Hip-Hop’s Laboratory of Language

Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, editors of The Anthology of Rap supply a much needed injection of energy and enthusiasm into our analysis of hip-hop’s lyricism. Longtime rap fans are no doubt acquainted with the debate regarding the very term “rap music”. There’s been some question as to whether this thing we call “rap” can readily be termed “music” at all, let alone taken seriously as an art form.

Having moved, if only a little, away from such condescension, the discussion about rap (the art form) and hip-hop (the culture) narrows on issues like the generational divide among fans and critics, the dearth of mainstream female artists, promotional strategies in the increasingly post-album Internet market, and the troubling subject matter of bling, violence, and homophobia. All of this fuels questions of rap’s continued vitality and relevance. On this last point, Nas’s 2006 release Hip Hop Is Dead pushed the commentary on rap’s demise to the fore, perhaps unwittingly hailing a shift from rap’s dominance as a commercial force to its waning retail power.

Where editors Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois may be deepening the discussion rests with rap’s power as a lyrical vehicle. The Anthology of Rap presents, for the first time, a hardcover 920-page historical chronology of selected lyrics from rap songs, with the mission of telling “the story of rap as lyric poetry.”

Book: The Anthology of Rap

Editors: Adam Bradley, Andrew DuBois

Publisher: Yale University Press

Publication Date: 2010-11

Format: Hardcover

Length: 920 pages

Price: $35.00

ISBN: 978-0300141900

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/columns_art/h/huff-anthologyrap-cvr.jpgThat’s right, y’all. Poetry.

The volume’s most obvious benefit is as a supplement to the scholarship taking place in academia. Certainly, there are high school and college classes that study poetry through rap, perhaps to dress conventional poetry analysis in contemporary designs. Similarly, some universities are including rap in literature, music, and ethnic studies courses. Even if hip-hop could be considered dead (it’s not), hip-hop scholarship has been alive and robust, as illustrated by books such as Adam Bradley’s Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, Tricia Oaks’s The Hip-Hop Wars, and Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.

The Anthology of Rap, like many literature anthologies, sensibly divides its material into eras. Beginning with the “Old School” years of 1978-1984 (covering Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, among others), the selections travel through the “Golden Age” of 1985-1992 (with special attention to Eric B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, and NWA). From there, it explores rap’s rise to mainstream prominence between 1993-1999 (thanks, in part, to The Fugees, Jay-Z, Tupac, The Notorious BIG, Nas, and The Wu-Tang Clan), as well as “New Millennium Rap” (featuring, like a posse track, Eminem, T.I., Mos Def, Kanye West, Jean Grae, and Lil Wayne). A chronological and thematic hodgepodge comprises the final section of “Lyrics for Further Study”. Despite a geographic focus on rap in the United States, the anthology provides a level playing field for each of rap’s regional centers. A hint of rap’s international flavor comes from Somali-born, Canada-based K’Naan, Kardinal Offishall (another Canadian), and the London-born, Sri Lankan M.I.A. Sorry, there are no lyrics by British rapper Dizzee Rascal. In the future, a volume highlighting rap at the international level would certainly be welcome.

Aside from the efficient exposition concerning the eras and the included artists, The Anthology of Rap focuses on the words of hip-hop’s wordsmiths. The selections are bookended by a Foreword from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an Afterword by Chuck D of Public Enemy, and another one by Common. In his Foreword, Gates traces rap’s linguistic conventions to the cultural traditions of oral poetry and signifying, or “playing the dozens”. This cultural context sets the tone for the Introduction, which identifies the anthology’s threefold path of, first, contextualizing rap and its poetry within “African-American oral culture and the Western poetic heritage”; (2) framing rap’s cultural history in terms of its value as literature and art; and (3) giving readers the “tools with which to read rap lyrics with close attention.”

