Behind the controversial Anthology of Rap, co-edited by CU hip-hop professor Adam Bradley
I met this girl when I was ten years old
And what I loved most, she had so much soul
She was old school when I was just a shorty
Never knew throughout my life she would be there for me.
The smooth beats of Common's "I used to Love H.E.R." flow through the Hill, the rap song echoing along the strip of student-friendly bars and shops. But the rhymes aren't coming from the open windows of a nearby frat house or a souped-up Audi rolling down the street. They're pouring out of the Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe, a hole-in-the-wall Boulder spot that's one of three poetry-exclusive bookstores in the country. Inside, between bookshelves with sections dedicated to Byron and Blake and the Beat poets, a stereo is playing hip-hop — and it's playing it loud.
"Don't call the police on us," co-owner Brian Buckley cracks to a customer while pulling espresso shots. There's a good reason for the noise: Adam Bradley, an associate English professor at the University of Colorado, will be in the house with The Anthology of Rap, his book that catalogues the poetry of hip-hop and created quite a buzz when it was released late last year. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. called it "an essential contribution to our living literary tradition," while Chuck D said it "might just break the commercial trance that's had rap in a chokehold for the past several years." Hip-hop appeared to finally have a scholarly tome on the level of the Norton Anthology of English Literature or the Oxford Book of English Verse. "The fact of the matter is," Bradley says, "I am a professor, but I am a hip-hop head first and foremost."
And for the first time tonight, he will read from his anthology for a hometown crowd.
Soon students, poets, professors and intellectuals are crammed into the bookstore's tiny event space. The man they've all come to see stands quietly in a corner, leaning against an out-of-the-way bookshelf. Bradley seems to take up less space than his 6' 4" frame would warrant — hunching forward to greet friends and fans, smiling humbly when they offer words of praise, and then, during rare moments alone, gently nodding his head to the music, off in his own world as he mouths the songs word for word. Is this quiet man the same guy whom Jay-Z quoted in his memoir Decoded, the guy who's been known to roll with Common himself? The guy whose hip-hop history exploded after it hit academia? "He has a certain quiet wisdom," says Common. "With his intelligence and know-how, he can help educate and expose many more people to hip-hop culture."
When Bradley steps in front of the standing-room-only crowd, he seems to flip a switch. His form unfolds, assuming its full height; his voice is deep and commanding. "Thank you for coming out to talk about hip-hop, to hear some, and to support this culture," he says. Promoting the book over the past few months, he often let others do the talking. "But tonight," he promises with a mischievous smile, "I am not going to shut up."
He gestures to Buckley, his DJ for the night. From the store's speakers emanates a haunting brogue, the recording rough with age: William Butler Yeats reading in 1928 from his poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," the bookstore's namesake. Yeats wrote that "poetry is an elaboration of the rhythms of common speech and their association with profound feeling," Bradley explains. You can hear it in Yeats's rhythms, in the feeling and passion he put into his lyrics. Just like you can hear it in the Yeatses of a new generation — in the rhythms of 2Pac, in the passion of Lauryn Hill.
Bradley's words flow as he riffs on everything from Afrika Bambaataa to William Carlos Williams, from Run-D.M.C. to Beowulf. He has Buckley cue up relevant songs, exhorting him to make sure they're loud as he reads the lyrics of Melle Mel — "I never knew art til I saw your face/And there'll never be one to take your place/ 'Cause each and every time you touch the spray paint can/Michelangelo's soul controls your hand" — as if he were performing Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."
But there's one epic saga Bradley leaves out. It's the hip-hop tale of AWOL fathers and fractured identities, of linguistic jigsaw puzzles and literary odysseys, of bitter duels and fiery smackdowns. It's the sort of story that Bradley could have found in the songbooks of Eminem or the Notorious B.I.G., but he didn't. The story is his own.
"This book is, in a lot of ways, my own memoir," Bradley says, with little elaboration. "It's the story of my life."
Adam Bradley's love of rap took root in the mid-'80s. But it wasn't inspired by the culture-defining, hard-hitting rhymes that Run-D.M.C. was laying down at the time, or the genre-shattering success of the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill. It came from a commercial the eleven-year-old spotted that featured Alfonso Ribeiro, the breakdancing buddy on TV's Silver Spoons.
