Rollin’ With the Newly Frugal Rappers

The hip-hop world is a less bling-bling place these days, as conspicuous consumption among rappers is down during the current recession.


CHICAGO.  I was rollin’ with my homeys down Stony Island Avenue when Fat Joe axed me to git offen his side of the seat.

“I can’t dawg,” I said.  “We ridin’ three in the front, three in the back to save on gas.”  He reached in his pocket and I thought for a minute he was gonna grab his Glock, but it turned out it was just his hand-held Super Soaker pistol.

“That all you got?” I axed.

“A clip of 8 Magsafe 9 millimeter bullets runs $19.95 at,” he said, a bit embarrassed at his penurious state.  “Even though I wants to produce more soft tissue damage to incompasistate my target, I can’t afford to right now.”

iCon up in the driver’s seat drained the “spit hit” from a quart bottle of Colt .45 that we’d been passing around and started to thow it out tha window.

“Hey dawg–don’t do that!” BackWurdz, a free-styler from da Kenwood projex wuz sayin’ from da back seat.

“Why tha hell not?” iCon said.  “You some kinda ‘vironmentalist’?”

“Naw,” Wurdz said.  “Thass a five cent deposit you throwin’ away!”

iCon turned and looked at the three of us in the back.  We had fallen a long way since the days when we used to pour Courvoisier over our Cap’n Crunch in da mornin.

“Actually, it’s ten cents in Michigan,” Fat Joe said in an off-hand way, but it was like the crackle of gunfire at a rap summit in da old days.

“R u serious?” Wurdz axed.

“Dass right,” Joe replied.  “Any other state it’s a Jefferson, but in da Motor City–we talkin’ Franklin D Roos-a-velt!”

“Woo-ee,” Shade E. xclaimed from da shotgun seat up front.

Wurdz’ face twisted into an expression of the unfocused rage that is his most endearing quality, then he busted out with a couple a couplets over a beat he banged out on the back of the seat.

If Michigan’s gonna give me a dime
I’m packin’ up alla my Sprite Lemon-Limes.
Crummy Illinois with its nickel deposit–
I might as well throw my cans in the closet!

Everybody started to search da floor for mo bottles.  I came up with a Mountain Dew can, and iCon made like ta grab it.

“Unh-uh, man,” I said.  “Life is cheap on the streets, ya know what I’m sayin’?  I’ll blow you away you take a dime from me.”

“Wut u blow me away wit? You ain’t got no gun.”

I stuck my finger in my mouth and den, when he was lookin’ out da window, I gave him a Wet Willie, the most lethal weapon on the street.  I wuz keepin’ it real.

“Cut it out, fool!” he yelled at me, but it was too late.  I had my index finger halfway up his eustachian tube.  I coulda punctured his ear drum, but I decided I’d go easy on him.  We needed backup in case we ran into El Rukn Discount Nation, which had been terrorizing dollar stores on the South Side.

Eustacian tube:  Don’t go there.

“I’m gettin’ hungry,” OxxyMoron said.  “How much we got?”

We all reached in our pockets and pulled out what little change we had.  It came to $3.29.  “We got enough for three Whoppers and a cuppa senior coffee,” Shade E said.

“You old school, but you ain’t old enough to pull dat off,” iCon said.

“We could get a fish filet with tartar sauce and cheese and a small Frosty,” I suggested.

Fat Joe gave me a look of pitiless contempt.  “You ignorant fool!” he snarled.

“What’d I say?”

“Da Frosty is a trademarked product of Wendy’s!”

“You both ignorant,” iCon sneered.  “Da dope way to stretch your fast food dollar is to get the giant size fountain drink.”

“Why dat?” Fat Joe asked, genuinely curious.

iCon gave us the sly smile that he always used ta put on back in the day when he’s blowin away da competition at freestyle battles.  “Cuz you can go back for refills.  Free refills.”

His brazen contempt for law and order took us all aback for a moment.

“You mean,” I said, “that after you finish yo drink, you go back and fill da cup up again–even tho it say ‘No Free Refills’ right dere on da soda machine?”

“If you man enough, ponk!”

I lunged forward and grabbed him around da neck, but Fat Joe pulled me back.

“Dat’s just what da man wants us to do,” he said, playing da peacemaker.  “We gots to fight da power if we want to get our fill of Barq’s Root Beer, a Burger King favorite.”

I didn’t know Fat Joe had a socially conscious bone in his body, and it took me a minute to realize he wuz right.  “All right man,” I said to iCon.  “I got yo back.”

We pulled into the BK on South Stony Island.  “Go through the drive-thru,” OxxyMoron said with excitement.

“Shut up fool,” iCon snapped.  “You can’t go back fo fountain drinks if you outside.”