The anthology doesn’t reach these goals as a complete, self-sustained work, though. Fulfilling even one of these goals could occupy several volumes, and some of the rap lyrics themselves might have to be jettisoned in the interest of detail and thorough discussion. Instead, the anthology seems better suited to reaching these goals as a supplement, which is not an indication of its failure. What The Anthology of Rap lacks as a comprehensive treatise, assuming such a project could exist, it compensates for as a research tool.

The rap lyrics contained in this volume can be compared to, and contrasted with, what we’d call traditional poetry. Rap lyrics can also be compared and contrasted with each other, the synergy and friction of which illuminates the genre in ways that even the best music journalism is often ill-equipped to do. Here, the reader must interact with the material instead of looking at it from a distance, operating within what the text describes as a “laboratory of language for those interested in the principles of poetics.” A working knowledge of rhetorical devices can successfully be applied to rap lyrics, where similes and metaphors stay gainfully employed, but you’ll also find such techniques as alliteration, onomatopoeia, personification, paradox, understatement, hyperbole, and irony. Connections can be made, like when you hear KRS-One’s “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know” and you realize he’s opening the song with his own take on Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks”.

Sometimes, reading a rhyme, instead of listening to it, spotlights exactly how good it is. Readers will enjoy reading many of the rhymes in the anthology, but Mos Def’s “Hip Hop” and Pharoahe Monch’s “Desire” stood out to me. In “Desire”, Pharoahe’s clever line that “Monch is a monarch only minus the A&R” is better displayed on the page. Taking the “A” and the “R” out of “monarch” literally leaves “Monch”, which is why he also claims he can “still get it poppin’ without artist and repertoire”. On a fundamental level, there is intrinsic value in collecting rap lyrics, and illuminating the history of a movement in a single book. This undertaking matches the attention and intensity of any poetry anthology out there.

While the anthology explicitly resists the illusion that it identifies a canon, it is difficult to avoid this assumption when we are approaching rap via the lofty implications of poetry. The illusion, of course, is that the collection houses the best of the batch, a definitive body of standard bearing lyricism and a veritable treasure trove of rap at its finest. In some respects, that’s exactly what the anthology represents. No serious collection purporting to chronicle rap’s history could omit a song like Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message”. At the same time, the Introduction steadfastly advises against wholesale canonization, characterizing the anthology as a “starting point” for illuminating rap’s “lyrical history”, displaying “lyrical excellence” in written form, and accentuating the poetic growth of the individual artists.

Though naysayers might balk at the idea of rap claiming legitimacy as poetry — “doggerel”, I think they call it — rappers themselves are quick to dote on their microphone skills, touting their abilities with words as the reason why they set trends, attract lovers, and defeat competitors. Rappers compare these skills to those of boxers (Ghostface Killah’s “The Champ”), architects (Kool Moe Dee’s “I Got To Work”), scientists (Gang Starr’s “Check the Technique”), martial artists (pick from a discography of songs by the Wu-Tang Clan and its affiliates), and superheroes (K-Solo’s “Letterman”, Redman’s “Soopaman Luva” series), among other professions.

More to the point, the practice of equating rap to writing is a recurring theme. Special Ed, in “Think About It”, says, “I talk sense condensed into the form of a poem”. Not only did Nas reference his own writing bona fides in his raps (“My poetry’s deep, I never fail”), he has also alluded to his notebook and his “book of rhymes”. At other times, he demonstrates his writing prowess instead of just talking about it, as in “Rewind” when he rhymes an entire story backwards, from the end back to the beginning, as naturally as one would tell a story to a friend. Black Thought, in The Roots’s “The Next Movement” takes a similar stance, “Listen close to my poetry, I examine this / like an analyst, to see if you can handle this”. On the Skyzoo & Illmind’s ironically titled 2010 release, Live from the Tape Deck, Skyzoo performs on “Frisbees” in spiraling stanzas. Steadily through the first eight bars, and then periodically throughout, he begins each new line with the ending word, or a derivation thereof, from the previous line.

