Fact-Check the Rhyme

The Anthology of Rap is rife with transcription errors. Why is it so hard to get rap lyrics right?

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anthology

By Paul Devlin

As of this week, rap finally has an anthology, published by Yale University Press. The Anthology of Rap sets out to capture the evolution of rap lyrics through what its editors consider representative examples, collecting the work of a wide variety of MCs who recorded from 1979 through 2009, from Grandmaster Caz to Joell Ortiz. More so than most anthologies, the book is also an essay collection, featuring substantive general and chapter introductions by the editors and essays from Henry Louis Gates Jr., Chuck D and Common. The eye-opening essay by Gates (who is editor-in-chief of The Root, a Slate sister site) provides deep historical context for rap; it alone makes the book worth owning.

Edited by two young yet accomplished professors of English, Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, and featuring an advisory board of prominent professors and journalists (though tellingly, no rappers), The Anthology of Rap is a good start, but it will inspire mixed emotions. Most anthologies feature the name of their publisher: The Norton Anthology of African American LiteratureThe Oxford Anthology of English Poetry. This book is simply The Anthology of Rap, not The Yale Anthology of Rap. The title seems to present a claim to definitiveness, and that is wrong for any anthology, but especially for one that makes no mention of innovators like DJ Quik, Redman, Keith Murray, Grand Puba, Sadat X, Rah Digga or M.O.P., while finding room for also-rans Foxxy Brown, M.I.A. and Twista. The editors claim to be supersensitive to the role of women in hip-hop, but as the excluded Remy Ma might say, whateva.

Of course, anthologies will always provoke arguments over who was included and who was left out in the cold. An anthology of rap runs the risk of raising hackles over a different problem: transcription. Transcription of rap lyrics is excruciatingly difficult, due to speed of delivery, slang, purposeful mispronunciation, and the problem of the beat sometimes momentarily drowning out or obscuring the lyrics. (And unlike rock or pop albums, rap album booklets very rarely include lyrics.) This is why so many websites devoted to the endeavor have (and have always had) horrendous mistakes and one reason DuBois and Bradley's book was badly needed. Alas, too often it makes mistakes of its own.

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