Get news, special offers and much more.

The Anthology Of Rap
May 14th, 2010

We are living in a period of growth for hip-hop culture, led this time
not simply by artists but by students and scholars. The
word-revolution in rhyme has been reflected in a slew of necessary
critical perspectives that shed light on hip-hop's history and
development. Books and multimedia on hip-hop culture and rap music
have entered a boom period-or should I say BOOM BAP period: a time in
which the recorded history and the breakdown of interpretations may be
more entertaining than a lot of the new music being made today.

The Anthology of Rap is a landmark text. What makes it so important is
that the voices included within it are from the artists themselves,
but they are presented in a way that gives the words context and
meaning as part of a tradition. Anyone could put together a bunch of
lyrics, but an anthology does something more: it provides the tools to
make meaning of those lyrics in relation to one another, to think
about rap both in terms of particular rhymes, but also in terms of an
art form, a people, and a movement. Every great literature deserves a
great anthology. Rap finally has its own.

I first heard about The Anthology of Rap after meeting Dr. Adam
Bradley at a symposium sponsored by the HipHop Archive at Harvard
University. A few weeks later, I interviewed him on my Air America
Network radio show, ON THE REAL, about his first book, Book of Rhymes:
The Poetics of Hip Hop. I was fascinated by what I would call the
emergent "artcademic" perspective he was describing. Here was someone
who grew up with the music and had gone on to study it in a social
context as well as "gettin down to it" on the level of language. He
was spitting out a well-considered, highly analytical point of view to
a mass audience that too often defines rap merely by what they hear on
radio and see on television. Along with Dr. Andrew DuBois, Dr. Bradley
has now brought us a book that just might break the commercial trance
that's had rap in a chokehold for the last several years. Rap now has
a book that tells its lyrical history in its own words.

My own history in hip hop goes back decades. I started out in back in
1979 as a mobile DJ/MC under a crew called Spectrum City in Long
Island, New York. Most of the shows we did were in less than ideal
acoustic situations. Luckily my partner Hank Shocklee, who is now
regarded as a sonic genius in the realm of recording, was just as
astute about getting the best sound available out of the least amount
of equipment. The challenge for many MCs was figuring out how to
achieve vocal projection and clarity on inferior sound systems. I've
always had a big voice, so my criteria was different because my vocal
quality and power were audible. The content of my rhymes was heady
because of what I knew. I'd been influenced by big voices like Melle
Mel of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I studied the rhymes
and rhythms that worked and tried to incorporate my voice and subject
matter in a similar manner. I had to be distinct in my own identity.
That was a very important aspect to propel me beyond the pack.

Most MCs don't listen to enough other MCs. As artists we need to open
our ears to as many styles as possible, even-and maybe
especially-those that are not commercially successful. In sports you
must study the competition. You've got to game-plan. You've got to
school yourself not just about the defending champions, but about
every team in the league. In these times, the individualization of the
MC has often meant isolation-artists focus on a single model, a single
sound. Some focus is a good thing, of course, but too much leads to a
lot of rappers sounding the same, saying the same things, finding
themselves adrift in a sea of similarity.

Having a range of lyrical influences and interests doesn't compromise
an MC's art. It helps that art to thrive and come into its own. For
instance, my lyrics on "Rebel Without a Pause" are uniquely mine, but
even the first "Yes" I utter to begin the song was inspired by another
record-in this case, Biz Markie's "Nobody Beats the Biz," a favorite
of mine at the time. The overall rhyme style I deployed on "Rebel" was
a deliberate mixture of how KRS-One was breaking his rhymes into
phrases and of Rakim's flow on "I Know You Got Soul." Although the
craft is difficult, the options are many and the limits are few. There
are many styles to attend to and numerous ways to integrate them into
your own art, transforming yourself and those styles along the way.

That's where The Anthology of Rap comes in. It reminds us just how
much variety truly exists in this thing we call rap. KRS-One raging
against police brutality is far removed from Will Smith beefing about
parents that just don't understand or UGK explaining the intricacies
of the street pharmaceutical trade, but all of them are united through
rhyming to a beat. We learn more as rap artists and as a rap audience
by coming to terms with all those things that rap has made.