When they aren’t declaring themselves poets, they are equating their work writing in general. For example, Lauryn Hill, in “Final Hour”, compares her work to a thesis, “well-written topics broken down into pieces”. Kool Moe Dee boasts that his rhymes are dissertations in “I Go To Work”. LL Cool J titled one of his raps a “Murdergram”, and In “Nitro”, he contends that his recited rhymes are “spontaneous” and, I suppose, more wondrous and ambitious, compared to the “nursery rhymes”, or the labored but inferior work, of his competitors. Their rhymes are “miscellaneous”. In “Hip Hop”, Mos Def rhymes, “Scrutinize my literature from the large to the miniature”.

When they aren’t calling themselves poets or comparing their work to elite writing, rappers invite comparisons to authors. Q-Tip, in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions”, refers to himself as the “Abstract Poet” who is “prominent like Shakespeare”. Chuck D, in Public Enemy’s “Welcome to the Terrordome”, compiles a litany of torture-related images, some with links to literature, including crucifixion (“Crucifixion ain’t no fiction”) and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit & the Pendulum. On Hip Hop Is Dead‘s “Blunted Ashes”, Nas wonders whether Langston Hughes and Alex Haley “got blazed before they told stories.” Talib Kweli’s work is filled with literary references, including some to poets like Langton Hughes, whether it’s a direct comparison (“I’m Langston Hughes, dream deferred, seen and heard in the flesh”) or merely an allusion to Hughes’s work (“Watch me take it there / life ain’t no crystal stair”). On the aforementioned Live from the Tape Deck, Skyzoo claims to rhyme as if he’s found the famous poet’s writing instrument in “Langston’s Pen”.

In “The Rules of Rap”, Page Kennedy and Elzhi trade verses designed to teach aspiring rappers the tools of the trade. They give advice about beats, cadences, and rhyme patterns, as well as “tools of language” other than similes and metaphors: “Lesson five, you gotta strive not to forget imagery / If you see what I’m saying then it’d be more interesting”. Elzhi is known in rap circles for his work with the rap group Slum Village, and he has a knack for executing intriguing song concepts, whether he’s describing a vivid dream (“Talking in My Sleep”), toying with the connotations of various hues (“Colors”), or turning the ends of his rhyme schemes into trivia (“Guessing Game”). If you don’t know Page Kennedy for his rapping, then maybe you’ve seen him on television shows such as Weeds (he played the drug dealer “U-Turn”), My Name is Earl, or The Shield.

You’ve Gotta Love It

The editors are as adamant as the artists that rap can be studied in written form, offered for consumption and dissection in plain black and white, adorned only with line breaks based on the rhythm of the recording. Most of the time, we, as the audience, must work for ourselves to find the poetry in these lyrics, and to take the initiative to discover patterns and lyrical devices across rap’s wide spectrum.

As a rap fan, you’ve gotta love it, particularly the sense of vindication implied by the anthology’s approach. After being much maligned, the idea that rap is being taken seriously as verse is almost cause for celebration. There is a peculiar satisfaction in reading literary theory that weaves Demetrius, Cicero, William Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Robert Frost through its examination of rhyming techniques used by Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Slick Rick, and NWA. Even better, there’s a welcomed avoidance of the usual subcategory favoritism that idealizes so-called “conscious” or “Afrocentric” rap and condemns the so-called “gangsta” themes.

Rappers don’t count syllables; they are supposed to make their syllables count.

The discussion of the “gangsta” group NWA, for example, doesn’t shy away from the recognition that, yes, the group released some hardcore, heavy-hitting, and coarse material, but it also recognizes NWA’s technique and methodology. One example of this is the “simple language” said to be employed by Ice Cube on NWA’s “Gangsta Gangsta”. The song’s minimal use of metaphor, lack of multisyllabic words, and rather straightforward worldview accomplish the song’s goal of building a character “whose modus operandi revolves more around action than talk.” Also — and this is something I hadn’t noticed before — NWA typically told their stories without mentioning their status as rappers, which makes it easier to stay in character and completely sell the persona of each group member.

