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Words and Music: Pasha Malla and Shad, part one

Brad Frenette

Words and Music pairs up a Canadian novelist or poet with a Canadian songwriter for a conversation about the art and process of writing.

In this installment, Pasha Malla, a novelist from Toronto, trades emails with Juno-winning rapper Shad. Part one of their chat focuses on storytelling, youth, audience and persona.

Malla: I'm interested in your take on how or why (or why not, maybe I'm just out of it) storytelling has disappeared from rap. I mean, back in the day every album had at least one “El Segundo”/”Mind Playing Tricks”-type joint on it. Most hip-hop now seems to be more free form, without much of a defined narrative structure. Am I off base here?

Shad: Definitely some truth to that. The few recent ones that come to mind aren’t much like the kind of Scarface/Slick Rick/Fresh Prince narrative style at least. They're more in the vein of "I Used to Love H.E.R." or Nas's "I Gave you Power." Lupe Fiasco, for example, does a lot of storytelling on his first two albums but it's less straightforward and more layered, sometimes abstract, with multiple perspectives and multiple meanings. Kendrick Lamar has a tune called “Cartoons and Cereal” that's like that, too.

Malla: Yeah, I guess I meant more songs in which each line propels the thing forward through a narrative, each verse is an "act," and the whole thing tells a single story. Have you ever done something like that?

Shad: I've done one of those in my life. It was the last song on my first album. Like basically all of that album, I'm really proud of it but it also reminds me of being like 20 so it's kind of embarrassing, too. Maybe there's less storytelling now because the confessional Kanye/Drake sort of approach to writing that's very popular right now takes away some of the prerogative to just make up a story or tell someone else's story.

Malla: I wonder if the sudden prevalence of MTV back in the late ’80s made for more narrative hip-hop; maybe not only did a certain type of song do the work of plotting a video’s storyboard, but rappers might have been writing more cinematically. Movies certainly were a major influence on fiction writing – "show don't tell," etc. – through the late 20th century. Now the internet is our dominant cultural form and there seem to be attendant trends of formlessness (in rap; this hasn’t really caught on in mainstream fiction yet) and an awareness of audience. Now we have, yeah, mostly confessional, direct-address videos with MCs rapping at the camera/viewer.

Shad: It's also possible that there's less humour in rap than there was before. You can be funny and have funny lines, but there's not a lot of cats making entire funny, narrative-based songs anymore like the Pharcyde or Tribe did. Or even Big on "I Got a Story to Tell" or early Eminem.

Malla: I guess the video for "Earl" tells a story, though the lyrics don't, exactly. Odd Future (especially Tyler) is the absurd extreme of rap as confessional. Look at Goblin: the whole album's framed as a therapy session. (I guess Kanye's the same way, but there's something more grandiose in the way he goes about it, like he almost caricaturizes himself.) What are your thoughts on Odd Future? Is Earl better than Nas at 17?

Shad: I don't listen to Odd Future very much but I like the level of energy they bring. I think Earl is insanely talented. He's got that sly delivery, and as a writer he's already got the crazy rhyming technique down and I also think he understands satire better than the rest of his crew. Compared to Nas around the same age, Earl is what us rap nerds would describe as more "technical." Nas was probably better with imagery and song concepts. Two of the best ever under legal drinking age, though.

Malla: Have you read Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives? There's a sensibility to that book that reminds me of the best hip-hop, the way it blazes relentlessly from page to page, and like the best posse cuts (and, man, "Oldie" is soundly among these now) flips seamlessly from voice to voice, all circling the same themes and experiences; it also brilliantly captures the blind, sometimes pig-headed, sometimes invigorating exuberance of youth, but with this gnawing melancholy that becomes more and more threatening as the book progresses. One could say this about pretty much everything these days, but hip-hop seems especially youth-driven and youth-focused. As you age, do you have any anxiety about appealing to or being accepted by young kids?

