'The Anthology Of Rap': Lyrics As Poetry
Now almost 40 years old, rap burst out of the Bronx to become one of the dominant musical and cultural forces in this country. A new book, The Anthology of Rap, tracks the development of the genre -- from New York house parties to Eminem and Jay-Z -- by presenting lyrics from some of America’s greatest rappers as poetry. Adam Bradley, co-editor of the book, tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz that rap's origins had no words at all.
"Before there was rapping, there was DJing," Bradley says. "A DJ would be at a party playing songs and focusing on the breaks, those most exciting, energizing drum sequences, and running those back and forth to get the dancers excited. Then they had to do something on the microphone to keep people's attention ... so what developed out of DJing was the very concept of MCing: putting words in rhyme to the music."
Some of the earliest rappers began as DJs, Bradley says.
"Eddie Cheeba, DJ Hollywood, even Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers ... these are people who started often as DJs and then made the transition into the lyrical art."
In the book, Bradley traces many of the classic rhymes to DJ Eddie Cheeba.
"The great Chuck D of Public Enemy once said about Eddie Cheeba that he was as important to hip-hop as Ike Turner was to rock 'n' roll. You go into the lyrics and you can see just that," Bradley says. "Think about a phrase that's become really a part of the popular idiom, something like, 'Wave your hands in the air.' This is Eddie Cheeba in 1979. This is part of an oral tradition that stretches much further back than the actual history of recorded hip-hop."
The first mainstream hip-hop hit was "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang. The lyrics to that song, Bradley says, are about the art form itself.
"When he gets to the verse, he says, 'Now what you hear is not a test, I'm rapping to the beat' ... it's written about its stanza!"
A little while later, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released a song that would change the direction of hip-hop forever.
"'The Message' really was a kind of turn in hip-hop -- it was a turn towards social consciousness," Bradley says. "It looked at the world around these folks and talked about their realities. ...
"Rap has always been about these tensions, the tension between the party and the profit, between the sense of social responsibility, but also the need to rock the crowd ... to make people think and move their feet. Rap is all of these things at once, and it's still that way today."
GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
(Soundbite of song, "Get It In Ohio")
Mr. CAM'RON (Rapper): (Rapping) I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six.
RAZ: I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six. That's a line by the rapper Cam'Ron. The song is called "Get It In Ohio," and it's one of hundreds of lyrics collected in a new book, "The Anthology of Rap."
Adam Bradley is the co-editor of that anthology, more than 800 pages that starts at the birth of rap 40 years ago in the community centers and apartment blocks of the South Bronx. And as Adam Bradley explains, the very first rappers were actually DJs who needed to keep the crowds amped up and dancing. The solution: Start talking over the record.
Mr. ADAM BRADLEY (Co-editor, "The Anthology of Rap"): What developed out of DJing was the very concept of MCing, of putting words in rhyme to the music. So some of the early innovators in the art of rapping are actually DJs: Eddie Cheeba, DJ Hollywood. Even Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers, these are people who started often as DJs and then made the transition into the lyrical art.
RAZ: You trace a lot of, like, classic rap rhymes to DJ Eddie Cheeba. What -can you give me some examples of what he wrote?
Mr. BRADLEY: The great Chuck D of Public Enemy once said about Eddie Cheeba that he was as important to hip hop as Ike Turner was to rock and roll. You go into the lyrics and you can see just that.
I mean, think about a phrase that's become really a part of the popular idiom that sort of transcended hip hop, something like...
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. EDDIE CHEEBA: Raise your hands in the air. Wave them like you just don't care.
Mr. BRADLEY: And this is Eddie Cheeba in 1979.
RAZ: And you think about that line. I mean, that's just, like, a throwaway line at any hip hop concert today.
Mr. BRADLEY: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And this is part of an oral tradition that stretches back - if you really want to go into it, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., does in his forward to the book - goes into the African-American oral tradition of the toasts and the dozens and all of these different word games that were part of African-American culture.
It also goes back more broadly into the Western poetic heritage. I mean, one of the most surprising things that I came across in first going through these early lyrics, you know, take something like "Rapper's Delight," the first mainstream hip hop hit a little bit later in that year of 1979...
RAZ: By the Sugarhill Gang.
Mr. BRADLEY: Sugarhill Gang, and it has - it starts with those famous words of Wonder Mike: I said a hip, hop, a hippie to the hippie the - you know, that part.
(Soundbite of song "Rapper's Delight")
THE SUGARHILL GANG (Music Group): (Rapping) Hip a hop you don't stop the rock it to the bang bang, boggie say up, jump the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie...
Mr. BRADLEY: And when he gets to the verse, you hear: Now what you hear is not a test, I'm rapping to the beat.
(Soundbite of song "Rapper's Delight")
THE SUGARHILL GANG: (Rapping) And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet.
