For one reason or another—dorkiness, Oregonianism, spiritual daintiness—I find myself, at age 33, functionally hip-hop illiterate. Aside from a feverish adolescent fling with my brother’s MC Hammer tape, I have spent almost zero percent of my life voluntarily listening to rap music. Part of this is genetic: As the child of folk-singing hippies, I have ear canals specially angled to detect and enjoy warbly guitar ballads. (Simon and Garfunkel reunite every day to play nine-hour private concerts in the coffeehouse of my mind.) I have never, to my knowledge, heard a song by 2Pac, Nas, Lil’ Kim, Lil Wayne, KRS-One, DMX, Kanye West, Cam’ron, 50 Cent, or the Wu-Tang Clan. Until last week, I thought Mobb Deep and Mos Def were the same thing. (It turns out they are very different.)
Normally I don’t mind being out of the pop-cultural loop—I’ve even learned, over the years, to wear my ignorance with a certain musty old-man pride. Given, however, that I am a professional studier of words, my hip-hop blind spot has come to seem indefensible: I am clueless about one of the culture’s most vital fronts of verbal artistry. It would be like an art critic who’s never seen a comic book, or a choreographer who’s never heard of Michael Jackson.
This is why I’m so evangelically excited about The Anthology of Rap, Yale University Press’s monumental new collection of rap lyrics. It feels like it was published, exclusively for me, by the vanity press of my own subconscious. It’s an English major’s hip-hop bible, an impossible fusion of street cred and book learning. The anthology spans the entire 30-year history of the genre, from Afrika Bambaataa to Young Jeezy. (Along the way, we meet characters such as E-40, the man who popularized the suffix -izzle, and Twista, onetime holder of the Guinness record for world’s fastest MC.) Its editors, Andrew DuBois and Adam Bradley, are English professors (scholars, respectively, of John Ashbery and Ralph Ellison), and the emphasis is therefore on rap as “lyric poetry.” This means the collection excludes some of the best-selling rappers of all time—Hammer, Vanilla Ice—in favor of lyrical masters. It is, in other words, pure rap: just the verbal magic, triple-distilled, free from the superfluity of hooks, beats, sales, bling, clothes, videos, hairstyles, and even the voices of the rappers themselves.
Some might argue that reading a scholarly anthology, silently, with (say) Beethoven for Book Lovers playing in the background, is not the best way to introduce oneself to the eternal legends of rap. It’s true that encountering them this way tends to privilege the more “literary” MCs: the phrasemakers, the metaphor junkies, the architects of improbable rhymes. But this actually strikes me as perfectly just. Because that’s one of the great paradoxes of rap: The toughest, coolest, most dangerous-seeming MCs are, at heart, basically just enormous language dorks. They love puns and rhymes and slang and extended metaphors; they accuse enemies of plagiarism and brag endlessly about their own hard-core habits of revision. A book like this,then, is the ultimate homage.
The Anthology of Rap allows us, over the course of its more than 800 pages, to watch the long herky-jerky evolution of the genre. We begin with rap’s birth in the primordial soup of the Old School, a late-seventies swamp in which single-cell rap organisms floated around calling to each other in long strings of pre-lexical nonsense syllables. “Told you ’bout the ding-d’-d’-ding-d’-ding-dingy-ding,” rapped Ikey C, to which the Sugarhill Gang responded, “Baby-bubba to the boogedy-bang-bang the boogie,” to which Sequence retorted, “I said I hip-ma-jazz and a raz-ma-jazz,” at which point DJ Hollywood interjected, “Hip-hip-the-hop, the hop, the hop / Dippy-dippy dip-dip-dop.” Early rap was mainly an avant-garde way to get people to dance at parties; its lyrics were never intended to be transcribed and studied. Today they read like nursery rhymes, or the kind of verse John Keats once criticized as “rocking horse” poetry: simple couplets, religiously end-stopped. (“And the way she moved was like a graceful swan / And we can make love to the break of dawn.”) Reading 100 pages of it made my brain numb.
Finally, somewhere in the early eighties, rappers stood up and said (in the words of Kool Moe Dee), “Put that ba-diddy-ba bullshit on hold.” In 1986, Run-DMC made rap a mainstream phenomenon, and then the innovators moved in. Rakim, whose flow was so powerful it would earn him the nickname “God MC,” introduced rhymes within lines instead of just at the ends of them: “The melody that I’m stylin, smooth as a violin / Rough enough to break New York from Long Island.” Big Daddy Kane started playing with multisyllabic rhymes, pairing Tylenol with why you all and vasectomy with wreck with me. Suddenly rap sounded recognizably modern: