Every child who has ever dreamed about rapping like Jay-Z or Lauryn Hill or Rakim knows the feeling. You listen to a song you love until it takes up permanent residence in your mind. There are ten-year-old kids out there right now who are memorizing the latest hits from Drake or Waka Flocka Flame. Ask them in forty years how “Fancy” or “No Hands” goes, and they’ll tell you without missing a beat.
“The Anthology of Rap,” newly published by Yale University Press, began in much the same spirit for my coeditor Andrew DuBois and me. Lifelong rap fans from unlikely locales–Andrew is from Alabama, and I’m from that hip-hop hotbed of Salt Lake City, Utah–we first started thinking about putting together an anthology of rap when we were graduate students in the mid-1990s. In class, we were studying the canonical works of Western literature, from Beowulf to Toni Morrison; outside of class we were sampling another canon that included masters of the art like Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Andr 3000. For all the surface differences, what cohered these traditions was shared attention to language and the common desire to make the familiar unfamiliar.
Dreaming of an anthology and actually producing one, however, are two separate things. We started simply enough: making transcriptions–listening to vinyl, tapes, CDs, and later MP3s and decoding muffled lyrics and arcane references. We put together a book proposal and sent it out with the greatest expectations. Our proposal was rejected, more than once. To paraphrase one editor: “I don’t understand why you want to print these lyrics. Are they really worthy of a place next to T. S. Eliot?”
To us, that was the wrong question to ask. Our goal was never to produce a book that begged to take its place next to the Norton Anthologies of the world. We never believed that rap needed a canonical cosigner. The aim, instead, was to accept rap as the legitimate form of popular lyric that we knew it to be and then go about describing that tradition in its own terms. Would a publisher ever understand that?
Then an idea struck us. Instead of trying to get academics to take rap lyrics seriously, why not try to get rappers to take critical consideration of their lyrics seriously? This is what motivated me to publish “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop,” which explores the elements that make rap lyrics so distinctive as poetry. I don’t know how successful I ultimately was, but when Chuck D of Public Enemy came up and introduced himself to me, I felt like I must have done something right.
Thinking back now on “Book of Rhymes,” it seems like its main purpose might have been to lay the foundation upon which to build our dream book — a rap anthology. In late 2007, Andrew and I were fortunate to find a publisher with the vision and the audacity to dream a similar dream. Our work on the anthology, never stalled but certainly slowed, was back in high gear. We set ourselves the ambitious goal of delivering the finished volume in twelve months. Yet almost immediately, we were struck with the enormity of our task. As a genre, rap is only in its mid-thirties, but it has already forged a complex tradition that is by turns expansive and self-referential, plain-spoken and esoteric. Any art form that can contain the playful exuberance of Biz Markie’s “Vapors,” the brooding self-analysis of the Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” and the multiethnic mashup of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” without imploding is capacious indeed.
So Andrew and I began by composing the Greatest Mix Tape of All Time. It was 500 of the songs we thought best represented rap as lyrical art. In the spirit of hip-hop, we knew that our list could only get better with a little healthy debate. So we assembled an advisory board and asked them to add and subtract as they saw fit. They came back with 12 subtractions and nearly 1,000 additions.
Now we had a list of around 1,500 songs, which is a lot of things but is not an anthology. Cutting it back down to 500 again was relatively painless; the surprising thing, though, was just how different the new 500 was from our original 500. It confirmed our idea that hip-hop gains strength through community. The new list included some songs that Andrew and I had never heard and others we had forgotten. It included songs we might not exactly enjoy as listeners but would come to respect as readers. Our mythic mix tape was becoming an anthology. Cutting from 500 to the nearly 300 lyrics in the published volume was reminiscent of the inventive tortures described in the song “Method Man” from the Wu-Tang Clan’s first album. The songs that made the final cut showcase the range and richness of rap’s poetic tradition.
On top of all of that, we had to contend with the Sisyphean task of acquiring lyric permissions. A rap song may have as many as a dozen different rights holders. We had to identify each one for every song we included (and some we did not), then reach out to all of them. That process alone took well over a year, as we faced chronic nonresponses from some and outrageous financial demands from others that resulted in cutting some great lyrics from the book–including the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” from which I draw my title.
