Exploring Intertextual Relationships in Rap Rhetorics
Yesterday, a student of mine schooled me on an album I’m embarrassed to say I’d never listened to: Songs in the Key of Love by Stevie Wonder. Of particular interest to me was the song “Pastime Paradise” featuring L.V.
The song describes two camps of “they,” the ones who have “been wasting most of their time/ Glorifying days long gone behind” and those who have been “been looking in their minds/ For the day that sorrow's lost from time.” The former camp can be read as conservative racists pining for the bygone era of moonlight and magnolias in the gallant south. They are the ones who have been “spending most their lives/ Living in a pastime paradise.” Comparatively, the second camp represents those who were once physically enslaved and whose descendants are now victims of “race relations” which include “segregation/Dispensation, isolation/Exploitation, mutilation.” These are the intended audience for Stevie Wonder, the people of color circa 1976 who are constantly dreaming of a “future paradise,” one that is either an improvement of current societal issues, or a spiritual utopia for the souls of the persecuted.
And yet, the most interesting thing to me about this song is that I already knew it without knowing it. What do I mean? Well, the melody and instrumentation were so well-known to me that it felt eerie…perhaps uncanny…and nearly comical hearing it presented in its original form. Why? Because I am MUCH more familiar with Coolio’s version of the song, “Gangsta’s Paradise.”
Coolio’s song interpolates the original instrumentation, but the lyrics take on a new meaning. This song points to the criminal lifestyle of the “gangsta,” an archetypical rags-to-riches character made especially popular in the post-Reagan era of Hip-Hop. These figures who are traditionally glorified in rap, are accused of being “blind” to the hurt and pain they cause themselves and their community. Coolio implies that the “gangsta’s paradise” is simply an illusion. Though he is empathetic with the mindset of those who feel they “can't live a normal life” or who were ”raised by the state,” he implies that this behavior will yield no future reward.
Despite the narrative differences, both songs still feature strong religious references and allusions from Christianity. Stevie Wonder references the coming of a future savior, for example, while Coolio begins with an iconic quote from Psalm 23. Both indicate a larger theme of mortality versus spirituality and how those beliefs are complicated in a chaotic, violent, and oppressive world.
My student’s also pointed out that, though I was familiar with the song, I had never watched the music video featuring…Michelle Pfeiffer??? That’s right, “Gangsta’s Paradise” was the most iconic song on Coolio’s second album of the same name, partly because it was released first as part of the film Dangerous Minds (1995). The soundtrack went triple platinum and Coolio won a bag of awards including a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance and an MTV Video Music Award for Best Rap Video.
Of course, no discussion of this song would be complete without mentioning Weird Al’s equally amazing parody, “Amish Paradise.” This song samples Coolio’s version, maintains the cadence and meter of Coolio’s raps, and even stays on theme regarding the dueling Christian consciousness of present toils and future rewards.
By this point, you might be wondering…why the heck does any of this matter? To that I say to you, welcome back to another installment of the Rap Rhetorics blog! Today I want to share with you some really cool work my students have produced regarding the topic of “rhetorical intertextuality.” I first encountered this concept in an article by James Porter entitled “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community” (1986) and I immediately thought of Hip-Hop. In a nutshell, Porter argues that all texts are interdependent and that they contain traces of the writing and culture within which they were composed. Writers can intentionally cite, reference, quote, iterate on, or presuppose other texts in their compositions in order to produce some kind of rhetorical effect on an audience.
So, why did I think of Hip-Hop?
Mostly because intertextuality is the very heart of what Hip-Hop culture is all about–combining, revising, remixing, synthesizing–making what was once old new again by reinventing it for new rhetorical situations. The very first way this was done was with two turntables and a microphone–pioneers like DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Grand Wizard Theodore invented a new language with their looping and scratching techniques. Not only could these early DJs linger longer on the break beats of a hot dance track, they could transition between tracks, blending together beats and sounds that had not yet been combined–they could explore and invent the sonic intertext LIVE.
As Hip-Hop evolved and emcees became more prominent, rappers too began “biting flows” and/or paying homage to the greats with lines that reference other artists lyrics. One relatively recent example I shared with my students is a song called “Headstone” by Flatbush Zombies. I have yet to count the number of artists/songs this one track references, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s in the hundreds.
So, for the second major project in my first-year writing classes, I asked students to explore this concept of intertextuality as it exists in Hip-Hop. One mistake I made is likely giving them too many options with not enough formal constraints. Though I think this assignment idea is one of my favorites, I plan to revise it SIGNIFICANTLY before I teach it again. Partly this is because the student work was not really where I wanted it to be–again, I take the blame for not presenting the genre and the writing task more effectively. Below are the instructions I gave my students in their Project 2 Packet:
Project 2: Script for the Rap Rhetorics Podcast
Why Do This Assignment?
Project 2 teaches you about writing monologues or scripts (like for a podcast!) and how to concisely communicate complex ideas about rhetoric and Hip-Hop in a way public audiences can appreciate. You will compose a short transcript and record an even shorter excerpt of audio if you decide to participate in the Rap Rhetorics Podcast Project. This project gives you practice thinking about the differences between writing for the page and writing for the mic.
Detailed Assignment Instructions:
Great news—you’ve been invited to speak on the Rap Rhetorics Podcast! It’s kind of like Dissect in that it’s a music podcast interested in the connections between Hip-Hop, cultural movements, and rhetorical theory. This episode is all about the concept of “intertextuality” and how it might help listeners understand different artforms in Hip-Hop.