The ad was for Breakin' and Poppin', Ribeiro's guide to breakdancing. "You know, I wasn't born a dancer," he said in the ad. "I learned to move with a lot of help, and with my help, you can learn, too." Help in the form of a $19.99 instruction book, posters, cardboard "breakin' board" and two-disc Rap Attack album. "Tell Mom and Dad it's the safe way to break and pop," he ended with a wink.
After the obligatory four- to six-week shipping delay, Breakin' and Poppin' finally arrived, giving Bradley his first glimpse of the hip-hop world of b-boys, painted subway cars and cyphers — and his introduction to rap, the beats and lyrics around which that world was built. It was like another planet from where he lived: Salt Lake City, on a street named White Circle.
Bradley immediately identified with that exotic world. Part of it was the power of the lyrics, the swagger and sense of entitlement that seemed to drip from every word — and Bradley, though young, was already schooled in just how powerful words could be. A few years earlier, when he was living in Los Gatos, California, his first-grade teacher had said that Bradley should be held back. Bradley's mother, Jane, a strong-willed artist, wasn't going to hear of that: She pulled him out of school and moved with him and his younger half-brother to Utah, where her mother took on the job of home-schooling the boy. He was soon reading Homer, Shakespeare and Robert Frost. "My grandmother helped me love words," Bradley says now. "She taught me how to love language."
But there was another reason that hip-hop spoke to him. "I think it was a connection to a black side of my culture," says Bradley. "I think there was an element of seeking out and understanding my black identity." It was a side he didn't know much about: His father was African-American, and he and Bradley's mother had broken things off when Bradley was just a baby; his father hadn't stayed in the picture.
Jane, who is white, tried to expose her son to his black heritage, encouraging him to read Maya Angelou and Eldridge Cleaver. "You do what you can to fill that gap," she explains. "I always wanted to make him aware of his background and his culture, the half that wasn't around." Still, there was something missing — and rap helped to fill the void.
When he heard a neighborhood boy throw out the N-word, Bradley took refuge in the De La Soul and Public Enemy piping out of his Walkman. Later, when he was attending public high school and the football team performed a pep-rally skit in blackface, he seethed to the rhythms of Big Daddy Kane and LL Cool J, then penned a scathing editorial for the school paper. Those songs would be ringing in his ears when he'd sit in his bedroom every day, typing out his class notes. That was the type of student he was — and besides, he didn't have anybody to hang with. "I was a triple minority: race, religion and academic temperament," he says. "I sometimes felt like it was me and Karl Malone and no one else like us in the whole state."
Things got better when he enrolled at Lewis & Clark College, the elite liberal-arts school in Oregon. Now there were others with whom he could discuss the intricacies of Common's Resurrection album, others wearing Malcolm X hats. And it was there, in a freshman English class, that he read Invisible Man — a book that would change everything for him. The 1952 novel, written by Ralph Ellison, featured a nameless protagonist without a father figure; like Bradley, the titular invisible man was grappling with what it meant to be a serious black man in America. "I felt it was my memoir," he remembers. It was like the invisible man was talking directly to Bradley in the novel's famous last line: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
And in Ellison's lines, his literary rhythm, Bradley found the roots of rap. "I saw it in what Ellison called 'the vernacular process,' mixing the inherited with the invented," he says. "Ellison did this all the time with his allusions to other works: Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, Louis Armstrong's '(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.' He took from that, and with some alchemy of literary invention, he came out with something distinctly his own. Hip-hop does that all the time; whether it's a multi-layered beat by the RZA or with passing lyrical allusions in a verse from Kanye, we see that same quality of invention and inheritance."
So when Bradley was given a chance to solve a lingering puzzle about Ellison — one of the great mysteries of modern literature — he didn't hesitate to say yes.
