1) What was your process for transcribing the lyrics of the songs included in The Anthology of Rap?
We appreciate the opportunity to respond to your questions, Paul. In our Introduction to The Anthology of Rap, we discuss our editorial procedures and transcription principles. Our process was as follows:
(1) Listen to each song multiple times, typing out an original transcription with the song itself as the primary 'text.'
(2) Pass that preliminary transcription on for checking by another set (or sets) of ears.
(3) Check that transcription against a range of other transcriptions, including online resources such as OHHLA and AZ Lyrics as well as print resources such as liner notes and lyrics published in books.
(4) Contact the rights holder and whenever possible the artist him- or herself to review our transcriptions. Nearly thirty artists did just that.
(5) Submit our transcriptions to the publisher for copy-editing.
(6) Subject every copy-edited song to another process of listening and correction.
(7) Review the page proofs by reading through each lyric again, revisiting problematic passages.
2) Specifically, did you use online lyrics sites like OHHLA when transcribing the lyrics of songs included in The Anthology? If you didn't, how do you account for so many of the errors that have been caught so far also appearing on OHHLA and on other online lyrics sites?
Like most rap fans, we've gone online over the years to find transcriptions of songs that interested us. As we describe above, we considered consulting these sites an important element—but only one element—in an exhaustive process.
3) If you relied on sites like OHHLA, why did you decide to use them as part of your process? Did you consider transcribing the songs by ear instead? If so, why did you not take this approach?
The song itself was the primary source for every transcription. In the process of preparing the transcriptions for publication, we consulted a range of resources, online and off-. That includes the OHHLA and other online transcription sources like elyrics.net. It also includes liner notes and books like Lawrence A. Stanley's Rap: The Lyrics, Hal Leonard, Inc.'s Hip Hop and Rap, as well as books by Chuck D, Eminem, and others. What we found was that none of these sources provide the kind of transcriptions we were looking to produce for the anthology: namely, transcriptions that consider the lyricist's line as a poetic line; that consistently attend to matters of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling; that make clear decisions on how (if at all) to signal a homophone; that make clear decisions on how (if at all) to indicate when an MC sonically bends a word; that does dozens of other things that we longed for in a rap lyric transcription.
Here's one example of how doing our own transcriptions by ear made a difference in the published lyrics. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "Superrappin'" includes a curious anomaly that underscores the importance of listening carefully to the song before drawing conclusions. The lyric as published on page 72 in the anthology reads as follows:
You say 1-2-3-4-5-6-7
Rap like hell and make it sound like heaven
To the casual eye it looks like we inadvertently transposed '4' and '5' here. But on the original Enjoy recording of "Superrappin'" from which we drew our transcription, Melle Mel does indeed reverse the numbers. Listen at around the five minute mark of this YouTube clip to hear it for yourself:
Here and elsewhere in the Anthology, we intentionally did not clean up 'mistakes' in the song if that's how the song sounds. In addition, we distinguish who is saying what throughout the song, as five MCs rap, often in quick succession in the midst of a single line:
[All] We're gonna make five MCs sound like one
[Mel] You gotta dip-dip-dive, [Ness] so-so-socialize
[Rahiem] Clean out your ears [Cowboy] and then open your eyes
[Creole] And then pay at the doors as a donation
[All] To hear the best sounds in creation
Making such distinctions between MCs is another important feature of the Anthology.
4) If you relied on sites like OHHLA, was it the editors or research assistants who were pulling lyrics from these sites?
We did not rely upon any one source, be it online or in print. As mentioned above, we consulted a range of sources. The primary source was always the recorded song. Sometimes we'd ask our research assistants, a total of ten over the years and never more than three at any given time, to do transcriptions of their own that we would then consult as part of our transcription process. Usually, though, our assistants were tasked with proofreading our transcriptions, fact-checking our introductions and artists' headnotes, organizing footnotes, providing opinions on the book's structure and possible use in the classroom, and completing a host of other such tasks.
5) What role did the research assistants thanked in The Anthology for their help with transcription play? Were they graduate students or undergraduates? How were they selected to play this role?
