Tag Archives: Spoken Word

A Guide to Spoken Word on Bandcamp

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Tanesha the Wordsmith

In May 2018, The Last Poets celebrated their 50th year with a new LP, Understand What Black Is. Back in the late ’60s, the group used politically charged raps and militant rhythms to raise black consciousness and spread awareness throughout Harlem, Manhattan. At the same time, in a different part of the city, Gil Scott-Heron was using his own barbed verse to attack consumer culture, mass media, and systemic racism, setting spoken word poetry to steady-boiling free jazz. And while spoken word verse had been around for centuries—think back to the storytelling of 13th century griots in the Mandé Empire of Mali, West Africa, or even further back to the original wordsmiths of Ancient Greece—Heron and the Last Poets were among the first to see its value as a popular art form, and a way to comment on the turbulent world around them.

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Fifty Years On, The Last Poets are Still a Vital Force

Last Poets

Photos by Hollis King

The South African poet laureate Keorapetse “Willie” Kgositsile once wrote these words: “This wind you hear is the birth of memory. When the moment hatches in time’s womb, there will be no art talk. The only poem you will hear will be the spear point pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain, the timeless native son dancing like crazy to the retrieved rhythms of desire fading into memory.” Continue reading

In the ’80s, Ursula K. Le Guin & Todd Barton Recorded an Imaginary Civilization

Kesh, Ursula Le Guin

Photo by Brian Attebery, 1988

If you came across Music And Poetry Of The Kesh blind, with no idea of its contents of context, you could spend an eternity trying to understand it.

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How Creating “(american) FOOL” Saved the Life of Poet Jerry Quickley

Jerry Quickley

Art saved another life last year—that of poet, war correspondent, radio host, and filmmaker Jerry Quickley. He’s no stranger to mass death after several tours in Iraq. He also knows that anyone who lives long enough will lose loved ones along the way. But when three people close to Quickley committed suicide in the span of three months, he didn’t think he could go on.

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John Sinclair and Youth at the Intersection of Art and Commerce

John Sinclair

“Living Euro to Euro, sleeping on the couches and extra beds of friends, a man without a country and a post office box in New Orleans for a permanent address.” That’s how spoken word poet John Sinclair describes himself in one of the passages on Beatnik Youth, his new collaboration with producer/multi-media artist Youth, who plays bass in Killing Joke and has worked with artists like The Orb, The Verve, Beth Orton, and Crowded House.

Out as a double-CD on September 8, Beatnik Youth is preceded by Beatnik Youth Ambient, a vinyl mini-version of the album containing two of the more spacious selections and two non-LP tracks; the selections range from raucous rock ‘n’ roll to psychedelic jazz and abstract soundscapes. Throughout, Sinclair’s booming voice functions as an anchor, taking on an American social landscape bursting with civil unrest and self-reinvention as Youth’s modernist production swirls around him.

Immortalized by John Lennon’s 1972 song that bears his name, Sinclair is an iconic figure of ‘60s counterculture, famous for, among other things, having co-founded the anti-racist White Panther Party and for managing Detroit’s legendary leftist proto-punk outfit MC5 early in its history. Following a highly publicized two-year stint in prison for marijuana possession (Lennon’s song was a protest against his incarceration), Sinclair has stuck to his guns as an advocate for marijuana reform.

Over the last 13 years, however, he has focused primarily on his other two passions, jazz and radio, delivering a weekly online show on the Radio Free Amsterdam network in spite of his itinerant status. As he says on Beatnik Youth, the Flint, Michigan-area native maintains no fixed address, splitting his time between Amsterdam, New Orleans, and Detroit, staying in the Netherlands for three months at a time as visa restrictions dictate.

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By turns nostalgic and irreverent—a passing anecdote about Allen Ginsberg introducing Thelonious Monk to LSD stands out as either crass or hilarious (or both!) depending on your point of view—Beatnik Youth is both a love letter to a bygone era and a forceful call for America to come to face its own conscience. “There is something about the American mind—set on destruction, relentless, unpenitent…,” Sinclair says on the album.

In separate conversations, we caught up with both Sinclair and Youth (real name: Martin Glover) for what turned out to be surprisingly lighthearted exchanges, with Sinclair’s Elmer Fudd-esque laugh smothering the background clatter of an Amsterdam café.

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Album of the Day: Sneaks, “It’s a Myth”

D.C.’s Eva Moolchan, a.k.a. Sneaks, makes incredibly minimal, clean music: sing-song spoken word over simple, brittle beats and nimble bass runs. There’s no room for faltering, no smeary distortion to hide within. To do what Moolchan does with these elements is far more difficult than it might appear on the surface—on her second release, It’s a Myth, she’s able to evoke a surprisingly wide range of moods, from conspiratorial (“Look Like That”) to anxious (“Hair Slick Back”) to mildly disturbing (“Not My Combination,” “With A Cherry On Top”) to insouciant (“Devo,” “Act Out”).

It’s a Myth develops Moolchan’s sound, first introduced to the world on Gymnastics; here she sounds more confident, with developed dimension and greater use of melodic accents (recording by bonafide legend Mary Timony surely aids). But this sound itself is an extension of one aspect of the D.C.-Olympia continuum—a tradition of broadly experimental spoken word that was part and parcel of ‘90s Riot Grrrl (see: the original iteration of Julie Ruin, Nikki McClure, Eileen Myles’ appearance on Move Into the Villa Villa Kula, and so forth). Moolchan’s work is less outwardly brash, more oblique and more rhythmic than many of these examples, but it is certainly of the same cloth: I am saying exactly what I want to say with the few tools I have.

What Moolchan ends up saying allows the listener to interpret between the lines, to personalize and develop a relationship with her unique and strong voice. That’s part of its elegance and efficacy, as much as its range is. But it’s also catchy, and well-constructed in terms of pure songwriting, and while there’s no room for mistakes, she makes none. She’s out there on the highwire, and she’s perfectly balanced.

—Jes Skolnik