Word Life: Intertextuality in Pro Wrestling and Rap Music

The point where professional wrestling and hip hop music meet has, historically, been fertile ground for artistically pertinent and intellectually challenging work, as I think the following two images demonstrate rather well.

Insane Clown Posse - Chris Benoit (OFFICIAL VIDEO) 03.gif

Any crossover between these two art forms is, more often than not, an uncomfortable experience for anyone with an interest in either. That being said,  pro wrestling and hip hop have a common strand running through them that allows them to be looked at together - extensive use of intertextuality. But, first it's important to be clear about the sort of intertextuality I'm on about.


In his verse on Kanye West's remix of 'I Don't Like', Pusha T makes the above reference to Ric Flair, which serves as quite a smooth inroad to the place of the type of intertextuality that I'm talking about in rap lyrics. Just as 'one must understand everything on the spot' (Barthes, 24) in pro wrestling, a rap lyricist, particularly one contributing a guest verse, is similarly constrained by a multitude of factors - not least time. Here, Pusha T uses the image of the stylin' profilin' Ric Flair to conjure up an image of living large - and this is the intertextuality that I'm interested in talking about, the use of other texts as signifiers or codes to deliver meaning quickly and effectively. Using but two syllables, Pusha T is able to put a complex idea in your head by utilizing the cultural knowledge that you already have stowed away.

Of course, whilst this practice may have initially been used to keep lines and verses to the point, references to other texts have become a big part of the fabric of what makes rap music rap music. Ten minutes on rapgenius.com will begin to show you the sheer breadth of texts that can be repurposed to spark some meaning in a listener. 'Concrete Schoolyard' by Jurassic 5 is a good example of how eclectic references can be in the same song, moving from folklore hero Robin Hood to 70s sitcom Good Times by way of Yul Brynner's depiction of Rameses II in The Ten Commandments. Of course, as well as using pop culture in general in this way, both lyrical and musical references to other rap songs have been used to great success by a range of artists striving to get the most meaning they can out of a bar.

These same techniques are used in all forms of media because it's easy to use shorthands like this to get a point across quickly. The Montreal Screwjob is a prime example of this - when Bret Hart was out-of-storyline screwed out of his world championship, it set the fans against Vince McMahon so vehemently that he became the biggest villain in wrestling for years to come, and the screwjob itself went down in history. The event is so well-ingrained in the collective memory of wrestling fans that mimicking the events and referencing it by name provokes more of a reaction because of its relation to the '97 screwjob. At this point, the Montreal Screwjob is basically a call-and-response mechanism that WWE can use to put an authority figure in a bad light, but it's by no means the only example of how an audience can be trained to react in a certain way.

Hell in a cell 2010 - Randy Orton vs Sheamus 01.gif

Years of hardcore matches have got it into peoples heads that doing a move onto something makes it more impactful, and the finish to the WWE title match at Hell in a Cell 2010 shows how far that can go. No matter how many times that .gif loops, the RKO will not benefit from the inclusion of those steps, but because the audience are used to the principle of what they are seeing, they will go with it. Just as Chali 2na uses Yul Brynner's name because it's easier to rhyme with whilst getting the same point across, this spot is easier on both men than say, an RKO off the top of the cell, whilst still suggesting to the audience that Orton has had to go to extra lengths to beat Sheamus, and that this Hell in a Cell match was just as hardcore as the old ones and justifiable as a pay-per-view in its own right. In short, pro wrestling both passively and actively uses your prior knowledge of pop culture and pro wrestling to form narratives that you can easily unpack and understand - just like you don't have to sit and think about every reference in a rap song to get the gist.


Brad JonesComment