I am not experienced or established enough as a writer to embark on a memoirist lecture about my writing path. Not unlike you, or anybody else, I have seen things & felt deeply, and so I write (poorly paraphrased Sylvia Plath).
Like most kids that started engaging with music and pop culture in the 1990’s, hip hop was a large influence on my life. Although in later years I left it behind, hip hop was how I got into poetry. It was my passion to find new rhyme schemes that led me to first study poetry.
Unlike the glamorous bling-bling rappers that stifled hip hop in its traditional sense, I was always attracted to the roots and the underground. The bling era ushered in the hybridized beasts we see with Drake, Kanye West, and (shudder) Iggy Azalea.
The majority of my peers voted with their dollars and made 50 Cent “rich”, I was delving into the realms of Dead Prez & A Tribe Called Quest, where message meant more than which Bentley could be rented for a music video.
Whereas other (mostly) white kids were quietly transmogrifying the materialist façade of rap culture into the whimsical image-above-all ethos of hipsterdom, I was transposing the bars of hip hop to poetry—and in the process stumbled upon the Romantics, the Beats, the Modernists, and the other OGs in the literature game, yo.
I have been delving into my hip hop collection recently, going deep and going wide. Right now, I am working through the Wu-Tang Clan library again, partly inspired by The Tao of Wu by RZA, a sweet read for any nostalgic hip hop head—especially if you were more into street science and not a lightly-veiled commercial jingle.
This is some wisdom I have gleaned from the Wu and have applied to writing:
Bring Da Motherfucking Ruckus
Seriously. What is the point of saying anything if you’re just going to say the same old shit? And why say it with niceties and political correctness? For me, this principle is a variation of the well-worn advice to write honestly. Most of the time, honesty is brutal. Honesty does not sparkle or dress-up in a tuxedo--it is a dark alley with homies posting up in a fire escape, checking out your watch and wondering who the fuck you think you are to step into this dark place. Honesty is not necessarily friendly or welcoming. If you want to confront it—and presumably you do, if you are writing—you have to come prepared to bring da motherfucking ruckus.
Check Out My Pinky Ring
There is a self-mythologized tale of how the Wu-Tang got airplay and notoriety, and subsequently got signed. They forced their way into a radio station and told the DJ to play their fucking tape. No mousey soft-stepping, excuses for its crudeness, or insular self-doubt that it was a waste of time. They knew they had made something good and they figured people would like it. The radio station played the tape, and sure enough, people liked it.
The only trouble with this is that egotism is a bastard virtue of our modern world. Sometimes the quality of self-promotion is more important than the actual quality of the promoted. Arrogance is a pitfall, but over-powering self-doubt (e.g. obsessing about all those form rejection letters in your inbox) is a glacial crag. You fall down that shit and you won’t be heard from again.
My lesson from this is a nuanced one: Don’t expect a family member to find your writing post-humously in a trunk, think it’s the most brilliant thing ever, and dedicate their life to champion your genius. If you think you have something good and you have been humble enough to see its faults, fix them, and (hopefully) improve, then be confident about your accomplishment and go after your goal now.
All About the Voice
Voice is so important in all storytelling. Listen to any Wu song and (if they are featured on the song) you will immediately identify Method Man & ODB's voice. The others have their own voices you can start differentiating, but it takes some time to pick up on.
This is too familiar for writers. If you are ever at a roadblock and can't understand what the hell is holding you back, you will inevitably fall on some webpage somewhere expounding the importance of Voice. And they will do a shitty job explaining what they mean. But whether they can tell you what it is or not isn't important--you just don't have it.
But that's obviously wrong. Everyone has a voice. Whether someone else wants to hear it or not is probably more important. So keep it real and drop some knowledge, Zig-Zag-Zig Allah.
Battle for the Verse
There is a telling track on Method Man’s first solo album, called Method vs. Raekwon. In The Tao of Wu, RZA explained that in the early Wu years, he would produce instrumentals, then have the members battle (i.e. compete) for a spot on the track.
The little bit of competition helped ensure a solid verse and presumably helped each member bring their best to the mic. And if you have read any submission guidelines ever, you will know that expectation is pretty standard. ONLY SEND YOUR BEST, they tell us—and that makes me imagine there are really some people naïve enough to send something they were not sure was good enough…or worse: they thought it was good enough and was actually weak (see: Check Out My Pinky Ring).
