Never Be Alone Again: Hip-Hop Sampling as a Technique in Contemporary Australian Poetry

By | 1 May 2020

It was that core group of New York producers whose work I was lucky enough to encounter in my early teens as I graduated from Ice-T and Vanilla Ice to something with more depth. This was the same time I discovered poetry. While hip-hop lyrics helped imbue my work (hopefully) with a sense of prosody and rhyme, sampling illuminated the power of collage. It wasn’t a technique I used regularly – the garnish of The Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus I sometimes sprinkled on my angsty juvenilia notwithstanding – but it meant that by the time I came to T S Eliot in my second-year modernism course, collage wasn’t new. When he wrote, at the end of ‘The Waste Land’, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’, I understood the fragments, as a poetic technique, as samples. His repurposing of Dante, St. Augustine and the Buddha all happened within a framework I recognised. Prior to reading Eliot’s work, I thought he was a fusty grey-suit guy to be steered clear of. My assumptions were wrong and over time, as the practice of bowerbirding poems out of this and that line became more central to my work, Eliot would come to seem more foundational to my poetics, despite the fact that he is not a poet I read often.

For clarity’s sake it is important to draw a distinction between poems that use samples and the political collage poems that are increasingly idiomatic of our current poetic moment. I’ve written them myself, remixing a sentence from one-time Presidential campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s book Let Trump Be Trump or statements of nuclear bellicosity from Trump and Kim Jong-Un. One of my favourites is Rebecca Jessen’s ‘VOTE YES to pineapple on pizza: it’s un-Australian not to’ which draws from news articles and opinion pieces published in the leadup to the same-sex marriage plebiscite. A sample:

women soften the message
but two mothers cannot fill the vacuumand I’m tired of them pushing
their bagless Dysons in our face
make no mistake, it’s in the bag

it’s okay to say no
to pineapple on pizza

The final joke, the counterpoint to the poem’s title, originally appeared on the side of a Launceston pizza shop during the same sex marriage debate. A billboard for the No campaign, that declared ‘It’s okay to say no,’ was humorously answered by the owners of the pizza shop. Jessen’s use of someone else’s joke clearly marks it as a sample, and a good one at that. The joke is still funny and, in this instance, the poem is a kind of cultural reliquary. The recurring vacuum motif retools homophobic tropes, sharply satirising them, which is where the distinction lies. The two poems of mine are satires with political masculinity in their sights. So, while all of these poems rely on other source texts, and in Jessen’s case even recognisable samples, the political intent of these poems mean they are distinct from the practice of sampling I’m exploring.

There are three ways that samples work in poems. They can have an aural component: for instance, if the sample is of a song, particularly a well-known one, then the sound of that song may be injected into the poem. They can act as landmines; little traps set to detonate whenever the reader gathers the required context. They can be clues in a textual treasure hunt inviting readers to dig into the source material and establish the connections themselves – something that has never been easier for readers with access to the world in a smartphone. And sometimes they are just the raw material from which poems are built.

Let’s start with the aural function because it most closely resembles how samples function in hip-hop. Consider the conclusion of Keri Glastonbury’s ‘Aren’t We’:

they don’t dye hair like that anymore I don’t eat ganmain
pies but would walk with you under the peppercorn
trees over-riding all hesitancy so special so special call it
contingency or parapraxis depending on whose class you
take raconteur or racket aren’t we

Glastonbury marks the sample by shrinking the text and referencing it beneath the poem, a technique that seems borrowed from Michael Farrell’s living at the z (is this a meta-sample?), but even without identifiers the repeated phrase will be recognisable to many radio listeners. It’s from the chorus of The Pretenders’s radio perennial ‘Brass in Pocket’ and Glastonbury’s use of it has the effect of introducing the sound and cadence of Chrissie Hynde’s singing to the poem, enforcing a sudden aural effect, supplanting the reader’s interior voice with Hynde’s. A similar effect can be found in Margaret Rhee’s ‘Good’:

When my father called my name it was four words: mar, gar, e, t! His singing
Voice	   not like a tuba or trombone, but a blend.   Korean melodies good.

Whoa! I feel good, I knew that I would, now. I feel good, I knew that I would.
So good, so good, I got you. So good, so good. I got you. So good, so good.

The second stanza is the easily identifiable chorus of James Brown’s irrepressible 1965 smash ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’. Maybe we are supposed to imagine Rhee’s father singing, and that bass brass horn section would no doubt do justice to Brown’s wail but it would be hard, for many readers, not to have Brown’s distinctive vocals intrude. Then of course there is ‘Rocket to Rome’, John Forbes’ tribute to Rocket to Russia, whose second last stanza urges the reader to:

replay Suzie is a Headbanger
or Rock, Rock, Rockaway Beach,

You can hear Joey Ramone (‘Italian too—/the first worth listening to/since Rocco Scotellaro’), that frantic New York bubblegum punk rocker belting out his hit. It adds depth and timbre to the sound of the lines in a way that other techniques of prosody can’t. I don’t want to mislead though. Samples don’t have to be musical. They can be taken from novels or other poems, or they can be film dialogue or even memes; however only samples with an aural root, like lyrics or movie dialogue, can induce an aural effect.

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