Spoken Word: The Hip-Hop Edition

There is much to question regarding the current state of mainstream hip-hop, minus a few, fresh glimmers of hope (ahem J. Cole). For the most part, it’s become monotonous, overproduced, and lacking comprehensive, lyrical depth. But when a rapper is removed from his clichéd natural habitat (on top of a saturated beat, their mansion in the hills, the Rolls Royce dealership, the jewelry store, Nicki Minaj…kidding) and placed on a stage, grasping a mic in front of a crowd, there is a vigor released that almost make one forget how prominent they are. Instead of celebrated, entertainment symbols, these seven rappers are vulnerable, emotion-filled spoken word poets. And even if it only lasts a couple of minutes, it’s a breath of fresh air in an otherwise polluted environment.

Common—“God is Freedom”


Common is one of the few rappers that seems more comfortable on a stage than on top of a beat. He’s so publically revered that First Lady Michelle Obama invited the rapper to the White House in May for a poetry reading, infuriating the always open-minded Fox News.

KRS-One and Doug E. Fresh—“2nd Quarter-Free Throws”


It’s unfortunate that myself and this general cohort of readers are too young to understand the essence of KRS-One and how revolutionary he was in his prime. With a foundation of social activism, KRS-One isn’t as much a rapper as he is a teacher. His songs, like the one above, don’t implore you to sit back and listen, but rather to get up and act. KRS-One would be the perfect alarm clock.

Kanye West—“Bittersweet Poetry”


Both pieces from this video may sound familiar. The showy intro is from West’s verse in Rhymefest’s 2006 hit, “Brand New,” and “Bittersweet Poetry” is a bonus track from his 2007 release Graduation, which features John Mayer (Don’t worry, he isn’t in this performance). Nowadays, West tends to steal the stage from others during their special moments, but in this 2006 video, the limelight is all his.

Talib Kweli—“Hell”


The Brooklyn native and once NYU student has garnered moderate commercial success, while juggling the status as an intellect and poet. In addition to that balancing act, what makes Talib Kweli special is no matter the song he is featured on, his diction and overall message is constantly thought provoking.  “Hell” being a great example of his bright, hip-hop infused poetry.

DMX—“The Industry”


Hey! DMX is happy about something! Just kidding. He is pissed about the record business. But it’s quite refreshing to see him so stripped-down and open.

Footnote: With that growl, I suspect DMX could rap about his fondness for daisies and guinea pigs and I would come away thinking he has a deep seeded hatred for both.

J. Ivy—“Dear Father”


You may or may not know the name J. Ivy as the guy who rapped that really inspirational verse in Kanye West’s song “Never Let Me Down” from West’s debut release, The College Dropout. But it’s the lasting effect of “Dear Father” that should make him much more memorable than being featured on an elite rapper’s album.

Sekou tha Misfit—“I’m a Rapper”


Sekou tha Misfit is an accomplished slam poet and entertainer. He is not a rapper, despite what the title suggests. Although, in this piece, he embodies the character of a rapper, who flaunts all of the amenities noted at the top of this page. “I’m a Rapper” deliberately exploits the current culture of mainstream hip-hop in a compelling, conscious MC effort.

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98 Comments on “Spoken Word: The Hip-Hop Edition”

  1. 09.30.11 at 1:49 PM #

    Really cool! (:

  2. Gillian Colbert
    09.30.11 at 2:13 PM #

    So refreshing to hear someone echo my own thoughts on rap. I’m a child of the 80s and witnessed the birth of rap. The best and greatest are true poets. You can take a Rakim song and just read the lyrics … they are metaphorical and force you to think about what is being said. There are layers to the lyrics … something as simple as Paid in Full’s …”Thinking of a master plan/cuz ain’t nothin but sweat inside my hand” has so much going on.

    Alright, I’m waxing sentimental now, but great post.

    • 10.1.11 at 1:35 PM #

      Exactly. I have found myself in many “debates” over the years when people try to dismiss hip hop and mc’ing (real mc’ing) as an art form. I tell them, “Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not art.” I remember seeing R in an interview explaining how he would experiment with rhyme pattern and challenge himself to force his words to fit a certain structure to challenge himself as an artist.

      Well said, I loved stumbling across this and had to share with friends.

