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The Anthology of Rap

The Anthology of Rap

Foreword by Henry Louis Gates
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    The Anthology of Rap
    Book Description:

    From the school yards of the South Bronx to the tops of the Billboard charts, rap has emerged as one of the most influential musical and cultural forces of our time. InThe Anthology of Rap,editors Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois explore rap as a literary form, demonstrating that rap is also a wide-reaching and vital poetic tradition born of beats and rhymes.

    This pioneering anthology brings together more than three hundred rap and hip-hop lyrics written over thirty years, from the "old school" to the "golden age" to the present day. Rather than aim for encyclopedic coverage, Bradley and DuBois render through examples the richness and diversity of rap's poetic tradition. They feature both classic lyrics that helped define the genre, including Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "The Message" and Eric B. & Rakim's "Microphone Fiend," as well as lesser-known gems like Blackalicious's "Alphabet Aerobics" and Jean Grae's "Hater's Anthem."

    Both a fan's guide and a resource for the uninitiated,The Anthology of Rapshowcases the inventiveness and vitality of rap's lyrical art. The volume also features an overview of rap poetics and the forces that shaped each period in rap's historical development, as well as a foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and afterwords by Chuck D and Common. Enter theAnthologyto experience the full range of rap's artistry and discover a rich poetic tradition hiding in plain sight.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16306-3
    Subjects: Music, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-xx)
    (pp. xxi-xxi)
    (pp. xxii-xxvii)

    The first person I ever heard “rap” was a man born in 1913, my father, Henry Louis Gates, Sr. Daddy’s generation didn’t call the rhetorical games they played “rapping”; they signified, they played the Dozens. But this was rapping just the same, rapping by another name. Signifying is the grandparent of Rap; and Rap is signifying in a postmodern way. The narratives that my father recited in rhyme told the tale of defiant heroes named Shine or Stagolee or, my absolute favorite, the Signifying Monkey. They were linguistically intricate, they were funny and spirited, and they were astonishingly profane.


    (pp. xxviii-xlvii)

    THE ANTHOLOGY OF RAP is the first anthology of lyrics representing rap’s recorded history from the late 1970s to the present. It tells the story of rap as lyric poetry. The lyrics included stretch from a transcription of a 1978 live performance by Grandmaster Flash and (the then) Furious Four to the latest poetic innovations of Jay-Z, Mos Def, Jean Grae, and Lupe Fiasco. The anthology’s purpose is threefold: (1) to distill, convey, and preserve rap’s poetic tradition within the context of African American oral culture and the Western poetic heritage; (2) to establish a wide and inclusive cultural history...

  6. PART I: 1978–1984—THE OLD SCHOOL

    • [PART I: Introduction]
      (pp. 1-14)

      The termold schoolhas been applied to almost anything with a hint of history. For all of its applications, though, the term resonates most loudly in hip-hop. The old school is always audible when listening to rap. We hear it in direct references and recycled verses, or in glancing lyrical gestures and tendencies of rhyme.

      No art is likely to survive without assimilating, critiquing, and transforming its past. It advances itself in time and in its range of aesthetic strategies with constant reference to what has come before. Rap has a particular genius for handling its own history. Even...

      (pp. 15-23)

      Among hip-hop’s pioneers, Afrika Bambaataa’s only equals are his immediate progenitor Kool Herc and his contemporary Grandmaster Flash. Bambaataa, a resident of the South Bronx, is an artist of rich paradoxes: a onetime Black Spade gang member who inspired peace among fans who once were rivals; a bear of a man beloved among his collaborators for his caring ways; a devotee of African American culture and community who opened up that culture to other constituencies; a party-rocking DJ whose taste had pedagogical intent; a streetwise realist who through his eclectic music envisioned Utopia.

      Bambaataa began to DJ in 1970, even...

      (pp. 24-32)

      Kurtis Blow was one of the first rappers to make a career of the art and is often heralded as rap’s first solo artist of note. Adaptable, personable, and good-looking, Blow had crossover appeal before rap really knew what crossover appeal was, paving the way for figures like LL Cool J and Will Smith. Most important, though, Kurtis Blow brought into the studio setting the bona fides of early hip-hop’s prerecorded days—he began as “Son of [DJ] Hollywood”—while also advancing rap song-craft.

      By most measures, Blow’s rhymes are straightforward. More striking are his consistency and his range. Having...

      (pp. 32-37)

      The first rap record to be explicitly political both in its lyrical content and in its methods of production and distribution, “How We Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise?” released in 1980 on Clappers Records, is an example of a song practicing what it preaches. Brother D, otherwise known as a teacher named Daryl Aamaa Nubyahn, “recorded a hip-hop tune to reflect the philosophy of a political and cultural organization called National Black Science.”⁹ On top of Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real” rhythm, Brother D and his aptly named rhyming partners Collective Effort—a group of MCs not named...

      (pp. 37-40)

      A Harlem-based DJ who also rhymed, Eddie Cheba is the kind of often overlooked forefather whose actual contribution is under-remembered because his live sets never translated to record. Chuck D of Public Enemy remarks that “Eddie Cheba was as important to hip-hop/rap as Ike Turner was to rock and roll.”¹¹ Kurtis Blow recalls that Cheba “was a master of the crowd response. He had routines, he had girls— the Cheba Girls—he had little routines, and he did it with a little rhythm, you know.”¹² See the introduction to Part One for a discussion of Cheba’s lyrical repertoire in relation...

      (pp. 40-52)

      The Cold Crush Brothers came from the Bronx. Consisting of six members—the DJs Charlie Chase and Tony Tone and the MCs JDL, Easy AD, “The Almighty” KG, and Grandmaster Caz—the group got together in 1978. Their live shows are legendary in the annals of hip-hop, and many of them were widely circulated on tape. They were not just popular, but also influential—for instance, Run-DMC credits the Cold Crush Brothers with inspiring them to shape their sound, which in turn shaped much rap that followed.

      If the setting was a battle, as on the excerpt below from 1981...

