A Brief History of Rap in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 7 2014 2:18 PM

A Brief History of Rap in the New York Times Crossword Puzzle

"Rapper with the autobiography The Way I Am"

Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Daily Intelligencer.

46. Rapper who hosted MTV's Pimp My Ride

55. Rapper with the 3x platinum single “Hold On, We’re Going Home”

75. Record label co-founded by Jay Z

34. Rapper with the 2008 hit “Paper Planes”
48. Rapper with the autobiography
The Way I Am


For the out of touch and ancient at heart, that’s XZIBIT, DRAKE, ROCAFELLA, MIA, and EMINEM, all answers not in People’s crossword puzzle, but from the New York Times, each used within the last week. Such clues are increasingly common in the gold standard of newspaper puzzles, according to the page’s guru, who is shameless about the demographic shift. “Rap and hip-hop culture in general is an increasingly important part of life,” says Will Shortz, the Times puzzle editor for the last two decades. “And so it should have an increasing role in the crossword.” Plus: So many good words!

Dre, Dr. Dre – such useful answers, they’ve been appearing for years,” says Shortz, who took over the crossword in 1993 as gangster-rap hit its (first) peak. At the time, he’s said, the puzzle was trending toward “stodgy, old-fashioned, humorless, not particularly interesting.” But three months into his tenure, in February of 1994, Shortz included the clue “Noted rapper.” (Answer: ICET.) “It’s short and has great letters,” he says now, having gone on to use the "Cop Killer" emcee turned actor dozens of times throughout the ‘90s with a variety of clues (e.g. “Tracy Marrow, familiarly”; “Musician who co-starred in Trespass”).

But the backlash was immediate. “I got a letter within those first couple months from someone who rejected the modern cultural references and said, ‘You’re trying to appeal to young solvers, and there’s no way they’ll ever solve the Times crossword,’” says Shortz. “I’m glad to have proven him wrong.”

Shortz estimates that the average age of those who do the puzzle has fallen by 15 years— “or more” —during his time at the paper, to somewhere around 40. Those people grew up with rap. He’s also published 30 teenage puzzle-makers in his time, most of them within the last decade. “Crossword construction is attracting young people more and more, so naturally people put in the puzzle what they’re familiar with,” he says.

The growing cultural relevance of rap has allowed Shortz and his writers to spice up not only answers but clues. Whereas DRAKE may have previously been relegated to hints like “Sir Francis ____,” the word now exists in a completely new context. “In the old days, NAS would be clued in terms of the ‘80s show Emerald Point N.A.S.,” says Shortz. “The first time I clued it in terms of the rapper was 1999 — ‘If I Ruled the World’ rapper.’”

One of next week’s puzzles—spoiler alert—has THEGAME as an answer. Shortz considered using the 1997 Michael Douglas movie as a clue, but “finally went with the rapper,” a slightly more current reference (“Rapper whose 2006 album Doctor’s Advocate was # 1”). Slang in the clue itself, though, may be a bridge too far: Shortz, in a forthcoming puzzle by a college student, changed the hint “You might see some spitting”—answer: RAPVIDEO—to the punny “50 Cent piece.” 

The creeping in of pop culture has not been confined to rap. SNOOKI has appeared four times—“I don’t think I’ll take any more puzzles with Snooki. That’s history now,” says Shortz—but there are blind spots. Country music, for one. “I don’t know it, and my guess is people who create crosswords for the Times don’t know it, either,” he says. “We have a more urban audience. It’s just the way it is.”

To the crotchety traditionalists, Shortz says, “Even if you don’t listen to rap music, you can’t avoid it,” as with sports teams and star athletes. “You should at least know the names.” And for those who remain stumped—“If you don’t know it, it’s not inferable,” he admits of some, like the epic June answer SOULJABOYTELLEM—just relax. “There will be puzzles that skew old, so I think, over time, things balance out.”

Other notable hip-hop clues from over the years:

May 18, 1997: Rap duo ____ Kross (KRIS)
April 5, 1998: Rap Queen loves her supporters? (LATIFAHSOLDONADMIRERS)
June 1, 1998: Important element of rap lyrics (RHYME)
February 27, 1999: Hip-hop, e.g. (SUBCULTURE)
March 24, 1999: Pal, rapper-style (BRO)
August 28, 1999: Half of a hip-hop duo (DJJAZZYJEFF)
December 24, 2000: Hip-hop's ___ Kim (LIL)
March 4, 2000: Female rap trio with the #1 hit “Waterfalls” (TLC)
July 24, 2003: 1991 hip-hop hit “___ Suave” (RICO)
September 30, 2004: Offspring of hip-hop stars? (RAPSCION)
November 27, 2004: Popular hip-hop magazine (SOURCE)
May 31, 2006: Hip-hop compliment (DEF)
July 16, 2006: Hip-hop jewelry, in short (BLING)
August 18, 2006: Tiptop, in hip-hop (SOOPA)
December 06, 2006: Hip-hop subgenre (GANGSTERRAP)
January 30, 2008: Coolest, in rap slang (ILLEST)
Aug 27, 2011: Title locale in a 1998 Notorious B.I.G. hit (CALI)
January 7, 2012: Wack, in hip-hop (ILLIN, although this one caused some controversy)
November 3, 2013: Rapper with the 2013 #1 album Born Sinner: (JCOLE)
December 1, 2013: One-named rapper with a hyphen in his name (TPAIN)
June 13, 2014: Rapper with the 2009 hit “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” (SOULJABOYTELLEM)
July 3, 2014: Half of hip-hop's Black Star (MOS DEF)
July 6, 2014: Better to a rapper, worse to a patient (ILLER — “The word has just changed its connotation over time and I wasn’t familiar,” says Shortz. “Now I know!”)
July 9, 2014: Hip-hop's ___ Racist (DAS)
June 16, 2014: Kardashian who married Kanye (KIM)



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.