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?

The Yale Anthology of Rap.

As of this week, rap finally has an anthology, published by Yale University Press. The Anthology of Rap sets out to capture the evolution of rap lyrics through what its editors consider representative examples, collecting the work of a wide variety of MCs who recorded from 1979 through 2009, from Grandmaster Caz to Joell Ortiz. More so than most anthologies, the book is also an essay collection, featuring substantive general and chapter introductions by the editors and essays from Henry Louis Gates Jr., Chuck D, and Common. The eye-opening essay by Gates (who is the editor-in-chief of The Root, a Slate sister site) provides deep historical context for rap; it alone makes the book worth owning.  

Edited by two young yet accomplished professors of English, Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, and featuring an advisory board of prominent professors and journalists (though tellingly, no rappers), The Anthology of Rap is a good start, but it will inspire mixed emotions. Most anthologies feature the name of their publisher: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, The Oxford Anthology of English Poetry. This book is simply The Anthology of Rap, not The Yale Anthology of Rap. The title seems to present a claim to definitiveness, and that is wrong for any anthology, but especially for one that makes no mention of innovators like DJ Quik, Redman, Keith Murray, Grand Puba, Sadat X, Rah Digga, or M.O.P., while finding room for also-rans Foxxy Brown, M.I.A., and Twista. The editors claim to be supersensitive to the role of women in hip-hop, but as the excluded Remy Ma might say, whateva.

Of course, anthologies will always provoke arguments over who was included and who was left out in the cold. An anthology of rap runs the risk of raising hackles over a different problem: transcription. Transcription of rap lyrics is excruciatingly difficult, due to speed of delivery, slang, purposeful mispronunciation, and the problem of the beat sometimes momentarily drowning out or obscuring the lyrics. (And unlike rock or pop albums, rap album booklets very rarely include lyrics.) This is why so many Web sites devoted to the endeavor have (and have always had) horrendous mistakes and one reason why DuBois and Bradley's book was badly needed. Alas, too often it makes mistakes of its own.

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This is not a game of gotcha. But this book, with its university-press imprimatur, will be quoted from by future students and scholars, and while much of it is accurate, too much of it is not. The editors write in the introduction that "flawless transcriptions are nearly impossible to achieve; undoubtedly small errors remain in even the most scrupulous efforts, ours included. However, readers can rest assured that the lyrics included here have been meticulously vetted, sometimes by the artists themselves." The acknowledgements section lists the artists who "vetted" their lyrics, but strangely there seem to be errors even in some of these instances.

And not all of the mistakes are small. Some stem not just from mishearing but from an apparent lack of understanding of the cultural context. For example, when KRS-ONE is quoted on a 1995 track as saying, "I reside like artifacts/ On the wrong side of the tracks, electrified," artifacts should be Artifacts, as it is a reference to the group of the same name who authored the 1994 song "Wrong Side of the Tracks." (Unlike many anthologies, this volume has no footnotes. Footnotes would have been useful to explain echoes, cross-references, in-jokes, esoterica, and so on.)

Other examples abound:

—50 Cent, here on "Ghetto Qua'ran," clearly says, "From Gerald Wallace to Baby Wise, don't be surprised/ Of how freely I throw out names of guys who dealt with pies." The song relays the history of the drug trade in south Jamaica Queens in the 1980s and 1990s. (A pie is a large quantity of cocaine.) He does not say, as the editors have it, "From George Wallace to Baby Wise, don't be surprised/ Of how freely I thought of names of guys who dealt with pies." If he wanted to say George instead of Gerald he would have done so. (The image of George Wallace, the segregationist former Alabama governor, dealing drugs in Queens is an amusing one, to say the least.) And 50 says "throw out," meaning to list publicly, not "thought of," which implies to consider internally.

—Here on "50 Shot Ya," 50 Cent says, "I'm familiar with problems, I know how to solve 'em, semiautomatically or trey-eight revolve 'em" not "Semiautomatic, Lugar trey revolve 'em," as the editors transcribe it. A trey-eight is a .38 handgun; 50 pronounces "trey-eight" like "trey-ay," but there is clearly no long u sound or g sound. He is not saying Luger, another brand of gun that is often mentioned by rappers. This mistake shortchanges 50's creativity, denying his clever use of the adverb "semiautomatically."

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