Sampling the Epic in Kendrick Lamar's "Mortal Man"Roundup
tags: popular culture, classics, hip hop, Epic Poems
Justine McConnell is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature at King’s College London. She is author of Black Odysseys: The Homeric Odyssey in the African Diaspora since 1939 (OUP, 2013) and, with Fiona Macintosh, Performing Epic or Telling Tales (OUP, 2020).
Because it’s spirits, we ain’t even really rappin’
We just letting our dead homies tell stories for us.
Tupac Shakur, saying these words to journalist Mats Nileskär in 1994, articulated the centrality of community and collective history to hip hop and offered his response to the vexed question of the wellspring of poetic inspiration. Nearly two decades after Tupac’s murder, Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar gave new life to those words in his track “Mortal Man,” recasting Nileskär’s interview and intersplicing Tupac’s voice with his own, so that it is Lamar who seems to be in dialogue with Tupac. The result is an impossible conversation between the living and the dead: impossible because Tupac died when Lamar was just nine years old. But in highlighting and embodying Tupac’s perception that rap gives voice to the stories of one’s dead comrades, Lamar’s “sampling” of the conversation centers Tupac’s vision and acknowledges the debt Lamar owes to his predecessors, cementing the connection between them.
To a classicist, Lamar’s engagement with Tupac in “Mortal Man” might resonate with the well-established model of classical reception whereby a later artist draws from the work of an earlier one, reshaping it into new forms, combining fresh elements in unexpected ways that shed light on both the modern and the ancient works. To a rapper, this same process is fundamental to hip hop’s practice of sampling, in which portions of other recordings are looped into a new track and combined in fresh ways to create what ground-breaking hip hop theorist Tricia Rose describes as a “musical collage.” The effect is to pay homage to one’s predecessors while creating a radically new work that connects itself to a history and community of music and storytelling.
Since Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s research on oral poetry in the 1930s, there has been a resurgence of interest in performing epic. If the roots of Homeric epic were to be found in oral traditions rather than written, the poems lost some of their defensive barbed wire. If there was no initial, single, authorized version, modern performers needn’t be constrained by the text as we have it now. To riff on the Homeric epics is to place oneself within the tradition from which they grew, but also to extend that tradition in new directions so that one of the most canonical of genres becomes a vehicle not for conservatism but for revision, corrections, democratization, and decolonization.
But it is not just about ancient Greek epic, as hip hop’s idea of “digging in the crates” reminds us. The phrase refers to searching for rare vinyl records in what would have originally been old milk crates in second-hand music stores; artists then use this found music in new work, sampling it, re-working it, nodding to its creator, and engaging with it in their own music. This is a model that proves apt for the kind of classical reception enacted by some contemporary artists, reminding us that any notion of the centrality of Graeco-Roman classics is not universal. In the world of hip hop, these works are more often seen as valuable but forgotten records, which can be dusted off and brought to new audiences.