Take what would seem a relatively easy work, he suggests: Eminem's "Lose Yourself," one of the most recognized hip-hop songs of all. Since the duo wanted to take the scholarly tack of going to the song's primary source, that meant transcribing it by hand as they listened along — carefully tracking the beats to determine where to break each line, looping passages and fiddling with audio levels to make the vocals as clear as possible. Then they would compare their versions with those in other published sources — such as Angry Blonde, the compendium of Eminem's lyrics that the artist himself put out — to catch variations in wording and punctuation. They also had a team of researchers track down online transcriptions from OHHLA.com, the Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive; the A-Z Lyrics Universe and dozens of similar sites.

Still, the professors had to fact-check almost everything. In "Rikers Island," does Kool G Rap say, "See seventy-four adolescents at war," or does he say, "C-74, adolescents at war" — referring to cellblock 74? One line Bradley struggled over came from Jean Grae's "Hater's Anthem": As best as he could tell, at one point she spits, "Spread heat like I'm jeers jaws pleading the fourth" — but that didn't make sense. Only by tracking down Grae herself did he learn the answer: She's saying, "Spread heat like I'm Gia's drawers," a reference to the sexual proclivities of fashion model Gia Marie Carangi.

Transcribing a song like "Lose Yourself" might involve five hours of work. Trickier lyrics, like the impenetrable verses of Eyedea & Abilities or the poorly recorded bootleg they found of Eddie Cheba's 1979 show at the Armory, could take six times as long.

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).

Details

Guess the lyrics!

See if you can figure out these lyrics by Clipse, LL Cool J, Lil' Kim and Queen Latifah in our video quiz.

The Anthology mixtape curated by Adam Bradley

The hip-hop soundtrack to go along with this week's cover story

"The level of minutia we attend to in this anthology surpassed even the level of minutia I was working on in the Ellison volume," Bradley says. In fact, he was still working with Callahan to complete the Ellison project, an undertaking that had now stretched more than a decade. In 2009, Bradley took both of these projects with him to Boulder, where he and his wife had been offered jobs at the University of Colorado.

Finally, in early 2010, Bradley and Callahan, working as co-editors, released Three Days Before the Shooting..., Ellison's long-awaited second novel. In the months that followed, Bradley published Ralph Ellison in Progress: From "Invisible Man" to "Three Days Before the Shooting...," detailing what he'd learned about Ellison's writing process. "This is where Ellison will triumph," he told the Washington Post.

But the response to Three Days, while positive, was surprisingly muted. The New York Times didn't review it at all. Maybe it was because Three Days was an intimidating read: The 1,101-page hardcover volume costs $50 and weighs nearly three and a half pounds. Or maybe it was because the book is in many ways still a work in progress. The narrative never draws to a close; the story just drops off.

Whatever the reason, it didn't matter to Bradley. "Who cares about the fanfare?" he asks. "Ellison didn't care about the fanfare. I certainly wasn't looking for personal attention for the work. You are doing something wrong as a scholarly editor if you are the subject of discussion."

By now, he was on the last lap of editing The Anthology of Rap. In many ways, he saw it as a continuation of his Ellison work — even though he's not sure the novelist would have agreed. "I have this daydream of Ellison in his apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, and having his window cracked and hearing these beats coming from a boombox some kid is carrying though the park outside," he says. He imagines Ellison going over to the window...and, without hesitation, slamming it shut.

******

The scholarly editor of The Anthology of Rap was soon the subject of discussion.

Paul Devlin, a doctoral student at Stony Brook University in New York, was assigned to review The Anthology for Slate, and he knew something was wrong the minute he opened his copy. Where were the reggae-infused stylings of Redman? Where was the gangsta-rap poetry of DJ Quick? And why had Bailey and DuBois included what they did? "As far as the lyrics go, mistakes were evident all over the place," says Devlin.

In "Ghetto Qua'ran," for example, he's convinced that 50 Cent doesn't say "From George Wallace to Baby Wise, don't be surprised/Of how freely I thought of names of guys who dealt with pies," but instead, "From Gerald Wallace to Baby Wise, don't be surprised/Of how freely I throw out names of guys who dealt with pies." The song is about drug dealing in Queens, and while Gerald Wallace, a former dope dealer, most certainly dealt with "pies" (kilos of coke), George Wallace, former governor of Alabama, did not. An error like this isn't just a simple misspelling, Devlin suggests; it mangles rap's cultural context.

Devlin respected Bradley and DuBois's other work, and, as it turns out, he and Bradley share similar literary pedigrees: Devlin's mentor was writer Albert Murray, one of Ellison's closest friends and one of the first people to hear about Ellison's second novel. But he felt obligated to point out the inaccuracies, particularly since many other established sources, everything from NPR to New York magazine, were already hailing The Anthology of Rap as a classic. "The early reviews of the Anthology missed the mistakes, and I feared that the mistakes would ensconce themselves into the historical record," he says in an e-mail. "The book was (and is) surely going to be used a source for future academic articles, and important songs had egregious mistakes in them, which were then going to be replicated (or, eventually, caught by someone else)."

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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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