Malik Ameer Crumpler 2022 / Photo: Anaïs Pourrouquet
Malik Ameer Crumpler 2022 / Photo: Anaïs Pourrouquet

Big Dada Kane: An Interview with Poet-Rapper Malik Ameer Crumpler

Bestriding boundaries between hip-hop, poetry, and surrealism, poet-musician Malik Ameer Crumpler forges a strange and compelling work that is utterly and uniquely his own.

Creeping onto the margins of the hip-hop vernacular, Malik Ameer Crumpler, a native of San Francisco, has been crafting verses of poetry as both a writer and an MC in the shadows of obscurity these last 21 years. His work as a rapper has been met with either muted intrigue or complete indifference from the wider public, but his presence underground has always been amongst like-minded enthusiasts who share his particular view. What that view exactly is, is subject to interpretation. Crumpler’s often wild and abstracted construal of hip-hop and poetic lexicons have stopped a curious many in their tracks. His rhythms of speech are often aligned with the cadences of hip-hop rhyme, but they are often derailed by the Bukowski-like narratives of his poetry.

To be sure, Crumpler has a foot in both artistic ambits. He was formally introduced to the listening public, albeit modestly, through an independent recording called Drapetomania (credited as The Unseen featuring Malik Ameer) in 2001. An album of bruising, lo-fi hip-hop and politically-charged lyrics detailing America’s deep-seated issues of systemic racism, Crumpler, then 20, was just learning the ropes of hip-hop’s underground platforms. The album didn’t leave the indelible mark the rapper had hoped it would make, but more than 20 years on, it remains a potent and raw offering from a young, impressionable upstart who had a considerable wealth of things to communicate in the little bit of space he was given. Numbers like “Talkin’ Heads” and “Trance Form” recall deliveries that are more in line with beat poet Bob Kaufman than rapper Chuck D, shouldering bare-bone hip-hop loops against the impassioned growls of Crumpler’s poetry.

Two years later, in 2003, the rapper would up the ante on his production with Sanctified, a bass-bin shredder that returned a smoother rhymer now backed by beats that explode on contact with the subwoofers. Expanding beyond the insular perimeters of Drapetomania, Sanctified fleshes out a melody of booming funk and the slivers of jazz to go with the heavy knock of hip-hop. It is a combustible package of his mainstay politics with a few party jams thrown in for good measure, and the last of his most conventional musical efforts.

Crumpler would continue to record, releasing Nothing Better to Do (recorded with the Madmen) in 2006, a more funk-influenced effort that leaned on a minimal live band set-up. After featuring on a number of various side projects by other artists, Crumpler packed up and left for France, where he now lives and works, and would begin the second phase of his life and career.

In France, Crumpler has carried on with his musical pursuits, with a new shift toward publishing and written poetry. To date, he has published several volumes of his poetry, including Amber Hymns (2011), Little Everywhere (2014), and Beneath the Underground: Collected Raps 2000 – 2018. Crumpler’s poems are little terrors of passion and rhyme that project with a magnitude that is grand and Dadaist. In his newfound surroundings of Paris, the rapper-poet has discovered much to feed his imagination; the histories combined and entwined in the city’s various museums that at once affirm and abrogate the African diaspora. The movements of African cultures across the globe and their respective fixtures in modern-day society are often reflected and refracted in Crumpler’s works. He sometimes dissects such concepts with pointed intent; other times, he explores those very ideas through a sort of poetic enigmata.

His works in music have become increasingly byzantine over the years; surreal montages of sound that continue to examine the Black influence in the Arts in both Europe and the US, while expanding sonically into other musical realms. Turn Your Shadow into Water (2008) is filled with percussive judders amidst the swells of poetry and funk. The following year’s Just Because it’s a Dream Don’t Make It a Lie trades on early Lounge Lizards to fashion a sort of new wave hip-hop from the Lower East Side’s No Wave golden years. One of his most recent features was on Mike Ladd’s 2021’s Dead Can Rap project, an electro-hip-hop outfit that accommodated Crumpler’s unusual poetry-speak rather nicely.

There are too many recordings and writings to mention here, too many of Crumpler’s ideas that are being gestated for his future material as this is being written. Currently writing for a number of poetry publications, such as Paris Lit Up, Crumpler is still working the scene, hands full-in. He speaks with PopMatters about his artistic endeavors, past and present.

Were your first forays into poetry influenced by hip-hop?

Back in the early ‘80s, my initial forays into poetry influenced by hip-hop were with my older brother and older cousins. We were always poetically playing the dozens, battle-dancing, battle-rapping, racing, and ninja fighting. Since I was the youngest in our family, I was like the little circus act for their friends in the neighborhood (much like the little brothers in The Last Dragon [1985] and Beat Street [1984], I related to and shared the same energy as those little brothers in those movies, just wildin’ out all the time, pop-locking, breakdancing, doing graffiti, always fighting, rapping and cussing).

Around ’87, I started experimenting with the mics on boomboxes and writing raps so I could make little cassette tape recordings of us beatboxing and rapping through those little grill-mics on the boombox. Every tape sounded awful and my brother and cousins clowned the hell out of my voice, the glitchy beats, and my wack rhymes, but as usual, their insults encouraged me instead of dissuading me. So, by ‘88, my cousin Problem Child and I saved our chore money and bought our first RadioShack mixer and an old microphone from Goodwill to go along with our pathetic turntables (we were awful at scratching and beatboxing, so we focused on rapping).

