Stakes Is High
Members of the Anthology of Rap's advisory board speak out about the book's errors. Plus: Grandmaster Caz lists the mistakes in his lyrics.
On Nov. 4, I wrote a review of The Anthology of Rap, noting the book's many transcription errors. Last week, I wrote a follow-up article on the Yale University Press book, enumerating further errors and pointing out that the majority of the mistakes discovered in the book so far—by me and by others —also appear in the transcriptions on Web sites like Online Hip-hop Lyrics Archive. In that follow-up article, I asked the editors to explain their transcription process, and they obliged, outlining a seven-step process. The primary source, they stated, was always the music itself: The editors say they typed out original transcriptions after listening to the songs. They then checked their lyrics against other sources—including sites like OHHLA—and also, when possible, asked the artists themselves to vet the lyrics. According to the editors, "nearly 30" artists reviewed the editors' transcriptions.
I decided to reach out to one of the artists who checked his lyrics to see how that process worked. In the acknowledgements section of the book, the editors "offer special thanks to the following for reviewing transcriptions of their lyrics, offering insights into their craft, and generally providing support for this undertaking." The editors then list the names of 29 rappers.
Among them is Grandmaster Caz, a hip-hop pioneer. Caz's name jumped out at me because, in reading his songs as transcribed in the anthology, I'd noticed what I thought was a substantial mistake. So I got in touch with him and, earlier this week, visited him at his apartment in the Bronx. Reading through the book's transcriptions of his work with me, he caught a series of errors.
Caz told me the editors asked him to check his lyrics, but not until October, when they sent him a hardcover copy of the book. (The book was published Nov. 9; I received a soft-cover galley over the summer.) Caz also told me he never signed off on the lyrics. I asked the editors why Caz is listed among the artists who checked their work. They didn't respond to my queries.
In my previous articles on the anthology, I've acknowledged the difficulty of transcribing rap lyrics. Caz, and other rappers from the genre's hardscrabble beginnings, present a particular challenge to transcribers. The recordings of their performances are often of low quality, and at times it can be nearly impossible to make out what is being said. In these instances, it's all the more important to consult the artists themselves if you hope to present an accurate rendering of their lines.
Consider the example of the classic performance "Live at Harlem World 1981," a transcription of which is included in the anthology. Caz told me the anthology's version contains several significant errors. The performance was a "battle," held on July 4, 1981, between Caz's group, the Cold Crush Brothers, and the Fantastic Five. On the recordings I consulted, I found it very difficult to discern what is being said in the first two examples, listed below, in which Caz's version differs from the anthology's. That said, in the other examples, it seems clear, to my ear, that Caz's version is correct. Here is a recording of the performance (apparently endorsed by DJ Charlie Chase, one of the Cold Crush Brothers' two DJs), followed by a list of the mistakes in the anthology transcription as noted by Grandmaster Caz:
1. At the 1:58 mark, the anthology transcription reads "against the very best." Caz told me it should be "we rock the very best."
2. At 2:03, the anthology has "And you'll be so impressed." Caz said it should be "And baby I want your address."
3. At 3:00, the anthology has "and the former year is done." Caz said it should be "and before the year is done."
4. At 3:05, the anthology has "Like Reggie Joe on the seven-oh." Caz said it should be "Like Crazy Joe on the seven-oh." The reference, he explained to me, is to a South Bronx beat cop known as Crazy Joe, who patrolled 170th Street. According to Caz, Crazy Joe is a well-known figure in South Bronx street lore.
5. At 5:08, the anthology has "putting fellas on the job." Caz said it should be "putting fellas on the jock."
6. At 5:10, the anthology has "making girls blush." Caz said it should be "making fly girls blush."
Caz found errors in several of his songs included in the anthology, including "Live at the Dixie," "Weekend," and "Fresh Wild Fly and Bold." Click here for more on these mistakes. Still, he stressed to me that he thinks the anthology is a good idea and that he wishes it well. Caz appeared at an event for the anthology at New York's 92 Y Tribeca (the downtown branch of the 92nd St. Y) on Wednesday evening and spoke out in support of the book. Unlike the other participants at the reading, however, he did not perform material included in the anthology, offering instead a freestyle brag in the classic style and a rhyme called "Before," a somewhat melancholy account of how hip-hop has changed over the years.