Ellison had been working on a followup even before Invisible Man's publication. As he wrote in 1951 to writer Albert Murray, a good friend, he was "trying to get started on my next novel (I probably have enough stuff left from the other if I can find the form)." And soon after Invisible Man hit the shelves, readers began clamoring for another book. But over the years, while Ellison took a handful of university teaching positions and published a variety of essays, no second novel emerged. Finally, in February 2004, he told an interviewer, "The novel has got my attention now. I work every day, so there will be something very soon." Two months later, he died of pancreatic cancer.
Some people wondered if there had ever been a second novel at all, or if Ellison had just suffered from five decades of writer's block.
John Callahan knew better. Ellison's close friend and literary executor, the Lewis & Clark English professor had undeniable proof of Ellison's attempts: crate after crate of manuscript pages, notes and computer files from Ellison's Manhattan apartment that began arriving at his door. Callahan believed there was a second novel buried in the material — but to find it, he needed help.
"There was one person I thought could do it," remembers Callahan: Bradley, one of his undergrads. "There was rawness and shyness about him, and a curiosity about the world and about literature. He was still growing into his own stance," he says. But as a scholar, Bradley was far from raw: "The way Adam Bradley went about his own work, there was earnestness and seriousness to it. This was a guy with a very, very good mind."
Ensconced in an attic room in an old manor house on campus, Bradley started cracking open boxes of material that hardly anyone but Ellison had seen. And almost immediately, he began discovering characters and scenes that had nothing to do with Invisible Man. "I had almost a conversion moment," Bradley remembers. "I realized these were fragments of the mythic second novel."
But how would they piece all those fragments together? Decades of work stretched out across thousands upon thousands of pieces of paper, from handwritten pages to yellowed typescripts to scribbles on the back of envelopes and telephone bills; Ellison had left few directions to tie them together. So Bradley began the monumental task of inventorying and organizing everything, using clues like ink colors, typefaces and paper stocks to come up with a chronology for when the words had been written. He'd spend hours after class holed up in the attic, and worked there in the summer, too.
Over time, he realized that much of the writing involved Ellison's reworking the same passages over and over. Scenes he wrote in the '50s and '60s were revised in the decades that followed, then revised again. And in the 1980s, when Ellison began working on computers, the freedom of the new technology — the ability to cut and paste as he pleased, to rework typed sentences on the fly — seemed to release his writing from all sense of restraint. The eight-page prologue written in the '70s had ballooned to 350 pages when Ellison reworked it on the computer. And while the central narrative seemed to take place in the 1950s, Ellison peppered his revisions with anachronisms, everything from black men sporting Afros to references to the lunar landing.
Bradley came to believe that Ellison had set a Sisyphean task for himself: not just to write a second novel, but to pen the great American novel. "He was seeking to achieve the aura of 'summing up,' of explaining America to itself and to the world," says Bradley. "Think about how daunting a task that is. It's like he would look up from the keyboard and the world would have shifted. So he goes back to work, and he looks up from the keyboard and ten years have passed, and the country has changed again."
The years were passing for Bradley, too. While Callahan published a portion of Ellison's work as the book Juneteenth, Bradley went off to Harvard to pursue his Ph.D. in American literature — and met his future wife, Anna Spain Bradley. Still, he and Callahan kept returning to their original mission, chipping away at Ellison's lost novel. "When he takes on a project or an initiative that most of us would think of as work, he sees it as his craft, as a labor of love," says Anna. "He sees his work as something that contributes to him as a person."
A narrative was gradually emerging from Ellison's papers. It was the story of the light-skinned Adam Sunraider and a black man named Alonzo Hickman who raised Sunraider like a son. The similarities with Bradley's background were impossible to ignore. Callahan, who was estranged from his own father and had found a father figure in Ellison, had come to see Bradley as a son; he encouraged him to see his own father. "I told him, 'I can sense how painful this is, but I think you can track your father down,'" remembers Callahan. "'This is none of my business except I love you, and if you don't do this, you are going to regret it.'"
While Bradley was still in college, his father had made a tortured, ten-minute call to him — then never called again. Now Bradley took the initiative and dialed. When the man on the other end said something about wanting to do a paternity test, Bradley swallowed his pride and agreed. And then, when his father didn't call back, Bradley showed up on his doorstep in Encino in 2003.