Not that all of us aren’t weak sometimes, or weak in the eyes of the subjective bearers of ugly perspectives (a.k.a. The Critics). But there are ways we can minimize our shortcomings. And if we aren't honest enough with ourselves to know when we do not have strong enough work, then sometimes we need someone like RZA to tell us to sit this one out.
But I don’t have a funky producer with mad kung fu skills. So I have to be my own referee, and likely, you do too. Which means a lot of the time I bow to the conventional wisdom and kill my darlings.
Hold up. Really? That’s fucked. Never kill your darlings. Why do away with something you think is good, something that came from an unfettered creative place in the chambers of your heart? Instead, I suggest you tie your darlings up in your torture chamber, put a clothes hanger on the stove until that shit’s red hot, then stick it up their ass until it sizzles—and they cry out and give you something better.
If they still ain’t giving up the goods, then yeah—go ahead and finish them off.
Yo, It’s Got to be Accepted—That What?—That Life is Hectic
Most likely, we share the burden of labour ... of real work in the mainstream world. The world that doesn’t understand art and eats imagination out of babies’ skulls for breakfast—or worse—exploits creativity like a Stockholm-syndromic slave to come up with all kinds of new ways to turn a profit. We all need money, though. Cash Rules Everything Around Me and You. The world is a C.R.E.A.M.Y. place, and we are the rats kicking our paws, trying to churn that cream into butter so we can crawl out.
I am busy as fuck, and you are too. But I still make time for writing. Everyday. A lot of it is bullshit that will go nowhere, but it needs to be done. Because like so many things that make life interesting, there is never a perfect time to write.
You already know that, though, and that is why you are distracting yourself by cruising the internet and reading about writing instead of actually doing it.
Be Intelligent, Don’t Be Smart
As it descended into decadence the most dreadful part of rap was the race for the bottom. The dumber the shit you said, it seemed, the more successful you were. And the more I had to hear it on the radio. The Wu-Tang encompassed a lot of styles of hip hop, but they never shied away from intelligence. GZA, RZA, and the other members were influenced by the Five Percent Nation rallying in New York. They preached the pursuit of intellectual expansion as a path to freedom. Although their science was muddled in non-scientific methods, it was flipping the script of the old slave mentality that a black man was naturally inferior and could not fathom any sort of intelligent thought.
If you look up lyrics to some Wu-Tang songs, they are dense. There is a lot there. It comes fast at you over the beat, but it's all there. The RZA has some enlightening lyrics, and any one of the Wu can surprise you with their vocabulary.
They never doubted that their listeners would not understand a word because it was too complex or obscure. You should never doubt your readers, either. Too much of the status quo demands that you doubt your poor readers, who are too stupid to be curious enough to look up a definition.
None of the Wu are smart, but that's perfectly okay. In the film How High, Method Man tells one antagonist 'Peace' as he departs. The douchebag belittles him and Method Man comes correct with a proper definition and justification for his usage. Watch that scene with a blunt and you will understand the difference between being intelligent and being smart.
This lesson will always stick with me. I read about this in The Tao of Wu on a beach in Jamaica, deep into some ceremonial herb, meditating on the infinite nature of waves.
RZA explains about his homie who fought with Vasoline on his cheeks. That way, a punch was so much harder to land. A fist would be much more prone to slide away off the face.
Much like martial arts, this is a principle of working with opposing energy. It is a practical street lesson. It is also a useful image to call up when amidst the haters.
So when this piece of mine gets rejected one place or another, I'm not going to let the impact catch any force via friction--I got plenty of Vasoline on my cheeks and I will let that shit slip off. On to the next one. BOOM. You should be too, God. Word is bond. Peace.
Jack Caseros is a Canadian writer and scientist whose creative non-fiction has appeared in Steel Bananas,SunDog Lit, and Drunk Monkeys ('The Circus Grotesque: Bob Dylan in Concert'). To coincide with this article, Jack has revived a few tracks from his hip hop days: check out UXOs, available as a free download at: https://myztic.bandcamp.com/album/uxos. You can read more from him atwww.jackcaseros.wordpress.com or on Twitter @JackCaseros