I met this girl when I was ten years old
And what I loved most, she had so much soul
She was old school when I was just a shorty
Never knew throughout my life she would be there for me.
The smooth beats of Common's "I used to Love H.E.R." flow through the Hill, the rap song echoing along the strip of student-friendly bars and shops. But the rhymes aren't coming from the open windows of a nearby frat house or a souped-up Audi rolling down the street. They're pouring out of the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe, a hole-in-the-wall Boulder spot that's one of three poetry-exclusive bookstores in the country. Inside, between bookshelves with sections dedicated to Byron and Blake and the Beat poets, a stereo is playing hip-hop — and it's playing it loud.
"Don't call the police on us," co-owner Brian Buckley cracks to a customer while pulling espresso shots. There's a good reason for the noise: Adam Bradley, an associate English professor at the University of Colorado, will be in the house with The Anthology of Rap, his book that catalogues the poetry of hip-hop and created quite a buzz when it was released late last year. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. called it "an essential contribution to our living literary tradition," while Chuck D said it "might just break the commercial trance that's had rap in a chokehold for the past several years." Hip-hop appeared to finally have a scholarly tome on the level of the Norton Anthology of English Literature or the Oxford Book of English Verse. "The fact of the matter is," Bradley says, "I am a professor, but I am a hip-hop head first and foremost."
And for the first time tonight, he will read from his anthology for a hometown crowd.
Soon students, poets, professors and intellectuals are crammed into the bookstore's tiny event space. The man they've all come to see stands quietly in a corner, leaning against an out-of-the-way bookshelf. Bradley seems to take up less space than his 6' 4" frame would warrant — hunching forward to greet friends and fans, smiling humbly when they offer words of praise, and then, during rare moments alone, gently nodding his head to the music, off in his own world as he mouths the songs word for word. Is this quiet man the same guy whom Jay-Z quoted in his memoir Decoded, the guy who's been known to roll with Common himself? The guy whose hip-hop history exploded after it hit academia? "He has a certain quiet wisdom," says Common. "With his intelligence and know-how, he can help educate and expose many more people to hip-hop culture."
When Bradley steps in front of the standing-room-only crowd, he seems to flip a switch. His form unfolds, assuming its full height; his voice is deep and commanding. "Thank you for coming out to talk about hip-hop, to hear some, and to support this culture," he says. Promoting the book over the past few months, he often let others do the talking. "But tonight," he promises with a mischievous smile, "I am not going to shut up."
He gestures to Buckley, his DJ for the night. From the store's speakers emanates a haunting brogue, the recording rough with age: William Butler Yeats reading in 1928 from his poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," the bookstore's namesake. Yeats wrote that "poetry is an elaboration of the rhythms of common speech and their association with profound feeling," Bradley explains. You can hear it in Yeats's rhythms, in the feeling and passion he put into his lyrics. Just like you can hear it in the Yeatses of a new generation — in the rhythms of 2Pac, in the passion of Lauryn Hill.
Bradley's words flow as he riffs on everything from Afrika Bambaataa to William Carlos Williams, from Run-D.M.C. to Beowulf. He has Buckley cue up relevant songs, exhorting him to make sure they're loud as he reads the lyrics of Melle Mel — "I never knew art til I saw your face/And there'll never be one to take your place/ 'Cause each and every time you touch the spray paint can/Michelangelo's soul controls your hand" — as if he were performing Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."
But there's one epic saga Bradley leaves out. It's the hip-hop tale of AWOL fathers and fractured identities, of linguistic jigsaw puzzles and literary odysseys, of bitter duels and fiery smackdowns. It's the sort of story that Bradley could have found in the songbooks of Eminem or the Notorious B.I.G., but he didn't. The story is his own.
"This book is, in a lot of ways, my own memoir," Bradley says, with little elaboration. "It's the story of my life."
Adam Bradley's love of rap took root in the mid-'80s. But it wasn't inspired by the culture-defining, hard-hitting rhymes that Run-D.M.C. was laying down at the time, or the genre-shattering success of the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill. It came from a commercial the eleven-year-old spotted that featured Alfonso Ribeiro, the breakdancing buddy on TV's Silver Spoons.