Yale University Press's new Anthology of Rap (on Brainiac previously) has been hailed as a landmark volume - Cornel West called it "an instant classic." And yet according to Slate's Paul Devlin, it's also "rife with transcription errors," full of misheard slang and, in dozens of songs, nonsensical lyrics:
50 Cent, here on "Ghetto Qua'ran," clearly says, "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 relays the history of the drug trade in south Jamaica Queens in the 1980s and 1990s. (A pie is a large quantity of cocaine.) He does not say, as the editors have it, "From George Wallace to Baby Wise, don't be surprised/ Of how freely I thought of names of guys who dealt with pies." If he wanted to say George instead of Gerald he would have done so. (The image of George Wallace, the segregationist former Alabama governor, dealing drugs in Queens is an amusing one, to say the least.) And 50 says "throw out," meaning to list publicly, not "thought of," which implies to consider internally.
[W]hen KRS-ONE is quoted on a 1995 track as saying, "I reside like artifacts / On the wrong side of the tracks, electrified," artifacts should be Artifacts, as it is a reference to the group of the same name who authored the 1994 song "Wrong Side of the Tracks."
(The whole list makes great reading, especially if, like me, you don't know that much about hip-hop.)
Devlin was the first to write about the errors, and he's published an exhaustive follow-up article in which he talks with the anthology's editors, Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois (both of whom are English professors with doctorates from Harvard). But he's been joined by other writers, as well as Amazon reviewers, many of whom agree with him that rap "deserves better."
It's not as though the editors were lazy. They took their lyrics through a complex vetting process, sometimes even contacting the artists for clarification. (Rap lyrics are rarely printed and included with CDs and records.) They did rely in part on undergraduates to make sense of lyrics written a decade or more before they were born - and they did, on many occasions, rely upon an online resource, the The Original Hip Hop Lyrics Archive, which is full of errors. What this shows, though, is that even very devoted fans can't always get the lyrics right.
The truth is that misheard lyrics go with pop music the same way embellishments go with a good story: they're a sign that a work of art has been good enough to travel outside of the world that created it. The errors in the Anthology show just how far rap music has travelled, and just how local it was in the first place. "Transcription" is far too simple a term for what goes into producing something like the Anthology of Rap - it's more like excavation. In the meantime, many of these errors will be fixed in the second edition.
There are plenty of misheard lyrics in rock music too.
Brian Eno encouraged U2's Bono to make the lyrics to "Pride (In the Name of Love)" as simple as possible, so that international audiences could get the gist of the song, which is about Martin Luther King, Jr.; the result, as Bono's put it, is "a load of vowel sounds ganging up on a great man":
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.