The Anthology of Rap is rife with transcription errors. Why is it so hard to get rap lyrics right?

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Nov. 4 2010 8:01 AM

Fact-Check the Rhyme

The Anthology of Rap is rife with transcription errors. Why is it so hard to get rap lyrics right?

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—Ghostface Killah, here in "Daytona 500," is referring to a prominent New York radio personality named Vaughan Harper when he says "voice be mellow like Vaughan Harper radio barber." He is not saying "voice be metal like Von Harper," as the editors have it. There is no such thing as a "Von Harper" with a metal voice. Vaughan Harper, with a mellow voice, was a host on New York's WBLS, 107.5 FM, at one time a popular hip-hop and R&B station.

—Here on "Act Too (Love of My Life)," Black Thought from the Roots is referring to a brand of eyewear called Cazal, popular in the 1980s. He is not saying "Gazelle, goggles," as the editors have it, but "Cazal goggles." Had the editors thought to include Redman in the anthology, they might have noticed his line on "Da Goodness": "as a juvenile bought Cazals off Canal" (i.e., Canal Street in New York).

—On "Triumph," RZA of Wu Tang Clan is clearly saying "March of the Wooden Soldiers," not "Watch for the Wooden Soldiers." When he says "a thousand men rushing in," he's comparing his group, the Wu Tang Clan, to the unstoppable army of automatons in the old Laurel and Hardy movie Babes in Toyland (1934), which was often broadcast in New York on television around Christmastime and became commonly known as March of the Wooden Soldiers.

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—Here is an example in which it seems like nobody bothered to even listen to the song, but instead must have relied on some incorrect transcript. On the 1979 song "Superrappin'," Melle Mel of the Furious Five does not say "1-2-3-4-5-6-7/ rap like hell make it sound like heaven/ 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 ..." He says "one, 23, 45, 67/ rap it like hell make it sound like heaven/ seven, 65, 43, 21 ..."

—On "Ether," Nas is saying "feel these hot rocks, fellas" (i.e., feel these bullets) followed by "put you in a dry spot, fellas," and not "Philly's hot rock, fellas." This is especially embarrassing because in context, Nas is dissing a crew—Jay-Z 's Rocafella Records camp—which was made up of several members from Philadelphia (Beanie Sigel, Freeway, Peedi Crakk). Why would the Queens-born Nas say that Philly is hot?

—This one is controversial, but I'm convinced that Ol' Dirty Bastard, on "Brooklyn Zoo," is saying, "I drop science like Cosby drop the babies" and not "I drop science like girls be droppin babies," as the editors have it. Listen to it closely. I hear "Cosby," a clever reference to television's most famous obstetrician (and father of five), and not "girls be."

—Pharoahe Monch, on "Simon Says," raps "strayed from your original plan," not "phased from your original plan." How do you "phase" from a plan? In the acknowledgments, the editors say that Pharoahe Monch is one of the rappers who reviewed the transcripts for accuracy. That's great, but he does not say "phased" on this record.

This is not an exhaustive errata, just a list of some of the errors that jumped out at this listener. Again, the business of transcribing rap lyrics is no easy task, and it's worth noting that mistakes are common even among people who you'd think would know better. Erick Sermon of EPMD once noted that guys in his neighborhood initially heard the name Rakim as Rock Wind. Ed Lover, the DJ and MTV VJ, once told an anecdote on a radio program in which he noted a mistake he made about the first verse of "The Breaks" by Kurtis Blow. Lover said he had no idea what Blow was saying after "and the IRS said they wanna chat." Someone had to explain to him that the next line is "and you can't explain why you claimed your cat."

Listen to the following, from "Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless" by the Lost Boyz, a group from Queens, N.Y., who were left out of the anthology:

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