Lyfe, Poetry, & Hip-Hop
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs
The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner
Because the revolution will not be televised, brother
—Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
I make party music—Black Panther Party
—Ise Lyfe, “Black Panther Party Skit”
You’re the poetry man, you make things all rhyme
—Phoebe Snow, “The Poetry Man”
After watching Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in The Lake House, I’ve experienced a renewed interest in time travel. I’ve been thinking, “What if our favorite entertainers could reappear, young and vibrant, in today’s market?” But, then again, maybe those reappearances are already occurring, like when Erykah Badu seems to be channeling Billie Holiday. Here’s another one: spoken word artist and emcee Ise Lyfe, on his debut album Spread the Word, reminds me of Gil Scott-Heron.
Geographically, they are quite different, with Ise Lyfe stationed squarely in Oakland, California, while Gil Scott-Heron moved around a lot (he was born in Chicago, Illinois, moved to Tennessee as a youngster, spent his adolescence in New York, and did a year in college in Pennsylvania). Ise Lyfe’s allegiance to Oakland runs deep, as evidenced by his song “City of Oakland”:
I’m knockin’ on the door,
They gotta shoot me a chance,
Oakland ain’t been on the map since Hammer had on them pants
And then there’s the song’s revealing hook:
I’m from the city of Oakland where the barrels stay smokin’
Where the pigs done killed the Panthers and a gang of my folks, man
Spell it out for ya like they did on Soul Train
Ise Lyfe represents his home the way hip-hop crowds used to say, “Brooklyn’s in the house!” But, more than that, he knows where he’s at—as an individual and as part of a community, geographically as well as metaphorically—and he funnels that awareness to tell us, through music, where he’d like us all to go.
Musically and lyrically, Ise Lyfe and Gil Scott-Heron are chips from the same block of marble. They both love going straight for the jugular with bitingly political poetry. Ise Lyfe’s spoken word pieces mainly resemble Gil Scott-Heron’s song-poem “Whitey On the Moon”. At the same time, both artists can be smooth and subtle, making their points through descriptive parables and wordplays. Although Gil Scott-Heron’s discography weighs more heavily in the R&B and jazz classifications, Ise Lyfe’s album is good for a riff or two. And, for what it’s worth, I’d love to hear Ise Lyfe do an updated version of Gil Scott-Heron’s “B-Movie”, an extended critique of the Reagan Administration set to jazz.
Spoken word poetry has been around for decades, of course. But these days, blame the films Poetic Justice (1993), Slam! (1998), and Love Jones (1997) for the current spoken word explosion.
In Poetic Justice, Janet Jackson’s “Justice” uses poetry to connect with her emotions and resolve her inner conflicts. Writing helps her cope with the death of her boyfriend, played by Q-tip. The story was shaky as Jell-o, despite some scene-stealing moments from the late Tupac Shakur, but at least we got some poetry from Dr. Maya Angelou.
In Slam!, writing and reciting poetry helped Ray Joshua (played by Saul Williams) rehabilitate himself and rejoin society after doing time in prison. Poet Saul Williams wrote verses for the film.
But those movies are nothing compared to Love Jones. That’s because Love Jones, starring Lorenz Tate and Nia Long, made poetry seem sexy. I’m not talking about “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” (Robert Frost); I’m talking about “I’m the blues in your left thigh / tryin to become the funk in your right” (Love Jones). It’s one thing for poetry to keep you on the right side of the tracks (Slam!) or for you to find solace in your journal (Poetic Justice), but it’s another thing for your lines to exude sex appeal. When Darius Lovehall (Lorenz Tate) went onstage and recited his flirtatious and risqué poem “Brother to the Night (A Blues For Nina)” for Nina Moseley (Nia Long), we were like, “Hell to the yeah,” when we saw how the movie audience responded. Ladies were suddenly bombarded with new age pick-up lines patterned after Love Jones poetry. Quicker than you could say, “Oh, snap!”, Love Jones paved the way for the ‘90s revival of coffeehouses, spoken word and open mic nights, and a flurry of neo-jazzy-soul-sexy-love poetry.
