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Thread: Rap is as good as Shakespeare

  1. #1
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    Rap is as good as Shakespeare

    Yesterday I was watching The Book Show (hosted by Mariella Frostrup). One of the guests was a man (I didn't catch his name) from the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company (http://www.hiphopshakespeare.com/site/) whose thesis was that the relationship between rap and Shakespeare is very strong.

    He pointed out that Shakespeare's audience was mostly illiterate, but Shakespeare's words spoke to them, in much the same way that rappers connect with the less privileged in our society.

    He talked about the rhythm of Shakepeare's poetry and prose, and likened it to the dramatic rhythms of rap, concluding that if Shakespeare were alive today, he would be a rapper.

    He argued that the likes of Andrew Motion, who dismisses rap out of hand, doesn't know what he's talking about, and is judging a whole genre by a small number of its worst examples.

    To support his thesis, he leads workshops in which he gets people to appreciate Shakespeare's work by treating it as rap. And in order to pull the rug out from under the elitists who sneer at his views, he reads a mixture of quotations from Shakespeare and various rappers and asks them to guess who wrote them. Invariably they get some or all wrong, which makes them think again.

    * * *

    I'm... not convinced. At all.

    I don't actively seek out rap - indeed, I often switch the radio off when I hear it, but, like most people, I am exposed to it. The sort of people who impose their musical tastes on other people (on trains, for instance) are likely to be playing rap (if it's not heavy metal). Anyone listening out for new music is likely to hear at least parts of rap songs. In short, anybody who expresses an opinion about rap is probably expressing an informed opinion, and the fact that they might have been Poet Laureate does not lessen this.

    As for this man's quotation schtick, well, the reasons most people aren't sure if his chosen lines are Shakespeare or rap are rather clear. The fact that he does choose them suggests he's going to choose lines that don't have obvious clues, such as references to modern technology; similarly, he's not going to choose the Bard's lines that everybody knows. But most crucially, Shakespeare's lines tend to work in context. When his work causes your heart to flutter or your toes to curl or your throat to catch, it's rarely due to a single line heard in isolation.

    There are levels of meaning and feeling with Shakespeare's work. Even when I first encountered his work at about 14, and was only understanding a fraction of it, I was aware of the depth. I've never been aware of any real depth in rap, not even in Eminem's (which I quite like). Similarly, when rappers try to "do" Romeo and Juliet as rap, it comes across as horrible forced.

    Anyone agree? Disagree?

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    The key difference between the illiterates that listened to Shakespeare and the illiterates who sing rap is that the modern version is illiterate by choice, as a method of disrespecting "the man" whom they blame for all their failings.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Beardsley View Post
    He pointed out that Shakespeare's audience was mostly illiterate, but Shakespeare's words spoke to them, in much the same way that rappers connect with the less privileged in our society.
    I can't see what illiteracy has to do with literary appreciation in Elizabethan times. Seeing that Shakespeare was to be seen and heard, an ability to read was irrelevant. The idea that rap could be in the same league as Shakespeare is to me quite ridiculous.

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    That comparison would appear at least naive. But not incongruous with someone infatuated with the ...uh..merits of Rap.
    Different things for different people.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Perikles View Post
    I can't see what illiteracy has to do with literary appreciation in Elizabethan times. Seeing that Shakespeare was to be seen and heard, an ability to read was irrelevant.
    Yes, it's like saying Beethoven wrote music for people who couldn't read or write music.

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    I am not a huge fan of Shakespeare (I find too much of the language impenetrable) but am a huge fan of rap (I think it is the highest form that pop has achieved [just to be controversial ]). However, I would still say that the claim that rap (generically) is as good as Shakespeare is rather over-stating the case.

    However, as with things like musical or modern-English versions of Shakespeare, anything that gets more people to take a look sounds like a good idea to me.

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    I was taught that Shakespeare wrote for a very mixed audience, so his technique was to provide material which could be appreciated on several levels of intellect and social standing. His tragedies always interweave tragic elements with bawdy lowlife scenes. The latter were usually a light relief for those who found the tragedy too heavy, but also contained subtle humour, puns and contemporary references, most of which is probably lost on todays audience. It is said that you can identify a literary geek because he laughs at Shakespeares jokes.