    • 10.3.11 at 10:32 AM #

      i agree with u

  3. 09.30.11 at 2:14 PM #

    A perfect Friday Freshly Pressed — I’ll be listening to these today while at the office (and hoping my colleagues don’t mind!).


  4. Gillian Colbert
    09.30.11 at 2:19 PM #

    … Common … Wow … “there’s many levels to it/it’s rebel music”

    Rap was a movement before it was an industry … excellent!

  5. 09.30.11 at 2:22 PM #

    Dan: Thank you for educating me. . .I am still sobbing as I type this comment with the words of J Ivey’s “Dear Father” ringing in my ears. Wow!

  6. 09.30.11 at 2:25 PM #

    “…infuriating the always open-minded Fox News.” – best line of the entire post. 🙂

  7. 09.30.11 at 2:28 PM #

    I would have to say my favorites are Sekou and Talib Kweli. Amazing guys.

  8. 09.30.11 at 4:50 PM #

    What an education! I loved and was enraptured by the powerful poetry of those performers. So sad to think that they had such pain in their lives. But Man, do they know how to express how their feelings

    Thank you for this marvelous blog.


  9. 09.30.11 at 4:54 PM #

    The Teacher! (is all i gotta say)

  10. 09.30.11 at 5:02 PM #

    Love your analogy of “pullution”. I can’t get past Kane West’s recent antics though, I guess he forgot where he came from. Terrific post.

  11. 09.30.11 at 5:24 PM #

    Awesome insight into a genre of music I’ve missed most of…thanks for sharing these clips!


  12. marginalessays
    09.30.11 at 5:34 PM #

    Fans can thank Russell Simmons for this. A little bit of background, from an interview with Simmons in “America Behind the Color Line: Interviews with African Americans” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr (2004).

    “People say I’m smart because of Def Poetry Jam. They say, you are so creative, how did you think of that? Oh my God, it was hot in the ghetto for years. I had the access and I did something that was obvious. There was nothing creative or genius about putting poets on television.” (p 53)

    I spend hours watching these videos on youtube. Lauryn Hill “Motives and Thoughts” is a favorite, partly because I have a crush on Lauryn Hill. Fans should also check out Brave New Voices, a competition and now DVD that showcases a new generation of talented young poets.

  13. So Refreshing!!! just remind me there is still real hip-hop, real street poets with deep lyrics speaking the truth…Common, Talib Kweli and Sekou tha Misfit are just the proofs of hip-hop heritage from the 80’s! If you’re still nostalgic of the 80’s-90’s, check it out Old Skool Generation Blog on http://oldskoolgeneration.over-blog.com. Just keep it real!

  14. 09.30.11 at 5:38 PM #

    Been following Def Poetry Jam for a bit now…I love it, agree with what you say about the state of hip-hop. Great that you’ve put these pieces together in one place. These performances are a great inspiration for me in my own writing.

    My personal favourite “Flashy Words – Shihan”

  15. 09.30.11 at 5:54 PM #

    LOVE this post!!! Some of the greats were posted here! Truly inspirational!

  16. TheOtherFrosti
    09.30.11 at 5:56 PM #

    Ahhhh thank god for this post, thank you for bringing this to light! I’m so happy to see this on Freshly Pressed, some real shit right here!

  17. 09.30.11 at 6:12 PM #

    I could be way off here, but I didn’t see Mos Def in this. But I agree with all your choices for vids. Great!

  18. 09.30.11 at 6:36 PM #

    This post was great. My boyfriend is so into hip-hop, now I’ll be able to teach him a thing or two.
    Thank you!

  19. 09.30.11 at 6:57 PM #

    You gotta listen to Shad too…. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hrPCV7p_iOE

  20. 09.30.11 at 7:30 PM #

    This is a great post. I think you’re post really explains that at it’s core, hip hop music is poetry.

  21. Johnny Case
    09.30.11 at 8:32 PM #

    Thank you for a post that reminds people that hip hop is not soulless. There are still artists with fire in their bellies. Listening to all those rappers on Def Jam reminded me of this awesome piece by Sarah Jones: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRgIGMwZd2o

  22. secretsociety3
    09.30.11 at 9:19 PM #

    this just reveals that the lyrical/poetic content is whats important not the beat…though add a catchy tune and youve got a hit. But if the lyrics aint hitting..im not listening..

