The Unlikely Influence of Dungeons & Dragons

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Andrew linked to this piece I did with Big Think. I'd actually forgotten I said this. Here's a transcript for those without video.


It's really weird because, you know, I write for this high culture magazine. In all of my great original influence is, like, low culture. I mean, I love, Fitzgerald. I love, love, love Fitzgerald, you know. I love The New Yorker. I love all these high culture things. 

But the first things that taught me about how words were beautiful was, like, hip-hop and Dungeons and Dragons. Dungeons and Dragons is all these--I'm about to get really nerdy on you, I hope you're ready for this. Dungeons and Dragons is all these great books, okay? And so, like, I can remember taking... 

One of the books is the Monsters Manual and it's a list of all these mythological monsters that inhabit the world of Greyhawk of Dungeons and Dragons. And I can remember just sitting back and flipping through and looking at the words and the descriptions and it will come alive for me. And that was a beautiful thing. That was the first lesson for me about how words can take you somewhere else. 

And hip-hop was the first lesson in terms of how words are beautiful. My parents were very much in the books and so I've read a lot, certainly, as a kid. But in terms of people talking in the language the kids speak in. Someone's speaking in the slang of my generation. When I heard something like Rakim's "Follow the Leader," I could take a phrase that's really heard, flip it, and now it's a daily word. And that was, like, a high cool for me. That was beautiful. That was beautiful. 

And I desperately wanted to do something that beautiful. 

 And it wasn't this sort of thing that you thought it was beautiful because someone told you it was beautiful. You felt it. It was a feeling, like, here. And, of course, all your friends, a lot of your friends felt it too. But a lot of things later, I had to learn. So later, in college, I studied poetry, which is also a huge influence on me. 

But I had to learn why poetry was beautiful. I really did. I had to learn why art was beautiful. I had to learn why certain music was beautiful. And that's true for certain aspects of hip-hop. But for a lot of it, it touched on such a visceral level. I desperately wanted to create something that did that, still do.
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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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