“Word Is Bond” Says A Mouthful About Hip-Hop’s Evolving Wordplay
by Jerry Barrow
Words. What were once the backbone of the rhythmic linguist art known as MCing have taken a back seat to the expedience and quantifiable impact of an artist’s social media footprint. What they say matters more in the context of 140 characters or an animated gif than 16-bars. And even in their art, the more Tweetable a line is the higher the chance of absorption and achieving ubiquity.
But historians know that cultures move in cycles, and that there is still a responsibility to document the practice and impact of artists who still value words over flash for future generations. Veteran hip-hop journalist Sacha Jenkins has directed a documentary, Word Is Bond, that invites some of the most notable MCs of the last thirty years—past and present—to share the nuance of their craft in hopes of shedding light on modern day bards.
While there is definitely some overlap with other rap documentaries like Ice-T’s 2012 doc Something from Nothing: The Art Of Rap, Word… differs in several ways, most noticeably in the cast. Where Ice-T’s leaned heavily on rap’s foundational artists like Grandmaster Caz and Melle Mel with MCs from the 90s and 00s sprinkled throughout, WIB feels more updated (and gender balanced) with the inclusion of artists like J. Cole, Run The Jewels, Rapsody and Nitty Scott mixed in with OG’s like Big Daddy Kane and Rakim sharing their experience.
“Rappers never get credit for falling in love with language,” Royce 5’ 9” says in one poignant scene and Nas add that “MCs have spoken a new America into existence.”
Word Is Bond is also a bit slicker than Art of Rap in its approach. Before we are drawn into the technical execution and styles of various MCs, they provide a macro view on MCs and their relationship to locution. They also make liberal use of Mass Appeal’s illustrations (popularized in their “Super” franchise) to give some narrative punch the gems being dropped.
The documentary also excels in the personal revelations, taking viewers into the home lives of Royce, Rhymefest and Techn9ne far beyond the confines of Instagram. For example, Royce’s father shares how the Detroit MC caught the hip-hop bug as a child, remixing Lil Miss Muffet into a dirty limerick that earned him an A in school: “Little Ms Muffet sat on her caboose and then she drank the toilet juice.” was his very first rhyme. Now he confesses to staying in the studio for 30 hours just straight to get a song right. All of this is revealed against the backdrop of a benefit concert for the Flint Water Crisis. It’s the seamless integration of the life and environment of the MC with his music that makes this documentary so worthwhile.
When Word gets into technique it is masterful. “MCing is a craft like basketball, boxing or mixed martial arts,” Styles P of The Lox says when explaining why he and his band mates don’t “punch in” or let the engineer pick up their verses halfway through. They complete the verse in one take or not at all.
When the topic shifts to showmanship, Tech9ne balances his criticism of newer artists with copious praise.
“I used to be a dancer so I can enjoy Young Thug. He fuckin cracks me up. I can’t understand it, but he has melody that works…All the notes that Young Thug hits, work within that beat.” However, he goes on to add that newer artists don’t write rhymes with intent to perform and then wonder why they run out of breath when they have to do a show.
And even those who wield their liquid swords in battle know when to yield to the music helping to give their words flight.
“The bass in trap music, you can hear it in your Chakras…that’s why it’s speaking to you. I see it now and respect it,” Nitty Scott says from a restaurant in the Bronx.
The discussion of ghostwriting is one of the few parts that aren’t offered as “fair and balanced.” While they devote some time to Royce’s great story of how he came to write for Dr. Dre and Nas’ collaborative work with Will Smith, they seem to come down fairly on the side of “Write your own rhymes” when talking with The Flatbush Zombies.
“An MC having someone else write his rhymes is wack. An artist having someone write their rhymes is understandable.”
Milestone moments like Rakim’s paradigm shift in flow and cadence in 1986 and rap’s growing influence on R&B are just a few of the discussions that keep the conversation fresh and engaging. Word Is Bond is a well-executed snapshot of an art form that is still evolving but has enough history and foundation to warrant a detailed and celebratory look back at how it got this far.
Get your tickets to check out Word is Bond tonight at Urbanworld in NYC.
Jerry Barrow is the founder of NODFACTOR.com and is a New York based veteran journalist with stints at The Source, Scratch Magazine and WatchLOUD. Follow his work on Twitter @JLBarrow. Check out some of his work for soulhead.