      (pp. 52-57)

      Like Eddie Cheba, DJ Hollywood was a disco-style DJ who played primarily at clubs with an older and more middle-class clientele than one would associate with early hip-hop. Nevertheless, his influence was extensive because of the rhymes he developed to supplement his sets. One artist who was greatly influenced by Hollywood, Kurtis Blow, sums up this pioneer’s status: “His voice was golden like a god, almost—that’s why I wanted to be an MC! . . . [He had] the first rhythmic rhymes I ever heard a cat say during the hip-hop days—we’re talking about the 70s”¹³ A discussion...

    • FUNKY FOUR + 1
      (pp. 57-64)

      Like many of the groups that made their names as live performers before the advent of recorded rap, the Funky Four + 1 has a tangled history. Originally known simply as the Funky Four, the group consisted of four MCs—KK Rockwell, Keith-Keith, Rahiem, and Sha-Rock—and two DJs, Breakout and Baron, who pumped their music through a sound system known as “Sasquatch.” In a competitive realm where volume mattered, having a sound that couldn’t be drowned out was as important for ensuring success as was skill in the finer points of moving a crowd.

      The Funky Four was highly...

      (pp. 64-81)

      Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five are the best known of the groups of rap’s first phase. Few groups can boast both one of the all-time greatest DJs (Grandmaster Flash) and one of the all-time greatest MCs (Melle Mel), as well as four other skilled MCs (Cowboy, Kid Creole, Mr. Ness/Scorpio, and Rahiem).

      Grandmaster Flash was a DJ prodigy from the South Bronx whose claim to fame in the mid-1970s was being the fastest to mix from break to break, a skill he also helped refine by designing his own mixers. Realizing, as he puts it, that he “was not...

    • LADY B
      (pp. 81-84)

      Beginning her career as a DJ in Philadelphia, where she continues to spin on the radio, Lady B also wrote rhymes and was among the first handful of female rappers to record. She was also one of the earliest artists to break hip-hop outside of New York. In addition to showing that artists outside of the five boroughs had a stake in the burgeoning art, Lady B in her role as DJ apparently knew a sure-shot when she heard one: Mister Biggs of Soul Sonic Force claims that she was the first to play “Planet Rock” on the radio. In...

      (pp. 85-89)

      When Sugar Hill Records owner Sylvia Robinson took the Sugar-hill Gang on tour in the fall of 1979 on the strength of their single “Rapper’s Delight,” a stop in Columbia, South Carolina, produced an unexpected discovery. Three young women—Angela Brown (Angie B), Gwendolyn Chisholm (Blondie), and Cheryl Cook (Cheryl the Pearl)—made their way backstage and asked to perform for the independent-label leader. Shortly thereafter Robinson had the group fly north to cut what would be the second-ever release on Sugar Hill, “Funk You Up,” which went gold in three weeks.

      This unlikely story yielded two firsts: Sequence became...

      (pp. 89-95)

      Spoonie Gee is the smoothest-talking ladies’ man from the early days of rap, a native of Harlem who dubbed himself the “metropolitician” and “Spoonie-Spoon, the medicine man.” Befitting someone who grew up two blocks from the Apollo Theater, a soulful sophistication comes through in his delivery, which is characterized by a thick but silky timbre and an old school knack for keeping the rhymes coming, bar after bar. His lyrics are lightly lascivious, self-aggrandizing, and playful; the occasional flashes of humor find their lyrical flipside in serious moments such as those found on “Street Girl” (1984), where financial strains and...

      (pp. 96-106)

      Almost anyone who has even heard of rap has heard the Sugarhill Gang. Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee released two full-length albums,Sugarhill Gang(1980) and8th Wonder(1982), but their name is synonymous with one song: “Rapper’s Delight.”

      Recorded in September 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” became the first rap record to make a major impact on the listening public. After its release, Sylvia Robinson’s Harlem-based independent label, Sugar Hill Records, became the major studio player of rap’s early era; the nascent form began in earnest its transformation from an exclusively live (and underground, tape-based) medium to one...

      (pp. 106-112)

      At its inception, the Treacherous Three were Spoonie Gee, LA Sunshine, and Kool Moe Dee. But when Spoonie went solo on the success of “Spoonin Rap” Special K stepped in. For their first release, “The New Rap Language” (1980), the Treacherous Three—along with erstwhile member Spoonie Gee—came forth with a song that contains more syllables per line than any rap of its time. The “super-rhymin, fascinatin, faster rhyme originatin” style that Kool Moe Dee names late in the rather long song was in one sense virtuosic, though in another sense it sometimes didn’t allow the rappers enough leisure...

      (pp. 112-117)

      Having become fans in its prerecorded stages, the sisters Paulette and Tanya Winley released a record in 1979 on the independent label run by their father, Paul Winley. With backing music by the Harlem Underground Band, “Rhymin and Rappin” contains a number of themes and tropes familiar to listeners of the first rap records: self-naming, claims of being the best, a genesis rhyme of the “age of one/I was having fun / at the age of two” type; however, more is different here than meets the ear. First broadcasting herself as “Sweet Tee on your radio dial” Tanya Winley fills...

  7. PART II: 1985–1992—THE GOLDEN AGE

    • [PART II: Introduction]
      (pp. 119-129)

      “It’s all brand new, never ever old school” raps Run on Run-DMC’s 1985 song “King of Rock,” a hyperkinetic, electric-guitar-driven declaration of rap’s independence from its own past. In the years between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s rap experienced a series of rapid transformations. The craft of MCing began settling into its maturity as artists started paying more attention to song structure with 4-bar choruses and 16-bar verses, with narratives and message raps. Stylistic trailblazers like Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, and KRS-One expanded the formal potentialities of rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay. Where end rhymes and, particularly,...

      (pp. 130-136)

      The career of the Beastie Boys now spans almost three decades.Licensed to Ill(1986), their debut LP, became rap’s first certified platinum album. Crass in subject matter, rough in delivery, the Beasties’ early style on that album also suggested adaptability and an independent streak that promised things to come.

      Adrock (Adam Horovitz), Mike D (Mike Diamond), and MCA (Adam Yauch) were originally part of the indie punk rock scene, releasing the EPPollywog Stew(1982). The move from punk to rap was more natural than it may appear; the two musics share a basic timeline, a rough-hewn aesthetic, and...

