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Rap doesn’t define hip hop, but should its anthology?
In a form like hip hop, where stylistic differentiation, competition, and the pursuit of precision advance the craft at such a rapid pace that whole genres and sub-genres will emerge and evolve into something else before the end of this post, there will never be a definitive or undisputed record. What’s not in dispute, according to Kevin Young in his Bookforum essay, is that rap is poetry and that it’s worthy of its own anthology.
The story of hip-hop is weirder, broader, and more wordless than any one volume can convey. This is perhaps the largest story this anthology tells: that even at nearly nine hundred pages it can’t hope to be complete, given the breadth of the culture today.
It’s not that Young blames anthologizers Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois for trying or for their attention to detail in transliterating a verbal form to print (though there is a minor kerfuffle in the works elsewhere):
The transcriber’s challenge is much like the modern translator’s: to render the original, but to make enough subtle, studied choices—of line length, of stanzaic form—that we have a new version that evokes and does not mock the work’s first mode. The judicious use of italics for spoken portions, parentheses for background vocals and samples, and quotes for those occasions when, say, Slick Rick puts on yet another voice (which is like hearing a great ventriloquist throw his voice even farther): all provide a sense of hip-hop’s continued choral quality. Also, by using the MC-based standard of sixteen-bar verses and four-beat lines, the editors provide a real sense of how a rapper is using internal and end rhyme—internal rhyme being his best weapon. The book makes a strong case for “the attention MCs direct to matters of language and sound, discussions that often get drowned out by the more controversial elements of hip-hop culture.”
Though organized loosely by time period, the anthology seems to make a concerted effort to avoid claims to context by intentionally dispatching with further categorization or questions of importance. While Young feels that this does a disservice to the reader’s understanding of influence and progress in the movement, it is somewhat besides the point. If it represents itself as The Anthology of Rap, is it really misleading if it doesn’t contain the History of Hip Hop?
But rap is only one part of the larger story of hip-hop, a term far broader than rap both musically and culturally. The introduction acknowledges as much by quoting KRS-One’s “HipHop Knowledge”: “Rap music is something we do, but hip hop is something we live.” While some features of hip-hop culture fall outside the anthology’s bounds, I did miss a more sustained nod to graffiti, DJing, and B-boying (which, along with MCing, make up hip-hop’s “four elements”), if only because they affected rap as poetry.
Young argues that a broad knowledge of the larger culture of hip hop is essential to getting to the heart of the rap lyric, but one book can’t be expected to accomplish the task; this is just the literature section, history and cultural studies are down the hall.