I’ve always admired public art with live human beings, and wondered if I could work up the courage to do something like that myself. Once, on a subway platform, I took up on an offer of “free bouncy rides” from a guy, Nate Hill, who dressed up as blue duck. Christine Hill constructs artworks that integrate into her everyday life. Her Volksboutique projects, first in Brooklyn and now in Berlin, range from a flea market to a tour guide business to a library project with writer Shelley Jackson. When you walk into one of her spaces, you become part of the artwork, always in progress. Last year, Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramović set up The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art. Visitors lined up and sat silently across from the Artist, and by doing so became part of the Artwork. An online gallery online features participants, some of them famous, like Lou Reed, Bjork, and Antony Hegarty.
I like how these projects seem to either inspire people or piss them off. I got to wondering whether I could do something like this and maybe it would lead to new writing about myself, with others on for the ride. A writer-slash-performance art project, with me sitting at a desk, would probably fail, and part of that attracted me. Why not fail in public, make failure part of the show? What would it mean to formalize public writing? My friend Mark and I designed letterhead and logos. I sent off proposals to a couple local galleries. One of them, The Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy, NY, accepted a proposal to be part of a group show called “Text as Art.”
Me sitting at a desk would be the “Art” part. Whether I could come up with “Text”would be another story.
Read more here.
At long last, I present the Daniel Nester battle rap, “Now You Know” performed by Kentucky Prophet, with lyrics from Richard Allen and Jesse from Rap Rebirth.
The backstory to this track goes like this. Back in April, I wrote about a post at We Who Are About To Die about a story in The Awl, which tells the story of Jesse Kramer’s startup company Rap Rebirth, which provides “custom hip hop lyrics.”
You can shell out $24.99 for a “custom 16-bar sample,” which sounded like fun. So I did. In the add ask about “expectations” (see right), sort of a design brief. I asked for a “battle rap.” Self-referential and stuff. Here’s part of what I wrote:
If you could integrate my name somehow (Daniel Nester), mention I am a professor, a writer, a husband and father of two little girls, and otherwise include as much profanity as you can, that would be great. PS Oh, and I am strictly LL and Tribe and PE. Just FYI.
In the comments box, fellow writer and occasional We Who Are About To Die blogger Richard Allen wrote, “Although I think $25 is much too cheap for a 16-bar verse, I would write you one for free, Dan.”
So he did.
The Rap Rebirth lyrics came, then Richard’s, complete with guide vocal. I had 32 lines of battle rap lyrics. But I can’t rap. I lack flow.
A couple days later, I tweeted how I would like to find and MC to make this shit come alive. Writer Erin Keane mentioned her friend Kentucky Prophet, and after checking out his stuff and emailing back and forth he seemed to be a perfect candidate. I sent him my Queen books.
A couple weeks later in may mailbox comes an mp3 file entitled “Now You Know.”
“You will find a neat bit of sampling on this song,” he wrote. “You’ll know it when you hear it.”
Of course I did. They sampled and sped-up a snippet of Freddie Mercury singing “now I know” from Queen’s “The Prophet’s Song,” from A Night At The Opera.
His friend Russell Brooks helped him produce this. “I should mention that I took a minor amount of liberty with the verses in order to make them fit the meter and tempo of the song. I would say I got it about 95% accurate.”
Hearing one’s own custom-written and -rapped hip hop anthem has many layers and signifiers and signified, I’m not sure how to unpack it at this point. All I know is, I rule Albany.
I might be pushing my luck on the work-for-free-front, but a video for this would be pretty cool. We’ll see.
Here are the lyrics I presented to Mr. Prophet all those weeks ago.
Richard Allen’s lyrics
It’s motherfucking Nester from the woods of Jersey.
When I do a reading, better reimburse me.
Freddie Mercury? Own every LP.
Penning many poems like my name was H.D.
My goddamn students are overjoyed
To take my classes and to avoid
A professional curriculum, and then annoyed
To graduate and be unemployed.
But it’s still my objective each semester
To touch more kids than a child molester.
Though I don’t play. GPA? Don’t tempt me.
The name is Nester, but the threat’s not empty.
I got a wife and I reproduce
So I blow a lot of dough on apple juice
And disposable diapers. When the kids get hyper,
It’s time out, bitches. I’m a time out sniper.
But my rhymes stay tighter than a lit mag stiffing a writer
Out of two bucks. I do not give two fucks.
Criticize my op-ed? Fuckers, you can drop dead.
That’s my policy. I run Albany.
Rap Revival Lyrics (i.e., the $24.99 one)
Check it motherfuckers sucker bloggers call me sire
Finger fucking words til the day that I retire
Higher than ya lame brained self-inflated ego
Spitting acid rain while you tryna take a free throw
A crazy rap animal, a cannibal of brilliance
A lazier Scorsese with mechanical resilience
Ill since A Tribe played it live on Arsenio
Married dad of two spittin’ game at a skinny hoe
Name’s Professor Nester, I chronicle my own life
Sharp as a rusty fork cutting through a butter knife
Much to your chagrin I win, I’ve never heard of sin
Potent as a pickled fart, you farting in the wind
Inappropriate on opiates with Opie drinking goat’s milk
Shitting on your sofa without an ounce of guilt
Silk smooth, I move like a tampon in the Red Sea
Coffee with Gaddafi, and Ill Kim brought the lychee
- Rap sample. (wewhoareabouttodie.com)
Poet-impresario Dan Wilcox snapped this photo when he was visiting the Arts Center in the afternoon one day during my residency. I tried to look serious but ended up looking sort of constipated. Still, you can see me facing toward the street, which is how I had my seat the majority of the time I was there.
In Spring 1978, a mime in silver robot make-up jumped in front of my sister and I, scaring the crap out of me. I was 10 years old, in Philadelphia, and continued up Rocky’s steps into the Museum of Art, its galleries appointed with suits of armor and old paintings of Jesus.
It seemed kind of boring until I walked into the modern wing’s Marcel Duchamp room. In the middle stood “Large Glass,” which looked like a broken window stood on end. In the corner was “Etant donnés,” which requires viewers peek through a wooden gate. Against my father’s wishes, I stood on my tiptoes and peeked in to see a naked woman lying beside a waterfall, her pile of pubic hair in the foreground.
That day, bracketed by fear and confusion and delight and more than likely an onset of puberty, marks my fascination with performance art, in situ, site-specific and as affected as can be, artwork with live people, and you get to be a part of the action, preferably something stupid or fucked-up.