The Anthology of Rap Interview with Book Co-Editor Adam Bradley

Posted by Billyjam, December 5, 2010 11:04am | Post a Comment
The Anthology of Rap
The Anthology of Rap is the recently published, exhaustive 880 page book from Yale University Press that compiles the lyrics to about 300 rap songs of all different types and styles, spanning 30 plus years in the music's history. Edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, the book, which has afterwords by both Chuck D and Common, also includes some artist bio information along with the song lyrics.

The Anthology of Rap is divided into timeline sections and then into artists sub-sections. For example, "Part I 1978-1984 The Old School" includes such artists as Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Cold Crush Brothers, Eddie Cheba, DJ Hollywood, Lady B, Spoonie G, and Sequence (one of the earliest recorded female rap crews -- lyrics to their hit "Funk You Up" plus their songs "And You Know That" & "Simon Says" are all included here).

"Part 2, 1985-1992 The Golden Age" features lyrics from artists like the Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Eric B & Rakim, Gang Starr, and Ultramagnetic MCs, while "Part 3, 1993-1999 Rap Goes Mainstream," includes the likes of Arrested Development, Foxy Brown, E40, Goodie Mob, Lauren Hill, Common, Jay Z, KRS-One, and Lil Kim. The fourth part, "2000 to 2010  New Millenium Rap," includes such artists as Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, Blackalicious, Brother Ali, DOOM, Immortal Technique, Mos Def, T.I., Kanye West, and Young Jeezy. There is also an additional final segment titled "Lyrics For Further Study" that includes lyrics from a broad swath of artists from all over the rap spectrum and timeline, including contemporary popular rap star Drake, golden era artists Black Sheep and Bay Area homo-hop crew Deep Dickollective.

In formulating the 300 song lyrics chosen, editors Bradley and DuBois assembled an advisory board of about 20 people -- hip-hop authors/scholars such as Marcus Reeves and Jeff Chang -- to assist in the selection process. The book's editors say that the goal of this publication is to showcase the rich poetic tradition that is rap, and with the Anthology they hope to demonstrate that rap is a wide-reaching and vital poetic tradition born out of beats and rhymes. Their book attempts to offer an unprecedented overview of rap's poetics, introductions to the major historical periods in rap's development, and discussions of dozens of individual artists and groups.

I recently caught up with co-editor Adam Bradley to discuss the book and its place in the culture of hip-hop. Bradley is Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado and is the author of Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop and Ralph Ellison in Progress. He is also co-editor of Ralph Ellison's unfinished second novel, Three Days Before the Shooting. That interview follows below after the video trailer for The Anthology of Rap book.

Amoeblog: Playing the devil's advocate, I must ask -- Why do this book in the first place if a Google search will bring up the lyrics of any rap song instantly and for free?
Adam Bradley
Adam Bradley: Online lyric sites are great. As rap fan, I’ve been trolling for lyrics online for as long as there were lyrics to be found there. But if you’re interested in understanding the poetry of rap—the form of its art—then something more is demanded. Our goal with the Anthology was to offer readers a standard form for analyzing rap lyrics as literature. We wanted the line breaks to follow the MC’s actual delivery in rhythm to the beat. We wanted to make dozens of other small decisions that would result in a clean-looking lyric. We developed our own, independent transcriptions of every song in the book using the song itself as our guide. The book also includes a number of songs—such as the DJ Hollywood’s “Live at the Armory” and Jean Grae’s “Haters Anthem”–whose transcriptions aren’t readily available anywhere else.

Amoeblog: Ideally, how would you like to see this book used?

Adam Bradley: This is a book for the classroom but also for the cipher. It’s really up to readers as to how they choose to use it, though. I’ve already seen and heard of people using the book in a variety of ways. Here’s one example. I was walking out of the Lincoln Theater in Washington, D.C. right after our book event with Common and Kurtis Blow and I saw a crowd of people still lingering out in the November cold. I wondered what they were doing, until I noticed a guy who had the book open and was spitting lyrics from KRS-One to a half dozen onlookers. Then he’d turn the page and spit a rhyme from Lauryn Hill. Then another, and he was Schoolly D. That was a beautiful thing to see.
Amoeblog: Who came up with the initial list of songs and how long was that list?