Mr. BRADLEY: Now, even with my poor MCing skills, you can hear within that something pretty tremendous. And what that is, is this is what I've discovered by actually transcribing it. It's written in ballad stanza. This is the form of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." But it's also the form of the "Gilligan's Island" theme, you know, the ballad stanza of storytelling form that's been with us in our culture and finds its way, whether intentionally or not, into these lyrics.
RAZ: One of the earliest sort of, I guess, political rap songs was by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. And the track was called "The Message," a really big, important and sort of popular song that came out in the early '80s.
(Soundbite of song "The Message")
GRANDMASTER FLASH and the FURIOUS FIVE (Music Group): (Rapping) Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge.
RAZ: How big of a turning point in rap was this song?
Mr. BRADLEY: "The Message" really was a kind of turn in hip hop. It was a turn towards social consciousness. It was a turn toward a kind of songwriting, deliberate kind of songwriting, that looked at the world around these folks and talked about their realities.
(Soundbite of song, "The Message")
GRANDMASTER FLASH and the FURIOUS FIVE: (Rapping) The bill collectors they ring my phone and scare my wife when I'm not home. Got a bum education, double-digit inflation. I can't take the train to the job, there's a strike at the station.
Mr. BRADLEY: Rap has always been about these tensions, the tension between the party and the profit, between the tension between the sense of social responsibility but also the need to rock the crowd, to move the crowd, to make people dance.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Adam Bradley. He's the co-editor of the new book "The Anthology of Rap." Adam Bradley, last year we had Rakim on the show, probably one of the most important and influential rappers of all time. He's really the guy who kind of pioneered internal rhyme schemes and sort of bending words to rhyme, right?
Mr. BRADLEY: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, there's a reason why he's often known as the God MC because he took what was already an established art form, and he brought in a level of musicality, a sense of rhythm and rhyme that revolutionized what people were doing.
People had to go back and really start over with their lyrics once they heard Rakim. He's that kind of artist. Take one of his most famous lyrics, "Microphone Fiend": I was a fiend before I became a teen. I melted microphones instead of cones of ice cream. Just that little play of language.
RAZ: Phones, microphones and cones, yeah.
Mr. BRADLEY: Yeah.
RAZ: There's another line: The melody that I'm stylin', smooth as a violin, rough enough to break New York from Long Island.
(Soundbite of song, "Strong Island")
Mr. RAKIM (Rapper): (Rapping) ... The rhyme that I'm stylin, smooth as a violin. Rough enough to break New York from Long Island
RAZ: There are some rappers that are in the anthology, and some who are notably absent, like Vanilla Ice who had the first number one rap song with "Ice, Ice Baby"; M.C. Hammer, "U Can't Touch This," that's not in here. A lot of gangsta rap is not in here, particularly some of the more sort of profane gangsta rap. Did you leave that out intentionally? Did you - I mean, because it seems like the rappers that are in this book are really the best lyricists.
Mr. BRADLEY: This is a complex but important question, Guy. I mean, one of the things that I'll say is that if you want profanity, there's plenty within the anthology. One of the things we didn't want to do was to sugarcoat hip hop.
Now, when it comes to artists like Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer, I would add Young MC, Sir Mix-A-Lot, all these artists who were...
RAZ: Bestsellers, right.
Mr. BRADLEY: Yeah, really huge artists in the early to mid-'90s, I think what we ultimately decided is that something like "U Can't Touch This," M.C. Hammer's great hit, is best served by listening to it in full.
(Soundbite of song, "U Can't Touch This")
Mr. M.C. HAMMER (Singer): (Singing) That's the words because you know, you can't touch this. You can't touch this.
RAZ: You need to have the music. You have to have the whole package.
Mr. BRADLEY: Yeah. There's a place for them within the constellation of hip hop. What our purposes was in this volume, however, was to focus as much as possible on the lyrical art.
RAZ: What do you want people to get out of this book because, I mean, you know, it's sort of an academic look at hip hop. And, you know, as you know, that can easily be ridiculed. I mean, even our conversation, right, you know, talking about hip hop lyrics on NPR, I mean, I promise you there's no way to have this conversation without someone poking a little fun.
But, I mean, what do you - so what are you sort of hoping people come away with from this book?
Mr. BRADLEY: Hip hop culture has always been about the battle. So I think the idea of there being ridicule or pushback or whatever it may be to our conversation or to the fact that Yale University Press is publishing a book on hip hop is all part of hip hop culture, in a way.
What do I want people to take out of the book? I think I want people to take away a sense of rap in full. I think rap at its best is a keyhole into American culture over the last 30 plus years. It's a way in to think about all of the things that matter to us about this past four decades. And it's also something you can dance to. So how good is that?
RAZ: That's Adam Bradley. He's a professor of English at the University of Colorado and the co-editor of the new "Anthology of Rap." It's published by Yale University Press. Adam Bradley, thank you so much.
Mr. BRADLEY: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.