What usually happens with NWA, and it drives me crazy, is that the group’s major contribution is supposedly their keen observations about life “in the streets” and how they make it all seems so real to the uninitiated. NWA almost always gets summarized as the group that showed the uninformed suburbanite what’s really goin’ on in the black community and what it’s really like to “live in the ‘hood”. This ignores the group’s other songs, like the near-techno club number “Something 2 Dance 2” that’s fun almost to the point of sheer frivolity, or their anthem to individuality “Express Yourself”. It also ignores the beat making prowess of Dr. Dre, the smooth delivery of MC Ren, the showmanship of Eazy-E, and the writing skills of Ice Cube.

That brings me to one reason why linking rap and poetry has such a peculiar vibe to it. In literary circles, there are recognized giants in the field whose works are considered “universal”, able to enrich all of humanity with the turn of a page. We are all the better for having read William Wordsworth or T.S. Eliot because they are masters of the craft. Admittedly, there’s a touch of sarcasm in my description, but these authors are rightly held to high esteem. Who doesn’t love T.S. Eliot? (Well, maybe just “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). But others — like “ethnic” writers, female writers — are often profiled as derivatives, types of writers, not universal writers. Often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, we’re told that the benefit of reading them is derived from their ability to bring something “different” to the proceedings. A writer like Langston Hughes is generally considered “good”, but sometimes the justification is that his work opens the door to the lives of the social “other” (i.e. “life in the ‘hood”) rather than his genius with words or his skill for tapping into that which makes us human.

There’s a sense that placing rap in this context, and assessing it by poetry standards, will mean adopting poetry’s established canon as well. Debates about rap can be heated, contentious. Everybody who likes rap, and even those that don’t, seem to have an opinion. Taking rap to task as poetry not only means that we (rap fans) have to relinquish our real or imagined “insider” status as rap experts, but we are also expected to be absorbed by the established canon rap originally resisted. Seriously? You’re saying we might have to entertain theories about literature and poetry from a guy like Ezra Pound?! (See page 570). And we are supposed to apply that to rap? I feel a little like Chuck D in Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” — most of my heroes don’t appear in no literary anthology.

Of course, Rap, capitalized in reference to a broad spectrum community, has always worried that its labor will be co-opted, tainted by a foreign touch, and no longer pure and sincere. Indeed, the anthology correctly acknowledges pioneer Russell Simmons for his understanding that rappers should be presented “pure and uncut”, and knowing there would be a market for it. That was the allure of the everyman aesthetic Run DMC embodied, eschewing formal stage clothing in favor of street gear, lessening though never completely eliminating the divide between person and persona. In 1991, Ice Cube’s “Us” lamented rap’s potential decay through benign neglect (“Pretty soon, hip-hop won’t be so nice / no Ice Cube, just Vanilla Ice”) while his “I Wanna Kill Sam” sought to resist rap’s forced disintegration (“Can’t bury rap like you buried jazz”).

We fear that hip-hop will behave substantially different, and not for the better, when it’s viewed under the mainstream gaze or accepted into academia. After all, the passion of rap as protest music loses its potency when at least part of the protest, namely the feeling of exclusion, dissipates. There is an underlying distrust that rap will be, or has already been, held hostage to outside values and become inauthentic. As folksinger Ani DiFranco so artfully stated it in her spoken word piece, “Serpentine”: “[H]ip-hop is tied up in the back room with a logo stuffed in its mouth.” She knows what we haven’t quite figured out, that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We need our own tools of analysis, and we could look at The Anthology of Rap as a way to help serve that need, rather than a gateway back into subservience to an established model.

