Making connections between Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Wonder Mike isn't such a stretch for Adam Bradley. As one of the editors of The Anthology of Rap, a newly released collection from Yale University Press, as well as the author of 2009's Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop, Bradley has devoted much of his academic energy to securing a place for hip-hop in the American poetic tradition.
Bradley, who came to teach English at the University of Colorado Boulder last fall, says the meters and rhyme schemes of rap share roots in the oldest traditions from across the world, but he also insists that the art form is a tradition in and of itself.
In Anthology, Bradley and fellow editor and Harvard grad Andrew DuBois have collected some of the defining lyrics of the genre, from Grandmaster Flash to Queen Latifah. We caught up with Bradley before his current East Coast book tour to talk about the poetics of hip-hop, as well as some of his plans for bringing rap to his instruction at CU.
Westword: To start out, can you give me a basic background regarding your own discovery of hip-hop as a genre and as a poetic art form?
Adam Bradley: I encountered hip-hop for the first time in an unlikely place: Salt Lake City, Utah, where I grew up for most of my youth. I was, at the time, maybe six- or seven-years-old, being taught at home by my grandmother. When we were studying, we were reading romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge and so forth. When we weren't doing that, I was spending a lot of time just hanging out with my brother and listening to music.
We discovered hip-hop together, listening to Run-D.M.C. and LL Cool J and later on De La Soul and a Tribe Called Quest. In that moment, I felt a kind of connection, a deep-rooted connection between the poetry I was reading with my grandmother and the music I was listening to with my brother. I didn't have the vocabulary yet, but I just sensed intuitively that there was a connection to be made.
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Fast forward years. I'm out of college and going to graduate school at Harvard, studying for a Ph.D in English. I'm out there again during the day studying canonical works of literature, from Beowulf to Toni Morrison. In my free time, as always, I'm listening to hip-hop. I'm listening to the Wu-Tang Clan, The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac and Outkast -- all of these groups and artists in the latter part of the late '90s. I'm listening to all of that, but the difference now from when I was a kid is that I also have a certain vocabulary to try to talk about the connection that I intuited.
This is really where the idea for the anthology took root. I met a classmate of mine, Andrew DuBois, and soon discovered that we had a mutual passion for hip-hop. He was a huge Wu-Tang Clan fan, and so we just would talk about music, listen to it, argue about it and dream about the kind of book that we could write. It wasn't too long after that that we literally started working for that book and sketching out what it might look like.
How long ago was that?
Andrew and I met in '97. We both graduated in 2003 with our Ph.Ds. By then, we had already put together a book proposal and circulated it to several presses. It was a prototype for what became my first book, Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop. Our idea was part anthology, part primer for understanding rap's poetics. We ended up splitting those things. I ended up writing the primer myself and then we ended up finding a wonderful press that supported the [anthology] idea in Yale University Press.
So even though they were released under different publishers, what sort of connection do you see between the Book of Rhymes and The Anthology of Rap?
The Book of Rhymes is the book that makes the case for why someone would want to read Anthology of Rap. It tends to illuminate this tradition of poetry hiding in plain sight. Rap is the most dynamic, at times cacophonous art that we have in our contemporary culture. We sometimes forget that these lyrics are most often born on the page, in a rapper's book of rhymes. I took that as a title of my book to emphasize the writerly nature of rap, to remind us that whatever else it is, rap is also a form of contemporary poetry.
So what were some of the early standards and parameters that you and Andrew immediately set out for Anthology? I know that there was a process of deciding which lyrics to include and which ones to omit. How did that change as the idea for the book developed?
In its earliest incarnations, I'm talking before we had a contract for a book, we were essentially putting together in our minds the greatest mixtape of all time. It was more like that. We were thinking of what are the songs that we love, what are the songs that are doing groundbreaking things when it comes to their poetics in form, rhythm, rhyme? It began as that.
Fast forward to the time when we're actually under contract to produce this anthology: We resurrected some of those early lyrics that we had thought about, added to them and created a list of about 500 songs that we then shared with the advisory board of many people in hip-hop scholarship, journalism, DJs, bloggers, the different people from across the hip-hop spectrum.
We asked them to take songs off the list, put songs on and what they thought was missing ... After adding them all up, they had subtracted a dozen and added a thousand [laughs]. We had this massive, massive list of lyrics. It was a lot of things, but it wasn't an anthology. It was a really illuminating thing to see, though.
Our jobs, as editors, began right at that moment. That's really what an editor has to do with an anthology: They have to make certain judgement calls. We cut down back to 500 again, but a radically different 500 from what we began with. It included songs that Andrew and I hadn't heard or had forgotten.
Two questions on the editing side of things: Through that entire process, what were the tracks that remained constant from the very first lists, and which were the ones that you added that came as a revelation.