Back in 2006 I did a collaboration with the great conscious rapper
Paris. Paris singlehandedly created a Public Enemy album called
Rebirth Of A Nation. At the time, people asked why an MC like me would
relinquish the responsibility of writing my own lyrics. My reason was
simple: I thoroughly respect the songwriter and happen to think there
is a valuable difference between the vocalist and the writer. Rarely
are people gifted in both or well trained and skilled enough to handle
both at once. The unwavering belief that MCs should always and only
spit their own rhymes is a handicap for rap. In my opinion, most
writers shouldn't spit and most vocalists shouldn't write unless there
is a unique combination of skill, knowledge, ability, and distinction.
To have Paris write my lyrics as well as produce the music added a
breath of freshness to my voice. I put my ego aside-a hard thing for a
lot of rappers to do-and was rewarded with a new weapon in my lyrical
arsenal, unavailable had I simply gone it alone.

In order for a lyric to last, it takes time and thought. Although
top-of-the-head freestyles might be entertaining for the moment, they
quickly expire. Even someone like Jay-Z, who claims never to write
before rhyming, does his own form of composition. He has the older
cat's knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of the many facets of
multi-dimensional life zones and the ability to exercise his quickness
of wit and tongue. Few MCs have his particular combination of gifts.
Lyricism is a study of a terrain before it's sprayed upon like paint
on a canvas. Most MCs would do better to think and have a conversation
regarding what to rhyme about before they spit. While the spontaneity
of the words to a beat might bring up-to-the-minute feelings to share,
one cannot sleep on the power of the word-or in this case the
arrangement and delivery of many words in rhythm.

When it comes down to the words themselves, lyricism is vital to rap,
and because rap fuels hip-hop, this means that lyricism is vital to
hip-hop culture as a whole. A rapper that really wants to be heard
must realize that a good vocabulary is necessary like a good
ball-handler sports his dribble on a basketball court. Something
should separate a professional rapper from a 6th grader. Lyricism does
that. Even when a middle school kid learns a word and its meaning,
social comprehension and context take time to master. Even when a term
or a line is mastered, the challenge should be on how many more peaks
a rapper can scale to become a good lyricist. We all should know that
the power of a word has both incited and prevented war itself.

Good lyrics, of course, have been around far longer than rap. They're
the life-blood of song. They direct the music and the music defines
the culture. This is true for rap even though some mistake the music
as being all about the beat. People sometimes overate the beat,
separating it from the song itself. I ask folks would they rather just
listen to instrumentals? The general response is no. Listeners want to
have vocals driving the beat, but-importantly--not stopping it or
slowing it down. It takes a master to ride any wild beat or groove and
to tame it. Rakim, KRS-One, Andre 3000, MC Lyte, Black Thought and Nas
are just a few such masters featured in this anthology. They will make
the music submit to their flows while filling those flows with words
to move the crowd's minds, bodies, and souls. So reading lyrics on the
page gives us a chance to understand exactly what makes these lyrics
work. What's their meaning? What's their substance? How do they do
what they do?

Like the air we breathe, hip-hop seems to be everywhere. The culture
and lifestyle that many thought would be a passing fad has, more than
three decades later, grown to become a permanent part of world
culture. Hip-hop artists have become some of today's heroes, replacing
the comic book worship of decades past and joining athletes and movie
stars as the people kids dream of becoming. Names like 50 Cent, P.
Diddy, Russell Simmons, Jay-Z, Foxy Brown, Snoop Dogg, and Flavor Flav
now ring as familiar as Elvis, Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie
Chaplin. But keeping in step with straight-up rap, a rapper is not
just a celebrity. There still lies a performance factor that must be
included before we describe an MC as a lyrical beast.

While the general public knows many of the names, videos, and songs
branded by the big companies, it's important to study rap's history.
The best place to start is the holy trinity, the founding fathers of
hip-hop: Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa. All are
DJs that played the records that moved MCs and dancers to fashion
their own art forms. The MC had to go to the rhythm of the DJ, thus
creating the atmosphere with words on the beat to music. This
background is crucial to the evolution of the MC. But the influence of
these hip-hop pioneers often went beyond the realm of art. Bambaataa
almost single-handedly quelled the New York City gang wars of the
1970s with his message of peace, unity, love, and having fun.

