“I think it is pure coincidence,” Rucker says, and laughs heartily, over the phone from her home in Philadelphia. “I didn’t know about his song and I wrote (mine) long before. I like to think that I wrote mine first.”
Which came first is of no consequence, but the differences between the songs demonstrates the gap between hip hop’s vacuous mainstream, where the big money is, and its vital margins, where artists like Rucker strive to keep the meaningful spirit of hip hop alive. Consider: Green sings a highly produced and hip-hop influenced let’s-party ditty with lines such as, “Yeah, I’m sorry, I can’t afford a Ferrari/ but that don’t mean I can’t get you there.” Rucker, over grittier, comparatively stripped-down music, sings, “f-ck you, for making me feel an angry orgasm/ f-ck you, for crippling me with fear.”
That sort of lyrical potency once dominated rap and hip hop, back when Rucker was growing up in Philadelphia, which in the early days was perhaps second only to New York City as a rap hotbed. Rucker remembers the promise that hip hop had as a social force and, like many people, she despaired as the mainstream was taken over by party anthems, misogynistic “gangstas” and a defining, self-aggrandizing materialism. She knows there’s still hip hop that tries to be meaningful, but the commercial centre of the genre is too often pre-fab pop in urban costume. These days it’s difficult to imagine that a crew such as Public Enemy was once the mainstream.
“The definition of hip hop has changed and mutated depending on what people need it to be at a certain time, as opposed to what it really is, and where it started,” says Rucker, who performs her poetry solo at Ottawa Versefest on Saturday night.
She has four sons, aged seven to 17, so hip hop is a big thing in their household. She tries to provide some musical context and perspective.
“It’s kind of hard to get through to young people what the differences are between what they’re receiving in the mainstream as far as hip hop and rap goes, and what we had, why we get upset about it,” says Rucker, who has released a half-dozen albums of her own and guested on many others over the past 15 years. “It shouldn’t be so hard to explain, but it is. I think they’ve been so brainwashed by the glitz and glamour of it.”
She means bling, and she knows it don’t mean a thing. She tells that to her kids and listens to what they’re listening to, and she keeps them involved in her own work, so they see an alternative that tries to be more than sheen. “That’s my job as a mother.”
It’s also her job as a poet, and as a sought-after performer on the global spoken-word circuit – though she doesn’t want to call it that.
Above, the trailer for a 2008 documentary about Ursula Rucker.
“I’m not a fan of the term spoken-word, because it’s very limiting for what I believe poetry is and what it’s done,” she says. “Poetry for me is a way of life, it’s a culture. It’s not just something that I do. It’s something that’ll always be a part of my life, and to speak it or record it or perform it is just one aspect. It’s a big aspect, but it’s not everything.”
So, if not spoken-word, what do you call it?
“Poetry,” she says. “I know it may seem boring to some but it’s exciting to me. I love it, I do. I love the simplicity and the historical nature of it, to know it’s been in existence for thousands and thousands of years.”
Still, it’s a struggle. “It’s me again, your friendly neighborhood poet making artistic appeals for you all to wake up again,” Rucker sings in Ring the Alarm, from her latest album She Said. I ask her, do you ever feel like a voice in the wilderness?
She laughs again. “Of course, are you kidding me? Way too often.”
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