Thursday, October 7, 2004

The Re-Birth of Cool

  I wasn’t nervous.  I wasn’t prepared, but I wasn’t nervous.  I should’ve been.

  It was the hardest interview I’ve ever done.  Russell Simmons was supposed to be talking to me about his Def Poetry Jam on HBO.  I could’ve done that.  Instead he wanted to talk about Pepsi, and the way they “mistreated” Ludacris, signing him to a multi-million dollar deal, and then dropping him because he didn’t portray the image the company wanted.  No, they’d rather have the Osbournes.  Russell thought it was because they were white.  He may have been right.

  The Ludacris scandal blew over; Def Poetry has not.  Russell Simmons is a brilliant man, a true champion of the arts.  What he has done for music, fashion and comedy, he is now doing for poetry.  He has taken a stagnant, stilted art form and helped to make it cool again.  He has brought poetry to the street—not as hip-hop, and it’s not Shakespeare in the Park.  It’s Poetry.  Tried and true.

  It’s hip-hop without a beat to hide behind.  The lyrics stand on their own, they make their own rhythm.  And they deliver some strong messages. 

  Four episodes from the first season are now out on DVD.  Featuring legendary poets Amiri Baraka (once LeRoi Jones), Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and The Lost Poets, and Dave Chapelle and Cedric the Entertainer performing some poetry of their own, it’s fifteen bucks well-spent.

   Slam poetry, a competitive form of the art that relies more heavily on the spoken word than the written page, has been hot-stepping toward cool for the last five years.  Widely rejected by stuffy academia, it is the poetry of the streets; it is the poetry of the prisons, the layman, the working stiff.  It’s accessible, often funny, and never, ever written in iambic pentameter.

  And it’s catching on.  In cities across the country, slam teams are being formed.  Albuquerque has one.  All three Cruces schools have slam teams.   In fact, last year I made it a point to get involved in the scene.  I felt that too much attention was being given to high school athletics, and academics were going unnoticed.  In radio, we’d give the high school football scores, but never the honor roll. 

  Russell Simmons is to poets of this generation what Jack Kerouac was to poets of the 1950s, what Allen Ginsberg was in the ’60s and ’70s.  But Simmons is also a business man, first and foremost.  Aside from Lawrence Ferlinghetti (founder of San Francisco’s City Lights Books), he could very well be the first true entrepreneur of poetry.

  Def Poetry’s focus is exposing the poetry of the streets.  It’s now in its fourth season on HBO (Sundays, 9 p.m.), and the response is growing.  You can find out more online at

  Poetry has been stolen from the privileged.  It’s ours.  Enjoy it.

                                                                                                             -From Pulse

                                                                                                              October 7, 2004