By George Palathingal - Syndey Morning
Big issues . . . members of Def
Poetry Jam get animated yesterday during rehearsals for their Sydney
Festival show. Photo: Ben Rushton
At first, it doesn't seem like it's going to work, with the young, black DJ
Jedi trying to warm up the arty, mostly white and older audience with '70s soul,
old-school hip-hop and recent jams from MCs Jay-Z and Ludacris.
Heck, with the rest of the show offering ethnic-minority Ameri-cans waxing
lyrical on the issues that afflict them in their country, none of this
should work in front of the Sydney Festival audience. Yet by the end of Def
Poetry Jam, the show's content, presentation and energy prove to have much
This word "crossover" is apt when you consider it was the hip-hop label Def
Jam, after which this event is named, that practically introduced the term to
modern music. When the Def Jam act Run-DMC breathed exhilarating life into their
cover of rock dinosaurs Aerosmith's Walk This Way in the mid-'80s, they
helped rap music "cross over" to the mainstream.
The genre has since grown to become the biggest-selling musical force. But
Def Poetry Jam celebrates another subculture of rappers who seem determined
to bring genuine credibility to the often frowned-upon art form. These are, more
accurately, poets with a distinct hip-hop sensibility, and they ply their trade
in verbal contests called slams. In 2002 they found a television platform
alongside stand-up comedians in the original show to go under the name of Def
Poetry Jam. A kind of Whose Rhyme Is It Anyway? with prepared
material rather than improvisation, it was produced by Def Jam's co-founder,
The stage show that evolved from it was an emphatic success on Broadway. In
Sydney, it shrugs off issues of cultural idiosyncrasy with universally relevant
messages, from issues as different as racism and love, to the innocence of an
era when kids didn't need computers to play.
There are seven poets in Def Poetry Jam, all Americans with African,
Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Jamaican and Chinese heritage (and possibly others)
between them. Some of them, such as the rawly sexual Staceyann Chin and the
Arabic-in-a-post-September-11-world Suheir Hammad, have very personal agendas
and often blaze with passion and anger. Others are more light-hearted: the comic
but melancholic appearances of the chunky Poetri border on the frivolous, but
are always welcome.
All of the poets, however, effectively articulate their feelings through
their styles and delicious use of language, individually and in groups. The
latter gives rise to exquisitely executed sequences where, for example, three of
the poets spit different spiels over each other, occasionally coming up with the
same phrase as their peers in perfect sync. In another group skit, the seven
pass the mic between them as they take turns rhyming over a generic hip-hop
beat, then over a skanking reggae loop, then over nothing but the sound of their
Linking the performances with relevant records, from Bruce Springsteen's
Born in the USA to Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come, is DJ Jedi,
but the evening's most moving and invigorating sounds and rhythms come from the
poets. The colour in their lyrical flows extends from beyond their words: from
their accents, their contagious passion and their dizzyingly fluid delivery.
Their words can be brutal - as punishing as any pummelling hip-hop beat - as
well as charming and funny. Yet for the most part, save the odd foray into
self-righteousness, the poets' eloquence overflows with wit, wisdom and feeling.
Nearly 20 years after Run-DMC walked this way, it seems Def Jam is still
bringing the poetry of hip-hop to new mainstream audiences.
Def Poetry Jam runs at the Metro Theatre on from tonight, tomorrow
and Saturday, and the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, on Friday.