Under The Influence of Hip Hop
by Sam “Rabbi Darkside” Sellers
A child of circumstance, immersed in hand-me-downs and family history. Growing up in Buffalo, on the same floor of the same duplex as my Mom, my pre-adolescence was spent buried in archaic hard-cover book sets: The Hardy Boys Series, their faded bluejean covers still vibrant with artwork illustrating titles like “The Sign of the Crooked Arrow,” and “The Secret of Skull Mountain.” World Book Encyclopedia: brown, bulky, alphabetized, corners sharp as the antique coffee table. Suessian worlds rich in curves, alien plant life and imagining. To compliment the family archives – so to speak – I had periodicals that I’d consume cover to cover: Boy’s Life, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated; vintage Time/Life magazines I’d rescue from the attic, flipping frail pages delicately, time traveling via primary sources. Then came Scholastic Book Fairs, the open door of Choose Your Own Adventure titles, quickly followed by Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, The Mouse and the Motorcycle. Logging finished books to propel my Reading Rocketship up the wall of my 2nd grade classroom, watching it turn sharply to traverse the ceiling with no wall left to climb. I could not get my hands on books fast enough.
Along came middle school, and with it, the expanded activity landscape of team sports, puppy love, summer camp, cool counselors, classic rock, Beastie Boys, Body Count, Fresh Prince, sleepovers, latchkey programs, block comradery and backyard rivalries. It was during this time that an idyllic image of “the writer” began to form in my head, one wound around the musical presentation of the word as much as the lyrics on page. Enchanted by singer/songwriters, I was an obsessive liner note reader. At 13, I purchased my own hifi stereo: CD player, dual cassette deck, 250 watt amplifier, brilliant speakers; a Stereo Advantage Bar Mitzvah present to myself.
What began with the Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Who, Dylan and the Dead morphed into the mind-altering realm of the Native Tongues, Digable Planets, Gangstarr & Jazzmatazz. Rap lyrics with references outside of my knowledge-base lead me back into the world of bookworm curiosity, uncovering authors, activists and samples alike. This was the soundtrack to my years coming of age, the fodder for yearbook quotes, the notes that would shape a lifestyle.
I left for college having never seen the campus where I’d spend the next 4 years. My Mom, step-Dad and I embarked on a cross-country trip to deposit me in central Iowa, where I was destined for a collegiate career of Division III soccer and a well-rounded liberal arts education. I wanted to be a journalist. Well, really, I wanted to be an Olympic caliber footballer, but those aspirations were quickly extinguished upon sizing up the competition. So yes, I was ready to funnel my love of music, poetry and revolutionary designs into the mold of a journalist. I had visions of embedded outposts, rock & roll interviews, vivid memoirs.
I arrived at Grinnell College with a bushel of AP credits, including an AP Literature score that allowed me to bypass all pre-requisite level English courses. Ambitious and confident, I enrolled in two English classes that first semester: a course entitled “Consuming Fictions,” which revolved around consumption-centered works (“Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” “Alice in Wonderland”, Kafka’s “Hunger Artist”). The second was a 300-level American Literature course, 1600-1750. We read mostly Puritanical novels, Henry James’ “The American,” trans-Atlantic epistle correspondences, dissected in SAT vocabulary-laced class discussions. It was all Juniors, save myself and two other Freshman. And as quick as a midfielder from Colorado cut past me on the pitch, my English major aspirations were doused. It was a literary yawnfest, and required a level of MLA-style writing I wasn’t ready for. Needless to say, I bombed.
With my tail between my legs, I found refuge in college radio, freestyle jam sessions with my bass-playing roommate, and rhyme-writing in the margins of spiral-bound notebooks. My literary life grew around Hip Hop. I continued to find book recommendations in lyrics, jazz musicians in juxtapositions, poets in punchlines. I found the craft of rap writing the most natural means of committing my thoughts to paper, and the outloud form of freestyle rap the vocal emotive exhibit. Stationed in the Midwest, I was exposed to a cross section of Hip Hop reaching beyond the East Coast boom bap and Native Tongues extended family that I was weaned on. I melted my mind around Atmostphere, the Freestyle Fellowship, Anticon; Typical Cats, Buck 65, Living Legends. The rhymes I wrote migrated from the margins of spiralbound notebooks to online forums. I toyed with the relationship of form and content. I strove to embody the beat poet aesthetic in the shape of a boombox. In many ways, rap music became my new literature. I performed close readings of songs, looking into and beyond their symbolism and technique to the works they referenced–– the jazzmen, the authors, the films; ethnomusicology, sociology, race and class and politics.
This influence cycle reached a fever pitch when I took a class called “Beat Black and Blue,” which exposed me to the catalog of the Black Arts Movement, the New York School and first and second wave Beats. In this course, I encountered the essay “Projective Verse” by Beat Poet Robert Olson. I took great care in focusing on the appearance of rap & poetry on the page, and in the consideration of form vs. content. This essay presented a relationship between the word, the breath, the syllable, the poet and the reader that lit my pondering and experimenting afire. Lines like “a poem is energy transformed from where the poet got it” and “one perception must immediately and directly lead to another” echoed loudly of the principles of freestyle and stream of consciousness. “It is by their syllables that words juxtapose their beauty…” In terms of direct influence, I can mark this class as, one, helping me establish a theoretical basis for the way I wrote on the page and connected it to performing aloud; and two, drawing a direct line from the revolutionary poets of the mid to late 20th century to the Hip Hop MCs I revered.
And somehow all these ingredients, steeped in a cauldron that migrated from Buffalo to Iowa to Brooklyn, brewed the artist that I am today. The infusion of the spirit of revolution drove me to the classroom, onto planes and onto the stage. I’ve absorbed experience at every turn, and relayed it to tape through the conduit of rap poetry. All the while, incanting the wide range of influence funneled into the moment.
In addition to his artistry, he has worked for 10+ years in the New York City Public Schools, evolving from History Teacher to Teaching Artist to curriculum specialist, most recently developing the groundbreaking rap-based test prep program “Fresh Prep” (as seen in the New York Times and CBS Early Show), featuring guest vocalists Talib Kweli, Sadat X and Dres performing his lyrics.
He has appeared alongside Afrika Bambaataa, Antibalas, the Blue Man Group, Common, DMC, Fishbone, J-Live, Kanye West, The Last Poets, Rahzel, DJ Rob Swift, The Roots, Slick Rick, Talib Kweli, and Weldon Irvine, among many others.