At a time when the radio rap aesthetic runs closer to Tiësto than T La Rock, and myopic critics mythologize an ideology of post-lyricism, Yale University Press' The Anthology of Rap reaffirms the enduring force of the written word — or at least the immaculately constructed freestyle.
Faced with the Sisyphean struggle of winnowing a master list of more than 1,000 rap songs to the 300 finest, young professors Adam Bradley (University of Colorado, Boulder) and Andrew DuBois (University of Toronto), both with Harvard Ph.D.s, have done the impossible: They've created something to satisfy both hard-core heads and horn-rimmed wonks. They roll their Roc-A-Fellas up their Sugar Hills, contextualizing everything from abstract rappers like Aesop Rock to the trap Tony Robbins, Young Jeezy.
Boasting an introduction from esteemed scholar Henry Louis Gates and afterwords from Chuck D and Common, the Anthology is free from the bias and befuddled jargon that often accompany academic examinations of rap. Instead, Bradley and DuBois bring (to paraphrase Q-Tip) “lyrics to go,” printed in plain English, celebrating rap at its apotheosis — a reminder that the crowd can be moved to do more than just dance.
We talked to the editors about the place of West Coast and L.A. hip-hop within their important work, which is likely to become the standard lyrics collection for college courses on the genre.
L.A. WEEKLY: The book has two Ice-T songs (“6 'N the Mornin' ” and “Colors”), but the discussion of West Coast lyricism really begins in earnest with N.W.A. How important was Ice Cube in getting people to accept that Los Angeles rappers could rival their New York City counterparts?
ADAM BRADLEY: He was at the center of that idea. He was one of the most gifted lyricists of his era, and we labored very hard at getting the lyrical transcriptions as close as possible to 100 percent accuracy. In the process of transcribing Ice Cube's lyrics, his reputation grew in my eyes. I'd always thought that he was a dope MC, but regardless of region or era, he really emerges as one of the genre's masters.
ANDREW DUBOIS: Who before Ice Cube was telling such good stories and spinning so many different types of narratives? He was a performer, and he cannily grounded himself within a sense of place in a way that gave him a unique specificity. I'm not surprised that he was able to switch seamlessly into doing family comedies, because from the onset he was able to inhabit varied personas.
When you talk about varied personas, it's interesting that with Ice Cube and 2Pac, Los Angeles produced two of the most successful rappers-turned-actors. How much of their success was grounded in having the emotional range to empathize with all types of characters?
DUBOIS: Los Angeles has always had a strong performance culture, and 2Pac had that times 100. Moreover, he had these contradictory elements within him that were constantly producing tension. Most good art stems from tension, whether internal or external, and with 2Pac, it had to do with his thug-life side versus his more socially conscious side. There was the teacher side pitted against the “Hit 'Em Up” side, and those things were all in constant conflict.
What's also interesting is that with 2Pac, there's almost this role reversal. You'd expect that someone would come from a rough background and eventually assume a certain gentility — at least, that's the normal trajectory. 2Pac was a well-educated guy with a political background, but instead, he gravitated toward the opposite, moving back and forth with ease. He always kept listeners on edge.
This sort of spiritual conflict is a very American quality. It's almost like Walt Whitman containing multitudes, but with Whitman, it's almost purely a positive democratic ideal. 2Pac manages to represent the positive, populist side of democracy and its dual manic-aggressive nature.
Another L.A. group to make the anthology was the Freestyle Fellowship. The media often portrayed the Fellowship and the Good Life scene as an alternative to the gangsta-rap scene. But if you ask those guys themselves, they'll tell you that guys like Ice Cube and Bone Thugs N' Harmony showed up in Leimert Park, too. How far apart do you think those worlds really were?
BRADLEY: Freestyle Fellowship and N.W.A had the same surroundings and they were facing the same concerns: police brutality, unemployment, crack and gangs. That's something we tend to overlook. There are multiple ways to respond artistically to a set of impulses and stimuli. Their style was more a testament to their choices as artists than their environment. It's not just a simple binary of conscious vs. gangsta. There are elements of N.W.A that are conscious: the sense of place and purpose, the ethic of hustling as a creative response to difficult circumstances.
With Freestyle Fellowship and the Project Blowed scene, there's always violence held at bay, and you can see that in the delivery of the lyrics. Sure, you couldn't curse at the Blowed, but there was a revolutionary side, and one that had more in common with N.W.A than listeners might think. Though I'm sure that would come as no surprise to the groups themselves.
DUBOIS: Freestyle Fellowship and N.W.A had a similar sort of aggression. N.W.A said “Fuck you” by saying “Fuck you.” Fellowship did it by saying, “Can You Find the Level of Difficulty in This?” By doing that, they asserted their aesthetic and intellectual superiority over 99.9 percent of people. They were saying you have to learn how to understand us. It's the same sort of impulse that you'd find in the early stages of avant-garde art — the idea that you have to keep up.
It's an obviously broad question, but how would you say L.A. altered the trajectory of rap?
BRADLEY: For a while, the sound of the West Coast tipped the whole continent that way. Though it's no longer dominant in the same way, there's an enduring power to that kind of hip-hop and the kinds of themes that emerged from both Southern and Northern California.
DUBOIS: West Coast hip-hop represents what the West has always signified in American culture, this duality toward freedom of expression and the potential for violence inherent in expressing yourself freely. If you think about the 1960s counterculture, it was about total freedom and openness but also the potential for destroyed life. The strength of West Coast hip-hop has always been about embodying those paradoxes.
The Anthology of Rap, edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, will be released on Nov. 9 by Yale University Press.