    Given a multi-layer interpretation, perhaps there is one layer which is equivalent to rap, but if so, it's a superficial one.

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    Right. The groundlings may have been his main audience at the Globe, but when he was doing performances at court, those definitely weren't in front of audiences of the mainly illiterate. It is perhaps ironic that one of the biggest "clues" that the man called William Shakespeare didn't write those plays is that they're too educated for what we know of him, given a claim that he was "obviously" writing for illiterates.
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  9. #9
    To my mind anything is better than Shakespeare.
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    Scene: King Henry's cavalery on its way to the invasion of Harfleur
    Henry V: Act 3: Prologue
    William Shakespeare

  11. #11
    1.) Apples and oranges, not least because one is drama and one isn't.

    2.) Music is art, and just as no one can agree on what constitutes art, no one can agree on what constitutes music. I think Skrillex and Nicki Minaj are awful, yet today's kids can't get enough of them; on the other end of the spectrum, the modernist composers (Mahler, Schoenberg, Cage, et al.) took real pride in the fact that the hoi polloi disdained their music. Sure, Eminem is no Mahler, but neither he nor his fans care that that the musicology set think his work is worse than garbage.

    3.) What many people fail to realize about not just rap, but any music genre, is that your identity is often tied into the music you like. Someone who only listens to classical music is partially defined by that music; that is, one aspect of who they are is, "I am a classical music lover." The youth of yesteryear used rock to define themselves as different from their parents; "My parents like Glenn Miller; I like The Beatles." In other words, if you don't get a style of music, don't sweat it, because that music is literally not you.
    Last edited by Romanus; 2012-Jun-10 at 12:20 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by captain swoop View Post
    To my mind anything is better than Shakespeare.
    If I thought you actually believed that, I would feel very sorry for you. As it is, I'm sure you can list quite a lot of things that, yes, even you think are worse than Shakespeare. I am also inclined to believe that you've been taught it wrong. Do you know any of the plays other than Romeo and Juliet? Have you read any of the poetry?
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    "You can't erase icing."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Romanus View Post
    Sure, Eminem is no Mahler, but neither he nor his fans care that that the musicology set think his work is worse than garbage.
    I consider his main worth is as a poet rather than his music.

    And I do incidentally like quite a lot (not all) of Shakespeare's works and consider the way so many idioms are derived from (badly mangled) snippets of his works a testament to the power of his writing.
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    My roommate and I are agreed that the best rap song ever written, whatever it is, is probably better than Titus Andronicus. But heck, we shouldn't have the conversation about what's equivalent until rap has been around a few hundred years. A lot of things which were "as good as Shakespeare" have faded from the common memory long since.
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    "Now everyone was giving her that kind of look UFOlogists get when they suddenly say, 'Hey, if you shade your eyes you can see it is just a flock of geese after all.'"

    "You can't erase icing."

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    My roommate and I are agreed that the best rap song ever written, whatever it is, is probably better than Titus Andronicus.
    Yes, and you are of course comparing the best of one genre with the worst of another. The problem with the best known artists is that everything they have ever written is studied, instead of their really inspired works. So a bad experience with one of the more turgid Shakespeare plays will put anybody off. But I can't think how anybody could not be moved by, say, the Twelve Night film by Trevor Nunn, it's just not possible. And nobody gets killed.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Romanus View Post
    1.) Apples and oranges, not least because one is drama and one isn't.
    Some is. At least one Eminem track springs to mind.

    Quote Originally Posted by Romanus View Post
    2.) Music is art, and just as no one can agree on what constitutes art, no one can agree on what constitutes music.
    I'm not sure I agree with this premise. It's generally agreed that rhythm, melody and so on are elements of music. Sure, we might debate over what makes a good mix of elements, and whether all the elements are essential. (John Cage's 4'33" has duration and nothing else, but the question of whether this defines the limits of music is a question of limited interest.) But when somebody says, "That's not music!" it's generally recognised as meaning, "The conception and/or execution of that work is so poor that I would not include it in my canon."

