Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Unwrapping the Message

Can lyrics alone speak for hip-hop?

Kevin Young


Rap music now has something no one might have predicted when it emerged in the South Bronx in the mid-1970s, often relying on lampposts for power: a history. As had been the case with the blues and jazz that helped birth it, hip-hop is a music of the ever present. Thinking of its mix tapes as material for the archives may give any rebel among us pause. What once was new is now old school.

But The Anthology of Rap is not exactly interested in curating the sort of formal history that jazz scholars tend to favor. Instead, the excellent editors, Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, have sidestepped history in favor of "the story of rap as lyric poetry." Using four large eras ("The Old School," "The Golden Age," "Rap Goes Mainstream," and "New Millennium Rap") as an organizing structure, the anthology lists the artists within each alphabetically, as if it were a poetry annual. The editors do not argue that rap lyrics might be poetry. They assume they are already.

Is rap poetry? The question has become a loaded one. It seems today the only people who don't write poetry are poets. The work of anyone else we feel deserves praise, from Toni Morrison to Bob Dylan—and now, Roxanne Shanté—is called poetry. Far from democratizing the practice, this designation of "poetry" for those we like and whose work we respect risks reducing poetry to little more than a free-floating feeling. In one sense, this instinct is true enough: Poetry is ultimately where you find it, and many will find it here. But aren't the lyrics profound enough as the words to great songs? Need they be poetry, too?

As with blues lyrics, it's tricky to get down an oral and aural form—no matter its often-written origins—but here again we are in good hands. The transcriptions seem spot-on (and, we are told, have frequently been vetted by the MCs themselves). The transcriber's challenge is much like the modern translator's: to render the original, but to make enough subtle, studied choices—of line length, of stanzaic form—that we have a new version that evokes and does not mock the work's first mode. The judicious use of italics for spoken portions, parentheses for background vocals and samples, and quotes for those occasions when, say, Slick Rick puts on yet another voice (which is like hearing a great ventriloquist throw his voice even farther): all provide a sense of hip-hop's continued choral quality. Also, by using the MC-based standard of sixteen-bar verses and four-beat lines, the editors provide a real sense of how a rapper is using internal and end rhyme—internal rhyme being his best weapon. The book makes a strong case for "the attention MCs direct to matters of language and sound, discussions that often get drowned out by the more controversial elements of hip-hop culture."

Still, I couldn't help feeling the limitations of the alphabetic, roll-call organization the editors adopted in sequencing the material—and not just as someone who regularly ends up going last because of his last name. The scheme works best with the initial "Old School" section, spanning 1978 to 1984, where, in a happy accident of alphabetization, the anthology opens with the future funk of Afrika Bambaataa's "Zulu Nation Throwdown" and "Planet Rock." Rather than the first rap hit, "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang, Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force's interplanetary yet earthbound lyrics are the origin tale hip-hop deserves and may, indeed, remain closest to its incantatory beginnings and poetic possibilities. Yet it feels especially odd to begin "The Golden Age" (here dated 1985–92) with the Beastie Boys, who were late to the party they fought for the right to have. The Beasties do provide the link to hip-hop's urban cohort, punk music—which they started out playing—and the further cross-fertilization of uptown to down begun by Def Jam's founders, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin. But their primacy here may mislead those not as aware of hip-hop history.

The editors had the unenviable task of organizing an unruly, doggedly unofficial genre: How to structure an art form whose "artistic development is organic, defying attempts at periodization," and still differentiate what's important from what's truly great? How to tell the story of a lyric poetry in danger of having its best years "back in the day"? These are questions not just of history, which might include both the important and the great, but literature, which insists on what lasts.

In answering them, the editors have been bold and often brilliant, usually letting the rap artists tell the story themselves, and always telling us their principles of selection. Sometimes, though, I wish they told us what many readers might not remember or have been around to hear firsthand.

As most fans know, the golden age truly started with Run-DMC, who reinvented the form with the brilliance of their lyrics, flow, and record sales (and who even wrote lyrics for the Beastie Boys). The rap group from Hollis, Queens, also asserted their place in history: In songs like "King of Rock," Run-DMC boldly and self-consciously evoked being new school, rapping, "It's all brand-new, never ever old school." It's a shame we don't find that song here. Luckily, however, we get "Sucker MCs," arguably their most important record and certainly the one that changed hip-hop forever, forging it as a form based not on stories but on rhymes that were "def and then . . . went this way"; not on my-turn-then-your-turn MCing but on MCing as a series of overlaps and interruptions; with rhymes and similes based not on expectation but on surprise; and with sparse, fat beats. Such starkness, the editors point out, also extended to their dress: Lee jeans and Adidas, black and white, "Don't want nobody's name on my behind."

