From Paul Dunbar to MF Doom

Man I woke up this morning, and for some reason decided to rock that Doom/De La joint, which you can hear below. I love De La, and they did their thing, but my Lord, Doom just murders this joint. It's hard to even quote because he's ripping whole verses. But this...

Been on this game as long you can wheelie your Schwinn
Turn the corner spinning, bust that ass and get up,
Dust off the mask, whoever laugh give em a head up.
He got jumped, it pumped his adrenaline,
He said it made him tougher than a bump of raw medicine.
To write all night long, the hourglass is still slow,
Flow from Hellborne to Free Power like Wilco.
And still owe bills, pay dues forever,
Slay huge, when it comes to who's more cleverer.
Used to wear leather ski with the fur collar
And charged fee for loose-leaf, words per dollar
You heard holler, broad or dude, we need food
Eat your team for sure, the streets sure seem rude.
For fam like the Partridges, pardon me for the mix-up,
Battle for Atari cartridges, put your kicks up. not only pure poetry, it's telling my story.

Listen, I'm a journalist because I can't MC. I spent many years as a kid trying and I was pretty awful. But if I had Doom's handle on beats and words, I would have wrote that. It's all so visual and so familiar--getting jumped when it was supposed to be a fair one, the embarrassment of busting your ass, constantly writing, the feeling--even after some success--of still owing bills.

I think the most powerful line in that verse is "Dust off the mask, whoever laugh give em head up." Students of black lit will know what role masking has played in the black community since the days of Dunbar. Traditionally the idea has been to hide your true self from white people, for fear of racial violence.

But what Doom does, and frankly what I tried to do in my memoir, is he flips the tradition. So there is the masking that protects you from white people--but the more familiar mask, the one that black boys wear every day, is the one that's designed to protect you from other black boys. Now, Doom is literally referring to the mask he wears when performing. But it also works as a literary device, as the embodiment of a pose that hides pain and but projects power ("he wears the mask just to cover the raw flesh\a rather ugly brother with flows that's gorgeous.")

I don't know why that verse hit me this morning. It just did.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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