Who knew that editing an anthology could mean spending your days sending out form letters requesting reprint rights, or calling up record executives to persuade them of the merits of including their label’s songs in the book, or sitting on the phone with a former rap star’s former manager who owns a three-percent share of a former hit song? We had a team of as many as six people doing this work at any given time. The end product is a credits section that is thirty-nine pages long.
But the work that mattered most, the work that people would actually see, was the lyrics themselves. Andrew and I had been teaching rap in our college classrooms for years by this point, and like many rap fans, we were reliant on–but often disappointed by–the transcriptions available online and in print, even in the artists’ own liner notes. The thing that got in the way of analyzing rap lyrics as literature was the failure of most transcriptions to standardize the line break. This was particularly true of crowd-sourced online transcriptions, the most easily accessible catalogue of rap lyrics available. Often, online transcribers break the line whenever the MC pauses in delivery, resulting in a jagged and disconnected string of phrases. The way listeners actually experience rap lyrics in sound, though, is as a stream–or, to use the term that’s become synonymous with the very act of rapping, as flow. How could we capture a rapper’s flow on the page?
To answer this fundamental challenge of transcription–of moving the words we hear into words we read–we relied on the music itself. When rappers talk about spitting sixteen bars, they are talking about delivering sixteen lines of lyric. “I used to get the legal pad,” the rapper Crooked I recalls, “and I used to write each bar as one line, so at the end, 16 lines, 16 bars.” Often there are pauses within a bar, just as literary poets often include caesural breaks within their lines. These pauses are not necessarily signaling the end of the line, however. By respecting the art of the rap line, our transcriptions would make visible certain key elements of rap’s form otherwise obscured in transcription.
Because our primary source for transcription was always the song itself, we were liberated to consider transcriptions of lyrics that little resemble in their totality the multiple alternatives available online. One telling example comes from Aesop Rock, an MC who’s gained a reputation for his lyrical abstraction and sonic density. We include his song “No Regrets,” a beautiful narrative of ordinary life. Looking for the lyric online, one finds the following transcription on the Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive:
The line breaks here follow no clear rhyme or reason. They suggest a kind of disorder, even chaos, in a song that, quite the contrary, sounds deliberate and controlled. Compare that to the transcription we put together for the Anthology:
Now we can see Aesop’s artful play with rhyme — how he moves from multisyllabic (“barrettes” and “regrets”) to monosyllabic (“street” and “meet”) to slant (“block” and “stop”) to no rhyme at all (“always” and “parlor”). The transcription now matches the performance in its measured pace–it looks ordered on the page because that’s the way Aesop Rock intended it.
I don’t offer this comparison to disparage the efforts of the many hip-hop fans who take the time to post lyrics online. Rather, I present it to underscore what an anthologized lyric has to offer these same fans. As editors, we are attentive to the structures of the verse in part because of our formal training, in part because of our love of poetry and musical lyric of all traditions, and in part because we invested the time to work it out.
Soon Andrew and I arrived at a methodology for transcribing the hundreds of lyrics we hoped to include in the book.
1. Listen to each song multiple times, typing out an original transcription with the song itself as the primary “text.”
2. Pass that preliminary transcription on for checking by another set (or sets) of ears.
3. Check that transcription against a range of other transcriptions, including online resources such as the Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive and the A-Z Lyrics Universe as well as print resources such as liner notes and lyrics published in books.
4. Contact the rights holder and whenever possible the artist him- or herself to review our transcriptions. Nearly thirty artists did just that.
5. Submit our transcriptions to the publisher for copyediting.
6. Subject every copyedited song to another process of listening and correction.
7. Review the page proofs by reading through each lyric again, revisiting problematic passages.
As exhaustive (and exhausting) as this process was, it was far from infallible. In fact, Andrew and I had long conversations that sometimes boiled over into outright arguments over particular transcriptions. Take Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo.” Andrew and I differed over one line in particular, which each of us heard differently. I heard ODB say “I drop science like girls be droppin babies,” while Andrew swore he heard (the admittedly more intriguing) “I drop science like Cosby drop the babies.” Could ODB be making a frustrated, sidelong allusion to the fact that he was the father of multiple children with multiple women? Or was he making a clever reference to television’s most famous obstetrician? We listened and argued and listened and debated and listened and finally decided: “girls be” it was, even though it would be cool if ODB had said “Cosby.”