From its title forward, "Sucker MCs" asserted the role of the MC (master of ceremonies) over the DJ, who had reigned over hip-hop from the get-go (often as grandmaster). Though there were great MCs in the old school, such as Melle Mel on Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's iconic "The Message," Run-DMC dared to crown themselves not just "king" but "king of rock," to reclaim the genre Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry had made and the title Elvis had died with. While the anthology does not settle the skirmish over what DMC stands for—I'm partial to "devastating mic control"—the editors establish the group's centrality, if not by the organization then in the informative and opinionated headnotes.

The golden age of rap, as the editors write, was "inarguably a period of fertile creation, rapid expansion, and lasting importance." The greatness of such artists as BDP, De La Soul, Eric B. & Rakim, Ice T, MC Lyte, NWA, PE, Queen Latifah, and others is undeniable, and the lyrics are among the best of our time. But rap is only one part of the larger story of hip-hop, a term far broader than rap both musically and culturally. The introduction acknowledges as much by quoting KRS-One's "HipHop Knowledge": "Rap music is something we do, but hip hop is something we live." While some features of hip-hop culture fall outside the anthology's bounds, I did miss a more sustained nod to graffiti, DJing, and B-boying (which, along with MCing, make up hip-hop's "four elements"), if only because they affected rap as poetry.

If Reaganomics provided an unlikely muse for "The Message" of the old school, then the commodification and subsequent discrediting of "breakin'" (and, in the art world, graffiti art) had taught hip-hop another message about navigating the rough waters of the so-called mainstream. Rap had to regroup, and while it was never merely a novelty as some thought, by Reagan's second term hip-hop had left the radio airwaves only to gather its strengths around not fads but flow, not singles but records and remixes. As a result, the golden age of hip-hop is the age of the rap concept album, kicked off by Run-DMC's eponymous 1984 first record and 1985's King of Rock and culminating in classics like 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988), All Hail the Queen (1989), To the East, Blackwards (1990), and People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990). Even the album titles were more ambitious then.

With 1988's Straight Outta Compton, NWA made good on the concept album as a hip-hop form by exploding it with their badness. Taking its cues from predecessors like Boogie Down Productions' Criminal Minded and Schoolly D's Saturday Night!, the album's opening lines declared: "You are now about to witness the strength of street knowledge." NWA's songs, such as "Straight Outta Compton," "Fuck tha Police," and "Gangsta Gangsta," penned chiefly by Ice Cube, were death ballads in choral form—announced by Ice Cube, carried by MC Ren or Yella, and culminating in Eazy E, whose high-pitched whine made him both less terrifying and far more. The sound was of a whirlwind in our midst, saying the unsayable and saying it loud, making the listener as deliriously uneasy as the unrest that NWA hinted was the music's real source. This was the sound of a genre being born: Where the Sex Pistols chanted "no future," gangsta rap said there wasn't even a present. NWA simultaneously protested, diagnosed, and dismissed consequences of any sort: "I don't give a fuck, that's the problem."

The seeming topicality of gangsta rap, and its apolitical politics, mask its origins in tall tales, the dozens, and other rituals of bragging and hyperbole as a form of critique. The genius of NWA wasn't just in their name, Niggaz With Attitude, which itself was defiant and even a dare, but rather in the way that their songs veered from and fit a black narrative begun with bad man Stagolee, the black folk hero who shot a man just to see him die. NWA had the smarts to call this quicksand home. Home as a concept courses through African American thought—and by both celebrating and cursing theirs (often literally), NWA made Compton something that was both representative of America and far from its promise.

Where Public Enemy perfected the rap group as a lead "singer" in Chuck D and a "hype man" in Flavor Flav, NWA reinvented it as a sort of jazz combo, circling a theme improvised on—only where jazz provided a heroism of the expressive artist, NWA now gave us the antiheroism of the gangster, something as American, to paraphrase H. Rap Brown, as violence and cherry pie. For, despite rap being, as Chuck D declared, "CNN for black people," we also listen to rap not just to hear the "news" about, say, police brutality, but to enact broad fantasies of our triumph over it. This is as true for white listeners as for black—the power of gangsta rap was not to let white listeners become black, but to espy one kind of blackness from afar or anear. It helped that it was marketed as truth rarely found elsewhere. "The Nigga Ya Love to Hate"—Ice Cube's ironic title, indicting and empowering himself—could have been describing the ambiguity and ambition of such hip-hop itself, daring you not to like it.

