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The Anthology of Rap

George Luke

Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois (ed.)
Yale University Press, 648pp

Rrap.jpgDespite being in its early 30s, rap is still seen by many - dare I say it, music snobs - as the bratty teenager of modern music, blamed for gun and knife crime, riots and just about any other social ill you care to mention. For that reason alone, it makes a refreshing change to see someone (with the blessing of an Ivy League publisher, no less) make a concerted effort to examine the art form in a scholarly, non-alarmist manner.

Bradley and DuBois are both Associate Professors of English (at the Universities of Colorado and Toronto respectively). The Anthology of Rap clocks in at just over 800 pages, in which 135 songs and 300 artists are profiled.

The book's primary aim is to showcase rap lyrics and highlight and critique their poetic value. It also features essays from the hip hop luminaries Common and Chuck D. The foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr introduces the reader to 'signifying' and 'playing the Dozens', both elements of African-American culture I'd been hitherto unaware of - forbears of the rapid-fire rhyming that caught the world's consciousness with the release of 'Rapper's Delight' in 1979 and hasn't let go of it since. We learn all sorts of interesting facts about rappers old and new - that soul singer Angie Stone was a member of the first all-female rap group to score a chart hit, for example, or that Rakim played saxophone.
Although mostly celebratory, the book doesn't shy away from the fact that a lot of rather nasty elements (violence, misogyny, homophobia and excessive materialism, to name a few) have become staples of rap music. A lot of really objectionable song lyrics are included, but Bradley and DuBois do not set out to defend the less palatable elements of rap, and do talk about how those negative elements are being challenged from within the rap community itself.

Downsides? Bradley and DuBois have set out to show that rap lyrics deserve to be celebrated as part of the USA's poetic tradition, and in that they have succeeded. However, given hip hop's global reach, it's a shame that the influences on rap form beyond the USA aren't explored a bit more. When I interviewed Afrika Bambaataa in the mid-90s, he went out of his way to emphasize the fact that he, Grandmaster Flash and DJ Cool Herc - hip hop's founding triumvirate - were all from Caribbean backgrounds, tacitly linking rap to 'toasting' in reggae. The concept of talking rhythmically over music existed in several cultures long before hip hop made it cool, and a bit more acknowledgement of that wouldn't have gone amiss; if anything, it would show how much US rap and those other forms have in common (for a good example of this, listen to the animation on some old Congolese Soukouss records, and then compare that to Fatman Scoop's shouty style of rapping). The book would have been so much richer if they had taken time to explore the larger rap world beyond US borders - especially Africa, where so many young people have developed new rap-influenced genres (Ghanaian 'Hip-life', for example, or South African Kwaito or Angolan Kuduro music).

The book also falls down when it comes to examining the role religion has played in rap. It does focus on the influence of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, the Five Percenters etc., but other faiths don't get much of a look in. Kanye West's 'Jesus Walks' makes the cut, and DMX's 'Prayer' songs are name-checked, as is LL Cool J's 'The Power of God', and we're told that Run (of Run DMC) is now a minister, but that's about it. As the authors stress the point that rap absorbs its components from black US culture, given the significance of the church in that culture, it would have made sense to include more of the Christian element in rap. A good example is Rev'd Dr C Dexter Wise, aka 'the Rappin' Reverend', whose 1987 rap sermon 'I Ain't Into That' was  was one of the first examples of rap with overly spiritual content - and a club hit to boot.

Still, The Anthology of Rap is a captivating read - probably one for dipping into occasionally rather than going from cover to cover (unless you have a couple of weeks spare). Even if you hate rap music, think of it as a huge book of poems - some uplifting, some hilarious, some thought-provoking, and quite a lot that are so foul-mouthed, they'd make a sensitive person's face go as red as the book's cover. Anyone who seriously wants to engage with urban youth culture ought to have this as a reference book in their libraries. Just remember to keep it on the top shelf…

George Luke