The Anthology of Rap: The hip-hop soundtrack to go along with this week's cover story
This week's cover story, "Word," tells the extraordinary tale behind The Anthology of Rap, released last year to high praise and a bit of heated debate. The Westword story focuses on Anthology co-editor and CU-Boulder professor Adam Bradley, a hip-hop academic whose own narrative is as compelling as anything in the lyrics of Eminem or the Notorious B.I.G. Since the story is all about rap's beats and lyrics, it only makes sense to provide a selection of key songs from the story. Think of it like a hip-hop soundtrack to play along as you read.
"I Used to Love H.E.R." - Common
The story opens with Bradley's recent book reading at the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Café in Boulder, where in honor of the occasion the bookstore was blasting rapper Common's 1994 hit "I Used to Love H.E.R." The song, in which Common eulogizes rap like a lost love that's been with him his whole life, is a fitting way to open the story: Hip-hop has defined Bradley's life, too.
"The Lake Isle of Innisfree" - William Butler Yeats
In arguing for rap's poetic roots, Bradley references a guy not often associated with hip hop superstars: The poet William Butler Yeats. But as Bradley points out, Yeats once wrote that "poetry is an elaboration of the rhythms of common speech and their association with profound feeling." Bradley explains you can hear that feeling and passion in a Yeats' 1928 reading of his poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," just like you can hear it in the rhythms of 2Pac, in the passion of Lauryn Hill.
Breakin' and Poppin' 1985 commercial
Adam Bradley's love of rap took root in the mid-'80s, and it wasn't through the culture-defining rhymes of Run-D.M.C. or the genre-shattering success of the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill. It was through Breakin' and Poppin', the breakdancing guide put out by Alfonso Ribeiro, the breakdancing buddy on TV's Silver Spoons. Like many kids in middle America, it was the only way Bradley could glimpse the hip-hop world of b-boys, painted subway cars and ciphers, since he lived in Salt Lake City, on a street named White Circle.
"All for You" - Little Brother
While working to unearth writer Ralph Ellison's never-released second novel, Three Days Before the Shooting..., Bradley decided it was time to finish his own work in progress, and seek out the father he'd never known. The search led him to Encino, California, where he spent two and a half years getting to know his father before he died of prostate cancer. Bradley came to see the walls his father had built around himself, just like he could see the same reticence in himself. Bradley says it's a bit like Little Brother's lines in "All for You": "From the roots to the branches to the leaves/ They say apples don't fall far from the trees."
"The Next Shit" - Pharoahe Monch
While pursuing his PhD at Harvard, Bradley decided it was time for rap to be elevated to the ranks of the venerated American literature that he was studying day in and day out, since he believed it featured wordplay and literary devices as rich as any other form of poetry. Just take Pharoahe Monch's "The Next Shit": it features complex rhyming devices called apocopated rhymes, in which one-syllable words are rhymed with portions of longer words ("The LAST BATTER to HIT, BLAST, SHATTERED your HIP/ Smash any SPLITter or FAST ball, that'll be IT").
"Hater's Anthem" - Jean Grae
Compiling The Anthology of Rap was a multi-year odyssey, in part because some of the lyrics were so hard for Bradley and his co-author, Andrew DuBois, to decipher. One line Bradley struggled over came from Jean Grae's "Hater's Anthem": As best as he could tell, at one point she spits, "Spread heat like I'm jeers jaws pleading the fourth" -- but that didn't make sense. Only by tracking down Grae herself did he learn the answer: She's saying, "Spread heat like I'm Gia's drawers," a reference to the sexual proclivities of fashion model Gia Marie Carangi.
"Ghetto Qua'ran" - 50 Cent
Paul Devlin, a book critic for Slate, was concerned about mistakes he found in The Anthology of Rap. In "Ghetto Qua'ran," for example, he's convinced that 50 Cent doesn't say "From George Wallace to Baby Wise, don't be surprised/Of how freely I thought of names of guys who dealt with pies," but instead, "From Gerald Wallace to Baby Wise, don't be surprised/Of how freely I throw out names of guys who dealt with pies." An error like this isn't just a simple misspelling, Devlin suggests; it mangles rap's cultural context.
"Triumph" - Wu-Tang Clan
Bradley argues that some of the mistakes in The Anthology of Rap pointed out by Devlin and others aren't mistakes at all. In one of his Slate stories, Devlin claimed that on Wu-Tang Clan's "Triumph," the RZA spits the line, "March of the Wooden Soldiers," not "Watch for the wooden soldiers," which is in the anthology. But that version coincides with the one published in the RZA's own book, The Wu-Tang Manual.
"6 'N the Mornin'" - Ice-T
Thanks in part to The Anthology of Rap, says Bradley, "All of a sudden, in 2010, we had a public discussion of rap as poetry... What ultimately will matter about this book isn't the skirmishes over particular words and lines, but the life it can live as part of the grand story of hip-hop as a whole." When a Poetry Magazine reviewer griped over whether or not Ice-T's "6 'N the Mornin'" really was an example of a classical aubade -- a morning love song made popular by troubadours in the Middle Ages -- that meant that rap was finally getting the scholarly attention it deserved.