We had a diligent group of men and women who helped in some way with the process of transcription over the many years in which we were working on this anthology. Their levels of education range from a recent high school graduate to a fellow Harvard Ph.D. We drew upon this community in large part because we knew that together our ears would be sharper than they could ever be alone. We were particularly happy to involve people younger than us because even though we are indeed 'young' when it comes to academia, we are quickly approaching retirement age when it comes to hip hop. It was also useful to involve people who had pockets of specific knowledge. Take an example like Kardinal Offishall's "BaKardi Slang." It helped to have a Canadian hip hop head working with us who was familiar with the particulars of the regional slanguage.
Despite the hard work and effort our research assistants put in, it became clear early on that we could rely only on ourselves to produce the kinds of transcriptions we wanted. Therefore, the transcriptions submitted by others most often ended up either informing our own independent transcriptions or, at times, left sitting on the cutting room floor. Of the final versions, we as editors personally transcribed the vast majority and substantially shaped every last one. Any errors that remain are ours alone.
6) If lyrics from sites like OHHLA were used, what was the process for reading through their transcriptions to locate errors? Was this done by the editors, by research assistants? By both? By neither?
We did not attempt to locate errors in other people's transcriptions; we were only concerned with ours. As described above, our process involved vetting every transcription multiple times, whenever possible with the artists themselves.
One instance in particular stands out. We had been puzzled for years by a particular phrase in Jean Grae's "Haters Anthem"—a lyric not available on the web as of last check. The line goes like this: "Spread heat like I'm [_______] [________] pleading the fourth." It sounded a lot like "Jeeers Jaws." Was that Jabberjaw's long-lost cousin, or something else? Fortunately, we were able to get in touch directly with Jean and she cleared up that mystery for us. The correct line, as it appears now on page 645 of the anthology, is this: "Spread heat like I'm Gia's drawers pleading the fourth." Makes a lot more sense.
7) If lyrics from sites like OHHLA were used, did you consider crediting the sites or the individuals who posted the transcriptions on the Web? Why did you decide not to credit the sites or the initial transcribers? Why did you not mention using these sites in your introduction?
Again, we didn't rely on any one source but consulted a range of sources; the primary source, however, was always the recorded song. We do call our readers' attention to the importance of OHHLA on page xlvi of the introduction. As we state there, it is the most comprehensive of a host of user-generated lyric databases that include rap. As for giving credit, the only people we ever thought of crediting were the MCs who wrote and performed the lyrics and those individuals and companies that own the copyrights.
8) What is the source of your transcription of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and "Welcome to the Terrordome"? Fear of a Black Planet includes the lyrics to both songs in the CD's liner notes, yet The Anthology's transcription varies in terms of word choice (e.g., a "Yeah" in "Welcome to the Terrordome that is neither audible on the recording nor present in the liner note lyrics) and punctuation from the version included with the album. How do you account for these discrepancies?
We did our own transcriptions of "Fight the Power" and "Welcome to the Terrordome" using the recorded songs as they appeared on the album. We later consulted the Public Enemy website and Chuck D's Lyrics of a Rap Revolutionary, neither of which we treated as definitive. As music lovers, we've found liner notes can be unreliable and not the products of the artists themselves. So in this instance, and most others in which we had other sources to consider besides our own transcriptions, we used our editorial judgment to resolve differences of interpretation and arrive at a final text. Any discrepancies between the previously published PE lyrics and our own text were either deliberate matters of editorial decision or, in the specific instance discussed below, the result of a simple typo. Yeah.
9) Also, in "Fight the Power," The Anthology has: "Our freedom of speech is freedom of death." The liner notes say "Our freedom of speech is freedom or death."
I'm glad you bring this example up. It helps underscore the important difference between transcription errors and typographical errors. This is a typo—a small but indeed significant typo. The Anthology of Rap is 867 pages long. It contains close to 300 songs. It includes more than 25,000 lines of lyrics. We believe it's the most polished and most thoughtfully edited collection available. Rap will always live in beats and rhymes; our hope is that by bringing these lyrics to the page we can provide a keyhole into American language and culture over these last forty years.