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.

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."

—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.

—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:

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.