  23. msperfectpatty
    09.30.11 at 9:59 PM #

    loooooveeeeee it! beautiful words spoken about beautiful words!

  24. 10.1.11 at 1:59 AM #

    Rapping in the music industry today, which is just about getting girls, money etc, is infuriating. There are some truly talented rappers out there who have such deeper meanings to their words and I love ’em.

    Great post, loved it!



  25. 10.1.11 at 3:54 AM #

    Cute! This is really great post!

  26. 10.1.11 at 5:18 AM #

    I love this post and for it’s links to great spoken word. KUDOS.

  27. 10.1.11 at 6:16 AM #

    Love this. You guys rock

  28. 10.1.11 at 6:27 AM #

    Dan, Thanks. The post is great. I learnt so much. It’s amazing the number of things Eminem has learnt from J.Ivy 🙂

  29. 10.1.11 at 6:53 AM #

    Love this post, we are now following your blog. Great choice of songs, old and new.. spoken with beautiful words! Pleased to have found you!

  30. 10.1.11 at 8:20 AM #

    Thanks for this post! Coincidentally, one of my upcoming pieces is about Hip Hop. I can’t wait!!! When I awoke this morning, I contemplated whether I should post it or not, but now I must!! “I’m a keep on!”

    80’s baby on board, by way of the South Bronx…”Step Into A World”

    I’ve always been intrigued by the poetry of the rappers that I most revere – Common and KRS-One are but a few. Talib Kweli is “sick!”, as is Mos Def (one of your commenters made mention of him) and that’s a good thing. I am a poet first, so that’s what draws me in, but it’s the depth of the message that keeps me, so it’s refreshing when I hear a message that the artist has taken time to craft, finesse, and deliver with such tenacity and bravado, that you can’t help but listen.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! Stay tuned…

  31. 10.1.11 at 9:17 AM #

    hey great job, all of them are awesome!! thanks for sharing ……..!!

  32. 10.1.11 at 10:15 AM #

    Rap poetry is amazing, it just grabs you and won’t let go. Wonderful.

  33. 10.1.11 at 10:44 AM #

    I’m not a huge fan of hip hop (anymore) but I have taken notice of these guys’ talent. And, DMX is definitely worth a good close listening. He’s a much better lyricist than he’s given credit for. And if you’re careful, you’ll hear a bit of a Langston Hughes influence.

  34. 10.1.11 at 12:14 PM #


    I miss the intelligence and MUSIC of Tribe, Dela and old Jurassic 5. Hip Hop is slowly getting there…Chiddy Bang more recently (In the UK at least) K-Os still doing his thing, and Ugly Duckling are regularly over…

    I am so relieved to hear that there are other people who love hip-hop but don’t want to hear about bitches and hoes…

    This has made my weekend – I’m gonna go and listen to some Aim.


  35. 10.1.11 at 1:11 PM #

    great compilation of clips! thanks for sharing. good stuff.

  36. 10.1.11 at 2:26 PM #

    Common likes Karl Marx

  37. 10.1.11 at 2:44 PM #

    Immortal Technique is well worth a shout-out as well! Self-made, constantly contrarian etc. The song Retrospect for Life by Common is one of the most moving I’ve ever heard, he’s a favorite of mine. I love that he promotes safe sexual health etc outside of his business endeavors. Jill Scott maybe deserves a spot, too. Bleh, top ___ lists always have “you left out ___!” dissenters.

    It was nice to see something about hip-hop, and not about baking or nature, in Freshly Pressed for once.

  38. Christopher Spata
    10.1.11 at 3:12 PM #

    It’s interesting how a beat or a melody can add so much, or take so much away from the poetry in hip hop’s lyrics. Very nice post, you’ve given me some new ammo for an analysis essay that I’m working on.

    Also, I saw Common give a lecture at a university a few nights ago, and he’s definitely a man of many roles. I blogged about that here:

  39. 10.1.11 at 3:36 PM #

    I dig Talib!

  40. 10.1.11 at 3:46 PM #

    Great piece. I have never considered DMX to be a great lyricist (partly because I just couldn’t get past all the growling), but now that I think about it, I guess I can see how one might think otherwise.