Adam Bradley: Andrew DuBois [the book’s co-editor] and I got the process going by generating a list of close to 500 songs. We then circulated that list to the advisory board and asked them to add and cut as they saw fit. When we gathered all the suggestions, our list was close to 1,500 songs long! Then it was back to us as editors to trim that big list down. It became clear that there was no way for a single volume to encompass all the great rhymes in rap’s history. So we decided that the book we published would be suggestive rather than encyclopedically inclusive. After all, that’s what an anthology is. So after many painful cuts, Andrew and I settled upon the close to 300 lyrics in the book.

Amoeblog: How involved was the advisory board in the process and exactly what role did they play as contributors?
Adam Bradley: The advisory board’s role was essential but specific: to advise us on the overall shape of the book and to offer suggestions as to what artists and what particular songs should go in it. They were not “contributors,” but they certainly contributed to the conception of the book. Their role was targeted, and it was absolutely essential in shaping what’s inside of the anthology. As fellow lovers of hip hop from all walks of life, they reminded us of songs we may have forgotten and introduced us to a few that we had never even heard. We’re grateful for their advice.

Amoeblog: Was there a lot of agonizing over what to include/not include?

Adam Bradley: Of course! It was the most painful editorial process I’ve even undertaken—and this is coming from someone who helped edited the many thousands of pages written over forty years left behind by the late, great novelist Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man. Some of the exclusions were out of our control; we were subject to the challenging task of acquiring permissions and sometimes we just couldn’t get an answer from a rights holder even after over a year of trying. As painful as editorial process was, though, it ultimately brought us a lot of joy. To see even some of rap’s greatest lyrics bound between two covers is a wonderful thing.

Amoeblog: Of the eras included, which era (ratio wise) had the most songs that demanded inclusion?

Adam Bradley: I think Part III (1993-1995) edges out Part II (1985-1992), but not by much.

Amoeblog: When getting permission from labels/publishers/artists, in the case of labels, did you feel pressure from them to include some specific artist/songs?
Jean Grae
Adam Bradley: The story of acquiring permissions could fill a book all its own. It literally took years. The evidence of the effort is even visible in the published book: the credits section is nearly forty pages long. As for the labels, we never received any input at all from them on song selection.

Amoeblog: What was the most difficult part of completing this book?

Adam Bradley: You mean aside from selecting the lyrics? And acquiring the permissions? And listening to each song dozens, if not hundreds of times? Everything was difficult about completing this book. The best things always are.
Amoeblog: In terms of popular rap music it seems that, in comparison to the old school/golden era, the more recent (New Millennium) rap lyrics included are from more underground than mainstream pop. Do you consider contemporary pop rap a less vibrant form of poetry than pop rap of, say, 20 or 30 years ago?

Adam Bradley: That’s an interesting observation. I’m not sure if I agree with it entirely, though. After all, the best selling rap artist of the past decade was Eminem, who’s well represented. We also have 50 Cent, Kanye West, Jay-Z, T.I., Young Jeezy, Ludacris. Those are all great artists and certainly major forces in popular entertainment. You point out a key thing, though—we made a conscious effort to pay attention to the underground, the aboveground, and everyone in between. 

Amoeblog: What type of events surrounding the book, such as the one last month in Washington, DC at the SmithsoniGang Starran National Museum of African American History and Culture, are planned?

Adam Bradley: We just finished an East Coast tour that took us from D.C. to New York to Boston and back down to Connecticut. Events are planned next year in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, New York (again), and elsewhere. It’s been so gratifying for us to get out of the road and talk about the book with hip hop heads of all types.

Amoeblog: Anything to add?

Adam Bradley: Thanks for the opportunity to build. I appreciate the thought-provoking questions. Anyone interested can find out more about the book by checking the blog on our website.

Kurtis Blow on "The Anthology of Rap" (November 2010, Washington, DC)

Relevant Tags

Jay-z (30), Sequence (2), Adam Bradley (1), Yale University Press (1), The Anthology Of Rap (1), Hip-hop (215), Hip-hop History (63), Rap (134), Krs-one (20), Eminem (18)