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MEN of LETTERS
Local rap trio mixes grimy imagery of cities, poetry, stream of consciousness, and beats
The Men of Letters contacted me a few weeks back now and asked if we’d be interested in interviewing them. I popped their disc in and took a listen as I worked on some stuff. I have to say first that I don’t profess to know much about hip-hop much further than the Beastie Boys, Earthling, Kool Keith or the occasional MTV I catch. But I didn’t need to. These guys are doing something else, they are on a different plain, spiritually, lyrically, and musically.
Sure its great and kinda funny to hear places around town pop up in rap lyrics, but it is more than that. Being from around here, we know what they are talking about. We have a sense of place that lets them paint with these phrases – light, smell, even taste – they conjure these senses by simply mentioning a place:
I and I / the orange light / a haze over Federal Hill / so much afterglow soaking into porches / we carry memories of everything sent to landfills and city archives / a mist from the Blackstone / backbreaking history / spinning in trees off of Dean Street
Death and rebirth, architecture and decay, spirits and ghosts, they are all there and represented. The beats are simple and also other worldly. They search for obscure loops and bits of spoken word, Buddhist chants, jazz, and sirens, use them as rhythm, and sometimes anti-rhythm. Their lyrics are also topical, full of political as well as pop and consumer culture references, but never used as a cheap joke, always more of a mood or chilling piece of poetry:
the big man was born after a long labor and pulled the strings of uterus tissue from his arms and sat solidly centerpoint / sized up the four corners and set to work putting the words in orbit around the sameness / names on sticks in the dirt, for greenery: hydrangea, cherry blossom, lily, Honey Dew, Bess Eaton, Krispy Kreme / manager's special, halloween sprinkles stuck in the corners of the display case…where should the inspector's look for weapon's of mass destruction / try the bedroom the trunk of an SUV / watch your shadow / twin snake refuse comb through proof of incarnate evil
I could go on. This stuff is poetry, almost sounds like stream of consciousness, but it’s too good to be passed off as simply the subconscious taking over. It’s real, it has been thought about, written down, scratched out, rehearsed, erased, built up, knocked down, until it becomes second nature. These guys are fantastic at what they are doing, and they are making some exciting stuff.
A Brief History
The three vocalists, under the aliases Napillustrious, Gentle Thomas, and SSY the Aural Oracle, weave together a landscape built of intermixed fragments of the I Ching, the Mumonkan, the Rig Veda, the Tao Te Ching, the Splendor of the Zohar, Shinto, Feng Shui, modern film, Jungian psychology and a slew of artifacts from Providence and Rhode Island that form a thick skein with a wealth of subtext. Each emcee has his own personal mythology with different implications on some of the same themes. Nap’s lyrics are suffused with the geomancy harnessing the energy of the architecture of Providence, New York, and Cambodia. Gentle Thomas explores his subconscious like a modern-day William Blake, with the various components taking the form of angelic battle. SSY acts as an oracle, delivering his lyrics in the form of spells and prayer. The three currents of verse combine with the trance-inducing music of Sam Holland and SSY to form a fourth and larger mythology; that of Men of Letters proper.
Let Prayers Carry On and Words Fall Like Rain is the second part in a cycle of albums that begins with the EP Flame is Fire and Fire is Flame, continues through the three vocalists’ solo albums (SSY’s One Blue Twilight, NapIllustrious’ 16 Views of the Industrial Trust Building, and Gentle Thomas’ Wild Beasts and Angels Ð the EP) and A Message From the Void, and concludes with the album The New Year.
What follows is a brief commentary on Blood and Stone, track 3 of “Let Prayers Carry on and Words Fall Like Rain”:
Blood and Stone
Why does one find such strange delight in the contorted steel and yellow rust of abandoned mills, or the crumbling palace walls of Angkor Wat? Maybe these relics are more alive now than they’ve ever been – as symbols of what the psyche has lost and must find anew.
I had a strange dream last night… I was on the fifth-floor balcony of Providence City Hall overlooking the atrium. There was a fire on the ground level and dark shadows danced where the flames didn’t reach. In my hands was some kind of document — I can’t recall what it said, but I know it was of some importance. As the heat climbed the walls of the building, a portentous noise grew in my chest, like a chorus of bellowing horns. As the noise expanded, I knew I was losing control and screamed to assert my sovereignty over it. I’ve felt these kinds of things in past dreams, but never with such wholesale terror. That’s when I woke up.
The noise, which threatened to consume me in the dream, was the city itself — my poetic inspiration. As an artist, I have tried to act as a medium and allow the city’s energy to flow through me. But as Confucius warns, men should keep the spirit world at a distance. When you lift the veil of names and forms and glimpse the energies behind them, you must then return to the surface with a prescription for harmony and order. Pure spiritualism is just as corrosive as pure materialism. In fact, I think the most dangerous people on earth are those that reject the names and forms. The dream was an entreaty to "take back the names and forms". In other words, to resolve the tension between the images and their energies.
In the middle of Blood and Stone, the beat gives way to a slowed-down sample of Gwendolyn Brooks reading one of her poems. I don’t know which one, but the key line is “holding a bandage, ready for your eyes” Like the chest-borne horns in my dream, her voice is meant to represent the city’s soul; the pure spiritual energy behind the thousand images. But this is not where the song ends.
As the beat kicks back in, SSY’s verse marks a return to the surface, but now suffused with the light of a rediscovered center. The images are no longer meaningless.
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