That's a great question -- it's fun to answer. The kind of rap 101 type songs that every serious hip-hop fan has to have at least a passing knowledge of, things like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message." Things like the much maligned "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang, the first major hip-hop hit.
Next to that, the first actual hip-hop single released, "King Tim III (Personality Jock)" by the Fatback Band. Those are things that we initially had, those are songs that appeared on pretty much every level of it. Also, there were works by the recognized masters of the emceeing craft, people like Big Daddy Kane, Chuck D, later on Nas, Lauryn Hill, Eminem. Those sorts of artists were always part of our conception of the book.
Even particular song titles, something like Eminem's "Stan," as soon as that came out, I knew it was something that was going to reward close attention from readers. So, there were songs like that, and in addition there were these revelations.
For instance, one of the advisory board members pointed us toward a song by an independent rapper named Edan called "Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme." I had heard the song, but for some reason it had slipped my mind. I went back to it and said this is really an astounding lyric. It at once pays homage to hip-hop history ... but it's also pushing the genre forward with it's style.
Also, the revelation of being reminded of all the artists that we knew would be in the book, but particular lyrics that slipped our minds. For instance, Queen Latifah, one could always pick a song like "U.N.I.T.Y.," which is kind of her standard song of that era. But we were put on to a song called "Elements I'm Among," which appeared on a movie soundtrack, Sunset Park.
It's a very different Latifah. It's Latifah as battle rapper; it's Latifah as hardcore MC, as opposed to Latifah as conscious lyricist. That was something that also came out of this process of deliberation. It was an expansion not only of the anthology as a whole, but an expansion of our vision of individual artists as well.
Taking this very wide view of hip-hop, going from songs like "The Message" to contemporary artists, how do you think the lyrical side of the music has changed as it's become a commercially accepted art form?
There's one really obvious effect that the mass appeal of hip-hop has had on the form. It really began the moment hip-hop and rap music became a commodity, became songs that could be put on the radio. When the first rap singles came out, a lot of rap purists said, "Are you crazy?" That doesn't make sense to record that music and release it commercially. A rap experience is at a show. It's two hours. It's three hours. It can't be three minutes. That doesn't make sense; you lose what hip-hop is about."
The moment that rap became something that could be played on the radio, it had already begun that transformation. You see something like "Rapper's Delight," I think it's thirteen minutes long. That was played on the radio [laughs]. One of the main changes is the formalization of a pop musical structure, specifically for rap. That means the kind of structure, the sixteen-bar verse, for instance, that comes out of the necessity of doing something that would possibly be played on the radio.
What are some of the changes in content, going from N.W.A. records to Jay-Z?
As Jay-Z points out in his new book Decoded, rap has always been primarily about the self. It's a sense of forging an identity, a sense of talking about one's own excellence and, in doing so, proving that excellence. That's a theme that runs throughout hip-hop music, from the very beginning to now.
That said, you can see some dramatic developments. In the early years, rap was a primarily a party music. It emerged, after all, out of the DJ necessity ... So, rap comes out of the party -- "Throw your hands in the air, wave 'em like you just don't care." That was hip-hop at it's incubation stage. Then, as people start to develop the art form, technically, they start expanding the nature of the themes that they're addressing.
You get social consciousness; you get descriptions of urban life that lead to what is shorthanded as gangsta rap; you get Jay-Z, who emerges out the projects where he sees crime right in front of him. He emerges as a hustler and a rapper at that same time and tries to find a voice that allows him to express that spirit in rhyme. This is just one example of how that evolves. There's a definite thematic evolution, and it moves toward expansion, typically because more people are exposed to the music.
How do you think the writing process will affect your instruction as an English professor at CU in Boulder?
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It's exciting to be on a campus where I know there's a community of students interested and engaged in issues of hip-hop and really thirsting for a way to explore them in an academic context. That's what I hope to do. Next semester, for instance, I'm teaching a class on the poetics of hip-hop, a 95-student lecture course.
It's going to be exciting. I plan on having an in-class DJ. I don't know if there's ever been a CU course that's had it's own DJ. I'm planning on bringing in guest speakers. I plan on connecting with the Denver hip-hop community and just showing my students that in Denver and Boulder and Colorado Springs and a host of other places in this state, hip-hop lives.
What was the most difficult part of the editing process for this anthology?
We had to cut from 500 to just under 300 lyrics in this book. That cut, from 500 to 300, was unbelievably painful. It was so hard to do, because it required a sort of sacrifice. We wanted to embody -- or at least to gesture toward -- the diversity and the range of rap's forms. At the same time, it was a practical matter of the physical parameters of the book. We pretty much reached the max -- this is an almost 900-page book, close to 25,000 lines of lyrics.