Having real music from the albums got the rest of my older cousins in on it and we started recording ourselves rapping over our parents’ classic funk and R&B records and then going outside to play them in the neighborhood for the other kids, or perform them on the block where we’d encounter other little kid rappers and get at it, especially in the Hunters Point, Fillmore, and Bushrod neighborhoods. Around ‘89 or ‘90 we noticed that maxi-singles had instrumentals on them, so we stopped our abysmal handmade, play/ record/ pause/ rewind/ play/ tape-to-tape/ offbeat loop tapes and started rapping over professional instrumentals. So, back then, poetry was exciting, but for us youngsters, we were into rap, gangs, Bruce Lee and B-boying. Poetry was for our parents.

I also made little comics/ illustrated poetry chapbooks for trading at lunch in elementary school, which eventually led to me ghost-writing many a Valentine’s Day card for the homies in elementary school. Later, I was ghost-writing romantic poetic letters for the homies to send to their girlfriends all over the Bay Area high schools. Also, in high school a crew of us poetry-obsessed teenagers organized and founded our first high school literary magazine, Paradox which is still publishing students at St. Mary’s, to this day.

How involved were you in Oakland’s hip-hop/MC community as a teen? Did you work any of the spoken-word circuits?

As a teenager, I was addicted to the ciphers in school, on the Bart, at rallies, at high school games, and in the streets. On the weekends, my friends who rapped would come over to my house and make beats with the little cheap Kawai keyboard and Boss Dr-5 drum machines my brother and I had back then. We’d freestyle and write songs all day, then record them on my TASCAM 4 track. Everybody was from different parts of the Bay area, so a lot of times we’d be lyrically bangin’ on each other, which was the trend back then since we were obsessed with what became Mob Music and DJ Quik’s crew. So, I made sure to never have cats who were from different sets recording at the same time.

Anyway, outside of the lab (AKA my bedroom in my parents’ house), we’d get a dense cypher going at least two or three times a day, Black & Milds and blunts orbiting our circumference, Bud Ice, Mad Dogg and Hurricane flowin’ and all that, cracking jokes, listening to Martin Lawrence, Paul Mooney, Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory albums, hollering and laughing and then usually arguing about what we knew about world history, studying the 120s while trying to write/ act/ live like our favorite political and spiritual heroes at the time. We never sold that many tapes, but it wasn’t about the money for us, at all. We were all about representing our neighborhoods and building on our daily philosophical, spiritual, and psychological states of being, with a heavy dose of absurdist teenage humor.

Sometimes, we’d just chill on Telegraph Ave. in People’s Park or Golden Gate Park or bug-out on the block with the D boys, freestyling and selling tapes until we’d bounce from mall to mall, cyphering and trying to sell tapes. Other times, we’d go joyriding or just ride the Bart, messing with people, blasting Paul Mooney, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor tapes. We’d have the whole bus, Bart, street or block dying-laughing until some inevitable violence popped off or the police started harassing us. Anyway, the joy of meeting new people and cyphering with our peers in hopes to get our youthful voices out into the atmosphere was the point, I guess.

In those days, I didn’t know about the spoken-word circuits for teenagers. We’d go to readings whenever the legendary poets and writers were in town like Quincy Troupe, Ishmael Reed, Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka and Jessica Hagedorn. But we didn’t know about the diverse poetry/spoken word scenes in the Bay until we got to college. Once I got into SFSU (and some other friends got into Cal Berkeley, Stanford etc.) I started interning at the Poetry Center with my incredibly inspiring and brilliant writer, artists and activist friends Tamara, Eric Iheme, Omid, Ruth, Hyro, Chuck, Daniel, Marco, Natalie, Carlos, Horus, Chuck and Roopah, Kufikiri and Kele (to name a few). They introduced me to the spoken word communities of Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley. My biggest inspirations then were Marcel Diallo’s Black Dot in East Oakland, Sonia’s Black Box in downtown Oakland, Alice Arts Center by the lake, Bush Mamma’s salons in Oakland, Tim’m’ T. West’s salons by the lake and Shakes & Mr. Pink’s LGBTQ Punk/ Anarchist readings in the Haight and Castro. Also, of course, all those readings in North Beach, The Mission, and those incredible readings at the African American Arts & Culture Complex in the Filmore.

By 2000, I started playing the keyboard for a couple of open mics in Oakland at the Black Box, Black Dot and a couple spots in San Francisco, which was great experience for me because I was encouraged to do all spontaneous improvised jam band music since most of the performers were obsessed with getting that Sun Ra/Don Cherry type of modal loop-heavy spiritual vibe behind their words. It was a great place to develop awareness of the possibilities of improvised music and poetry while hearing a wide range of styles and topics, poetry-wise. Although I wasn’t a special or good keyboardist at all, I knew some weird sus and dimensioned chord progression, so I could keep time while doing some unpredictable solos, thanks to St. Mary’s jazz band.

For four years in high school, I studied piano and digital music for capturing improvisation with the jazz band director Casey Filson, who hooked me up with my fellow classmates Alex Foster (pianists) and Jeff Neilson (poet and drummer). After high school, I was lucky enough to attend music workshops at La Pena run by Josh Jones and assisted by Mike Aaberg. Working with them exposed me to a vast network of musicians at jam sessions in Berkeley and San Francisco, like David Michel Ruddy, Lorin Benedict, Howard Wiley, Geetchie Taylor, and so on.

Eventually I got a job at Guitar Center, so I could buy music equipment for super cheap and study with a bunch of incredible keyboardist and producers who would jam at the Guitar Center in El Cerrito, where I worked for two years.