The outspoken word: rap and poetry converge with spoken performance
When the budding wordsmith David Meads began appearing on London's performance-poetry circuit a few years ago, he did not happen upon a movement that was openly ripe with potential.
"There would be two or three people at these nights, and you'd get to know everyone there because it was always the same people, you'd be auditioning for your peers," he recalls, bristling slightly at the memory. "It was a scene that developed without any members of the public."
Yet develop it did, and in some style. Spoken word - as the scene is now generally referred to - is suddenly achingly cool again, with "new nights springing up all the time, and selling out regularly", he reports.
Meads, who is now much better known as the rapper Scroobius Pip, can take some credit for this rapid resurgence. Tall, impressively bearded, credible but likeable, he has become a vital cheerleader for the spoken word scene, running events, hosting festival stages and generally pushing the new breed.
The packed-out nights vary in style, from One Taste, an influential but chilled music and speech showcase co-founded by the singer Jamie Woon, to Bang Said the Gun, a lively mix of politics and puns, to Farrago, a more cerebral event in which budding Allen Ginsbergs exchange profundities. All spoken life is here.
Poets are now in demand on record, too. Drums Between the Bells, which emerged this week on the ever-innovative Warp label, is a collaboration between the veteran producer Brian Eno and a little-known British poet called Rick Holland. Eno is hardly jumping on a bandwagon here as the project began way back in 2004, after he heard Holland provide words for a multimedia show in a church. The poet had been greatly influenced by a visit to New York's Nuyorican Poets Café, and, seven years on, it seems the climate back home is finally ready for their blend of beats and cerebral musings.
Holland admits that some of his older work on the album "makes me cringe" and certain tracks are infinitely skippable, but the unpredictable array of electronics and voices - Holland's words are spoken by others - generally makes for a diverting listen.
"I really just put the words there, let the accidents happen and let the music stem from those accidents," he says. "Also, as you can hear, my voice is monotone, and 16 tracks of me talking over Brian's music would get very boring."
Drums Between the Bells swiftly followed another notable spoken word/musical mash-up. Weeks before Gil Scott-Heron's untimely death in May, his 2010 album I'm New Here had been inventively remixed by Jamie Smith, the beats wizard behind the massively successful London band The xx. Renamed We're New Here, it shone a welcome light on Scott-Heron's legacy.
Inspired by the revolutionary New York collective The Last Poets, Scott-Heron's polemics helped popularise a new form of spoken word in the early 1970s, paving the way for rap, and he remains perhaps the most profound influence on the British spoken word revival. The most directly affected poet is Malik Al Nasir - formerly Mark T Watson - whom Scott-Heron met after a Liverpool gig in 1985 and took under his wing. Scott-Heron and The Last Poets have since contributed to several of Nasir's projects, on the page and on record.
Meads may have taken the name "Scroobius Pip" from an Edward Lear poem, but his love of spoken word was also chiefly inspired by Scott-Heron, having traced him back via hip-hop. Even the more traditional Rick Holland was stirred by urban music rather than the great British bards, particularly drum and bass MCs, how their rhymes and rhythms "sat within the basslines that I was dancing to".
So is there a distinction between poetry, spoken word and rap? Meads suggests that the terminology "depends on an individual's ego or discomfort; spoken word is the term I use the most, because it's the most accessible and the one that doesn't have so much attached to it".
Holland, on the other hand, would "probably call myself a poet, but I'm slightly wary of the connotations", and notes a difference in writing styles. Spoken word performers "try to entertain through humour or through more musical, sound-oriented skills, whereas if someone's just writing for the page it opens up a whole new arena of references, from the highbrow - which turn me off to be honest - to other tricks of that format".
He and Eno also collaborated on an art installation last year and modern wordsmiths are wont to explore new territories, once free of the page. Scroobius Pip became a household name in 2007 after forming a fertile partnership with the techno producer Dan le Sac, and is working on a new solo project, setting spoken word against punk and hardcore rock. His rhymes did return to the page last year though, as a comic book, Poetry in (e)motion.
The most droppable name on the new scene is Steve Camden, aka Polarbear, who mixes spoken pieces with visual art, film and music. The Anglo-Egyptian poet and actress Sabrina Mahfouz is also taking her words to bold new areas, from theatrical shows to mainstream pop radio, while her friend the popular British Pakistani rapper Riz MC, regularly swaps his hip-hop beats for more nakedly poetic material.
Spoken word is infiltrating diverse musical genres. Itch, the lead singer with popular punk outfit The King Blues, invariably drops an a cappella interlude into his shows, while the poet-turned-rapper Kate Tempest combines both styles with her jazz-fuelled band Sound of Rum.
Attend a UK festival this year and you may even encounter poetry on the main stage. As Scroobius Pip recalls, the spoken word area "used to be a little tent in the corner that was kind of unlisted as to who went on, whereas there are people in the scene now who have built up enough of a following to be headline acts".
This year's Standon Calling festival, for example - a hip "boutique" affair near London - features the punk-poet John Cooper Clarke high on the bill, alongside the American poet/musician Saul Williams and Sound of Rum. Tam McLarty manages the latter band and books the artists for Standon Calling, while also admitting that "a full-stop spoken word stage isn't something I'd find myself at". She prefers to mix them up.
"It's about the performance - these people can hold the stage just with their words, without a band behind them, and I don't think a lot of singers could. If you stripped away the band and listened to what the singers are saying it's often monotonous and a bit simple. These people are crafting their lyrics a lot more."
The difference now is that others want to listen. "There's an element of vocalising people's uneasiness about what's happening in the world," agrees McLarty. "People really want to hear things vocalised in an eloquent and a clever way, and I think people are responding to it more than normal music, which doesn't seem to have a purpose and a point."
Holland agrees: "It's an outlet, and truly democratic, people can stand up and say whatever they want. The next generation down from me are more confident about getting up and presenting their truth now. There isn't the apologetic aspect that there was 10 years ago."
No longer cowed behind shaky sheets of paper, the modern performance poet is standing proud.
The Last Poets
A collective of African-American poets from the the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement. Their politically charged words are regarded as one of the earliest influences on hip-hop.
He may also be an actor and musician, but the New Yorker is an evocative poet known for his dynamic live performances.
His recent death was mourned globally. Despite his laid-back delivery, Scott-Heron’s lyrical content pulled no punches, tackling various political and social issues from racism to nuclear warfare.
Presently causing a stir across UK poetry circles with her free-flowing stream of consciousness style performed over some experimental backing tracks.
A regular performer in festivals across the UK, Europe and UK. He is acclaimed for his performances mixing humour and storytelling
Updated: July 6, 2011 04:00 AM