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

453048658-eminem-performs-at-samsung-galaxy-stage-during-2014
"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

Advertisement

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)

TODAY IN SLATE

Sports Nut

Grandmaster Clash

One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.

The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices

Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.

Do the Celebrities Whose Nude Photos Were Stolen Have a Case Against Apple?

The NFL Explains How It Sees “the Role of the Female”

Future Tense

Amazon Is Now a Gadget Company

Food

How to Order Chinese Food

First, stop thinking of it as “Chinese food.”

Scotland Is Inspiring Secessionists Across America

The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant

The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 11:40 AM The Country Where Women Aren’t Allowed to Work Once They’re 36 Weeks’ Pregnant
Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 5:10 PM The Most Awkward Scenario in Which a Man Can Hold a Door for a Woman
  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 18 2014 1:34 PM Americans Fault Obama for Giving Them Exactly the Anti-ISIS Strategy They Want
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 18 2014 2:18 PM The NFL Is Not a Nonprofit So why does it get to act like one?
  Life
Doonan
Sept. 18 2014 2:00 PM On the Death of My Homophobic Dog I named him Liberace, but I couldn’t have chosen a less appropriate namesake for this coarse, emotionally withholding Norwich terrier.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 18 2014 12:03 PM The NFL Opines on “the Role of the Female”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 18 2014 1:23 PM “It’s Not Every Day That You Can Beat the World Champion” An exclusive interview with chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 18 2014 2:32 PM Kern Your Enthusiasm: The Friendliness of Chicago
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 18 2014 2:39 PM Here's How to Keep Apple From Sharing Your iPhone Data With the Police
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 18 2014 7:30 AM Red and Green Ghosts Haunt the Stormy Night
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.