      (pp. 136-144)

      Big Daddy Kane was an originator and a trendsetter. Eschewing old school reliance on rhymed couplets and simple similes, Kane expanded the terms of lyrical acceptability and innovation. His booming voice, rich with command, and his battle-anybody mentality have made him an enduring figure in hip-hop.

      Kane was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. In 1984 he met Biz Markie, and both joined Marley Marl’s Juice Crew. Even before Kane released his first single, he was already responsible for several hits as a ghostwriter for Biz and Roxanne Shanté. In 1988 Kane released “Raw” his first single and an...

      (pp. 145-159)

      Boogie Down Productions consisted of DJ Scott La Rock and KRS-One. The nameKRS-Oneis an acronym for “Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone” He values the power that knowledge confers while he critiques the knowledge that we receive. His is a sound “with a cap and gown” as he puts it in “Ghetto Music” But BDP’s purpose was not only pedagogical. KRS’s lyrics move the crowd. He delivers his words like a lava flow—hot and unhurried, but faster than they seem.

      BDP can be credited with helping to effect two important changes in rap. First, KRS-One brought West...

    • DE LA SOUL
      (pp. 159-168)

      Perhaps it was the Day-Glo cover of its debut album. Perhaps it was the surrealism of such titles as “Potholes in My Lawn.” Perhaps it was the fact that even baby boomers could hear snatches of the Turtles and Steely Dan in the mix. It all added up to De La Soul being described at first as a group of hippies. Actually, De La Soul was—and remains—a necessary group of hip-hop eclectics.

      De La Soul consists of three members who began performing as high-school students in Long Island: Posdnuos, Trugoy the Dove, and Pacemaster Mase. As part of...

    • ERIC B. & RAKIM
      (pp. 168-181)

      Rakim is among the most influential artists in the history of rap, with a style that is as relevant today as it was when he first emerged in the mid-1980s. Along with Eric B., he forged one of the most potent duos in hip-hop history, recording four classic albums between 1987 and 1992.

      As a young man, Rakim played the saxophone, a skill to which he ascribes some of his rhythmic sensibility and timing as a rapper. He finds lyrical inspiration in his urban surroundings, in popular culture, and in the arcane lore of the Five-Percent Nation, or Nation of...

      (pp. 181-187)

      Although he has produced beats for many of the biggest names in the game, DJ Premier’s deepest and longest-lasting partnership was with the rapper Guru under the name Gang Starr. They debuted withNo More Mr. Nice Guy(1989) and followed it withStep in the Arena(1990). The second album’s title track elaborates on the concept of rap as a battle. Moving through a medieval British world to the Coliseum of ancient Rome, the song ends in an arena of another sort, a place we buy tickets to enter to hear rhymes styled as battle.

      This historicizing expansion of...

    • ICE-T
      (pp. 187-193)

      Taking his name from the pimp turned novelist Iceberg Slim, Ice-T cut a larger-than-life figure. In the spirit of his namesake, Ice-T early on developed a pimp persona in such songs as “Somebody Gotta Do It (Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy).” More pronounced, however, was his role in developing the persona of the West Coast gangsta. “6 ‘N the Mornin’” is a gangsta rap classic and displays Ice-T’s success in exploiting a series of genres. The song is an aubade, as it begins at the crack of dawn, and partakes of the picaresque as it moves through its series of episodes. Each...

    • KOOL G RAP
      (pp. 193-200)

      Many rappers are described as cinematic, but the adjective is especially fitting in the case of Kool G Rap. “I’m not just a rapper, like, that try to get people to dance or to move and stuff like that,” he explains. “I’ll write that shit that’s gonna have you sit there and you gonna see visuals of what I’m talking about. You’re gonna see a short little movie—I’m gonna give somebody a visual of G Rap doing something.”¹²

      Kool G Rap’s cinematic lyrics are often urban vignettes. Balancing short and long lines in “Streets of New York” and moving...

      (pp. 201-208)

      Having honed his skills and reputation in hip-hop’s early years, onetime Treacherous Three member Kool Moe Dee found himself in limbo. The forefathers of rap were not yet classic, just old, and past success seemed more likely to predict irrelevance than longevity. But for a master lyricist who had helped develop “The New Rap Language” and whose park and club battles with the likes of Busy Bee shaped the combative nature of the art, longevity was a must.

      Kool Moe Dee deftly made the jump out of the old school and made his mark in the late 1980s with several...

    • LL COOL J
      (pp. 209-224)

      I Need a Beat,” “I Need Love,” “I Can’t Live Without My Radio,” “I’m That Type of Guy,” “I’m Bad”—as these song titles from early in his career suggest, LL Cool J has always been a supremely self-assured figure in an art form famous for first-person assertion. The young man who turned himself from James Todd Smith to Ladies Love Cool James was never short on confidence. On his first two albums,Radio(1985) andBigger and Deffer(1987), his delivery was probably the most athletic of any rapper around. He directed this sonic vigor toward adversaries both abstract...

    • MC LYTE
      (pp. 225-232)

      MC Lyte is an especially versatile MC. This flexibility is measured by how she balances local poetic effects with the bedrock values of rap braggadocio, all while crafting a variety of compelling stories. As Kool Moe Dee observes, “She has an exceptional flow, a diverse body of work and subject matter, hit radio and hit street records, and an impeccable delivery on top of her battle skills. . . . Lyrically, she is a rap icon who sounds and feels as current today as she did fourteen years ago.”¹³

      “I Cram to Understand U,” with its memorable simile serving as...

    • NWA
      (pp. 232-247)

      Any group whose name stands for “Niggaz With Attitude” is bound to garner attention, but for all of the tensions that NWA provoked, they were more important as innovators. They ushered in the rise of West Coast gangster rap. One of their members, Eazy-E, distributed their aesthetically, critically, and commercially successful albumStraight Outta Compton(1988) on a label he owned. Two other members, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, would go on to become hip-hop icons. And their music remains provocative and wildly playable.

      The three aforementioned members, along with Yella and MC Ren, formed as a group in 1986...