Shad: I'm not that worried about it actually. Kanye is in his mid-30s. Wayne is 30 this year. Jay, Eminem, Andre and Common and others are all around 40 and still relevant. I saw KRS destroy a show this year (and not in a "it was great to see a legend" kind of way) and he's like 60 or something. It's amazing to me that someone like Busta too is still killing it since his whole thing was youthful energy. You would think there would be a young rapper who gets first call for the crazy, high-energy guest verse spots but Busta still has that lane covered. It seems hip-hop has grown to the point where artists can get older and still find a healthy audience. Nas, for example, probably doesn't have a lot of fans in high school but definitely a lot of college kids and long-time fans still love him and won't trade him for Lil B anytime soon.

Shad: Tell me about the evolution/trends in storytelling styles and techniques in literature and how they affect your writing.

Malla: Well if we accept the confessional as the predominant form in rap, I guess the literary equivalent is memoir and memoir-type fiction – and I'd include in that everything from James Frey to those novels where writers go digging into their families' pasts and which always seem to end up in Europe during the Second World War. I'll avoid suggesting this is fall-out from or a response to reality TV and Facebook; neither of those things is responsible for influencing literature so much as symptomatic of the same cultural trend of the ascendancy and primacy of the individual. Which I don't think has to be a bad thing. I mean, part of what all art-making should be invested in, to me, is getting at something essential about oneself.
I don't know that any of this influences my writing much, except in a contrarian way. Memoir feels too literal to me; I don't feel like I have to push myself creatively, for one thing, just to transcribe my own experiences. I'd rather get at the heart of those experiences sideways – "tell it slant," etc. Also, I've done personal journalism before and mostly hated it; I'm not naturally good at it, for one thing, and I also tend to create personas for myself to hide behind – so when the piece, ostensibly about me, publishes, it doesn't seem it's about me at all. Which is safe, but also feels kinda disingenuous and rotten.

Shad: I think I've always had a persona on the mic that's not exactly me but pretty close. At the same time I've always liked humour and hyperbole in rap as well as honesty, so I exaggerate and fictionalize sometimes, too. I'm always trying to get at something true, but yeah I make stuff up sometimes because it's more interesting or funnier that way and/or it puts me at a safe distance from the thing I'm making. I'm not sure to what extent separating yourself from the piece you've written is good though. I took more of that approach on my last record and it felt mature and professional, which was cool, but at the same time I think there's a certain amount of vulnerability and rawness that should be there or else it's too safe.

Malla: A lot of fiction I wrote when I was younger often now feels embarrassing, though the stuff that embarrasses me most also feels the most honest – like it really captures who I was when I wrote it, flaws intact and often raging. Then there are pieces that feel phony and pretentious, which tend to be nonfiction. When I write about myself I get anxious about revealing too much and only ever go halfway, or I adopt a softened, more likeable persona that will make what I'm saying more palatable to the reader. (Wanting to be liked, I think, can be the death of any artistic endeavour). Maybe that's the difference: when I make stuff up I don't think about "the reader" at all.

Shad: I think I'm best when I'm not imagining an audience, too. When I'm stuck though I have a couple close friends I keep in mind and think about what would make them excited. That usually gets me going in the right direction but it's still hard for me not to get too self-conscious.

Malla: Yes to the friends thing, me too. I've got a novel coming out in June and I'm most excited for certain friends (and family) to read it. But as far as an audience beyond that? God bless ’em, but I don't know those people. They're not even imaginary, more like phantoms. I haven't yet figured out how to think about people I can't imagine. I mean, you’re more in touch directly with your audience on stage. Do you see yourself as primarily a performer, or a writer, or a recording artist? I'd be interested, too, to hear what you have to say about the collaborative aspect of making music versus the relatively solitary act of writing – unlike a lot of musicians in bands, you do both, I assume.

Shad: I'd say I'm a better writer and live performer than I am in the studio. I freestyled and wrote rhymes for a long time before I started recording so my studio skills still lag behind my writing and performing. Re: collaborating, it's weird because I've always thought of myself as a pretty easy-going guy but when I'm not feeling an idea someone comes up with in the studio, even if it's a small thing, it's hard for me to get past it. I try to let guys do their thing and usually I can bend a bit but I like that I always have veto power with my own projects. I'm not sure I could handle it otherwise.

Malla: That’s why I write books. Mostly, I get to go it alone.