We walked in, tryin to look cool as we could.  iCon placed da order, extra pickles on da Whopper, and da kid behind da counter gave him da jumbo plastic drink cup we wuz gonna use to pull off da job.

We sat down and ate, washing da stuff down with big gulps of root beer.  When da cup was empty, it was time to make our move.

I placed myself strategically between da counter and iCon and asked da kid if Burger King had any special promotions goin down dat I should know about.

“Well, we’ve teamed up with Pink Panther 2 to offer 30 great prizes, including a diamond and pink sapphire necklace with a pendant that features a half-carat, white diamond center surrounded by small pink sapphires worth $3,500.”

“Oh, man,” I said, looking up at the promotional poster with Steve Martin on it.  “Are there any restrictions?” I asked nervously.

“You must be a US resident aged 18 or over,” he said.

“Dat ain’t no problem,” I said .  “I wuz born and raised on da mean streetz of da’hood, right here in Chi-town.  Hey iCon,” I yelled.  “You gotta enter dis contest!”

iCon turned around, an angry look on his face as he tried to cover up da crime.  Oh no–I’d forgotten he was ripping off a second drink!

“Hey,” da kid said, “No free refills!”

iCon turned to run to the exit, but it was too late.  He went down in a hail of BK tomato ketchup packs.

“Dawg,” I said as I bent over him, tears in my eyes.  “I’m sorry . . . ”

He gasped for breath.  “Tell my momma,” he said, the light fading from his eyes.  “Tell momma I tried to order from da BK Healthy Menu–but they supersized me.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Our Friends, the Rappers.”

The Poetry Kings

A grey day in the offices of plangent voices, the poetry quarterly I helped found nearly three decades ago, and from which I was summarily ousted in a hostile takeover in the early 80′s by Elena Gotchko, the Emily Dickinson-wannabe whom I had taken under my wing when she was still a naif young ingenue, cutting her own hair and not doing a very good job of it.

“You like . . . trochees?”

Elena had marched in to announce that she’d become “elena gotchko,” and with her new boyfriend, daniel de la sota, a hulking Frankenstein’s monster of a poetaster, had commandeered the only electric typewriter in the joint and proclaimed that a new era of poetry was about to begin. I was out and she and her lumbering companion were in.

So I suppose I should have felt a little frisson of satisfaction at her call, late last night, to say that she needed my help getting the summer edition out. Her body’s immune system had apparently rejected the lower case “g” she’d added to her last name, and she was groggy from the antibiotics. The doctors were fairly sure she’d recover, but the botched transplant meant that she might have to live out the rest of her days as elena Gotchko.

Back in the saddle!

An ordinary editor would have cringed at the submissions stacked high on the desks, tables, floor, air conditioner and kitty box for the magazine’s mascot, Neruda, a male tuxedo cat who’d started as an unpaid intern five years ago, and had since been promoted to the position of reader. We’d sit him down on a manuscript and if he . . . uh . . . relieved himself, it was returned to the author with our form rejection letter saying it did not fit our needs at this time.

“Your sonnet sucks!”

As I say, the slush piles heaped around me were daunting, but I was undeterred. I was just glad to be back in the game again, shaping the course of American literature. Maybe it wouldn’t mean much to somebody like Archibald MacLeish, who said poems shouldn’t mean but be, but I was happy just to be where I was.

MacLeish: “What I mean is, a poem should not mean . . . anything. I think.”

Until I looked up and saw Sound E-Fex and Back Wurdz, two rappers who struck fear in the hearts of poetry editors everywhere. The modern branch of their posse was known as The Poetry Kings; the classical branch was called The Latin Poetry Kings. In either manifestation, they were a poetry quarterly’s worst nightmare; men who were determined to git published or die tryin’. When they submitted a hard-hitting, slice-of-life, straight-outta-Bloomsbury tranche-de-vie, somebody usually went down ’cause of all the hyphens flyin’ around.

“You gonna publish our stuff, or we gonna have to go crazy on you?”

”Yo,” Wurdz said. I recognized the two from the picture that appears above ”Pimp Yo Poem,” their monthly verse column in The Source, The Bible of Hip-Hop.

“Hi there,” I said, playing dumb, a game I’d perfected in grade school when I’d hide behind my hardbound copy of “Our American Government” and crank out crude couplets. “The submission deadline for the winter issue is past, if that’s what . . .”

“We got our stuff in before yo deadline,” Sound said. “We wanna know whether you gonna publish it, or we gonna have to go crazy on you?”

elena Gotchko: Nice job on the bangs!

“We have a fairly rigorous review process here,” I began. “After initial consideration by a reader, a poem must be approved by two editors, at least one (1) of whom shall not have slept with the poet, then it goes to our board of–”

“I don’t wanna hear ’bout yo board of academic advisors,” Wurdz said. “Eggheads ain’t never done nuthin’ good for poetry.”

