The Dead Emcee Scrolls: The Lost Teachings of Hip-Hop by Saul Williams

[13 March 2006]

By Michael Frauenhofer

The Dead Emcee Scrolls is the fourth book of poetry from spoken word artist and rapper Saul Williams, and its tone from the start is distinctly different. He begins with a long “confession” of a foreword, in which he gives the background exposition (while looking at graffiti in the subway, he found scrolls containing “the lost teachings of hip-hop” that he has spent his entire career translating and interpreting—the “dead emcee scrolls”, get it?), which is, yes, probably not true. He then moves on to seven long serial poems, divided into numerous “chapters” of more traditional poem length, and ends with a collection of journal entries from 1994 to 2001. While the conceit is annoyingly smug, and a number of the poems have already been collected elsewhere, overall The Dead Emcee Scrolls is a solid summation of Williams’s work and a strong introduction for the uninitiated.

“NGH WHT” is probably the most interesting poem here. Beginning “BCH NGH. Gun trigga. Dick’s bigga. Why / fuck? Killer. Blood spiller. BCH stealer. Mack / truck. Bad luck, fuckin with this black buck” and raising more questions than it answers, it’s clear that this is not a typical Saul Williams poem. It’s closer to an embodiment of the gangsta archetype Williams so often rejects, and a tantalizing glimpse into an alternate universe: what if Williams was a gangsta too? The imagery is still powerful: “Like the way I hold my gat, flat on its / side, like a pup. And I’m tickling the trigger. / Make it laugh from its gut. You would think / I’m a comedian the way it erupts,” or, later on, “…Got you smokin them trees. At your / front door with my sawed-off. Got you snortin / them keys.” Williams’s intent here is unclear: is he slipping into a gangsta stance in order to shock, to point out the prevalent negative attitudes before he condemns them in later poems? Or is he taking advantage of the level of separation provided by the plot device of the scrolls, to take the darker, more tempting path from a safe distance: if you’re offended, don’t worry, Saul didn’t write this. Williams also refers to himself at points as “Niggy Tardust”, an interesting reference to Bowie’s alien and alienated Ziggy Stardust—where Ziggy Stardust was separated from society because of species, his alien nature reflected in his name, Niggy Tardust is separated by race; where Stardust was, for better or for worse, the embodiment of the self-destructive excess of the rock’n'roll lifestyle, Tardust embodies the street-corner thug culture. Equally interesting is Williams’s use of “NGH” instead of “nigga”—does further abbreviation really take more of the sting out of a controversial word with negative origins? By capitalizing “NGH”, Williams also draws more attention to it; later on, he brings up the historical spelling of “Yahweh” as “YHWH”, although he stops short of directly paralleling “nigga” to the concept of God.

The problem is that too often in other poems, by trying to be too revolutionary, Williams can threaten to lose himself in his own incendiary proselytizing. For every glowing endorsement like the back-cover quotes—“he challenges us to be individuals,” says Russell Simmons—he has a detractor; in his intense focus on the cultural battle for the soul of the young black male, especially with regards to the role of hip-hop in shaping said soul’s worldview, Williams at times swoops dangerously close to losing relevance, tirade after impassioned tirade turning him into the homeless man with the “repent the end is near” sign or, worse, the crazed, grizzled old man in the corner that nobody listens to. But by that same token, for every critic he has a disciple: a quick glance at his books on Amazon reveals a cult following of passionate readers, “Saul changed my life”, this is a man with a vision. And indeed, for every time Williams’s poems blur together into a less-than-inspiring parade of religious/historical references and empty calls for revolution, he pulls out a powerful punch of verse that reminds you just why he was so vital and important in the first place, that takes you back to the energetic young man in the Brooklyn Moon or the Nuyorican with his eyes wide and voice raised.

When he does write about other things, it’s a refreshing break. Williams, even without the soapbox screams and the quest to save the world, is still an extremely talented wordsmith, and his simpler poems are sometimes all the more beautiful for their simplicity. Chapter one of the poem “1987” paints a vivid picture of Saul and three of his friends almost exclusively through the use of brand names and culture references—“Acid wash Guess with the leather patches, / sportin the white Diadoras with the hoodie / that matches. I’m wearing two Swatches and / a small Gucci pouch…”—evoking both nostalgia and a commentary on modern consumerism; in his rare love poems (not counting the many love poems to hip-hop), he shows again his knack for imagery, drawing, for instance, interesting parallels between sex and God: he begins one poem with a short, startlingly blunt sentence, “God and pussy.” He builds the metaphor over the course of the poem, flipping meanings with lines like “I’m about to slide up in the kingdom / of God with no protection”, contrasting “holy union” and “holy crap”, creating a brilliant interplay between the sacred and the obscene. In the final line, “Cosmic slop on everything”, he tears it right back down, the release bringing to mind Cummings’s “nearer:breath of my breath:take not thy tingling” in its almost crude anticlimax.

The closing journals at points drift into boring metaphysical clichés, but mixed in are fragments of truly great poetry, nimble wordplay (“I’m charged / With possession of illegal substance / But my substance / Makes eagles of the ill”), and even moments of unexpected humor (“I was walking down Fifth Avenue today when Russell Simmons came out of a building and crossed right in front of me. / Is that the same as a black cat?”). Not all of it is new, but it’s a testament to Williams’s writing that even older, previously-released material, such as the masterful manipulation of imagery on “Penny for a Thought”, retains every shiver of its original power.

Williams is not just a strong poet but a great MC as well (the voice behind tracks like “List of Demands” and “Black Stacey”), and his command of rhythm comes across undiluted even on the written page; as you read, you can almost hear the beat behind the words. He has a way with imagery and a gift for language, and even when his preaching can grow tiresome or heavy-handed the underlying message is still important. For those seeking a deeper understanding of the hip-hop generation, The Dead Emcee Scrolls isn’t a bad place to start. And if he’s just a little bit arrogant, well… what else is hip-hop?

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