Don’t worry, you’re not alone on this episode and it’s not a live stream. In fact, a LOT of guest speakers have been invited and the producers plan on remixing your interviews to create a kind of narrative collage—because, you know, Hip-Hop, babyyy!
So, since there are so many guests, it's REALLY important for you to pay attention to time limits for recording. Your final script should take no longer than 3-5 minutes to read from start to finish. In this full script, you will provide a brief introduction to the concept of intertextuality as James Porter describes it, and how this idea is central to Hip-Hop from what you’ve studied so far. The bulk of your script should be used to describe a few specific examples from writers on our syllabus and how they illustrate what intertextuality means for Hip-Hop. In your monologue, you can talk about any song and as many songs as you like, but make sure to not go over 5 minutes.
For Project 2, you will submit and be graded on a short script. If you decide to record an audio excerpt of your script for use in the Rap Rhetorics Podcast Project, then I will offer you extra credit on Project 2. If you decide to submit an audio excerpt, please highlight the text in your script that you read in your recording. This will help save me time when I edit hundreds of snippets of audio together!
If you decide to upload an audio excerpt for extra credit, please keep your audio recordings to 30 seconds or less. This will make it much easier for me to edit this together into a hopefully-interesting “Interview with the Class” remix similar to what Kendrick Lamar does so well on “Mortal Man.”
Curious what to write about for this project? Don’t worry, I’ve got some ideas here to get you started. First things first, can you concisely summarize the major ideas in Porter’s “Intertextuality” article? This can be a good way to start writing. Define the term and explain how it relates to Hip-Hop in some way you find interesting.
Don’t find any aspect of Hip-Hop interesting? Feeling stuck in this class? No worries, there are at least two great topics built right into our syllabus.
Think back to our discussions of the “American Dream” and how those sources transcended generations. You could write about that theme and how it exists, becomes revised, is sampled, etc in various texts we’ve already covered in the course
Think about the music we’ve been studying more recently and the very intentional generational conversations happening between Kendrick Lamar and Tupac Shakur…and the Black Panthers and other organizations by extension. You can write a script all about “Mortal Man” and what you learned from Dissect.
Want some hot and fresh ideas? I got you covered. My syllabus is huge already so I couldn’t fit all the songs I wanted. These little collections below are some I think are very much worth talking about, especially because they have such well-defined intertextual relationships.
1. Strange Fruit Collection:
These songs, beginning with Billie Holiday’s controversial 1939 hit, follow themes of violence against black people in America extending from slavery into the Jim Crow era. Later adaptations change the original meaning to apply to new and sometimes wildly different contexts.
2. Blood Diamonds Collection:
Kanye West had a bunch of hits on Late Registration, but I always loved the Diamonds remix with Jay-Z. What’s the relationship between Kanye’s two versions and the version on Lupe’s mixtape?
3. The American Dream:
We talked about these themes a lot already in class, so you should have plenty of material in the syllabus. But if you’re looking for more interesting references and samples, the list above might give you some ideas.
4. Hip-Hop Oral History:
· “Headstone” Flatbush Zombies
I’ve been fascinated with this song since I first heard it. The whole thing is like someone giving an oral exam saying, “yes, yes, I’ve studied all the Hip-Hop greats, and now I’m ready to graduate.” This song, and there are others out there like it, does a cool job of “citing” other popular rap music by paraphrasing well-known lines and recycling catchphrases etc. Why do this? Who else does it? Can you spot all the references?
· Cold Crush Brothers “Punk Rock Rap”
· Run-DMC ft. Aerosmith “Walk this Way”
· Beastie Boys “Sabotage”
· Rage Against the Machine “Killing in the Name”
· Tom Morello ft. Bassnectar, Big Boi & Killer Mike “Rabbit’s Revenge”
· Rage Against the Machine “Bulls on Parade”
· Denzel Curry “Bulls on Parade”
You could take the approach of analyzing the intertextuality between musical genres like Punk Rock and Rap. These genres developed simultaneously and have been reciprocally inspirational to one another since the 80’s. You could approach this project with how Hip-Hop crosses over with other genres as well (Country with Lil Nas X and artists like RMR, Reggae with projects like Mos Dub, and many others).
Still have questions? Once we get to the outlining stage of this project, if you feel lost or need help, email me and we will figure it out together 😊
What I noticed after the first collection of drafts came in is that students had no idea how to structure a piece of writing like this. Essentially I had to give them an organizational formula similar to how I organized the opening of this blog:
Describe a primary text and explain its rhetorical significance
Identify and analyze another intertextually related primary source
Explain what rhetorical effect is produced by citing, sampling, iterating, or remixing
Determine whether or not a writer is rhetorically effective in engaging their audience
Once the students focused on writing about texts and their relationships with other texts (instead of texts that are thematically similar) they started to produce some pretty cool work.
If you want to see how our first intertextual dialogue turned out, check out this rough video I made with the help of students from VT and JMU.
When I teach this again, I plan on giving students a kind of “mad lib” Q&A interview script to complete so that the sound editing process is a bit easier. With any luck, I might actually produce these as real-deal podcasts in the future…so stay tuned!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion of intertextuality in Hip-Hop–next up I’ll be sharing some excerpts of collaborative student blog posts on topics ranging from Misogyny, Homophobia, Mass Incarceration, and the War on Drugs. I’m excited to show off the research and team writing that my students are producing so keep your eyes peeled!
As always, thank you for reading 🙂