But this is a broader story the anthology does not tell. Though the editors indicate that the golden age ended with Dr. Dre's The Chronic in 1992, they do not say why—nor do they include Dre as a solo artist at all. Instead, Bradley and DuBois file his huge hit "Nuthin but a 'G' Thang" under Snoop Dogg, who appeared on the track—a bold move, it would seem, to indicate the editors are most interested in MCing skills, not influence. But The Chronic ended the golden age because its real concept wasn't cheeba after all, but rather replacing the MC with the producer who can rap and who crafts and sells beats to the highest bidder. Indeed, when we reach the book's third section, "1993–1999: Rap Goes Mainstream," it is noteworthy that many of the best lyrics aren't whole songs but guest appearances (e.g., Busta Rhymes's life-changing star turn—and I mean life-changing for the listener—on A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario"). The editors here don't fall for the media-fueled East Coast–West Coast rivalry—a good thing, given its casualties, including the music. But even as they discuss the rise of the "rap superstar," they dance a bit around gangsta rap's influence as I've charted it here, reducing it to an extremely fascinating riff on NWA's "Gangsta Gangsta," which named the genre. While I thoroughly enjoyed their reading of the crafted gangsta persona as one of decorum and "plain style" (citing Cicero), they seem to miss not just the rivalries but the connections among crews—and how the dissolving and reforming of crews, from NWA to the Dungeon Family to the Wu-Tang Clan, would come to define this era as much as its commercial success.

No anthology can convey the ways in which rap was once one music of many—soul, funk, reggae, even disco—all of which it would come to devour and even replace. But the broader culture of hip-hop beyond MCing is important because rap went mainstream due to two divergent, if not diametrically opposed, developments: its embrace by other musics on the radio, and its pilgrimage underground, where gangsta rap took over exactly because it couldn't often be played on the airwaves. Not surprisingly, the "New Millennium Rap" section provides the most challenges, covering as it does an era (2000–2010) that has seen the greatest change in hip-hop—one, as the editors suggest, not always for the better. This movement from DJ to MC to producer-turned-rapper to rap mogul is now part of not just hip-hop's history but its foreseeable future.

Reading the book, perhaps the biggest change that emerges is the distance rap has traveled from a community-based and even communal form to a coded and commercial one, from "Planet Rock" to international Esperanto, from narrative to lyric and back again. I started to feel that Dr. Dre is left out of The Anthology of Rap less because of possible permissions or aesthetic reasons but so that the editors can maintain the fiction that the MC's lyrics still reign supreme. But maybe I'm just being nostalgic—or hopeful that the recent resurgence of the turntablist and DJing, from Danger Mouse to DJ Rupture to television's DJ Lance Rock, is a sign of rap's return to its origins.

In this, I am not alone: Nostalgia makes up much of hip-hop's recent iteration, from Common's personifying hip-hop in "I Used to Love H.E.R." (1994) to Nas declaring "Hip Hop Is Dead" (2006). Hip-hop's true technology is nostalgia, taking what's old as a way not of making it new, but of making do. More than any recent music—except punk, which it parallels and follows and seeks to outdo—rap has in fact long raided its own history, re-creating and even re-enacting it from spare beats, drum machines, samples, and self-referentiality. Such reflexivity isn't always found in the lyrics, but rather in the samples themselves: the commonalities of this collaborative form—shared beats, floating verses—are fleeting, but ironically central to hip-hop's uniqueness. Hip-hop's nostalgia proves quite different from that of soul music or the paradise promised by disco, not just because of its dissonance but also because of the genre's willingness to admit dystopia into the mix. You could say that rap needs not a reconstructed past but a fantasy of a future first promised by Bambaataa.

