Craig “muMs” Grant has been an unofficial ambassador for American poetry for nearly two decades. Whether you’ve seen him play Poet Jackson on Oz, spit unabashed truth on Def Poetry Jam or star in the award-winning documentary SlamNation alongside Saul Williams and Jessica care Moore, Grant’s face has been synonymous with spoken word. And his stories of urban struggle have inspired a generation of new poets.

In his new one-man show, A Sucker Emcee (presented by New York City’s Labyrinth Theater Company), the Bronx native explains how hip-hop shaped his desire to express himself through rhyme and verse. Grant spoke with about his new show and what hip-hop has meant to him and his craft.

EBONY: When did you decide to create A Sucker Emcee, and what inspired you to do it?

Craig Grant: What happened was, I had a booking agent that used to book me all over the country at colleges. We had a conversation about me putting together a show that was going to be like something involving the history of hip-hop. He knew of this guy who was making a lot of money doing the history of rock and roll on tour; he had this bullet-point presentation. I didn’t want to do a bullet-point presentation of the history of hip-hop, just like some linear timeline thing. I kind of wanted to incorporate my life into it.

EBONY: Tell us what we can expect… without giving too much away.

CG: Music is the soundbed. I grew up in Riverpark Towers in the Bronx, which was basically across the street from Cedar Park where hip-hop started. I kind of felt the fringes of it. I was too young to understand it fully, but I felt it. Some of the major points in hip-hop speak to major memory points in my life, you know?

I remember when I heard “The Breaks” for the first time. I remember when I got “Rapper’s Delight” for the first time. I remember when I heard Rakim for the first time. I remember when I heard “Sucker MCs.” I remember my first battle after school. It’s a story about me and my connection to hip-hop, and how much I really wanted to be a rapper and really feeling that was a destination. I know that sounds a little corny, a little clichéd, but that’s just what it was.

EBONY: Your love for hip-hop preceded your love for poetry?

CG: Oh yeah, definitely. Other people call me a poet; I call myself an MC. My form that I’ve chosen is not rap. It’s more poetic. But at the end of the day, I’m still an MC. I can rhyme with the best of them. I hate hooks. [chuckles]

EBONY: Your style as a poet is very animated, as if you’re living the words on stage. How did you develop that style?

CG: I’ve always been very animated. Even when I was rapping, I was really animated. What you saw on Def Poetry was a whole different wildman version of myself. I was unbridled back then. I was about 35, so I was still wild—I might as well have been 16! I’m 45 now, and it’s all a different thing. But I still have that animated, passionate aspect to it. This is the place I can actually communicate everything I want to say to the world.

Right now, I learned how to act, and my acting ability has fueled my poetry and my poetry has fueled my acting, to the point where I’m here now in this place where I’m very luck to do both at one time and put it all out on stage. I’m still an MC, I still very much rhyme. I don’t know if I consider myself a rapper in the way Lil Wayne is a rapper, but if somebody give me a beat, I can rock. I feel at 45, what it means to be an MC is totally different, and I’m just trying to really explore adulthood in this place that is inspired by hip-hop.

EBONY: SlamNation is 1996. Oz premieres 1997. By 2002, Def Poetry happens, putting poetry and spoken word in the public lexicon. Do you think you have a lot to do with that? And do you think the culture has also become a processed commodity?

CG: I don’t know if I can take a lot of credit or even any credit at all for poetry becoming more mainstream. I guess Saul [Williams] being in SlamNation, Jessica [care Moore] doing her thing, myself being on Oz, kind of put poetry out into the world outside of this little scene, and then created an appetite for it.

The problem happened that people tried to do with poetry what they did with rap, and tried to create a commodity out of it and tried to make money off of it. Poetry is nothing new. Poetry is an old, old, old tradition, going back to the griots; especially what we were doing, which wasn’t really poetry—it was spoken word. It was verbal storytelling; it wasn’t really poetry, so to speak.

I’m not going to try to dis Def Poetry, but I don’t think that they thought it all the way through. I remember being turned down for my last season of Def Poetry because they said, “We’ve got enough Black poets. We need some Asian poets, some younger poets.” Poetry is like wine, it takes time for it to come to fruition. When did I become an old poet all of a sudden? I’m still working on sh!t that I wrote five, 10 years ago. It takes time. Why should you want to get young poets when you should want the best poets? You just want to hear young people rattle on about things that they don’t know about. They’re not ready. I wasn’t ready when I was in my 20s.

They call us hip-hop purists. I feel that we could hang onto it, but I decided to stop rattling on about who’s wack and how hip-hop is not what it was. Rather than getting all upset, I create new sh!t, in new forms. Putting records out and albums out isn’t the only way to represent hip-hop.

Every other element of hip-hop has developed. Deejaying isn’t even called deejaying anymore—it’s called turntablism. Breakdancing keeps developing every day. That’s the one thing about breakdancing; it’s always about pushing the envelope, looking for a new style or trick to make. Parkour came from breakdancing. I went to the International Beat Box Festival; that was incredible. I heard things I’d never heard. Grafitti has taken on a whole new form.

Being a rapper? It’s the same thing. It has not developed. There’s no reason I can’t write a novel in rhyme form; there’s no reason I can’t write a play in rhyme form and really take what it is to be an MC and expand it. That’s my goal as an MC.

A Sucker Emcee is playing at the Bank Street Theater in New York City, September 18 – October 5.