Hip-hop is simply a term for a form of artistic creativity spawned
from New York City, more precisely the Bronx, in the early to mid
1970s. Amidst the urban decay in the areas where black and Hispanic
people dwelled, economic, educational and environmental resources were
depleted. Jobs and businesses dried up. Living conditions at times
were almost indistinguishable from a developing country, all in the
midst of the nation's wealthiest city. Last but not least, art and
sports programs in the schools were the first to be cut for the sake
of lowering budgets; music classes teaching history and technique were
all but lost.

From these ashes, like a phoenix, rose an art form. Through the love
of technology and of records found in family collections or discarded
on the street, the DJ emerged. Different from the ones heard on the
radio, these DJs were innovating a style first popularized on the
island of Jamaica. Two turntables kept the music continuous, with the
occasional voice speaking or chanting on top of the records. This is
the very humble beginning of rap music.

It is important to remember that the thing we call rap is not a music
in itself. It only becomes music when two words are combined: rap and
music. Rap is the vocal application placed on top of the music. On a
vocal spectrum, it falls somewhere between talking and singing and is
one of the few new alternatives for vocalizing to emerge in the last
fifty years. It is important to realize that inventors and artists
are side by side in the importance of music's development. Let's
remember that inventor Thomas A. Edison recorded the first rhyme with
"Mary Had A Little Lamb" in 1877. He did this in New Jersey, the same
state that produced the first commercial rap hit, the Sugarhill Gang's
"Rappers Delight," more than a century later.

It's hard to separate the importance of history, science, language
arts, and education when discussing music. Because of the social
silencing of black people in America from slavery in the 1600s to
civil rights in the 1960s, much sentiment, dialogue and soul is
wrapped up in the cultural expression of black music. In eighteenth
century New Orleans, slaves gathered on Sundays in Congo Square to
socialize and play music. Within this captivity many dialects,
customs, and styles combined with instrumentation, vocals, and rhythm
to form a musical signal or code of preservation. These are the
foundations of jazz and the blues.

Similarly, it is impossible to separate hip-hop and rap music from the
legacy of creativity from the past. Look within the expression and
words of black music and you'll get a timeline reflection of American
history itself. The four creative elements of hip-hop-MCing (the art
of vocalization); DJing (the musician-like manipulation of records);
breakdancing (the body expression of the music); and graffiti (the
drawn graphic expression of the culture)-have been intertwined in the
community before and since slavery. However, just because these
expressions formed in the black and Hispanic underclass doesn't mean
that they are exclusive to those groups in perpetuity. Hip-hop is
specific, but it's universal too.

Hip-hop is a cultural language used best to unite the human family all
around the world. Many international rap artists can rhyme in multiple
languages and still move crowds with meaning. The world beyond the
United States has excelled in hip-hop's fundamentals, perhaps more
even than in the country of the culture's invention. To peep rap's
global explosion one need not even search very far. Starting just
north of the U.S. border, Canadian hip-hop has featured rappers who
are infusing different language and dialect flows into their work,
from immigrant artists like K'naan rhyming about the "ghosts in my old
home" to French flowing cats from Quebec.

Few know that France for many years has been the second largest
hip-hop nation, measured not just by high sales numbers, but also by
its political philosophy. Hip-hop has been alive and present since the
mid-1980s in Japan and other Asian countries. Australia has been a
hotbed in welcoming world rap acts, and it has also created its own
vibrant scene, with the reminder of its government's takeover of
indigenous people reflected in many rappers' flows and rhymes. As a
rhythm of the people, the continents of Africa and South America
(especially Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa, Brazil, Surinam, and
Argentina) have long mixed traditional homage into the new beats and
rhymes of this millennium. Hip-hop and rap has been used to help
Brazilian kids learn English when school systems failed to bridge the
difficult language gap of Portuguese and patois to American English.
It has entertained and enlightened youth, and has engaged political
discussion in society, continuing the tradition of the African griots
and folk singers.

For decades, hip-hop has been bought, sold, followed, loved, hated,
praised, and blamed. History has shown that other cultural U.S. music
forms have been just as misunderstood and held up to public scrutiny.
The history of the people who originated the art form can be found in
the music itself. The timeline of recorded rap music spans more than a
quarter century, and that is history in itself. With all this said it
might sound like a broken record but the re-introduction must come
with the clear definition of what it is. A rapper's style is not to
itself. It comes from somewhere. All of these lyrics evolve as the
griot-like timeline with the words finally manifesting themselves into
a solid testament of the craft. In the words of the Public Enemy song
"Bring the Noise," here we go again. . .