      (pp. 248-261)

      Of all rap groups, Public Enemy mixed the most serious political engagement with many of the greatest innovations in sound and poetic form for the longest period of time. The group’s leader, Chuck D, has been called by KRS-One “Hip Hop’s authentic ‘poet of protest.’”¹⁴ The single-mindedness and range of that lyrical protest found a match in the group’s sound.

      The Long Island–based group—which in its most robust stage featured Chuck D as lead rapper, Flavor Flav as hype man and comic foil, Terminator X as DJ, Professor Griff as “Minister of Information,” and a group of uniformed...

      (pp. 261-265)

      Queen Latifah’s dignified demeanor and commanding presence earned her the regal name, but her rhymes maintain it. Latifah is adept at various styles, able to throw in a reggae flow, slow it down still further with a love song, deliver a message with the strength of her convictions, or slay a wack MC for daring to get in her way.

      Latifah’s debut single was the infectious “Wrath of My Madness,” and the album that followed,All Hail the Queen(1989), contained “Evil That Men Do,” a song that explores the gender disparity in structural poverty. Songs like “Princess of the...

    • RUN-DMC
      (pp. 265-274)

      Run-DMC holds the distinction of being the second rap group (after Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five) enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They conquered the mainstream and changed rap by introducing it to a wider listening public, all without relinquishing their hip-hop credentials.

      Run-DMC was born in Hollis, Queens, and consisted of Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels as the MCs and Jason Mizell, known as Jam Master Jay, as DJ and producer. Run’s younger brother, Russell Simmons, helped conceive and promote the group before going on to found Def Jam Records and becoming hip-hop’s...

      (pp. 274-278)

      Salt-N-Pepa expanded the possibilities for women in rap by making their brash sexuality and assertiveness not simply stylish but marketable. As the first platinum-selling female rappers, they set the standard for an emerging hip-hop feminism. With major hits in both the 1980s and 1990s, they established the kind of popular longevity that few artists in rap’s history can claim.

      Salt-N-Pepa got their start in Queens in the mid-1980s. Beginning with their second album, Spinderella provided production. Together, they challenged the male-dominated industry as well as many of the established conventions for female artists. The title of their debut album,Hot,...

      (pp. 278-282)

      Just as gangsta rap was springing up on the West Coast, from the streets of Philadelphia came an East Coast variation on the theme. Schoolly D’s “P.S.K. What Does It Mean” (1986) not only spoke of a gang called the “Park Side Killers” but also drew a picture of the conflicted artist who was channeling violent urges into patterns of words.

      As a rapper, Schoolly has the insouciance of a latter-day Spoonie Gee, cut through with more explicit language and darker stories. Schoolly collaborated with the director Abel Ferrara on the macabre gangster movieKing of New York, providing a...

      (pp. 283-289)

      Hailing from the Queensbridge projects, Roxanne as a teenager first made her mark by responding to UTFO’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” with “Roxanne’s Revenge,” the first and still the most serious sally in what quickly became a saga. A member of Mr. Magic and Marley Marl’s Juice Crew, Roxanne followed her initial hit with such songs as “Queen of Rox,” “Bite This,” “Have a Nice Day,” and “Def Fresh Crew,” the last of which featured Biz Markie beatboxing. Her collaboration with Rick James, “Loosey’s Rap,” topped the Billboard black singles chart for a week in 1988.

      The recorded output of Shanté is...

      (pp. 289-296)

      Slick Rick is the hip-hop Aesop. Employing a range of voices, moods, and narrative techniques, he defined the terms of rap storytelling. Dubbed “The Ruler,” perhaps as much for his aristocratic English accent as for his command of the microphone, he also became known for his trademark attire of Kangol, gold rope chain, and eye patch (which covers an eye blinded in a childhood accident).

      Slick Rick was born to Jamaican immigrant parents in South Wimbledon, London. After moving to the North Bronx as a teen, he befriended Dana Dane and formed the Kangol Crew. They began performing at local...

    • TOO $HORT
      (pp. 296-304)

      Too $hort pioneered the westward expansion of rap with his raunchy tales of urban life. His slow-tempo flow and melodic, funk-inflected beats made him the indisputable father of Bay Area hip-hop. His career spans more than twenty years, nearly twenty albums, and scores of songs.

      When Too $hort started rapping in East Oakland in the early 1980s, few major labels were signing West Coast artists, so he began recording and selling his own mix tapes. After a few successful independent releases, Too $hort formed his own record label, which was soon picked up by Jive Records. With major-label publicity behind...

      (pp. 304-312)

      A Tribe Called Quest’s two MCs, Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, present a stylistic contrast that reaches from the philosophical to the comic, from personal reflections to battle rhymes. As part of the Native Tongues collective, they cultivated a sense of musicality and a freewheeling spirit of improvisation that charted new directions for rap in the early 1990s and beyond.

      ATCQ formed in 1988 in Queens when childhood friends Q-Tip and Phife Dawg joined with DJ/producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad, a classmate of Q-Tip’s, to form a group known simply as Tribe. (A fourth member of the crew, Jarobi, remained a behind-the-scenes...

      (pp. 312-317)

      Ultramagnetic MCs was an idiosyncratic Bronx-based trio consisting of DJ Moe Love and the rappers Ced-Gee and Kool Keith. There is something deliberately futuristic about their debut album,Critical Beatdown(1988), which is forward looking not only in its critique of “the simple back and forth, the same old rhythm/That a baby can pick up” (a jab at Run-DMC), but also in the use of pseudoscientific terminology: “Usin frequencies and data, I am approximate/Leaving revolutions turning, emerging chemistry/With the precise implications.” Ced-Gee’s lines in “Ego Trippin” point toward both exactness and approximation—an incoherent message, to be sure, but then...

    • X-CLAN
      (pp. 317-323)

      Although they were not as prolific as their reputation might suggest, the X-Clan marks a rigorous extension of the Afrocentric direction that began in late 1980s hip-hop. They might even be said to epitomize rap’s attempt to grow in racial self-understanding and to integrate larger self-histories into the mix. The group’s two rappers, Brother J and the late Professor X, were attuned to contemporary problems. But they tackled such matters not by trying to paint pictures of the present so much as by insisting that their listeners go “back to Africa.”

