HIP-HOP AIN’T NOTHING BUT CHILD’S PLAY FOR THE HERD – THAT’S AT LEAST THE MESSAGE THAT RIP NICHOLSON GETS FROM ELEFANT TRAKS PLAYER KENNY SABIR.
Traksewt interviewed @ 09:30 AEST – Friday 26th October, 2012
For Street Press Australia & Rip2Shredz Press
Words by RIP NICHOLSON
There has long been a drawing of parallels between Dr Seuss literature and the art of rap in both the wordplay and delivery of waxed and worded poetics. So, when the Sydney Opera House’s GRAPHIC Festival presented an idea to Australia’s leading hip hop house to put to example the interpretations of Dr Seuss stories through hip hop, Elefant Traks put all their weight behind the challenge in the best way rappers know how. The Herd’s Kenny ‘Traksewt’ Sabir fills in the quotes to explain how it’s going down.
“[GRAPHIC] got the rights to Dr Seuss, so when they approached us about this concept we jumped on it and said, ‘Yeah, we’re up for that’,” beams Sabir, excited about the new challenges ahead. “They’re giving all the acts an opportunity to work together and taking on suggestions and letting the artists interpret the readings in their own way. He is such a wordsmith, with so many books. So, we’re going through the massive catalogue and re-interpreting the stories and putting them to music.”
As producer for The Herd and Elefant Traks’ artists, Sabir details how the soundtrack is conceived during the performances, which will include new music. “One of them we are doing is the Cat In The Hat with The Herd, and we’re specifically writing new music for The Lorax. It’s really specific to each book. I try to match emotions felt as I read, balancing the climax in the story and so on. The Lorax is quite solemn, and while he’s quite the cuddly character there a bittersweet story [behind it]. So that’s something we try to create in the music, not to completely cut into emo tracks, but something that has beauty and is sad.”
A selection of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s literature is to be revisited by the entire roster of Elefant Traks, visually and conceptually told in a fashion never before attempted. “We’re doing a complete retelling of the books. What we’ve done, because there are so many acts involved, we’ve had a bit of fun with it and done some collabs so there’s a lot of Elefant Traks cross-pollinations working together. I’m working with Joelistics on The Lorax, and there’s other groups working together. We are picking the theme and it’s up to the artists what they’re going to do with it. Like, we’re going to retell the story through someone else’s eyes and taking a slightly different angle on the overall story. Sticking to the original theme, but putting it out from a different perspective while keeping with the spirit in which the Dr Seuss books were intended.”
In 1954, Life magazine published a report on illiteracy among school children which concluded that children found the school reading curriculum to be boring. The director of education had compiled 348 words by which children found responsive, 236 of which came out in Cat In The Hat. The simplified vocabulary and rhythm of every verse was enjoyed by early readers and achieved huge success internationally as it remains today, alongside Green Eggs And Ham,One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, The Lorax and How The Grinch Stole Christmas!
This formula in which Geisel used to enthrall the attention of his young readers was in his writing, using the anapaestic tetrameter which consists of four rhythmic units, anapaests, each composed of two weak syllables followed by one strong syllable (the beat). Geisel’s biographer, Philip Nel dubbed thee The Original Rapper, stating that whether Geisel’s writings are political or apolitical, they are all in verses. This way of rhyming wordplay either in monosyllabic or trisyllablic fashion has been a similar way in which a hip hop MC writes 16 bars patterned to a beat. The verses must flow easily off the tongue in rhythm making it a seamless verbiage. When stripped back to a formulaic process, direct parallels can be drawn from the art of rap to the verses of Dr Seuss’s texts, and this secret to the success of the author’s books has bled subconsciously into the blueprint for writing rap lyrics.
One of the most prolific hip hop MCs of all time, Eminem, whose riddles and wordplay have long been considered a very Seuss-ian brand, made evidence to the theory of a parallel in art forms by way of his 2000 hit Way I Am, using the anapaestic tetrameter through every verse, harnessing a short-short-long pattern to a highly syncopated delivery which falls off the 1-2-3-4 beat dropping his lyrics on the 16th note, flowing more in time with the rhythm of the piano loop. So, while Nel’s labelling of Geisel as the Original Rapper may be a stretch, the influence he etched on a culture some 60 years on is undeniable, and as Sabir notes, “I don’t think it’s something that’s just been invented over the last few decades, be it written poetry, spoken word or hip hop, it’s all the same on different platforms. So, it’s the kind of thing we’ve been doing for hundreds of years and this is the current evolution of it.”
In two months of preparation for this upcoming event, Elefant Traks have found the beauty in deconstructing the works of Geisel as each act remould their own takes. “When you’re studying him in detail you’re seeing the real beauty of the children’s books. Like, while he’s targeting all the different age groups he’s making up words and telling children’s stories with a smile – even the depressing ones. There’s a humour to the dark stories as well. “It’s all quite technical in how it’s constructed; it’s not just something you can just whip up in just a few words. Like, the poetic meter and syllables, it’s something that… I’m not a lyricist myself, I’m from the music production [side] – but it’s something that I’d say would have an influence, if not just for the fun of it as well.”
Sabir laughs when asked to choose which of his colleagues he thinks has the closest stylings to that of a Dr Seuss riddle, explaining that with such a large turnout of talent performing a catalogue of texts so diverse on the night there is something in Geisel’s works for everyone to find their own niche. “You want me to pick sides? Oh dear, I will have to alternate them between interviews then. They’ll have like an even-steven when you add ‘em all up,” jokes Sabir. “Interesting question, because the books are all written in diverse styles as well. Like, The Tongue, being a battle champ I can instantly see him taking on the fast wordplay that would suit some of Seuss’s riddles, then I’ve some of the lyrics of Ozi Batla and Urthboy stuff as well and with the right books it would suit perfectly. I’m also looking forward what Solo has to offer, but it’s not one that you can rank.”