That’s basically where Ise Lyfe entered the picture, with appearances at poetry slams and battles, as well as Def Poetry Jam, the Russell Simmons production hosted by rapper and actor Mos Def. But unlike Darius Lovehall, the young urban Shakespeare of Love Jones, Ise Lyfe has a more activist, community-oriented agenda. The first track, “Can He Do It?”, explains Lyfe’s methodology, through lines like, “This ain’t the typical rhyme gimmick, I’m here to move spirits, hopin’ that you feel it” and “Sincerely, you’ve got to feel me / this is the real me / not ‘cause it’s trendy”.
About poetry and rhyming, he says, “It’s all the same target”. Still, he manages to keep the two separate—there are spoken word tracks and rap tracks, but not a mixture of the two. Sometimes, like with “beautiful poem” its position preceding the rap song “beautiful”, the poetry stands alone while also acting as an interlude or prelude. Although this approach would seem disruptive to the album’s continuity, it actually benefits the cohesion, providing listeners with slices of Ise Lyfe’s complete worldview. Plus, Ise Lyfe’s philosophy is expressed through a dialectic, a tension between opposites—of community progress versus individual survival, of “revolutionaries” versus “the power structure”, of “the Black Panthers” versus “corrupt cops” or, in Panther vernacular, “the pigs”. This amalgam of sounds and ideas fuels Lyfe’s manifesto.
Consequently, just listening to one track won’t provide the full picture; you have to listen to everything—all 24 tracks (running time is about an hour and fifteen minutes). That’s not to say there aren’t any standouts, there are plenty (“Respect My Culture” featuring Panama, “Retro”, “City of Oakland”, “The Way We Are”, “Fast Then Slow”, and “Woman” are all heavyweights). But given the variety on this LP, a single song isn’t indicative, lyrically or musically, of the whole.
Take, for instance, “Case to the Masses”, a spoken word piece where Ise Lyfe assumes the role of prosecutor, arguing to convict “the system” for “murder, rape, imprisonment of the mind” and a “long list of heinous crimes”. Certainly, not everyone is going to agree with the indictment, although, as a certified conspiracy theorist, I wouldn’t mind serving on that jury. What’s important, though, is that Ise Lyfe’s musical agenda advocates socio-political and economic change. Similarly, “Will We Ever Get It Right?” points out contradictions of behavior, among the black community in particular, like this line, “Watch us make a hundred dollars and spend ninety nine on a chain”. Likewise, on “Murder”, Ise Lyfe champions independent thinking and taking steps to reverse one’s “victimization”.
But there’s another side to the rapping poet. He’s also a keen observer and storyteller who is interested in understanding human nature as much as he wants to show us its faults. For that, there’s the storyline in “Beautiful”, a song about a man and a woman who are traveling down desperate paths. The first verse concerns her psychosis; the second describes his. What do you think will happen in the third verse when the dude from the second verse “meets the sista from the first verse”? That’s right, Dr. Phil—all trouble breaks loose. Then there’s “Love With You Anymore”, a first person narrative that explores the dimensions and processes of love—of being in love and falling out of love—over a swaggering bassline. Another high note is “Woman”, which Ise Lyfe dedicates to all women, but smartly delivers as a series of stories about real women in real situations. It’s powerful because, as the cliché goes in poetry writing, he shows us his message instead of merely telling us.
Seamlessly, Ise Lyfe merges all of these stories, feelings, and poems without losing focus or giving us filler. Even when he shares space with another poet, as with Alicia Zaikon’s “Make Up Make Down”, it all seems to fit into his overall vision. The main nitpick is that the story-oriented tracks are so effective at illustrating Lyfe’s perspective, they make the overtly political tracks—usually the spoken word joints—sound a bit preachy. Yet, even when he’s preaching, he can hold his listener’s attention. And that’s what the best parties are all about.
Ise Lyfe - Hardknock TV Promo