The editors do discuss what some have called "the Bling Era," and the way "in the 1990s hip-hop went mainstream, shaping American culture even as hip-hop was still shaping itself." It isn't just that the music industry or capitalism changed rap, but that rap changed society—its desire for "realness" matched our own. Rap was first to declare the war on illusion that David Shields named in his recent book Reality Hunger; you could say that, while responding to actual, ongoing problems—inspired, like the blues, by the often-devastating social conditions around it—rap's persistent personae, its aliases insisting they were just keepin' it real, found in realness the metaphor for our time. Realness, whether rap or "executive," is now found everywhere in our culture, from television to—well, is there any fiction left us? As one writer sampled by Shields puts it: "Realness is not reality, something that can be defined or identified. Reality is what is imposed on you; realness is what you impose back."

Gone, too, was another form of protest, first found in the music itself (not just the lyrics), which implied that all these shifts, these breaks and borrowings, were beautiful. This isn't to say that rap isn't still gorgeous, and often, but when realness rules, rap's jazzlike yearning—found, say, in Pete Rock and C. L. Smooth's "They Reminisce over You (T.R.O.Y.)" —becomes rarer and rarer. There is, after all, an alternative universe where gangsta rap and what was once called acid jazz shared the stage, and hardness became not the only value. Reading the anthology, I kept hoping for less of the teacher persona (such as KRS-One), which the editors rightly note contrasts with the gangsta, and more of the bizarro-rhyme (and buddha-sack-influenced) rap of Gang Starr's "DWYCK," featuring Nice & Smooth, or the jazz tones of Rammellzee and K-Rob's "Beat Bop"—not to mention the alternative reality where rap kept being alternative.

I recount this hip-hop history because of its impact on the poetry. If good hip-hop seeks the condition and condensation of poetry, then too often that poetry isn't lyric poetry, as the editors suggest, but narrative. Sometimes this narrative need works to rap's detriment; at other times it's the music's chief pleasure: As its title implies, a song like Slick Rick's "Children's Story" takes its power from its relation to and dissonance with our typical, staid stories. Nevertheless, rap's loss of lyricism is hard not to notice as we progress through The Anthology of Rap. Ultimately, the lyric voice does not keep us a bystander as Straight Outta Compton does but lets us become the singer—or poet or rapper—and at best even the song itself. For the length of the lyric poem, and a breath or three beyond, we are poem and poet in one; when Whitman says, "I am the man, I suffered, I was there," we stand alongside him.

While hearing Rakim declare "I Ain't No Joke" made many a kid want to be an MC, does reading rap lyrics make one want to write a lyric poem? Hip-hop's pleasure is often its Whitmanesque contradictions, embodied in the delicate dance between the beats and the bars that the rappers spit; unlike Whitman, the form and the feeling don't often fit. It is a music of breaks, after all: A big part of hip-hop's poetry results from the tensions and changes in these jarring shifts, as well as the jibing between the lyrics and the music. Poetry can move you, hip-hop can make you move—for my part, I'll take both. Hip-hop and poetry meet not in words, but in their frequent wordlessness; not in rhyme, but in reclaiming and redefining beauty from the clutches of mere prettiness. I kept thinking that those who know the songs will be reading a far different, and arguably far better, book.

The story of hip-hop is weirder, broader, and more wordless than any one volume can convey. This is perhaps the largest story this anthology tells: that even at nearly nine hundred pages it can't hope to be complete, given the breadth of the culture today. Still, the anthologists have done well in representing great early female MCs like Shanté, Sequence, and Lady B, whose "To the Beat Y'all" may get sampled even more than it's known; and in continuing to question the macho suppositions of a form that has such female standouts as MC Lyte, Eve, and Lauryn Hill. This anthology does not just preach to the converted: It lets even the most dedicated listener in on other lesser-known rappers, introduces those who haven't a clue to hip-hop's pleasures and past (some of these are young listeners, some much older), and maybe even convinces those who still need convincing about rap's durability and value.

The Anthology of Rap is a book as ambitious and intelligent as anyone might want, and more enjoyable than anyone might think. It traces a strange, incomplete trip from underground to outer space, from Shaolin to Stankonia, taking dissonance and making it dance. If you want to hear how the latter part of the twentieth century sounded, you can't do better than this book. Just as the American songbook—documented in similar fashion ten years ago by Robert Gottlieb and Robert Kimball's anthology Reading Lyrics—reflected an earlier era, not in its actualities (leave that to the blues) but in its aspirations, then these rap lyrics, carved not out of air but from scraps of other songs, best describes the current moment. Their violence and virtue, discontent and daring, irritation and introspection, are our own.

Kevin Young is the author of six books of poetry and the Atticus Haygood Professor of Creative Writing and English at Emory University.

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