I have a long and complicated history with hip-hop. Coming from a rock and folk background, I had intensely disliked rap and hip hop. I felt it derivative, simplistic and lazy. A big fan of US black culture (the blues, early rock, jazz), I felt rap was somewhat of a betrayal of the great things the US could provide. (Rap fans, stay with me here: we’re on the road to Damascus…)
When I had been lecturing at the Australian Institute of Music for a while, I was asked if I could teach the history component of Critical Studies, Contemporary 2 (1970-present). This subject goes into some depth of the major changes in music from that key year 1970 until, well, about the present. I was quite excited, as it meant that many of my favourite movements and artists would be covered: classic rock, punk, new wave, Electronica, pop, new country (more or less..), heavy metal… Fantastic stuff. It quickly occurred to me, though, that I had to incorporate hip-hop into the course (firstly, I was told to… secondly, it would be stupid not to). So, gritting my teeth, I started reading up on hip-hop.
What I found at first disturbed me, but then excited me. If I took the word ‘rap’ out, and put in ‘folk’, or ‘country’ or ‘roots music’, the sentence didn’t change much. If I took the themes of rap lyrics, they were often very similar to country and blues. The transmissions of songs were not dissimilar. Legendary figures would appear, as would tricksters and other standbys of the folk traditions. Rap artists used available instruments and adapted them: in, say, the Appalachians, these were old fiddles, mandolins, accordions and the like. In 1970s Bronx, it was the turntable and vinyl records. And of course, I realised that, like every other genre, the best stuff wasn’t always the most accessible stuff. Soon I had bought a few compilations, some 2pac, and some Jay-Z.
All this is a long-winded and self-indulgent way to introduce this quite excellent collection of rap lyrics. Bradley and Dubois (both Associate Professors of English!) have put together a large and fairly comprehensive collection of songs. Tying them all together is a narrative which gives the reader a sense of how everyone in the game fits in.
Of course, rap lyrics are sexist, violent, misogynist, racist. (Take the word ‘rap’ out and replace it with ‘country’: see what I was talking about earlier?) However, as this collection shows, they can be transcendent, idealistic and just plain joyous. The authors have thematically collected everything, so you get a history of rap, as well as a showpiece of most of the major acts.
If you are into hip-hop, this is worth owning, if only to give a record of the more important lyrics. If you are new to hip-hop, it’s worth owning and examining. The lyrics are often stunningly good. (Jay-Z’s ’99 Problems’ is a master-class in how to tell stories). The women, of course, are often their equal (and like the blues women like Big Mama Thornton, or Koko Taylor, you can often sense the alpha-males step briskly aside to give these women their due).
I’m still feeling my way through hip hop, and I may never get all the way through it. But certainly, it is foolish to underestimate its importance, and ignorant to not at least try to find the greatness in it (you may not, of course… but it’s worth the effort). This excellent collection can help you.