    In today’s auto-tuned, gimmick-infested rap culture, it’s hard to find authentic, meaningful music anymore. When you strip a song of all its beats and tracks, where is the meat? Hip Hop is just not the same anymore. Can we even call that “stuff” they play on the radio “Hip Hop”? I feel like it’s evolved into a completely different creature at this point. *sigh*

    • 10.2.11 at 3:52 PM #

      Hey, this is a bit of shameless self-promotion but I interviewed a Libyan/American rapper involved in the growing hip hop scene over there. Kids have been breaking to it in Benghazi, artists have been producing it in tiny bedroom studios, and revolutionaries have been using it to motivate themselves before battle; all with the aim of showing open defiance to Gaddafi. It is truly the music of the revolution.

      I interviewed him because I became sick of the gimmick-infested rap culture as well, so I reckon this will interest you:


  41. 10.1.11 at 4:00 PM #

    Thx for this blog post. I actually have not paid any attention to hip-hop. I rarely read /hear poetry of any time anymore. Nor listen to any type of music.

    Yea, I’m in a different world…but not really. Just different expressions for social activism & social justice.

  42. 10.1.11 at 4:22 PM #

    thanks for sharing! if you’re interested in innovative spoken word poetry check out the fugitives, from vancouver bc

  43. derekberry
    10.1.11 at 5:12 PM #

    I got to meet a famous Def Jam poet at a reading two weeks back. As a spoken word performer, it was quite awesome to meet him and watch him perform live. I’ve been very into the world of poetry recently, even hip-hop.

  44. Rob
    10.1.11 at 5:18 PM #

    Never knew these rappers participated in such poetry. Thanks for enlightening me and nice job complimenting these videos with your intelligent prose.

  45. 10.1.11 at 5:43 PM #

    Awesome post Dan, leaving my lounge right now to plug the lappie into my hi-fi and watch the vids. Keep up the good work!

  46. weaverofwords
    10.1.11 at 6:12 PM #

    It’s so refreshing to see a post about Spoken Word on here. Nice job and I agree with your thoughts about today’s rap music. Saul Williams’ “Telegram” would be a perfect addition to your post. http://youtu.be/IoV8y5nJwAo.

  47. 10.1.11 at 6:39 PM #

    I remember when this used to be on HBO all the time. I watched it all the time. I love spoken-word, it’s so great to hear some poetry. There is still life left in hip-hop, perhaps not mainstream hip-hop or rap but at least in the indie/underground scene there’s life. I just did a post on the top five artists I’m listening to, all but one are hip-hop artists. They’re all inspiring to me – given that I rap and I hate that “I got the most of X” or “I’m better than X (insert simile here).”

    Great post, glad to see some spoken word poetry again!

  48. 10.1.11 at 8:56 PM #

    This post has officially provoked my thought, thanks!

  49. 10.1.11 at 9:28 PM #

    Common is awesome, definitely one of our favorites.

  50. I like Jay-Z. What do you think of him?

  51. Hasit
    10.2.11 at 12:54 AM #

    Hey, i loved the post.
    I was born in ’92 and have ever since been into Rap, old school and realist rap. Hip-hop is not what people project it these days. I do enjoy 50-Cent and Lil’ Wayne at times. But people got to understand that that is not real Hip-Hop!
    Common – I Used To Love H.E.R. -> One of my favourites!

  52. 10.2.11 at 1:10 AM #

    These are all awesome. I too remember the HBO spoken word and wish someone would bring it back.

  53. 10.2.11 at 7:33 AM #

    An article lamenting that rap is starting to suck… IRONY DEFINED!

    To speak to the more interesting sub-topic, M.C. Hammer has been an outspoken christian his entire career,.

  54. 10.2.11 at 10:09 AM #

    Thanks for these teary-eyed moments of real hip hop. Today’s pop radio joints have had me only listening to my back catalogue exclusively. There are still a few good MCs around but they are usually really hard to find.

    Definitely going to catch up on Def Poetry Jam, now.

  55. 10.2.11 at 10:26 AM #

    This was too awesome! Though some of the language wasn’t something I would prefer to hear, what these men had to say had real depth and made good sense. I never heard J. Ivy, until now, but after watching the video you posted of “Dear Father”, I watched a couple more and love his work. Common was great too. I also watched his performance for at the White House.

