Cross-post: The School of Rap

This was published in a slightly different form in the Star News last week:

My son is in a rap class with a few other five-to-nine year olds. They meet at the Myrtle Grove library once a week to write lyrics around a particular theme, such as vegetables, to perform their raps on a microphone, maybe do a little dancing. Their teacher is goofball genius Scooter Hayes, AKA Melvil Dewey the rapping librarian. Maybe you’ve heard of him. You’re kids have. They love him and sing his songs. Scooter visits school libraries all over Wilmington and raps infectiously about the Dewey Decimal system, library cards, bookmobiles.

I know that not all parents love the idea of their kids listening to rap, much less creating more of it. I love rap. It’s not just the overwhelmingly dominant form of popular music in the last twenty-five years, it’s the overwhelmingly dominant art form! And there’s good reasons why. After all, lots of parents were telling their bobby-socksed kids they couldn’t listen to Charlie Parker or go see Artie Shaw on the bandstand when those guys were doing their Dionysian things. But maybe that’s another conversation.

The thing about rap is that it’s an improvised form, or was originally. Like jazz musicians, MCs work in certain idioms, learn vocabularies, have lots of phrases and licks they can fall back on (“Wave your hands in the AYY-yrr!”). But when they get up to the mic, rappers are just supposed to let it come out. That’s the cojones part. Excellence in rap music is to some degree still about how well you can make it flow, how well you can just do it. That’s one of the things I love about rap class, and one of the things I regard with real trepidation as well: It’s open-ended. Those kids are trying to make it flow.

It’s tough to improvise rap lyrics over a moving beat, to make it rhythmic but also keep it coming out of your mouth. When it’s your turn, you get scared you’re going to say something strange, that words will “just come out”, that you’ll seem foolish or prurient or odd or wanting in some way. Maybe people have different degrees of this kind of self-censure. I know that I have a ton of it, and I wish I didn’t. And I see it in my son when he grabs that proverbial mic, whether we’re at home doing dishes or he’s under the fluorescents in the reading room on College Road. He wants to try something, to dive into some lines that he’s only got the vaguest sense of so far. Just like me he goes, “Yeah you see it…Wait…wait…See it on the screen like a giant can of….wait….wait…See it over there on a billboard…wait…no…wait. Green. Beans….scream…” And I want to say, Son, make a fool of yourself but keep it coming. Don’t be afraid of what’s in there. Be afraid of not getting enough of it out, be afraid of not being who you are, however weird. Don’t be like your old man, constantly self-regulating, be like Scooter Hayes! (who by the way is within a day or two of being a father himself) Try things out loud. Try a hundred times more things than I ever did, and maybe four of them will be real beauties, each of whose sustaining comforts will outweigh the small sheepish “failed” attempts a hundred times over.

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