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Yale's Anthology of Rap: "Rife with Transcription Errors"

Posted by Josh Rothman  November 16, 2010 10:37 AM

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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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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

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Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

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.


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