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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How would you render that line? What do you think the rapper (Mr. Cheeks) is saying? If you're not from New York, you might think that in this tale, Mr. Cheeks used a linden tree and a van for the base of his drug-selling ("hustling") operations. But let's say you know Linden Boulevard from A Tribe Called Quest's hit song "Check the Rhime." Then Mr. Cheeks is selling drugs on Linden, out of a van. But let's say you know Queens, in which case you know the line refers to the intersection of Linden Boulevard and the Van Wyck Expressway.

Lowercasing van in your transcription of this line would be an honest mistake, but one that misses significant meaning. Regional references are just one factor that goes into accurate transcription, but it's a significant one. When LL Cool J addresses "Farmers!" at the end of "Mama Said Knock You Out," to cite another example, he is not addressing people who till the soil, but rather his friends on Farmers Boulevard. The Anthology gets that line right but offers no context or explanation.

To give credit where it is due, The Anthology corrected some of my own mishearings, particularly in the case of Lauryn Hill's "Doo Wop (That Thing)."I thought she was saying, "It's silly when girls sell their souls because of sin," even though she's just said "sin" a few lines prior to that. I believe the editors have it correct: "It's silly when girls sell their soul because it's in," as in "in fashion." I'm grateful for the lines they got right. I just hope the next anthology of rap will be more careful and will be right more often.

Got a copy of The Anthology of Rap? Share any errors you find in the comments below.

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Paul Devlin is a freelance book critic who has recently written for The Daily Beast and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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