I nodded my head reluctantly–I had to agree with him on that one. Rappers may not be everybody’s glass of sherry, but they’ve added more life to the world of poetry than a thousand professors. They’re the 21st century’s version of Arthur Rimbaud, who produced his best work while still in his teens, and gave up creative writing before he turned 21 to work in his dad’s business.

Rimbaud: “Spackle?  Aisle 3.”

“Okay, well, I guess since you’ve made a personal visit to the office, I could take another look at what you’ve written,” I said. I knew this would be unfair to the hundreds of other versifiers who’d submitted the products of their late-night waking dreams, who’d torn their tortured lines from their hearts, their souls, and in some cases their spleens; but the men standing before me were bearing Glocks.

“Let me see, what was the title of your work?” I asked.

“The Land of Counterpane,” Wurdz said.

I gave him a look that expressed volumes, or at least an epic poem. “You realize, don’t you, that Robert Louis Stevenson has already used that title?”

An angry Stevenson: “Don’t you go infringin’ my s**t, you waffle puffin’ punk!”

“So what if he did?” E-Fex asked. “Copyright done run out.  We sampled it.”

He was right, but that was hardly the point. A reputable–or semi-reputable–poetry quarterly could hardly publish a known plagiarism. Unless The Poetry Kings were going to make a substantial tax-deductible contribution, I allowed myself to think in a moment of mercenary madness.

I flipped through the reject pile and found what I was looking for. “All right, let me give it a second read,” I said. “But I can’t promise you anything.”

I leaned back in my chair, turned on my hand-held scansion device, and started reading.

Hand-held scansion device: Don’t start reading without it.


When I was sick and lay a-bed,
With several bullets in my head,
Around me all my firearms lay,
To keep me happy all the day.

“You’re off to a good start,” I said. They smiled at me, showing their grillz, the hip-hop orthodontic devices that are purely cosmetic in nature. I read on.

And sometimes for an hour or so
I’d watch my leaden homies go,
Tricked out sick and lookin’ good,
Among the bed-clothes
through the hood;

“You’ve spun a rather elaborate conceit,” I said, hoping to manage their expectations. “It will be interesting to see whether you can conclude in a manner that makes the work into a literary whole.”

“Wus he talkin’ ’bout?” Wurdz asked Sound.

“He wants to see whether we game or lame.”

“Testing–a-b-b-a, c-d-e, c-d-e.”

I nodded. He had divined the essence of my task. I picked up the paper–I noticed it was scented with Courvoisier–and continued:

I’d sometimes send my Escalade
‘Neath knees bent upwards, spreading shade;
A sound–a shot?–bestilled my heart,
‘Twas but an under-blanket fart.

“Nice touch, that,” I said with admiration. “And now,” I announced with upraised eyebrow, “let’s see if you can nail the dismount.”

“Wus he talkin’ bout?” Sound asked.

“Like Mary Lou Retton,” Wurdz replied. “Anybody can git up on da pommel horse, only a champ can git down off it clean.”

“On the nosey,” I said, then looked over the top of my glasses and continued.

I was the gangsta great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
Yaddida, shaboopalaboopy pain.

It was, to say the least, a letdown. “What happened with the last line?” I asked. “You just trailed off without completing either the sense or the form of the poem.”

The two co-poets seemed embarrassed. “I’ll be the first to admit,” said Wurdz, “that it needs more work.”

“What the hell is a ‘shaboopalaboopy’ anyway?” I asked.

“It’s a neologism,” Sound said. “It originated with Bay Area rappers, the hyphy movement. They used it to . . . make their raps better by”–he hesitated, apparently chagrined–”filling in spaces.”

“So basically, it’s the hip hop equivalent of ‘Yadda yadda yadda’,” I said, a bit scornfully.

“We thought we’d have a better chance if we submitted something on our forearms.”

“Thass right,” a woman’s voice said from the doorway. It was Pho’Netique, a stone fox who was known to contribute to Pimp Yo Poem when the guys couldn’t get their copy in on time.

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to pass on this,” I said to the 2 Jive Crew in front of me. “Take another crack at that last stanza. You’ve got something there, but it needs a little work.”

They were crestfallen, having been shown up for what they were–poetic wankstas–in front of a woman. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of manuscripts . . .”

“Wait!” It was Pho-Netique’s turn to whine. “I submitted some confessional poems a while back and I was wondering if you’d had a chance to read them.”

“Uh, I don’t recall,” I said. “What was the title?”

The Bell Jar.”

Available in print and Kindle format on as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

What the Rapper Saw in the Rare Book Store

I come in dere lookin’ for some fine Joseph Conrad
Just to let da clerk know I got a brain in my doo-rag.
He tells me all they gots is just a flawed Lord Jim
I say no thanks I’d rather buy Kipling’s Kim.