Absent from the event at the Y, though he'd originally been scheduled to participate, was the novelist Adam Mansbach. Mansbach, who was the founding editor of the hip-hop journal Elementary, is listed in the anthology as a member of the book's advisory board. The board is composed of professors, journalists, and other writers, some of whom even moonlight as DJs. It's an impressive group.
I was able to find contact information for 18 of the 21 board members, and offered all those I was able to reach a chance to comment on the book. Most of the board members who got back to me preferred not to comment. But several agreed to talk with me, including Mansbach. I asked him about what role the advisory board played in the shaping of the book and how he feels about the final product, given the number of errors that have been found thus far. This is the full text of his response, sent via e-mail:
The Anthology is disappointing to me on several levels. Most importantly, this is a book that seeks to establish the relevance and artistry of hip-hop lyricism, and instead it's made many of the world's best MCs look downright incoherent by misrepresenting their words. When Ice Cube says "your plan against the ghetto backfired," and it gets turned into "you're playing against the ghetto black fly," more has happened than just a simple error in transcription; you've made an important song perplexing and impenetrable—while staking a claim, backed by institutional power and market presence, that your version is canonical.
It's impossible not to question the methodology that led to so many errors, and such egregious ones. It's also hard to fathom why more use wasn't made of an advisory board made up of heads who know this music inside and out—but who had almost no input whatsoever. Like every other board member I've talked to, I never saw any transcriptions, never saw a galley of the book, never saw anything but an initial list of possible MCs to be included, about two years ago, and then a final book two weeks ago.
I'm not saying that if I'd gotten a galley I would have spent a month of my life reading every word with a red pen in hand, but there's no doubt in my mind that scores of mistakes would have been eliminated had the board had a chance to see galleys. And that's without even getting into the more subjective issues, like what artists are represented and by what songs, what the criteria were, etc. A book like this ought to invite those discussions, the impossible-to-resolve ones—arguing the merits of MCs is what hip-hoppers do, after all—but instead, we're mired in these conversations about accuracy, and whether it's plausible to believe original transcriptions could produce errors that so faithfully mirror those found on various Websites.
As it stands, I don't feel great about my name being listed in the front of the book. It feels like a forced co-sign—certainly, I didn't do the kind of work that would merit such prominent placement. I also don't feel great about the fact that I recommended several other people to the editors, people who were also made members of the board. At the time, my thinking was that this project would benefit from their expertise. Now, I feel like their names got attached to something flawed that they had little opportunity to affect. All of us should have been more cautious, I suppose. But one of the pleasures of being in these circles, socially and professionally, is that you see a few of your people's names attached to something—an advisory board, a gig, a book—and you say "OK, this must be dope if this guy and this girl and this guy are down; I'll get down too." Usually, that turns out alright.
A lot of people have wanted to put together a book like this over the years, and as is always the case, who gets to actually do it is partly a question of pedigree and access. When you've got those things, and you can make a project like this happen, your responsibility is clear: to do your work and do the culture proud. I don't doubt the intentions or the talent behind the Anthology, but I do wish the result had been sharper. The stakes are always high with hip-hop; it's a perpetual battleground in the culture war being waged in this country, and we can't afford to be mangling the words of our most articulate spokespeople.
I also spoke with journalist Joan Morgan, another advisory board member. Like Mansbach, she is unhappy with the book and feels the board was underutilized. "The disappointment here is palpable," she told me.
Paul Devlin is a regular contributer to The Root and the editor of Rifftide: The Life and Opinions of Papa Jo Jones (2011).