Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Original Anthology of Rap

Prelude: Slate just posted their third article, now, on The Anthology of Rap - more shadiness uncovered. Some people in the comments of these discussions point out how nerdy the discussion is, but I think that's because they're missing the point. It's not about how many errors nitpicky bloggers can find in The Anthology's transcriptions. Of course it has errors... God knows how many embarrassing errors I would make if I attempted to transcribe nearly 300 rap songs. No, it's about the fact that these particular errors showed us that The Anthology stole all of its work from online writers without giving them credit. The book was printed by Yale University press, and its by two profs who are using that prestige to sell the book, essentially saying, "Yeah, all these lyrics are already available online, but you need this book to legitimize them as an anthology, because this book is from Yale and inherently superior." But if Yale students presented this book as a school project*, with 95% of its content lifted from an uncredited source, they'd be up in front of the academic review board, explaining how their parents would freak if they were expelled.

So I'm done with this Anthology of Rap debate. I mean, if Slate can uncover even more shadiness (what could possibly be left? A complex murder plot, where the editors tried to have Flash killed so nobody would ever find out they used his content? It seems like they've already committed every other possible ethical transgression), I'll happily tweet it. But I'm moving on. Because you know what? Despite the fact that they claim, "this groundbreaking collection is the first anthology of lyrics to chart rap's recorded history" (quoting from the first page of their press release), that's just another thing they say that isn't true. There's another anthology of rap out there that came first.

Rap the Lyrics was published in 1992. 1992, so there's no worry that this book could've plagiarized all its material from the internet. It's edited by former Tommy Boy business director Lawrence A. Stanley, an entertainment lawyer who specializes in clearing samples and fighting censorship, the latter of which is apparently the motive behind this book. While this book features lyrics from the widest variety of artists - like The Fearless Four, Geto Boys, Young MC, Schoolly D, a pre-Wu Tang Genius. Subsonic 2 - and a broad spectrum of their material - from pop to street, commercial to conscious - it makes a point to include some of the most controversial lyrics around: NWA's "Fuck the Police," Too $hort's "Freaky Tales," Slick Rick's "Treat Her Like a Prostitute," etc. Guess which Boogie Down Productions songs they chose. "My Philosophy?" "You Must Learn?" "The Bridge Is Over?" Nope! They chose "House Nigga," "Illegal Business" and "Jimmy." So yeah, you get the point: this book covers everything, but when in doubt, veers towards the edgy.

What's more, all of the royalties from this book were donated to The National Coalition on Censorship and other anti-censorship organizations.

Oh, I have an amusingly ironic anecdote about that, by the way. My personal copy of this book is a former library edition (hey, Maple Heights Public Library in Ohio, look where your book ended up). And the funny thing is, they ripped out the pages that contain the lyrics to The 2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny!" Apparently, the author's anti-censorship message was lost on the people of Maple Heights, Ohio.

So, anyway. There isn't a whole lot else to this book; it's just page after page of full transcripts of rap songs. There is a pretty long and ambitious introduction by Jefferson Marley called "Rap Music as American History," and a thorough table of contents that lists every song. They use a super cheesy "urban" font for the names of the artists throughout the book, but fortunately the actual lyrics are presented in a normal, legible font.

As for errors? Okay, for a while I was thinking/hoping this was going to be error-free. I was reading through song after song, focusing especially on the ones I thought would have the lots of proper names, or just the songs I was most familiar with as a fan, and not finding any. But I stuck with it, and I think I found one. For Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince's "Nightmare On My Street," they have Freddy Krueger telling the Fresh Prince, "You got my favorite letter but now you must die!" I always thought he was saying, "you turned off David Letterman; now you must die!" My version also makes more sense, since the preceding lines talk about how he turned off the TV, which prompted Krueger's rage. But just for fun, and what is fast becoming tradition, I checked it out on The Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive; and they've got, "You cut off 'Heavy Metal' and now you must die!" To be fair to all transcribers, it is hard to decipher his monster voice during that line, and like I was saying earlier... transcription errors are inevitable, and I'm not really hung up on the "nerdy debate" of who made which mistakes. I'll just say, in general, it seems to have very few.

But overall, it looks like this book is pretty much better in every regard, huh? It's got better song choices (they've got "Mind Of a Lunatic" for god's sake!), it appears to have been made without breaking any huge ethical standards, and all the profits even went to a good cause. It's like The Anthology is this book's evil twin brother who just turned up on our doorstep from out of town.

Rap the Lyrics is still in print, and its list price is $9 cheaper than its competitor, too. You can get it from Amazon here. It still has the same fundamental problem that The Anthology has... it only features a couple hundred rap songs, making the internet an infinitely more thorough, and thus more valuable, resource. It's also free. So the market for either book seems pretty slim (though when Rap the Lyrics was printed, of course, there was no internet, so it made a lot more sense at the time). But if you are going to buy an anthology of rap lyrics, this is hands down the one I recommend.

*Oh wait, they did. It's also come out that the actual transcriptions were apparently done by two undergrads who were only thanked for their help in the back of the book.


  1. Yale University Press, not Harvard.

  2. Whoops! Thanks! I'm gonna make the change now.
    (I just saw The Social Network, so I have Harvard on the brain. lol)