Television

Def Poets Society

Can Russell Simmons make poetry cool?

On a Behind the Music from 1999, Daniel Simmons—poet, radical, professor of history, and father of the mogul Russell—recites this ode to his son, written in the late ‘70s:

No cut grass
No shovel snow
Just put on your clothes and go disco

Def Poetry's smooth host (Mos Def) and benefactor (Russell Simmons)
Def Poetry’s smooth host (Mos Def) and benefactor (Russell Simmons)

In those days, when Russell Simmons worked at dance clubs, he was already getting a cut of the door and doing brisker business with turntables than he would have with a shovel or lawn mower. But, along with his younger brother, Joey (DJ Run of Run-DMC), he was also forfeiting his chance to be a scholar, an activist, and a college man like his father. In his sophomore year, Russell Simmons dropped out of City College in Harlem, where he had been barely studying sociology. As the oldest Simmons brother, Danny, says on VH1, “My father was very distressed at this entrepreneurial turn that the two younger boys took. Well into Russell having millions of dollars, my father would say, ‘He could lose it all tomorrow, and then what would he do?’ “

Will poets and businessmen ever understand each other? Will fathers and sons? No. But if they’re ever going to find some peace, even just for one night, what better place than in a division of the Simmons’ highly inclusive art-and-money empire? Russell Simmons now has a record company (Def Jam), a management company (Rush Artist Management), a clothing line (Phat Farm), a production company (Def Pictures), a magazine (Oneworld), and an ad agency (Rush Media Co.). Simmons also has many millions of dollars. And now he has Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry on HBO.

With its coffeehouse aesthetic and angry-young-man politics, the show is a real throwback—and not to Adidas, chains, fedoras, and block parties. It evokes a still earlier time, a time before hip-hop: the much-much-parodied Nuyorican/Spoken Word scene of 25 years ago and the equally parodied beat cafe scene of 45 years ago. People on Def Poetry spit out political tirades; the audiences give back silent snaps or backhanded clapping. With all this rad nostalgia and rhetoric of uplift, the show is defenseless against satire; Simmons seems to be almost baiting Saturday Night Live.

Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry has at least one great asset: its host Mos Def. The theme music, which Mos Def produced, is amazing—mostly strings, with a slightly Arabic tone, kind of nervous-sounding but rhythmic, with a muted, hip-hop beat. (Click here to hear it and to see HBO’s promo for the show.)

And then Mos Def himself appears. Beautiful and seductive, with sleepy, wide-spaced eyes, he regards the camera as if it were a scary joke. On Friday’s show, he came out alone on stage, approaching the big Wolfman Jack mike in a Yankees cap and a silver teardrop medallion, counting casually on his fingers while delivering these words: “Love equal for the swift and slow. High and low. Racer and lame. The hunter and”—here he paused, gave a half-smile, and shrugged his jacket straight as if getting up from a winning poker hand—”his game.

Then he said, “Henry David Thoreau, Def Poet. Let’s get it going.” It was a nice moment—even though I’m not sure it was actually Thoreau.

As you would expect, it was all downhill from there. In all, eight poets performed: an Asian man, four black men (two were twins who performed together), a black woman, a white woman, and a white man. They were all remarkably alike, each reciting pages-long, Ginsbergian free verse on the themes of racism, poverty, sex, and disaffection. Themes were important; a topic sentence was always close at hand. There were “Dreams are illegal in the ghetto” and “Bring on the reparations.” Most of the poems were incantatory in this way, although two—one by likable HBO comic Jamie Foxx—were straight-up stories about sexual treachery that had beginnings, middles, and ends.

More than other talents, velocity was on display. Nearly all the poets spoke at auctioneer speed, slowing down only periodically to draw out a line or hit a word hard. The kinds of words that got special emphasis, and might be said to represent Def Poetry, flash and fade through the show’s opening montage. These words are “ideas,” “kiss-simile,” “give it up,” “your existence is fractionally status quo,” “my peoples in the house,” “pharmaceutical schemes,” “wings,” and “I was searching.” Taken together, they give a good sense of the combination of dreaminess, anger, and eagerness to please that informed every poem. The other words strongly in evidence were neologisms using the suffix“izzle,” which, in various forms, is something that the rapper Jay Z and others sometimes add to words. Foxx’s final poem was a kind of Jabberwocky made up of -izzle words.

Russell Simmons appeared only once, at the very end. He was dressed all in Phat Farm; he looked fit and great. He seemed to be on his way somewhere else, though, and after he said, “God bless you,” he beat it. I remembered that in his Behind the Music, he had said, “My dream was to have those great poets on stage, and that was a hell of an accomplishment, and that was all I really wanted from it.” This statement seemed like a pretty noble recasting of Simmons’ early rap ambitions, but there was probably something to it. If he couldn’t be a poet, as his father was, maybe he could be the poets’ benefactor.

It’s hard to complain when a rich man wants to give money to the arts. However, there are some things even Russell Simmons can’t do, and one of them is to make poetry cool. Rap has beats, jewelry, production values, and humor, all of which have always made it vastly more lucrative, not to mention less dorky, than mere Nuyorican (or Iowa Writers’ Workshop) poetry. By contrast, with these stripped-down, ‘70s-style readings, slams, jams, whatever, Def Poetry reminds you in a flash how dizzyingly embarrassing they can be. One after another, the jittery, unschooled young poets whine or shriek, none of them with much confidence or composure. It’s so mortifying it’s almost profound.

Reciting original poetry—lyrics without music, made up of rhymes, invented words, and improvised syntax—is a childlike process, intrinsically immature, and almost always at odds with adult responsibilities. In Simmons’ plan, poets are close to stand-up comics and pop musicians, and there’s something useful in making a collective of those arts since poetry is indeed a form of truancy, of not doing what you’re supposed to do. Def Poetry, for all its flaws, reminds us of that.