At the time, Bradley was interviewing for a job at Claremont McKenna College. He took the position and got to know his father — a onetime television producer who'd married but never had any other kids. They discovered they had a common love of jazz, and Bradley would share stories of his life with the exuberance of Ellison's prose and the enthusiasm of his favorite rappers.
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
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."
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.
"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)."
Devlin's piece set off a minor firestorm. NPR published a follow-up story on its website titled "Why the Errors in The Anthology of Rap Matter." An article in the Yale Herald claimed, "Yale's Anthology of Rap let us down." In a second article, Devlin noted that many of the errors in the lyrics were the same as those found on OHHLA.com; he wondered if Dubois and Bradley had simply taken their transcriptions from online databases and claimed them as their own. And for a third piece, Devlin included quotes that expressed disappointment in the book from several members of the anthology's advisory board, which hadn't vetted the lyrics. Also critical was Grandmaster Caz, one of rap's pioneers. While Anthology listed Caz as one of the artists consulted, Caz said he wasn't asked to check the transcriptions of his own lyrics until after the first printing of the book — when he discovered a number of mistakes.
"I think the book's benefits outweigh its shortcomings, but the shortcomings need to be addressed for history's sake," says Caz. "It's about chronicling this history as correctly and accurately as possible. If nobody checks it, they can change this whole history around, as has been done before. And it's not like we are not around. How can I be misquoted when I'm right here? All you have to do is call me."
The controversy caught Bradley off guard. He'd expected critical pushback, even complaints about which artists and songs they'd decided to include. But not this. After years of backbreaking work on all of his projects, now he was being knocked for not working hard enough.
Yes, he admits, there are mistakes in The Anthology of Rap. He and DuBois predicted as much in the book's introduction, where they encouraged readers to point out flaws. But considering that the anthology contains 250,000 lines of lyrics, he believes the slip-ups represent just a small fraction of the work. As for some of those same errors being found on the OHHLA, "It is possible to find moments of connection, because among the many sources we used in preparing the lyrics, [the OHHLA] is the most comprehensive source online," Bradley explains. "I think it is sometimes a matter of us reinventing the mistake, and sometimes it is us emulating the mistake."
And some of the alleged mistakes aren't mistakes at all. In one of his Slate stories, Devlin claimed that on Wu-Tang Clan's "Triumph," the RZA spits the line, "March of the Wooden Soldiers," not "Watch for the wooden soldiers," which is in the anthology. But that version coincides with the one published in the RZA's own book, The Wu-Tang Manual.
The RZA was an anomaly; since most rappers don't publish their own lyrics, Bradley says he and DuBois made every effort to reach out to the artists themselves to check their transcription work. According to the Anthology's acknowledgments, roughly two dozen of the 120 or so rappers featured did so. But because of time constraints and the number of artists involved, Bradley notes that some of those rappers, such as Caz, couldn't be reached before the book's first printing. (And some of the artists they did reach admitted that, thanks to various substances they were on at the time, they couldn't remember their lyrics.) They discussed including footnotes, he says, but considering that they couldn't squeeze all the lyrics they wanted into the 800-page tome, something had to give.
Bradley doesn't know why matters of footnotes and fact-checking, usually reserved for wonky scholarly publications, suddenly exploded in the mainstream press. But he does know that "it was probably one of the most difficult times of my professional life," he says.
Now, though, with a little bit of hindsight, he can start to see the positives. When a Poetry Magazine reviewer griped over whether or not Ice-T's "6 'N the Mornin'" really was an example of a classical aubade — a morning love song made popular by troubadours in the Middle Ages — or the New Yorker weighed in on how best to transcribe Big Daddy Kane, that meant that rap was finally getting the scholarly attention it deserved.
"All of a sudden, in 2010, we had a public discussion of rap as poetry," says Bradley. "What ultimately will matter about this book isn't the skirmishes over particular words and lines, but the life it can live as part of the grand story of hip-hop as a whole."
It's a warm spring day, and the Hellems Arts and Sciences building at the heart of CU is bumpin'.
