"THE ANTHOLOGY of Rap" is one of the first attempts at a comprehensive examination of hip-hop, from its inception to the present day, as a poetic form.
Edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, the book (Yale University Press, $35) is epic - an 800-plus-page tome with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and afterwords by Chuck D and Common.
Bradley, an associate English professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and DuBois, an associate professor of English at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, relied on a 21-person advisory board composed of poets, professors and MCs to aid in the book's creation.
It breaks down hip-hop into four distinct eras: Old School, 1978-1984; the Golden Age, 1985-1992; Rap Goes Mainstream, 1993-1999; and New Millennium Rap, 2000-present.
DuBois and Bradley introduce each era, describing the trends, attitudes and standards of hip-hop at that time before examining the artists and the lyrics that shaped the sounds of that period.
"I wouldn't say there was one 'Eureka!' moment," DuBois said when asked about the inspiration to try to create such a comprehensive anthology. "It was a gradual process, to be honest, but I do think, over the years, as I continued to teach rap lyrics in my poetry classes, it felt more and more worthwhile to put in the work for the book."
While the book excels in many areas, including its vivid portrayal of hip-hop history, the meat and potatoes, if you will, are in the lyrics. "Anthology" includes a staggering collection of about 300 rhymes.
The book thoroughly documents the early days and the New York MCs and DJs who ruled that era, but it also pays its respects to regional artists. Philadelphia is well-represented, with lyrics from Schoolly D, Lady B, Bahamadia, Jedi Mind Tricks, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Eve, Beanie Sigel and the Roots.
What's most impressive about the book is that it lets the reader totally embrace the lyrics. Separated from the MCs, beats and DJs, the lyrics have a power all their own, and the book does an excellent job of putting that power on display.
As Philadelphia poet Sonia Sanchez, quoted in promotional material for the book, notes: "These Rappers' lyrics love. Cut. Curse. Fight. Teach. Play. Pray. Testify. They bring us the pace of sound. The swiftness of sound. The discordant way of looking at the world of sound. The Blackness of sound. The new bebopic beat of sound. These are word sorcerers who love language and hablar sin bastón [speak without a crutch]."
The anthology's gathering of so many rappers' works is both a strength and a drawback. Numerous bloggers and critics have pointed out mistakes in the published lyrics. Slate.com last month posted an article by Paul Devlin, "Fact-Check the Rhyme," that examined some of the book's errors in transcription.
While Devlin offers many astute observations, he himself makes errors when correcting the authors, mistaking Nas' "Philly's hot Roc fellas" for "Feel these hot rocks, fellas" on the scathing dis record "Ether."
Bradley said Devlin's mistake "beautifully illustrates the difficulty of transcribing such a fluid and at times elusive thing as rap lyrics. 'The Anthology of Rap' isn't perfect; it is, however, the most polished and most thoughtfully edited collection of rap lyrics around."
One error Devlin mentions regarding a Philadelphia rapper is his contention that Black Thought raps, "Rockin Cazal goggles and Izod clothes" instead of the anthology's quoted "Rockin Gazelle goggles and Izod clothes."
This writer notes a problem here: While Cazal is a high-end eyewear brand, Gazelle was a knockoff version sold predominantly in poor black communities where the real thing would have been too costly. Black Thought could have been talking about either, but it's a lot more likely that the anthology got it right and he was wearing the knockoffs, considering he is talking about himself as a kid.
While the anthology's reach is impressive, some notable artists are not represented. The most striking exclusion is Outkast, a rap group whose first four albums, some say, are all hip-hop classics.
Unfortunately, the legal realities of copyright and song ownership kept some otherwise obvious raps out of the book.
"I got to talk to Lister Hewan-Lowe, who founded Clappers Records, on the phone," DuBois said, speaking of one success story. "Clappers released 'How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?' by Brother D with Collective Effort. He was wonderful. That was a great experience."
But DuBois also lamented the instances in which they came up short, admitting that "losing all of the Outkast [lyrics] was a bitter pill to take."
Despite its shortcomings, the anthology is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Intelligent and authentic, it's written for both the hip-hop head and the uninitiated. The fact that it has gained the support of some of the most influential and legendary voices in hip-hop is a testament to the time and care that went into its creation.
As Chuck D of Public Enemy wrote in the afterword: "Anyone could put together a bunch of lyrics, but an anthology does something more: It provides the tools to make meaning of those lyrics in relation to one another, to think about rap both in terms of particular rhymes, but also in terms of an art form, a people, and a movement. Every great literature deserves a great anthology. Rap finally has its own."