    I love you post! I haven’t listened to much rap lately and definitely haven’t heard any poetry in quite a while. So, your post was very refreshing and interesting to me. Thanks for posting something meaningful in the blogosphere 🙂

  56. 10.2.11 at 11:26 AM #

    Great to listen to for Sunday morning reflections.

  57. thoraaron
    10.2.11 at 12:06 PM #

    Terrific list really, it’s nice to see someone posting something that has nothing to do with autotune. Hip hop is art, no questions, but like many arts it is often abused for financial goals.

    Review of San Juan, PR, not for tourists:

  58. 10.2.11 at 12:09 PM #

    Common likes Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

  59. Gilraen
    10.2.11 at 2:05 PM #

    Rap and a few classic performing poets have sparked my interest in poetry. I still hate reading it, but love listening to it.
    But like with any genre, literature or music alike, there are the ones that are pure genius and well the rest that follow in lesser and lesser interest and talent.
    Thanks for this overview. it is pretty cool.

  60. 10.2.11 at 2:10 PM #

    Lots of info on the vile hijacking of hip hop (and just about the entire mainstream music industry) HERE

  61. 10.2.11 at 2:20 PM #

    very insightful. thanks for posting this.

  62. 10.2.11 at 2:35 PM #

    Definitely a fan of spoken word a great post and very insightful.

  63. 10.2.11 at 4:21 PM #


  64. 10.2.11 at 5:55 PM #

    Great poetry!
    I would also recommend the Poet Saul Williams. A great poet who visited my small Swedish hometown yesterday.

  65. 10.2.11 at 7:24 PM #

    I have to agree about the level of polution in hip hop. I think if some of these rappers thought about what they were actually lyrically writing there would be alot of easyier for other’s to enjoy it.

  66. 10.2.11 at 10:12 PM #

    Nice article!

  67. 10.2.11 at 10:37 PM #


  68. 10.3.11 at 12:54 AM #

    I agree on all counts..

  69. 10.3.11 at 3:29 AM #


  70. 10.3.11 at 3:30 AM #


  71. 10.3.11 at 3:59 AM #

    Excellent blog! Thank you for putting together so many talented artists in hip hop/spoken word. I’ll be back often!

  72. TheLookoutDiary
    10.3.11 at 5:01 AM #

    I have always been a fan of spoken word. It keeps me going during the day.

  73. 10.3.11 at 9:03 AM #

    very nice. well stated. bravo!

  74. 10.3.11 at 11:14 AM #


  75. 10.3.11 at 11:52 AM #

    I’m no child of the 80’s but I really like all these artists. Thank you for the great post!

  76. 10.3.11 at 12:13 PM #

    I LOVE this post. I fully agree w/you when you say Hip Hop is lacking that lyrical depth, it’s slowly changing but anyways ..
    In that list of Rappers, What about Eminem? Lauren Hill?

  77. 10.3.11 at 12:41 PM #

    Love this post.

  78. 10.3.11 at 12:52 PM #

    Love the Def Jam Poetry stuff! Another great one is by Consequence… I think it’s called “Friend Zone” or something like that.

    Great post!

  79. 10.3.11 at 1:07 PM #

    i have always been fascinated with spoken word. especially when poets, or for this instance some well-known recording artists there are, put melody in them, which makes it more captivating. i love your post. c”,)

  80. leave.me.be
    10.3.11 at 1:08 PM #

    i have always been fascinated with spoken word. especially when poets, or for this instance some well-known recording artists there are, put melody in them, which makes it more captivating. i love your post. c”,)

  81. ghostdawg2
    10.3.11 at 1:17 PM #

    Great Post.

  82. 10.4.11 at 10:47 AM #

    These are some awesome choices! I taught a few lessons on Slam Poetry to my high schoolers last year and used your choices from Talib Kweli and Kanye West. I really wanted to show this one because I think it’s absolutely amazing and discusses major issues with the common usage of the N-word. However, I felt like it was inappropriate:

  83. 10.5.11 at 3:27 AM #

    Good interpretation about hip hop poetry!

  84. 10.6.11 at 11:44 PM #

    Love them. Thanks so much for giving me something to listen to which is different to my normal tastes

  85. Hi there, I enjoy reading all of your article. I like to
    write a little comment to support you.


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