On Biters and Writers


If you haven’t heard – then you don’t read too many rap blogs, shame on you – someone compiled a six-minute mix consisting of portions lifted from Jay-Z songs played directly after the portions of others’ songs to which Jay was alluding/quoting in his. For instance, Snoop would say “From the depths of the sea, back to the block / Snoop Doggy Dogg, funky as the, the, The D.O.C.” then Jay would say “From the crap tables down in AC back on the block /Jay-Z motherfucker from the, the, the Roc.” And we’re supposed to be convinced by these morsels of evidence that Jay isn’t “a writer” but is, in fact, a biter.

There’s very little new here and my first response was to just call whoever composed this mix a moron. However, some of our best and brightest are apparently swayed by this critique.

Well it’s bullshit.

1) Hip Hop’s acknowledged commitment to originality (“No Biting Allowed”) must be balanced with its historical regional, and sub-genre based centralism. G. Rap is more like Kane than Eminem, who is more like Jay than Abstract Rude, who is more like Lyrics Born than Bun B, etc. Where these similarities are not the products of embedded sociologies, they are from self-conscious borrowing. Nas, for instance, has acknowledged borrowing stylistically from Raekwon and B.I.G. and together the three, among others, forged a sonic meme that will always represent a particular locus of the music’s history. In short, “No Biting Allowed,” like the first two rules of Fight Club, is a rule that is designed to be broken for growth to occur.

2) Regardless of the race of whomever compiled this evidence against Jay, they are clearly unfamiliar with the simple reality that language in black culture is a shared commodity. Michael Eric Dyson puts it much better than I could in his reference to Dr. King’s (and other black preachers’) tendency to reuse portions of others’ sermons and speeches in his own. In the vein of the argument posed by this mix and its supporters, “I Have A Dream” would have been a pure and simple bite. Of course, as Dr. King, Jay-Z has his own voice of distinction which renders all of his words (including the relatively few that he quoted from others) into a peculiar contextual continuum. Ask Kris Ex, he gets it.

“At their best, the practice of black Baptist preachers remind us that knowledge is indeed communal, that rhetoric is shaped in the interplay of a rich variety of language users, and that what is old becomes new again by being recant in forceful and imaginative ways.” – Michael Eric Dyson I May Not Get There With You

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