    Quote Originally Posted by Romanus View Post
    3.) What many people fail to realize about not just rap, but any music genre, is that your identity is often tied into the music you like. Someone who only listens to classical music is partially defined by that music; that is, one aspect of who they are is, "I am a classical music lover." The youth of yesteryear used rock to define themselves as different from their parents; "My parents like Glenn Miller; I like The Beatles." In other words, if you don't get a style of music, don't sweat it, because that music is literally not you.
    I don't think this happens anywhere near as much as is sometimes supposed. On warm days when I'm crossing the Guildhall Square in Portsmouth, I find myself smiling as I see people at least 20 years younger than me wearing Joy Division or The Cure t-shirts, and in 2007 when I was working in a college, my 16-19 year old students were exchanging MP3s of The Smiths. Other young people were listening to music from my parents' time. I think it's more a case of picking and choosing the stuff they like (with a large range of eras to choose from and the chance to sample before they buy) and less about rebelling, though I expect this happens too.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Perikles View Post
    Yes, and you are of course comparing the best of one genre with the worst of another. The problem with the best known artists is that everything they have ever written is studied, instead of their really inspired works. So a bad experience with one of the more turgid Shakespeare plays will put anybody off. But I can't think how anybody could not be moved by, say, the Twelve Night film by Trevor Nunn, it's just not possible. And nobody gets killed.
    Oh, sure--Twelfth Night is probably my favourite of the comedies. I've been saying for some time, though, that you can tell a real Shakespeare lover by the way they're able to acknowledge that not all of his work was great while still saying that he was one of the greatest writers of whom we have record.
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    "Now everyone was giving her that kind of look UFOlogists get when they suddenly say, 'Hey, if you shade your eyes you can see it is just a flock of geese after all.'"

    "You can't erase icing."

    "I can't believe it doesn't work! I found it on the internet, man!"

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    Rap is to music as etch-a-sketch is to art.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Beardsley View Post
    I don't think this happens anywhere near as much as is sometimes supposed. On warm days when I'm crossing the Guildhall Square in Portsmouth, I find myself smiling as I see people at least 20 years younger than me wearing Joy Division or The Cure t-shirts, and in 2007 when I was working in a college, my 16-19 year old students were exchanging MP3s of The Smiths. Other young people were listening to music from my parents' time. I think it's more a case of picking and choosing the stuff they like (with a large range of eras to choose from and the chance to sample before they buy) and less about rebelling, though I expect this happens too.
    I know of several teens who went giddy when they heard The Cure is going to play at the Roskilde Festival this summer.
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    Quote Originally Posted by potoole View Post
    Rap is to music as etch-a-sketch is to art.
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    Quote Originally Posted by potoole View Post
    Rap is to music as etch-a-sketch is to art.
    That expresses my view of it pretty well. Rhythmic talking? Excessive rhyming? Just like with facebook, the populace has been hoodwinked.
    Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

  22. #22
    Some reactions remind me of Bill Cosby discussing rap in the Simpsons.

    I'm no fan of rap music at all, but it's not like it doesn't require creativity and musicality to create a good rap or hiphop song/lyrics.

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    Rap has its roots in improvisational oral poetry (the Rap that is played on the radio is, like most music devoted to making money for record labels, junk), which has very deep roots. So does deliberately written drama, as anybody who has heard of Antigone realizes (I liked that play, which we read when I was in eighth grade, although my liking may be less related to its literary merits than to being near the girl reading Ismene's part).

    In any case, rap is a genre. Shakespeare was a practitioner of a different genre. Even if "Shakespeare" was being used as shorthand for "the works of Shakespeare," comparing an entire genre with the works of a single practitioner is meaningless. Making a comparison between, say, Gil Scott Heron's works and Shakespeare's works may be sensible, but all of rap vs all of Shakespeare's output? I think not.

    So, is "rap better than Shakespeare?" mu.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nicolas View Post
    Some reactions remind me of Bill Cosby discussing rap in the Simpsons.
    That doesn't make it wrong. I know you're not saying that, but even the uninformed are right sometimes, and as I said in my OP, non-fans are a lot more informed than fans seem to think. They can't avoid being informed.

    Quote Originally Posted by Nicolas View Post
    I'm no fan of rap music at all, but it's not like it doesn't require creativity and musicality to create a good rap or hiphop song/lyrics.
    This is possibly the crux of the matter. It takes a very little amount of creativity. It's not difficult to rhyme, especially if you twist words to fit. (I'm quite pleased with what I managed to rhyme "Galapagos" with in my Darwin Rap in the Amazing Untrue Records thread, although I self-censored it.)