Hip-hop fans are just as snarky as my stereotype of the literary elite. It’s no wonder, then, that the anthology’s goal of representing rap’s lyrical history would garner suspicion that the “best” examples of rap’s word wizardry didn’t make the cut. No doubt, the editors knew we’d be inclined to hate on their selections, like, “How do you include LL Cool J’s ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ as lyrical poetry but not his ‘Jack the Ripper’?” In response, we’re reminded that the volume isn’t an “exhaustive” listing. Beyond this lurks the difficulties of obtaining permission to reprint the lyrics, which would help explain, along with the usual editing concerns of page limitations and artistic overlap, why there aren’t any lyrics from Brand Nubian, Kwame, K-Solo, Chubb Rock, Heavy D, or Tragedy Khadafi (a.k.a. The Intelligent Hoodlum). “Rapping is a raw business,” Canibus said in his song “Patriots”. So too is the challenge of acquiring the right to reproduce those raps. Then, once permission is granted, there’s the problem of figuring out the best way to transcribe them.

Likewise, rap purists would object to the anthology’s chronological presentation on the ground that a summary of a musical period is necessarily pat and reductive. So too could the invention of time periods be seen as an arbitrary convenience, leaning almost exclusively on rap’s internal happenings to the exclusion of the larger social context. It’s also difficult to justify when you consider the longevity of some careers. Scarface and Ice Cube, for instance, have careers that stretch back to the 1980s. Judging relevancy to a particular era sometimes involves subjectivity.

Aside from perhaps an understandable emphasis on Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. in the “Rap Goes Mainstream” section, the summaries are usually well-balanced. One nitpick would be the anthology’s tendency to discuss the lyrics of songs not reprinted in the collection. Also, I occasionally wish the remix or radio version of a song had been included in lieu of the LP version. If poetry is the watchword, then the radio version of Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” absolutely slays the one that appeared on the LP.

As a whole, though, hardcore rap enthusiasts need not worry too much about the selection process. Given the inclusion of raps by Jay Electronica, Eyedea & Abilities, and Brother Ali alongside the exclusion of raps by Tone Loc, Young MC, Kid ‘N’ Play, MC Hammer, and Vanilla Ice (aside from a couplet as an example of his “rudimentary” rhymes), it’s difficult to charge the editors with “selling out” the art form or going “too commercial”. If anything, the project is heavy on the admittedly subjective “Golden Age” material as well as work from artists firmly planted in the “underground”.

No matter how often we look at these rap lyrics through the poetic lens, we are always mindful that these are lyrics. The question becomes: is it possible to truly separate these lyrics from their musical backdrops? Logically, it’s definitely possible, particularly with respect to understanding how the rhymes fit together and in terms of seeing “familiar things in new ways,” as Common suggests in his Afterword. Imagery, metaphor, onomatopoeia, and the like are accentuated on paper. Moreover, studying the lyrics actually enhances the experience of hearing the original songs. From an aesthetic point of view, though, rap songs demand fidelity, as the lyrics are often written to a specific beat rather than merely performed to one. “I’m unique when I speak to a beat,” LL Cool J says in “Eat Em Up L Chill”.

Even the best remixes and mash-ups, using a cappella versions of lyrics and tethering them to newly realized backgrounds, don’t rely on the same tension between rapper and accompaniment. That tension is an overlooked but often vital component of the song. On this point, the editors almost had to compromise, as the lines of the lyrics are arranged according to the “bars” or measures of the original tune. Further, in addressing the exclusion of MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This”, the editors cite the confluence of rhythm and rhyme as a major factor, arguing that some songs benefit from function rather than form, and as such they are “pop-ready”, “catchy”, and “banging”. They work better as radio jams. Studying them on paper, without music and vocal performance, “saps” them of their vitality. But isn’t this true of song lyrics in general?

Ultimately, the measure of the emcee is the ability to command language, through the fusion and fission of words, bending syllables and pronunciation if necessary, but not, as might be found in a traditional sonnet, in subservience to such rhythmic guidelines as iambic pentameter. Rappers don’t count syllables; they are supposed to make their syllables count. The Anthology of Rap is a tool we can use to figure out how many times our favorite rappers get it right.