Anthology Traces Rap’s Lyrical Journey, Poetic Roots

December 10, 2010 at 6:37 PM EDT
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Is rap music a form of lyric poetry? A new anthology, published by Yale University Press, makes the case. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: from our political wrap to rap, the music, and maybe, rap, the lyric poetry.

Rap music, in the decades since it arose out of the Bronx in the 1970s, it’s been embraced by millions as a vibrant new cultural form, and vilified for its profanity and celebration of violence. It has seen its stars killed and incarcerated or become entertainment moguls and international celebrities.

But it has not, until now, been presented quite like this, as lyric poetry, published by the prestigious Yale University Press in the new “Anthology of Rap.”

Editors Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, who recently came to Washington’s Lincoln Theatre for a public forum on the poetics of rap, met as graduate students in Harvard’s English department, where Shakespeare and Shelley tend to have pride of place over Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg.

JEFFREY BROWN: But, says Bradley, there was room for all.

ADAM BRADLEY, co-editor, “The Anthology of Rap”: At night, at day, any — between classes, whenever possible, we were listening to all the great rap artists of that period, mid- to late-’90s.

And I soon found out that I had a partner in rhyme who was also listening to the same things, even as we were taking courses in poetics, and, you know, the whole literary canon. And there was the kind of synergy that we both saw going on between those things.

ANDREW DUBOIS, co-editor, “The Anthology of Rap”: As we were becoming teachers, you know, graduate teaching assistants, we realized that one of the ways that an art form gets disseminated and understood and appreciated is by having materials that make it available to people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, rap can be rough, and it is certainly often profane. But Bradley and DuBois say it offers what poetry always has: rhythm, complex rhyme schemes, allusive and metaphoric language.

As rapper Lauryn Hill put it once in a song: “I treat this like my thesis, well-written topic broken down into pieces. I introduce, then produce words so profuse.”

ADAM BRADLEY: What we wanted to do with the anthology is to say that this is a tradition in full. Yes, it’s related in profound ways to the broader tradition of Western lyric poetry. Yes, it’s related in profound ways to the American songbook across all genres of music. And, yes, it’s related in important ways as well to the African-American oral tradition of the toasts, signifying, the dozens. It’s all there. But, finally, it’s a tradition that can stand on its own.

JEFFREY BROWN: The pioneers of rap drew inspiration from rhythm and blues, and soul music. But rappers like Kurtis Blow seized upon a distinct beat and use of language. Decades later, he participated in the Washington event celebrating rap and told us he’d known early on that he and others were on to something.

KURTIS BLOW, musician: I just knew it was going to spread and it was going to be big.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you think of yourself as a poet?

KURTIS BLOW: Of course.


KURTIS BLOW: Yes, definitely. And we write our raps with meters. And, in poetry, you have to have a meter, you know, your A, your A, your A-B, your B-B. And then you repeat these meters when you continue your rap as you are writing. So, the rhythm, or — or we call it the flow — is so very, very important. But it is just like poetry.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rap and the larger hip-hop culture exploded in the late ’80s and early ’90s, with records selling in the millions. Perhaps not incidentally, the era also saw the rise of so-called gangsta rap, which extolled the life of gangs and guns, and provoked the huge rap on rap, the condemnation for its perceived misogyny and glorification of violence.

The new anthology doesn’t shy away from this, but it does show that rappers always wrote about many aspects of life.

ANDREW DUBOIS: The important thing is that, when it is there, it makes no sense not to take it seriously and look at it without having a knee-jerk reaction. We could think of so many poets and dramatists and novelists whose materials by someone, anyone, might be considered utterly offensive.

JEFFREY BROWN: One rap star known for writing about social problems and much more is Chicago-born Common, who had a string of hits beginning in the mid-’90s and still going strong, even as he’s branched out to act in films. At the recent Washington event, Common performed the first rap he ever wrote, at age 12.

COMMON, musician: Well, let me tell you about a trip a time ago. I was going there to run a cold-blooded show. When I was there, I saw some people jamming, too. They called themselves the Blond Hill Crew (ph). Dr. Ice, Romeo, and Master E, all of the Blond Hill Crew (ph) rapped into a team.

It was just me saying, hey, this is what I’m about. This is — I’m just a cool little 12-year-old. And it was my way of — at that time in my life, I don’t know if I was always as expressive as I was through rap. So, you know how you pick something — a person can have a shy personality, but you pick up something that you feel comfortable and confident in? That is what hip-hop was to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the afterward to this book, in this essay, you wrote that the anthology lets us see beyond the stereotype.


JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean? What do you see when you look at all this?

COMMON: Well, I mean, you know, as hip-hop artists, especially coming from the black and Latino cultures, there’s a lot of stereotypes that are put upon the inner-city youth and upon rap culture and hip-hop itself. And I think, when you get to dive into these lyrics, you get to see how much depth is really in what these people are saying.

JEFFREY BROWN: For their part, the anthology’s editors believe that rap’s rise has led to what they call a renaissance of the word that has infiltrated mainstream culture.


ADAM BRADLEY: There are grandmothers in suburban Wisconsin who are saying bling-bling, and don’t know that it came from B.G. and Lil Wayne.


ADAM BRADLEY: There are people all over the world who have keyed in to the frequencies of hip-hop language and to the music that these artists have created, and for us, that’s what we wanted to celebrate.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kanye as Keats? Lil Wayne as Whitman? The new anthology doesn’t go quite that far, perhaps, but it does ask for recognition for rap in the poetic tradition.