      The journey implicit in their songs comes through even...


    • [PART III: Introduction]
      (pp. 325-332)

      Hip-hop in the 1990s was marked by tragedy: the slayings of two of rap’s biggest stars, Tupac Shakur (2Pac) and Christopher Wallace (the Notorious B.I.G.). In September 1996, Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting on the Las Vegas strip. Six months later, in March 1997, Wallace was killed in a drive-by shooting on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. These two acts of violence were fueled by an atmosphere that pitted East Coast against West Coast in a battle about style and substance. The West Coast’s gangsta aesthetic clashed with the emerging “mo’ money, mo’ problems” ethos of East Coast...

      (pp. 333-335)

      Arrested Development, founded in the late ‘80s by rapper Speech and DJ Headliner, crafted progressive Afrocentric lyrics set to funk- and soul-inflected rhythms. The group’s debut album,3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of. . . (1992), drew its title from the time it took for them to secure a record contract. Part of the difficulty, no doubt, was convincing record labels that a rap group from outside of New York and Los Angeles—one from the South, no less—could sell records.

      Their first album went quadruple platinum, producing melodically, spiritually, and narratively rich singles like...

      (pp. 335-337)

      Bahamadia is a trailblazer for women in underground hip-hop. She began her career as a DJ before picking up the mic full time. She is a skilled lyricist with a decidedly laid-back delivery, and her intricate wordplay testifies to the intensity of her craft. Her skills are in evidence on her debut album,Kollage(1996), as well as on her numerous guest verses on songs by such artists as the Roots and Talib Kweli.

      Bahamadia rose to prominence in underground hip-hop as the protégée of Gang Starr’s Guru. Throughout the 1990s she lent her smooth-flowing raps to a variety of...

    • BIG L
      (pp. 337-340)

      Big L is part of the fated fraternity of talented MCs who died too young. He was shot and killed in 1999 at the age of twenty-four. At the time of his death he had released only one album, 1995’sLifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, but he had already established his reputation as a gifted lyricist who favored street tales drawn from his Harlem upbringing. His posthumously released second album, 2000’sThe Big Picture, burnished this reputation with a series of classic tracks including “Ebonics,” “’98 Freestyle,” “Flamboyant,” and “Platinum Plus.”

      Big L was adept at both battle raps and...

      (pp. 340-343)

      Big Punisher was the first solo Latino rapper to go platinum. He was also yet another member of the hip-hop community to fall victim to an early death, albeit from weight-related health complications rather than violence. At his death in 2000 he reportedly weighed close to seven hundred pounds. As an MC, however, he was light and agile, capable of tongue-twisting feats of lyrical dexterity.

      Big Pun was a member of the Terror Squad, a Bronx-based hip-hop collective founded in the early 1990s by Fat Joe. Together, they cultivated a relentless rap style filled with street themes set to instrumentals...

      (pp. 344-346)

      Bone Thugs-N-Harmony popularized a style of rapid, melodic flows that blurred the line between rap and song. Coming from Cleveland, they helped initiate a Midwest movement in hip-hop that would see rap’s center of gravity shift from the coasts to the center of the country as the 1990s progressed.

      It was a West Coast artist, Eazy-E, former member of the iconic gangsta rap group NWA, who signed the group—initially comprising Krayzie Bone, Wi$h Bone, Flesh-N-Bone, Layzie Bone, and Bizzy Bone—to Ruthless Records and released an EP and, a year later, a full-length debut album.E 1999 Eternalspawned...

      (pp. 347-349)

      When he debuted in the early 1990s as part of the rap group Leaders of the New School, Busta Rhymes had already cultivated his idiosyncratic delivery, growling voice, raucous humor, and halting, ragga-inspired cadence. His recognizable style is “animated,” as Jay-Z once described it in a lyric. Far from a criticism, this quality accounts in large part for Busta’s longevity.

      Before launching his solo career—and even after—Busta Rhymes gained a considerable reputation for his guest verses. He delivered a feverish verse on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario,” which included the memorable line “RRRRRROAW, RRRRRRROAW like a Dungeon Dragon.”...

      (pp. 350-357)

      Canibus is, in the words of one publication, “one of the architects of post-modern hip-hop lyricism.”¹⁶ He laces his lyrics with arcane references and tightly stitched flows rich in figurative language. Though his lyrical style may be cutting edge, his content is traditional—a throwback to the socially and politically conscious lyrics of the 1980s. “I feel like poetry that was written in the earlier stages of rap music, like about ’84, ’85, anywhere up to ’93 or ’94, the rhymes and the lyrics were something that you could learn something from. You could listen to it and you could...

    • CHINO XL
      (pp. 357-363)

      Chino XL is a half–African American, half–Puerto Rican MC who forged his skills touring with Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa. Known for his expansive vocabulary and intricate wordplay, Chino has earned a loyal underground fan base. As a youth, Chino rode the momentum from performances in New Jersey neighborhood talent shows and began recording demos, which eventually caught the ear of Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin. Since his first release,Here to Save You All(1996), Chino has worked with some of the biggest names in rap, including Common, J-Dilla, and the RZA.

      On “What Am I?” Chino...

    • COMMON
      (pp. 363-372)

      When Common emerged in the early 1990s, hip-hop was largely a bicoastal phenomenon in the public eye. Eschewing bling and gangsta trends for a more introspective style, Common wrote on such topics as abortion, the story of hip-hop, and the life of Assata Shakur. Many of his songs also described the people and places of his native Chicago.

      Even in his early work, one can hear Common—then known as Common Sense—forging a lyrical identity as a socially conscious, emotionally engaged artist with the skills for battle rapping.Resurrection(1994), his second album, earned him critical praise. His allegory...

      (pp. 372-375)

      Digable Planets were not the first to bring a jazz sensibility to hip-hop, but they were certainly among the most successful. The group’s three MCs layered complex and politically conscious lyrics over laid-back tracks with live jazz instrumentation as well as with samples from jazz legends like Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock. They are also important in the story of hip-hop as one of a small number of mixed-gender groups.

