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Two and a half years later, when his father lay dying from prostate cancer, Bradley told him he loved him. His father didn't respond — but Bradley expected that. He now understood his father, a man so reserved he'd built walls around himself. Bradley could see the same reticence in himself — but he could also see the boldness of his mother.

Looking back, Bradley says, it's a bit like Little Brother's lines in "All for You":

I was looking at your photograph, amazed how I favored you

Adam Bradley dug through Ralph Ellison's notes to find his mythic second novel.
Courtesy of Glenn J. Asakawa-University of Colorado
Adam Bradley dug through Ralph Ellison's notes to find his mythic second novel.
Jack Monahan, aka J.Familiar, the resident DJ in "Hip Hop Poetics," along with resident MC Nick Webb (aka Eckho).
anthony camera
Jack Monahan, aka J.Familiar, the resident DJ in "Hip Hop Poetics," along with resident MC Nick Webb (aka Eckho).

I remember being young, wanting to play with you

'Cause you was a wild and crazy dude and now I understand

Why my momma couldn't never stay with you

From the roots to the branches to the leaves

They say apples don't fall far from the trees.

******

While Bradley was at Harvard, he wasn't just thinking about Ellison. He was also thinking that 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.

After all, as the poetry of hip-hop culture, rap featured wordplay and literary devices as rich as any. There were apocopated rhymes, in which one-syllable words were rhymed with portions of longer words (in Pharoahe Monch's "The Next Shit," for example: "The last batter to hit, blast, shattered your hip/ Smash any splitter or fast ball, that'll be it."). There was onomatopoeia, words that imitated the sounds they represented ("Woop! Woop!" declares KRS-One. "That's the sound of da police.") There was even something Bradley called transformative rhyme, the ability of rap artists to successfully rhyme words that don't rhyme at all. (Kanye West, on his hit "Gold Digger," convincingly rhymes "Serena," "Trina" and "Jennifer" by transforming the last name into "Gina-fa.")

Many rap songs celebrated misogyny and violence and were packed with lurid taunts and brags. But that was nothing new for poetry. "Frailty, thy name is woman!," Shakespeare had proclaimed; Titus Andronicus dabbled in rape, mutilation and cannibalism. Nor was Shakespeare above a little hip-hop-style boasting, as he wrote in his sonnets: "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme."

Bradley began using rap to teach undergraduates the basic elements of poetic practice, to demonstrate poetry's continued relevance. He developed literary tools that could be used to structure and analyze rap as poetry — methods for transcribing many of the songs into four-beat lines and sixteen-bar verses, terms that could be used to classify the kinds of rhymes. This effort eventually culminated in his 2009 work, Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. "The goal was to provide the vocabulary so that people could talk about the value and aesthetics of rap lyrics," he says. "And it was to call attention to what I and many others believe is the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world."

At Harvard, Bradley had found a kindred spirit in Andrew DuBois, a fellow doctoral student who was just as passionate about rap and just as interested in garnering it scholarly respect. "It seemed odd to us that there was not a collection of lyrics in one place that would give you a chronological overview of rap," says DuBois.

So they decided to create that overview themselves, in the form of rap's first-ever anthology. But once they started working in earnest on the project, in 2007 — when Bradley was a professor at Claremont McKenna, and DuBois at the University of Toronto — they discovered why others hadn't taken on the project.

For starters, there was the challenge of determining which songs to include. The duo's editors at Yale University Press had insisted they limit their work to about 300 songs — hundreds fewer than those suggested by the 21-member advisory board of hip-hop experts that Bradley and DuBois had assembled for the task, hundreds fewer than Bradley and DuBois believed were warranted. "How do you put together just 300 lyrics to define this universe?" asks Bradley. "The tension with that is that hip-hop culture is always one that resisted those sorts of critical impositions."

Then, once their song list was whittled down, they still had to pay the lyrics' owners upwards of $150 each to reprint them — that is, if the owners were willing to give permission at all. The two nearly had to drop the idea of including a couple of lines from Vanilla Ice when a woman who owned a small share of the lyrics refused to cooperate without an exorbitant payout. She only relented at the last minute, saying that God had come to her in a dream and told her to let "Ice Ice Baby" go free.

But those challenges paled in comparison to the task of transcribing the songs. Unlike in other forms of popular music, rap albums often don't include lyrics in their liner notes. That left it up to Bradley and DuBois to set down the lyrics themselves: thousands upon thousands of lines. "I haven't thought of another recent example that matches the scope of transcribing an oral tradition such as this," says Bradley. "The nature of making this move from song to script is something that hasn't really been attempted since the medieval ballads."

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6 comments
Musician
Musician

rap is often negative, ethnic and gang related and this can be proven. NOT a true style of music, more of a justification of expression and way to get rich for some. NOT the intention originally of music

hoho11
hoho11

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Paulie P
Paulie P

So, this is what passes for higher ed these days? Cutting funding is sounding more reasonable.

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