Over a span of years, we had debates like this not once, not a dozen times, but literally hundreds of times. Along with a cohort of dedicated hip-hop heads, advisory board members, and the occasional research assistant, we arrived at one conclusion: Transcribing rap lyrics is hard to do. In fact, it is distinctly difficult even when compared to transcribing lyrics from other musical genres. Among the particular challenges rap presents are the following:
(1) The recording is sometimes rudimentary or muddy, particularly with old school songs and live performances. (For example, take Eddie Cheba’s “Live at the Armory” from 1979.)
(2) The words are often obscured in the musical mix. (As happens in Ras Kass’s “Interview with a Vampire,” the Lady of Rage’s “Unfucwitable,” and many others.)
(3) The speed of the delivery is such that you sometimes have to slow the song down, but slowing it down inevitably distorts the words. (Think here of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads” or the late, great Eyedea’s “Now.”)
(4) The slang is unfamiliar or the reference is arcane. (Examples are the Wu-Tang Clan’s cryptic vernacular or the expired slang of rap’s old school.)
This last category of transcription challenges is the one that most often sparks disagreements. A hip-hop fan can be as fussy as a Trekkie debating the finer points of Klingon when it comes to the relative mastery or ignorance of rap’s slanguage. Slang, after all, is regional. A rapper from Vallejo, California–like the famously slang-happy E-40–might use terms that someone from New Orleans–like the similarly inclined B.G.–would find incomprehensible. The lifespan of a given slang term is often fleeting, too, as new ways of saying the same things evolve and gain popularity. Therefore, certain words and phrases can become markers of particular historical moments–like “def” or “dope” or, god forbid, “jiggy.”
A reader familiar with the numerous sources for transcription of songs will undoubtedly come across instances in which what appear to be errors in the Anthology match particular words or phrases found in other sources. The reason is simple: We’re all listening to the same song and the word sounds like . . . something, . . . but we can’t quite pin it down. So we argue, we compare, we might even guess. On a few occasions, Andrew and I even took the extreme step of leaving part of a lyric blank, marking the absent word or words with empty brackets. Somewhere around the five hundredth time of listening to Queen Latifah’s “Elements I’m Among,” we finally gave up on even guessing at the correct word to fit in one phrase. “Cut ya like [ ] when the beat comes on” is how it now reads.
Though errors remain, this process produced the most polished set of lyrics currently available, in print or online. The defining difference of The Anthology of Rap’s lyrics, the place where our methodology of transcription is most apparent, is in entire verses rather than individual words and phrases. It is here in the verse itself, the basic unit of rap’s poetry, that the things that matter most in transcription make themselves manifest: accurate line breaks, correct spelling and punctuation, judgments on how to (or whether to) convey when an artist sonically bends a word, judgments on how to (or whether to) indicate when multiple artists are rapping either at the same time or in quick succession, and dozens of other small editorial decisions that go into fashioning a transcription. These are the standards to which we held each and every lyric in the Anthology.
“The Anthology of Rap” is meant to complement, not to replace, the host of hip-hop lyrics and other materials available in print and online. Above all, it is meant to complement, not to replace, the music from which these lyrics are drawn. No book could ever match the breadth of lyric coverage found online. Even at 900 pages, even with close to 25,000 lines of rap lyrics, our book is brief by comparison.
But what “The Anthology of Rap” does is put those lyrics it includes into a usable form–for the rap neophyte or for the dedicated head, in the classroom or in the cipher. It unearths hidden gems so obscure or so long forgotten that no transcription–good or bad–was previously available online or off. It gives new school fans a dose of the old, and old school fans a dose of the new. And it makes these lyrics available to the many people of all ages who are more likely to flip through a beautiful book than troll through the cyber cloud.
What began as the dream of two diehard lovers of rap music has now, through the efforts of many people, become a book. It is not without errors and it is not without omissions. It is a beginning–the first book ever published of its kind. It is a tribute–to the young men and women, mostly black and brown, who created a culture from little more than two turntables and a microphone. And it is a gift–to those who love language and would help preserve the words, beats, and life of rap’s lyrical art.
Lyrics reproduced by permission of the artist.
This Blogger’s Books from
The Anthology of Rap
Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop
by Adam Bradley