I likes to find books that has gots some errata
Especially if the owner ain’t yet picked up on the data
Like a misspelled word on the cover of a novel,
Such as Girl With a Pearl “Earing”—that’ll really make me grovel.

Sometimes I try to deke ‘em like I wants a reading copy
or an Oscar Wilde biography that’s lookin’ kinda foppy.
Then I pounce when I spy Mailer’s Naked and the Dead
That they bought from the estate of some old guy whose name was Fred.

They don’t even know yet dat dey got a first edition–
They checkin’ bags of students who will steal without contrition.
So me I just peruse while the friskin’s going down
Then amble to the counter of the finest store downtown.

I acts real innocent, as I’m about to score
A Raymond Chandler Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye or more
I stick it twixt some magazines, a Peanuts book and comics
And a high school physics books ‘bout particles atomic.

I get some grim bluestocking in horned rimmed glasses
Who when she ain’t workin’ is probably takin’ classes
In French absurdist drama, she don’t know my Holy Grail
Or so I think but then she blinks and says “It’s not for sale.”

What the Rapper Saw in the Oriental Rug Store

I likes me some Azerbaijans
straight outta da Caucusus
North of Iran, what’s the plan man?
I seen a fine Bessarabian
in a store in Secaucus
won some yen at Fan-Tan.

If you gonna git a Shiraz
make sure it’s from Abadeh
down the road from Isfahan
otherwise you just a spaz.
Stylin’ with blue cotton weft,
stockin’ up ‘cause that’s my plan.

If you wants you a Heriz
go ‘head and puts yo cash down.
If you got a cat who throws up
clean that sucker up with ease
‘cause the creams mix with da brown.
Rugs a sign you growed up.

One thing I gotta ask about yo’ situation–
How come Oriental rug stores always in liquidation?

What the Rapper Saw on the Glass-Bottom Boat

First I seen the devil ray, flappin’ like a sail
He’s moving kinda slow and he’s twitchin’ with his tail.
Cruisin’ real quiet like,
Think he’s eatin’ Mike and Ike.

His genus is the Mobula
His species is hypostoma.
Feedin’ on crustaceans
wash it down with libations.

Next I seen a channel cat,
Swims a lot so he ain’t fat,
Got big whisker thingies
Wearin’ lots of fisher-blingy.

Some folks think he don’t taste so good
When he’s in the neighborhood
Flop him in some bread crumbs
He be playin’ deaf and dumb.

Then I seen an eel swimmin’
Lookin’ like he’s stalkin’ wimmin.
He knows since he’s a slinky snake
One sight at him is all it takes

To make ‘em go “Eek!”
and they start to freak.
Limeys like to eat them things
but indigestion’s all they bring.

Fifty Cent Shows Softer Side With “Happy Gangsta Xmas”

FARMINGTON, Connecticut.  Rapper Curtis Jackson, better known as “50 Cent,” says he always gets sentimental at Christmas time, which may explain why his first release of holiday tunes–“A Happy Gangsta Xmas”–is winning him fans beyond his usual base of hard-core hip hop aficionadoes.

“Have a Merry f**kin’ Christmas or I’ll bust a cap on ya.”

“I got a little guy, you know?” Jackson says of his son, Marquise.  “Christmas is for kids, that’s what I tell the mall cops when I go shopping.”

“I just need to see what you’ve got in the bag, Mr. Cent.”

Jackson’s street-hardened image undergoes a makeover on the album, with wistful tunes that deck the holiday season in sentimental trimming.  “Sorry I Have to Blow You Away On This Holiest of Days” is an anthem to those who, like the cocaine dealer Jackson used to be, must work on Christmas.  “I feel for guys at gas stations and toll takers on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge,” Cent says.  “If I was mayor I’d give ’em all the day off.”

Rudolph:  “Ouch–that’s gotta hurt!”

Jackson takes his listeners on a joyous ride through his home turf of Brooklyn on “We’ll Be Pistol Whippin’ Santa After Carjacking His Sleigh,” a rollicking tale of a posse that stops Santa on his way to Manhattan and distributes high-end toys from F.A.O. Schwartz to children from the ghetto. 


Jackson, who was shot in the face at close range in 2000, says he had time to think about the meaning of life as he lay in the hospital for thirteen days recovering from his wounds.  “I said to myself, Fitty, you all the time rappin’ about ho’s.  Maybe you could do an album of Christmas tracks with ho-ho-ho’s.”

“Fitty–don’t shoot!”

Is there a possibility that Jackson could go mainstream after such a collection of easy listening music?  “I’ll be keeping it real,” says the rapper with the perennial scowl on his face, “but I gotta think about my career.  I may go on Sesame Street and have it out with Oscar the Grouch.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Our Friends, the Rappers.”