangsta rappers routinely thank God in their album credits. The idea is, we’re going to party now, define ourselves and live the lives we choose in this very moment, because at any time — to paraphrase wanna-Beat Jim Morrison — the whole shithouse might come falling down.
In 1979, THE SUGERHILL GANG bum-rushed the Billboard charts, selling two million copies of a goofy little single called “Rapper’s Delight.” Back then, hip-hop culture, like the Beat Generation in the 1940s, was still a very underground New York phenomenon. DJs and MCs knew each other, traded rhymes, participated in mock feuds over who were the best lyricists in the neighborhood. They were friends and sparring partners, they name-checked each other in song.
The style had come from an earlier form of rap that began in the dance clubs of the Caribbean, where DJs would chatter over the records they played. In the book Reggae, Deep Roots Music, one of those DJs, Machouki, explained that “sometimes when we listen to the record and find that music is wanting, we would inter-serve something like ‘Get on the ball…’ and cover the weakness in the record. It was live jive and it really made people feel happy.” The same philosophy prevailed during rap’s earliest days in New York. But with competition growing among DJs, that talk soon developed into the onomatopoetic poetry of “Rapper’s Delight” and the reality verse of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s lyrical ghetto documentary “The Message.”
By the mid-1980s, numerous groups were creating this new style of Beat poetry — Run-DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys — and taking it to the pop charts, where it began competing with traditional pop and rock & roll. By the latter part of the decade, hip-hop had splintered into so many different varieties that new subgenres were invented, although the denizens of hip-hop culture, like the close-knit members of the Beat Generation in the 1950s, remained in strong solidarity.
WHEN GROUPS like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the other members of hip-hop’s self-defined Native Tongues collective trade rhymes and complete each other’s thoughts in their Beat wordplay, they are continuing a tradition of freestyle spoken word that goes back to the New York and San Francisco coffeehouses of the 1950s. When Greg Tate writes about hip-hop culture, his prose dances and sings just as Kerouac’s did when he wrote about jazz. In his 1988 essay “Homeys on the Rage: Public Enemy,” Tate characterizes a typical hip-hop audience: “The latest floor craze is hyperkinetic — neck, head, elbows, and feet spasmodically jerking and shuffling every which way. Electric boogie meets lindy bop.” A more recent member of hip-hop culture, New York’s DJ Spooky, even took his alias, “The Subliminal Kid,” from the character in William S. Burroughs’s The Ticket That Exploded and Nova Express who distorts reality by exposing the world to cut-up films and tapes of past and present cultures.
Indeed, the looping rhythms of hip-hop contain the very core of the “Beat” in Beat Generation: More than any popular youth counterculture since the 1960s — save for the most obscure fringes of the avant-garde — hip-hop’s cut-and-paste interpretation of modern life can be directly traced to Burroughs. Moreover, the swinging, bopping cadence of its words juxtaposed against the thump-thump-thump of the music have kept alive the spirit of Kerouac’s readings backed by jazz musicians. Another aspect of hip-hop that recalls early Beat writing is the name-dropping of fellow rappers. Just as Kerouac’s novels were populated by thinly disguised versions of Ginsberg, Cassady, and other friends, Chuck D’s quoting his buddy Daddy-O of Stetsasonic, in “Night of the Living Bassheads” exemplifies this.
IN THE 1990s, hip-hop has taken Beat consciousness into white suburbia in a way that would positively stun Jack Kerouac. Its beats and attitude rule MTV; its clothing colors runways from New York to Paris. No longer do fresh-faced white kids have to wait until freshman year of college to face the existential panic of living alone, without a safety net. Instead, they can listen to Tupac Shakur’s “All Eyez on Me” on the radio: “Was hyper as a kid, alone, as a teenager, on the mobile / Calling big shots on the scene major / Packing hundreds in my drawers, Fuck the law / Bitches, I fuck with a passion, livin’ rough and raw / Catchin’ cases at a fast rate, ballin’ in the fast lane / Hustle ’til the morning, never stopped until the cash came / I live my life as a Thug n***a until the day I die.” The clipped cadence of Shakur’s words and the self-conscious disrespect of the “bitches I fuck” hark back to Kerouac’s speed-crazed writing in The Subterraneans: “… he pushed a violinist q***r into a doorway and I pushed another one in, he slugged his, I glared at mine, I was 18, I was a nannybeater and fresh as a daisy too …”
Shakur’s stark images of contemporary urban life have galvanized millions of white suburban youths just as the passion of jazz galvanized the small circle of white Beat writers who had come together at Harlem’s neighboring Columbia University during the 1940s. The romance of hopelessness. The idea of the dread of self-discovery that inspired Mailer’s “The White Negro”: “So no wonder that in certain cities of America … this particular part of a generation was attracted to what the Negro had to offer. In such places as Greenwich Village, a menage-a-trois was completed — the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life.” Mailer’s group of young white outcasts came to the realization that, “Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk.” The difference between those outcast white bohemians of the Fifties and the white suburban hip-hop consumers of the Nineties is that the group is no longer small, nor does it merely consist of outcasts.
There always was a crucial missing link in the Beat Generation, though. That missing link was the Black poet himself. LeRoi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka, and a strong adherent of young, contemporary African American poets and rappers) held the key to the insights that might have rendered the Beat Generation a great literary force rather than just an enduring influence on popular culture. Behind the hype surrounding Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg and the rest were Black poets whose words were every bit as powerful as Charlie Parker’s bop that so inspired Kerouac’s writing style. But until recently, we’ve known little about such fringe figures as Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, and Iceberg Slim (who inspired rapper Ice-T’s moniker).
Foremost among the earliest music-backed Black spoken-word artists were Los Angeles’ Watts Prophets, formed in 1967, followed a year later by New York’s Last Poets. The Black musician, writer, and spoken-word artist who took this new jive Beat style to FM-rock radio was Gil Scott-Heron, whose 1974 version of his musical poem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was one of the earliest well-known “rap” songs, although the genre had not yet been named. As influential as all of these protorappers were, however, it wasn’t until Public Enemy shouted “Bring the Noise” that the message of the Black Beats reached a more mainstream audience.
In the end, my dream meeting between Chuck D and Allen Ginsberg never happened. Public Enemy’s political style of rap gave way to a new wave of New Beats — the West Coast gangsta rappers. Ginsberg died of cancer. And yet, in the ensuing years, the link between the Beat Generation and the Hip-Hop Nation has only grown stronger and more pervasive in our culture. In retrospect, I realize that Chuck D and Allen Ginsberg were destined not to have that meeting. The New Beats are themselves, not tied to the white sages of old. From Sugarhill Gang to Public Enemy, De La Soul to Tupac Shakur, the New Beats create their own work with words that live in the here and now, not bound by tradition. Words that break rules. These artists are Beats if for no other reason than because they refuse to bow down to the mantle of Beat.
Allen Ginsberg reads “Howl” (Chicago, 1959)
Public Enemy performs “Night of the Living Bassheads” (1988)
@ Mark Kemp, 1999
First published in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture, edited by Holly George-Warren