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    Quote Originally Posted by swampyankee View Post
    In any case, rap is a genre. Shakespeare was a practitioner of a different genre. Even if "Shakespeare" was being used as shorthand for "the works of Shakespeare," comparing an entire genre with the works of a single practitioner is meaningless. Making a comparison between, say, Gil Scott Heron's works and Shakespeare's works may be sensible, but all of rap vs all of Shakespeare's output? I think not.
    Shakespeare often is regarded as a one-man genre, at least in a marketing context. If you buy spoken word CDs from the BBC, for instance, they include Crime & Thrillers, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Shakespeare. (IIRC. Actually I'll have to check that when I get home.)

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    Were there vast differences of taste in Shakespeare's time?

    Today, (in general) rappers seem to dislike classical and people who enjoy the classics can't stand rap.

    I'm not sure what genre of music in today's world could be equated to something of general appeal.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Nicolas
    I'm no fan of rap music at all, but it's not like it doesn't require creativity and musicality to create a good rap or hiphop song/lyrics.
    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Beardsley View Post
    This is possibly the crux of the matter. It takes a very little amount of creativity. It's not difficult to rhyme, especially if you twist words to fit.
    As a musician and recording artist, I would add that it appears to me to take a very little amount of musicality as well.
    Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

  28. #28
    As a musician and recording artist, I would add that it appears to me that:

    -with very very little creativity and musicality you can make a bad to passable rap record
    -with little creativity and basic musicality you can make middle of the road rap music
    -only with an artist's creativity and musicality you make great rap/hiphop

    So my feeling about this is that you get further with less talent in rap, but to reach a high level still requires a lot of talent. There are other arts where it takes a lot more talent to create anything that doesn't make your ears/eyes/brain bleed, but I don't think that the highest achievements in rap/hiphop can be done with any less talent than any other art. A different kind of talent maybe, but still genuine talent.

    Maybe you could compare it a bit with learning to play the piano compared to learning to play the violin. With no talent and no musicallity you can still learn to play something passable on the piano, while on the violin you'll only please cats in springtime if you have no talent. However, to play really great on the piano requires similar talent as playing really great on violin.

    I'm not an expert in rap & hiphop, but as said by others also as a non-fan you cannot avoid being informed about it. And when I hear different hiphop songs, I cannot help noticing that some are made with loads more talent than others. Dr Dre's beats really are more musical than most others. The lyrics of a song like Stan are far above the average in the genre, as is the way he brings them. I like the way good rappers play with words (not hopelessly forcing words into rhyming though). Not just the puns, also the little things. Compact and verbally elegant ways (yes, discussing rap here, bear with me) of describing stuff. Most of it I can't quote here, but that's another discussion. Also when looking at Belgian hiphop groups there's one that stands waaaay above the others in quality, the rest just surfing along on the success of the genre, only being able to make playable records thanks to its low entry level.

  29. #29
    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    If I thought you actually believed that, I would feel very sorry for you. As it is, I'm sure you can list quite a lot of things that, yes, even you think are worse than Shakespeare. I am also inclined to believe that you've been taught it wrong. Do you know any of the plays other than Romeo and Juliet? Have you read any of the poetry?
    I do think that. I have never understood the popularity. I have endured Macbeth, Hamlet, Midsummer Nights Dream and the Tempest at various venues over the years.

    As for the Poetry, Spare me please. Give me John Donne any time.
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    Quote Originally Posted by NEOWatcher View Post
    Were there vast differences of taste in Shakespeare's time?

    Today, (in general) rappers seem to dislike classical and people who enjoy the classics can't stand rap.

    I'm not sure what genre of music in today's world could be equated to something of general appeal.
    I'm sure there were: not everybody who could afford to do so and lived in London would go to see a Shakespeare play, and there was, at least in England, a large number of people for whom such frivolities as entertainment were anathema (see: Oliver Cromwell). I don't think there ever was a genre of music or literature with universal appeal in any given social group, and I seriously doubt there ever will be. I don't like rap, I don't like heavy metal, and I don't like punk, although I recognize that all have talented practitioners.

    I also think that trying to classify past artists into current genres is pointless: would Shakespeare be today's Athol Fugard or Neil Simon? Meaningless question.
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