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The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop

Deanna Staffo

The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop

Author:Saul Williams
Release Date:2006

By Felicia Pride | Posted 4/12/2006

Over a hurried e-mail exchange from the road while on tour with Nine Inch Nails, Niggy Tardust—aka slam-poet veteran, actor, MC, and verbal pyrotechnician Saul Williams—reveals that “The Dead Emcee Scrolls was written with the intent of being the best hip-hop album never recorded.” Another poet exhibiting such bravado could be easily dismissed, but with his fourth poetry collection, Williams sticks to the classic hip-hop proverb to show and prove there ain’t no future in yo’ frontin’.

Reading the latest installment from the author of said the shotgun to the head and She is like witnessing a battle between Williams and what he deems as hip-hop cultural pariahs—sloppy lyricism that doesn’t respect the power of words, misogyny, musical emptiness, senseless violence, community disconnect, and, possibly the most crucial, no sense of history. There really is no future in fronting.

Hence the subtitle, The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop. Williams poses as messenger, but he is really schooling readers. “The book revolves around the idea of me finding an ancient manuscript that proves the possibility of hip-hop being planted in us by African shamans 2,000 years ago,” he says, elaborating on the book’s premise. “They foresaw the coming of slavery and planted a seed in the African-American population that would blossom for generations after emancipation and which we would then use to express the highest ideals of freedom.”

This vision could be seen as a lofty feat for hip-hop, and Williams is certainly not the first or last artist to express a disappointment for the state of the culture. But he’s realized you can’t rhyme without reason. “Through cats like Jay-Z and Puffy, lots of rappers learned the importance of confidence in their swagger and the importance of being a good businessman,” he says. “But the power of the word surpasses all. Ready to Die? Dead,” he continues, referring to the far-sighted title of Notorious B.I.G’s first album. “Word is bond. The question is, What is hip-hop’s relationship to itself? How can an MC not realize the power of word after being forced to serve a sentence?”

“NGH WHT”—spelled with no vowels to mimic ancient Hebrew and Kemetic languages—opens the collection and is its most aggressive poem, a masterpiece of 33 chapters that examines the insular relationship between hip-hop and itself, but not without letting the rhythm hit, as in the following excerpt. “The reader should be able to feel the beats off the page,” Williams says. Think gritty. Hear DJ Premier:

    Dissonant chords find necks like nooses. That

    NGH kicked the chair from under my feet.

    Harlem Shaking from a rope, but still on beat.

    Damn that loop is tight! NGH found a way to

    sample the way, the truth, the light. Can’t wait to

    play myself at the party tonight. NGHs are gonna die!

    Cop car swerves to the side of the road. Hip-hop

    takes its last breath. The cop scrawls vernacular

    manslaughter onto his yellow pad, then balls the

    paper into his hands, deciding he’d rather freestyle.

    You have the right to remain silent. You have the

    right to remain silent. You have the right to remain

    silent. And maybe you should have before your bullshit manifested.

In this gathering of seven poems and journal excerpts from seven years, 1994-2001 (the number seven permeates the collection), Williams doesn’t rely on empty rhetoric, but on lyrical dexterity backed with historical and contemporary substantiation. His word construction is probing and provocative, causing you to pause, reverse, and ponder. He’s a lyrical pastor marrying the streets and academia, the abstract and concrete, the discordant and harmonious, the humorous and sad, the sarcastic and literal.

From “Untimely Meditations,” he offers:

    We threw basement parties in pyramids.
    I left my tag on the wall. The beats would
    echo off the stone and solidify into the
    form of lightbulbs, destined to light up
    the heads of future generations.

The rest of the collection varies in tempo but still holds a consistent impact. In “Co-Dead Language,” a poem brimming with musical terms as metaphors for artistic responsibility, he writes, “Whereas, the quantized drum has/ allowed the whirling mathematicians/ to calculate the ever-changing distance/ between rock and stardom.” “1987” mimics the storytelling properties of hip-hop, and “Amethyst Rocks” explores the twisted relationship between black culture and America. There’s also insight to be gained from Williams’ journal excerpts, which contemplate everything from self-doubt and the similarities between loving hip-hop and being married to questions of whether music can change the world.

In creating and assembling this book, Williams admits that the process shifted his perspective and heightened his observations about hip-hop’s place in the world. Now he feels his purpose is to share what he’s learned. “My contribution to hip-hop is really no different than the help I gave my partners in school who were too busy hustling in the streets to finish their assignments,” he says. “For a little bit of change I did their homework.” But The Dead Emcee Scrolls ain’t hip-hop Cliffs Notes. Be prepared to think.

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