      Digable Planets consists of Butterfly, Doodlebug, and Ladybug Mecca. The insect aliases were political. “They work together for the good of the colony,” Butterfly explains. “It was a...

    • DMX
      (pp. 375-380)

      DMX is gifted with one of the most distinctive voices in all of rap—a guttural baritone that favors the pit bulls he keeps as pets. His flow often comes in bursts, punctuated by barks and growls. Beyond the signature ad-libs, his flow is swaggering, aggressive, even angry. “I never saw any bright lights around me,” DMX writes in his autobiography. “Nothing about my Tims and hoodie was shiny. [I was] committed to taking hip-hop back to the streets where it belonged.”²¹

      DMX enjoyed one of the most successful runs of commercial success in hip-hop history. His first five albums,...

    • E-40
      (pp. 380-382)

      E-40 is the ambassador of Bay Area hip-hop. He has been in the industry for over two decades, producing a shelf’s worth of albums and working with a range of artists, from 2Pac to Too $hort to Lil Jon. He is renowned for his verbal virtuosity, his knack for neologism. E-40 bends the rules of the English language in ways that sometimes go unnoticed but can challenge the comprehension of the uninitiated. He fashioned the “-izzle” technique (for example, turning “for sure” into “fo’ shizzle”), though Snoop Dogg is more commonly associated with it. “Everybody wanna hear a little razzle-dazzle,...

      (pp. 382-387)

      Foxy Brown takes her name from the blaxploitation heroine made famous in the 1970s by Pam Grier, but her style is hers alone. Before releasing an album, Foxy Brown appeared on several 1995–96 platinum singles from artists like Jay-Z, LL Cool J, and Toni Braxton.

      Brown is most often compared to Lil’ Kim. Both arrived on the music scene at around the same time. Both were mentored by major rap stars (Jay-Z for Foxy and Biggie for Kim). And both played upon their sexuality while exuding an attitude of overwhelming confidence on the microphone. Both also dealt with the...

      (pp. 387-394)

      Freestyle Fellowship is a group from Los Angeles consisting of rappers Aceyalone, Myka 9, P.E.A.C.E., Self Jupiter, and producer J Sumbi. They emerged out of the underground hip-hop workshop known as Project Blowed, which started at the Good Life Café in Compton. Together, they defined what photographer-writer Brian “B+” Cross has termed Los Angeles’s “post-gangsta” era. Thematically, they offer a sharp contrast to the gangsta aesthetic that dominated Los Angeles rap in the 1990s. Instead, they favored Afrocentric messages and social commentary.

      The group, as its name suggests, is known for its range of freestyle rhyming techniques. Their sound is...

      (pp. 394-400)

      The Fugees are among the most recognized groups in the history of rap, though they only released two albums. Consisting of Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel, both Haitian immigrants, and Lauryn Hill, from suburban New Jersey, they derived their name from the slang term for “refugee.” The spirit of the African diaspora, most especially the Caribbean, suffuses their music. They crafted powerful, melodic hip-hop that was popular without compromise. Their Grammy-winningThe Score(1996) is one of the bestselling rap albums in history, with over 18 million sold.

      The trio was stylistically complementary. Jean’s rhyming laced with Haitian patois and...

      (pp. 401-403)

      Goodie Mob defined the Dirty South—quite literally, introducing the term on a song from their debut album. The Dirty South would come to embody a raw and uncompromising style of rap that stretched from Georgia to Texas. Goodie Mob consists of four MCs: Cee-Lo, Khujo, T-Mo, and Big Gipp. Along with fellow Atlanta rappers Outkast, they came to embody a southern rap aesthetic of soulful beats (both groups were produced by Organized Noize) and street-oriented and socially conscious lyrics. “Goodie Mob aimed to capture the entire existential struggle of the black man trying to get by on the land...

      (pp. 404-409)

      Hieroglyphics is an ever-expanding underground Oakland collective presently comprised of Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Casual, Domino, Pep Love, DJ Touré, and the members of the group Souls of Mischief (A-Plus, Opio, Tajai, and Phesto). The group formed in the early 1990s, and though they have released only two studio albums—3rd Eye Vision(1998) andFull Circle(2003)—the various members have compiled an extensive discography through their outside efforts. The selections that follow include Hiero’s “Classic” and lyrics from both Del and Souls of Mischief.

      Souls of Mischief cultivated a sound that helped broaden the accepted range of West...

      (pp. 410-416)

      Lauryn Hill is one of the most beloved artists in hip-hop, though also one of the most enigmatic. Her production to date mostly came during the intensive period between the release of the Fugees’Blunted on Reality(1994) and her classic solo debut,The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill(1998). In between came another classic with the Fugees,The Score(1998). Hill, one of the most musical of rappers, has a style that comes at the listener in dense layers of melody, assonance, alliteration, and rhyme, both at the end and within the line. She brings a rich array of themes...

    • ICE CUBE
      (pp. 416-426)

      Ice Cube was one of the big reasons that the West Coast earned legitimacy for its lyricism in the 1990s. As a founding member of NWA, along with Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and DJ Yella, he honed his commanding lyrical style and helped give birth to gangsta rap.

      With his solo debut,AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted(1990), Ice Cube took the unconventional step for a West Coast artist of recording with the East Coast production gurus the Bomb Squad, whose signature, post–Phil Spector “wall of noise” sound was made famous in rap by Public Enemy. This fusion of East and West...

    • JAY-Z
      (pp. 427-439)

      If Jay-Z isn’t the greatest MC of all time (as MTV ranked him in 2006), then he is certainly in the discussion. His reputation is built upon his longevity, ingenuity, and no small amount of business savvy. As Elizabeth Mendez Berry remarks, “Jay-Z raps like a kingpin: he’s articulate, ruthless, in control.”³⁴ Since his solo debut,Reasonable Doubt(1996), he has emerged as a crossover celebrity just as likely to be featured in the pages ofUS Weeklyalongside his superstar wife, Beyoncé, or in the pages ofForbes, which once named him the most successful hip-hop entrepreneur alive, as...

