Music: The Art of Noise

The poetics of Ursula Rucker's ruckus

Jul 9, 2003 at 2:06 pm
Keepin' it real: Ursula Rucker speaks softl but she doesn't carry a big shtick.

Whenever the overhead blower clicks on in the CityBeat office, Ursula Rucker's sotto voce is swamped by gusts of industrial-strength, conditioned air. When it shuts off, Rucker's still hard to hear through the phone. The 35-year-old Philadelphia-born poet speaks softly but she doesn't carry a big shtick. Rather, her even, almost dispassionate speaking voice is half the twin memorial to the unflinching subject matter she reports.

Talk about keepin' it real.

Gang rape ("The Unlocking"), the mid-'80s death of her drug-addicted brother ("The Return to Innocence Lost") and "What???," a sermonette to cookie-cutter Hip Hop "fake mogul crap musicmakers and movefakers," are mere slices of Rucker's unrelenting recorded canon. She's like Mike Tyson whispering in your ear before he bites it off.

Just back from Italy, Rucker answers from Philadelphia. By the time you read this, she'll be clearing her throat in Cincinnati and taking the mic for "We Carry Change," a weekend-long arts festival culminating in a Saturday night performance benefiting ArtWorks and Liberated Souls.

Then, she's on to South Africa.

During Rucker's world travels she's met with little opposition. Surprising, considering poet/performance artist Sarah Jones was only recently reinstated to radio after "Your Revolution," her anti-misogyny anthem, was chucked from playlists after a listener in Portland, Ore., took offense to Jones' inside-out images otherwise spoon-fed by male-dominated commercial radio and video outlets.

"One time I was uninvited to the University of Alabama," says Rucker. "They said I was too hardcore. That doesn't happen that often.

"The only thing that happens to me is I get kind of pigeonholed as a conscious artist," she says. "Journalists say, 'Oh, we heard this before.' But don't attack somebody who's trying to give people some other options than what they've heard before."

"Options" is an understatement.

Amid the bombast of warring Hip Hop foes whose beats beat down to cover for whack-ass wordplay, Rucker's plain text pops up like an e-mail alert from a long-ago friend.

We've got enough male.

Rucker transcends mama-said admonishments in "What???" from her 2001 debut Supa Sista (!K7 Records), when she sings/says, "Your bad examples could kill my children's future/But we're here to supply the sutures needed/To close the bleeding hole ... in the soul of black music."

She's moved on to tongue-clucking disappointment. It's a trait she's honed from the beginning. Listen to her snide, no-victim-language response to gang rape off The Roots' debut, Do You Want More?!!!??!, and suddenly reparations ain't a race-baiting dirty word.

"They were under the wire, they had a deadline," she says of the studio date. "I was good friends with ?uestlove, the drummer. He told me to write about a gangbanging. I didn't know about that, so I had to find a place where it was mine. I've been 'gang banged' in conversation. I was hesitant. I'm glad he convinced me."

The results are a by-the-numbers deconstruction of each assailant's, er ... ahem ... "shortcomings," punctuated with the sound of a lock-and-load.

Throughout her recorded work and collaborations, with pithy wordplay, she connects the dots between history and up-to-the-minute social strife otherwise only hinted or laughed at by lesser word extinguishers. Rucker's poetry launched in 1994 at Philly's Zanzibar Blue after she graduated from the journalism department of Temple University, where she concentrated in advertising.

"I thought I could write copy for ads," she says.

Instead, she worked at an arts center by day and at night covered the waterfront of the exploding Philadelphia poetry scene, excusing herself from the ghettoization of slams and the slam poet's knack of writing to illicit audience response.

Rucker is the antidote. She never raises her voice. Only consciousness. She doesn't latchkey Love Jones catchphrases. She minds phrasing. Her raison d'être is words.

Other artists feel her flow. Rucker's worked steadily with a stream of international, name-brand producers and wordsmiths like King Britt, 4Hero, Bahamadia and Josh Wink. She's had the last word on three of The Roots' studio albums, each cut more clear-eyed than the last.

Curiously, she's not a news junky. This mother of three boys and the daughter of a deacon is already too emotionally charged to go piling on so much external angst.

"I have to turn off the news a lot," she says. "I so absorb everything that's happening, and my heart just breaks. It's only so much that I can take." She pauses for a breath, "In addition to my own life." She laughs at the thought.

"I've always been that way, even as a child."

So where's her antenna and filter?

"A lot of information I get is from talking to people," she says. "I'm kind of late on things. But I still get it, eventually."

In typical Rucker style, she turns the burden of inundation into the art of noise, killing us softly along the way.

"It does feel like a burden, but it's more like a gift than anything. Art is a real catalyst for communication and change."

And Rucker carries change.

URSULA RUCKER participates in "We Carry Change: A Modern Arts Festival" with guitarist Tim Motzer and Iswhat?!, Saturday (8 p.m.) at The Museum Center's Reakirt Auditorium. Friday, Rucker will appear at Northside's Shake It Records at 4 p.m.