Questlove on Baraka

Further notes on PoemTalk episode 128

In 2018, PoemTalk's 128th episode was made — a conversation in which  Tyrone Williams, Aldon Nielsen, and William J. Harris joined me in the Arts Cafe of the Kelly Writers House to talk before a live audience about Amiri Baraka’s poem “Something in the Way of Things (In Town).” Go HERE for a program note and links to the edited audio recording of the episode and also an unedited video recording. Recently we found a relevant piece published in the New York Times four years earlier. It was written by Questlove, and it refers to the studio session in which The Roots collaborated with Baraka to record "Something in the Way of Things." Here are several paragraphs:

The Roots recorded with Mr. Baraka once. It was for our “Phrenology” album, in 2002, which was titled for the absurd, discredited science of taking a measure of a man’s character by feeling his head. The album was also about racial profiling, social Darwinism, and hip-hop itself: If you’re a hip-hop head, what can you expect from the world, and what can the world expect from you?

We were at Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village, and Mr. Baraka came in to add his vocals, which consisted of reading a poem he had written, “Something in the Way of Things (In Town).” I listened to the track again Friday, after he died, and I hear so many things hiding in the corners of the poem and his performance of it. There are traces of early poetry mentors like Charles Olson, there’s a little William S. Burroughs, there’s a reminder of how he opened the door for poetry to speech to recording long before the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron. There’s a devotion to making language mean something, even if — especially if — that something isn’t safe and preapproved.

Many thanks to William J. Harris for locating the Times article.