    • KRS-ONE
      (pp. 439-443)

      KRS-One is often referred to simply as the Teacher for his command of lyrical knowledge. He is among a handful of artists who can lay claim to being both old school and cutting edge. From 1987 to the present he has averaged nearly an album a year—first as the rapping half (alongside DJ Scott La Rock) of Boogie Down Productions, and then as a solo artist. He has also established himself as an authority on all things hip-hop through books, lectures, and interviews. He has written about the craft of MCing, the spiritual side of hip-hop culture, and a...

      (pp. 443-447)

      The Lady of Rage’s braggadocio and lyrical strength assume female empowerment without ever explicitly asserting it. Her appearances on Dr. Dre’sThe Chronicand Snoop Doggy Dogg’sDoggystyleare song-stealing, but her career extends well beyond those memorable turns.

      Rage first began composing lyrics in the sixth grade. “I used to write poetry a lot,” she recalls, “so the transition from poetry to rap is not that hard. It’s just music to poetry.”³⁷ She received her moniker her senior year of high school after her best friend remarked on her temper. After high school she moved to Texas, where she...

    • LIL’ KIM
      (pp. 448-450)

      Lil’ Kim might be the anti–Lauryn Hill for the exuberant way she often seems to embrace the conventional trappings of misogyny. She dubbed herself the Queen B, or Queen Bitch, and made a career of reciting lyrics that would appear to support sexist fantasies of rampant materialism and hypersexuality. Many listeners, not to mention the artist herself, have instead understood Kim’s explicit lyrics as radical acts of female empowerment. Her hardcore raps and overt eroticism challenge the presumed boundaries of hip-hop femininity.

      Kimberly Jones was discovered by the Notorious B.I.G., and with Biggie’s help, she would soon emerge as...

    • MIA X
      (pp. 450-453)

      Mia X was an important part of Master P’s No Limit Records empire—the South’s answer to Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. Her sharp enunciation offered a nice contrast to Master P’s southern drawl. As a hardcore southern rapper, she deals with all the themes one might expect. And while the No Limit instrumental production sometimes lacked originality, her lyrics were always delivered with energy and command. Her best songs, like “Hoodlum Poetry,” put unusual spins on gangsta themes. In this instance, she raps from the perspective of crack cocaine, offering its life story in a style reminiscent of the...

      (pp. 453-459)

      Mobb Deep are poet laureates of the streets. Havoc and Prodigy both hail from the Queensbridge projects, the largest public housing development in the United States, covering a six-block section of Queens. The QB gave birth to a host of hip-hop talents—from MC Shan and Nas to Capone and Noreaga. “We got our own language, style of dress out there, and attitude,” Prodigy says. “You going to see some unique shit out there that you only going to see [in] the music, the language, how people tie their boots, the dress code.”³⁸

      Their breakthrough album,The Infamous(1995), was...

    • NAS
      (pp. 459-470)

      Raised in the Queensbridge Houses, Nas grew up in a street culture still palpable in his rhymes. With depth and delivery comparable to Rakim and a perspective that ranges from the anarchy of the corner to the penetrating consciousness of Eastern philosophy, Nas has built a body of work with few equals.

      Even after two decades of recording, Nas’s most notable achievement is still widely considered to be the album he began as a teenager,Illmatic(1994). OnIllmatic, Nas rhymes with as much poetic sophistication as anyone in hip-hop at that time or since. “When Nas busted out with...

      (pp. 471-481)

      The Notorious B.I.G. died a homicide victim at the age of twenty-four. Despite his brief career, Biggie was an innovator who became an icon. Everything about him—his look, his voice, his flow, his cadence, his swagger, and even his ad-libs—have proved influential, and, like 2Pac, his friend turned rival, his memory lives on through his music.

      After doing jail time for weapons and drug charges, Biggie began to see the potential of rap as a career. He landed a mention inThe Source’s Unsigned Hype column and eventually wound up meeting Sean “Puffy” Combs, then record producer and...

      (pp. 482-483)

      When Outkast appeared on the hip-hop scene withSouthernplay-alisticadillacmuzik(1994), they laid the groundwork for one of the most diverse, genre-defying, and sustained careers in rap. From the outset, the Georgia natives André “3000” Benjamin and Antwan “Big Boi” Patton demonstrated a rare combination of skills behind the mic. In stark outline, André is the rebellious artist and romantic of the group; Big Boi is the streetwise, strip-club bottle-popper. Fill in the details and a more nuanced picture develops. Although his staccato flow may suggest a gangsta aggression, Big Boi often delivers astute social commentary and lays down personal stories...

    • RAS KASS
      (pp. 483-490)

      Ras Kass laces his lyrics with unexpected allusions to literature, history, and philosophy. Even before the release of his debut album,Soul on Ice(1996), he had won acclaim for his lyrics both in his native Los Angeles and nationwide.

      Ras Kass’s style is distinguished by his allusive breadth, his dense texture, and his swaggering delivery. His songs often contain ambitious conceits, as on “Interview with a Vampire,” in which he conducts a lyrical conversation with God and Satan. Thematically, his subjects range from government conspiracy (“Ordo Ab Chao [Order Out of Chaos]”) to more conventional hip-hop boasts taken to...

      (pp. 490-499)

      When Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, and drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson met at the Philadelphia High School for Creative Performing Arts around 1987, they fashioned one of the most enduring partnerships in hip-hop. ?uestlove brought a musical vocabulary of live beats and Black Thought brought his rapid-fire staccato lyricism. In those early years the two could be found on the Philly streets with Black Thought rapping over ?uestlove’s beats. Their call-and-response style, the back and forth between voice and beat, is the soul of MCing laid bare; it has remained at the heart of the Roots’ style for more than...

      (pp. 499-504)

      Scarface’s influence is audible. Before there ever was such a thing as “crunk” or the Dirty South, Scarface was dishing out grimy rhymes, telling tales from the streets of Southside Houston, slanging stories ranging from crack deals to police shootings. Though Scarface often raps about the criminal life, he rejects the term “gangsta rapper.” “I don’t call my music ‘gangsta rap,’” Scarface told theWashington Postin 1994. “I call my music reality.”⁴⁴ Scarface kicks this reality flow slowly and deliberately, using a voice that is at once removed and observational yet still embedded in and encompassed by the raw...