An incessant bass line throbs out of a seminar room, reverberating down the hall as students stream in by the dozen, ready for another class of English 3856-010, "Topics in Genre Studies: Hip Hop Poetics." Inside, the class's resident DJ, Jack Monahan (aka J.Familiar) spins tunes on a turntable mixer as if he's at a house party.
With a gesture, Bradley, dressed in a stylish gray sports coat and jeans, silences the beat. "All right, all right, all right," he says, like a late-night talk-show host launching into his opening monologue, scanning the group of a hundred students. He first taught this course in 2009, not long after he started at CU. That semester, the class was a more conventional affair, with a couple dozen students. This year, he says, "I've super-sized it."
Along with a DJ, the class has its own MC, Nick Webb, aka Eckho, whom Bradley regularly calls on to spit rhymes of notable rappers, as well as some of his own ("If drinkin' were a class I'd be sure to get an 'A'/ Cuz they seen me in more House Partys than Kid 'n Play"). Reading materials include Jay-Z's Decoded, and the course syllabus features its own Parental Advisory warning. And each Wednesday, different students battle it out in a "Rhyme of the Week," each submitting favorite rap lines to be voted on by the class. Winners have been known to score vintage, unopened packs of Yo! MTV Raps collector cards.
Thanks to such innovations — plus the fact that he's put out four books in the past two years — Bradley has quickly earned a name for himself at CU. "He is one of the few scholars I've met who can do conservative scholarship on one hand and, on the other, do really avant-garde, out-there pop-culture scholarship," says William Kuskin, chairman of the English department. "If he is at this level at this stage of the game, imagine where he is going to be in fifteen years. This guy is on an incredible career trajectory."
Even if Boulder seems like an unlikely spot for the center of hip-hop literary scholarship. "Certainly working in hip-hop draws me to the coasts a lot," Bradley says. "But I learned from my mentors the virtue of creating your own territory and doing your work from a place where you feel comfortable, a place you can call home." It helps that his university colleagues embrace such boundary-crossing scholarship; Kuskin is a dual expert in Chaucer and graphic novels.
So with the full blessing of his department, Bradley's "Hip Hop Poetics" class this semester has ranged far and wide, covering everything from rap's gender gap to the intricacies of the N-word to why white kids love hip-hop. "I don't know many other college classes that have done anything like this," Bradley says. But he hopes classrooms across the country will soon follow suit.
With paperback versions of The Anthology of Rap and Three Days both due out in the next few months, Bradley is already hard at work on his next round of titles that blend scholarship with pop culture. First there's Common's memoir, on which he collaborated with the rap star, due out in September. "I feel like I developed a friendship with him," Common says. "I trusted in his insight and I trusted him, and I talked to him about things I haven't talked to anybody about."
After that, Bradley will publish a followup to Book of Rhymes that will apply its poetic tools to all of pop music. Plus, he and DuBois are developing a classroom edition of The Anthology of Rap — one that will include some, but not all, of the corrections recommended by Devlin and others. "There were a handful of things we agreed needed to be changed, but some of them really didn't pass muster," says Bradley.
Although Bradley is used to working hard, it's not easy pushing himself like this. A part of him struggles with fielding calls from Ice-T and MTV, with getting up in front of hundreds of people to talk about Ellison and Eminem. He recognizes that there are two sides to his personality: the assertive hip-hop head and the timid professor, the part from his mother and the part from his father, the side that's white and the side that's black. "I have always had this kind of split within me, being at once terribly shy, but also being a showman," he admits. "Part of me longs for a public voice, but it takes a lot out of me to use that voice. There are some people who thrive on being out in the world, on being visible in a real public way, but for me it is exhausting."
After the great highs and withering lows of the past year, it might have been easier for Bradley to quit while he was ahead, to build up walls around himself like his father had, to turn out like Ellison's lost second novel, a work in progress hidden from the public eye. To be invisible.
But he's not about to go that way. "It's not about me," he says. "It's about the broader nature of the work itself. For me, that was a revelation that's allowed me to be a much more public person. When I walk out there on stage, I am representing Ralph Ellison, I am representing these rap artists in some way, in places and in front of people that otherwise may not be able to hear them."
There's so much more he wants people to hear, so much more he has left to say.
And who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, he speaks for you?
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.