      (pp. 505-511)

      The gangsta-stoner-poet-pimp of rap, Snoop Dogg, with his smoothed-out, nearly southern drawl, brought a new vibe to West Coast hip-hop at a time when NWA and Ice-T were at the forefront of the game.

      As a member of the Crips in high school, Snoop ran into legal trouble. When he got out of jail he recorded a demo with Warren G and Nate Dogg, titled “213,” which got him noticed by Dr. Dre, who immediately got Snoop involved in his projects, particularlyThe Chronic(1991). Snoop was featured on most of the tracks on Dre’s first solo album, which was...

    • 2PAC
      (pp. 511-524)

      Tupac Amaru Shakur, or 2Pac, is one of the most influential rappers of all time—a status he achieved as much in death as in life. He is one of the most prolific artists in the music’s history, producing one gold and nine platinum records and selling more than 75 million albums. In the years since his death in 1996 at twenty-five, 2Pac has only grown in stature as one of hip-hop’s most enigmatic, explosive, and thought-provoking figures.

      2Pac delivered his rhymes with musicality and intensity; his flow was unmistakable. In subject matter, he gravitated toward gritty tales of thug...

    • TWISTA
      (pp. 524-527)

      Twista might be dismissed as a gimmick rapper. Having held the Guinness record as the world’s fastest on the mic, and having begun his career with the moniker Tung Twista, he could have settled for a career founded entirely on his rapid-fire flows. Certainly, the clarity of his speedy delivery is astounding. “[I created my fast flow] by just trying to expand with the rap style,” he explains. “It started with just tripling up the words with one sentence and then a whole four bars, and then it’s like a whole verse. Probably around the time I wrote one complete...

    • UGK
      (pp. 527-532)

      UGK consisted of Pimp C and Bun B, both from Port Arthur, Texas. As the self-styled Underground Kingz of the South, they favored lyrics about women, money, cars, and hustling in the drug trade. As they continued to record through the 1990s and into the 2000s, they kept to their basic street template but expanded upon their themes and added elements to their style.

      Bun B is regarded among his peers as a technically skilled lyricist, holding his own with the likes of Jay-Z and Outkast. “Well, the first thing I do is I try to listen to whatever rapping...

      (pp. 532-557)

      According to production guru and de facto group leader, the RZA, the Wu-Tang Clan is the first group ever to practice hip-hop as a martial art. By this he means a couple of things: that Wu-Tang rappers are masters of the battle rhyme and that they practice hip-hop with emotional content as a means of catharsis, spontaneity, self-defense, and the transformation of life into art.

      On record the Wu-Tang Clan delivers an alternative, underground aesthetic—a world where griminess, hardness, danger, and criminality play against the sensitivity and self-consciousness of youth coming of age amid violence. The nine core Clan...


    • [PART IV Introduction]
      (pp. 559-569)

      In 2006 Nas released the albumHip Hop Is Deadwith its eponymous single, a sharp critique of present-day hip-hop from one of rap’s most respected artists. The album cover shows Nas, clad in black, dropping a black rose into an open grave. “Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game/Reminiscin when it wasn’t all business, it forgot where it started/So we all gather here for the dearly departed,” he raps to a menacing beat driven by a psychedelic rock guitar riff from Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”¹

      “Hip Hop Is Dead” inspired passionate responses from rappers, journalists, and fans, ranging from affront...

      (pp. 570-575)

      Aesop Rock crafts jam-packed imagistic verses. His rhymes are characterized by their texture and abstraction. “It’s kind of what comes naturally for me,” he explains. “The way I write is how I like to write and how I prefer to write. It comes more naturally for me to be into an abstract idea, I guess. It takes a while to sit and hash it all out on paper, but it’s what I want to write, so it’s what gets me excited.”¹⁰

      Aesop Rock began rapping in the early 1990s. While studying painting at Boston University, he struck up a friendship...

      (pp. 575-579)

      Atmosphere is a Minneapolis-based rap duo comprised of the rapper Slug and the DJ/producer Ant. The group has existed in various iterations since 1993, one of the longest-lived and most successful independent acts in rap. Together with their Rhymesayers label mates, they have fashioned not only their own independent business model, but also a hip-hop aesthetic driven by varied storytelling, dense lyrical flows, and eclectic beats.

      Both in beats and rhymes, Atmosphere’s sound is often dark and emotional. The group is known for their series of songs about a woman named Lucy, who is, by turns, an actual woman or...

      (pp. 579-581)

      Beanie Sigel is part of a long tradition of streetwise Philadelphia rappers stretching back to the 1980s with Schoolly D. After delivering a guest verse on fellow Philadelphians The Roots’s “Adrenaline!” Sigel was signed to Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records label. He would appear on several Jay-Z tracks as well as release a series of hard-hitting solo albums, beginning withThe Truth(2000).

      Stylistically, Sigel is known for constructing long runs of chain rhymes, sometimes even repeating the same word in distinct contexts. While much of his subject matter concerns the life of crime, as in “Tales of a Hustler” and “The...

      (pp. 582-585)

      Blackalicious is the partnership between MC Gift of Gab and producer Chief Xcel. Gift of Gab’s flow is fast-paced and laced with multisyllabic rhymes, consciously crafted in relation to the beat. “I’m basically trying to be like another instrument on the track,” he explains. “I want to ride it like the bass line is riding it, only with words. I wanna ride it just like the guitar or the violin or whatever instrument, just riding it.”¹²

      Blackalicious favors songs with clear formal and thematic structures. On “Alphabet Aerobics,” for instance, Gab spits lyrics based upon each letter of the alphabet....

      (pp. 585-589)

      Brother Ali is known for both his clever wordplay and his confessional subject matter. His lyrics embody a range of emotions—from insecurity to outrage, wry humor to reflection. He confronts difficult personal topics, including divorce, homelessness, and self-doubt. “I always want to make music that’s really powerful and personal and real, and that when you hear it, you can feel that feeling that I’m going through. And so the only way that I really know to definitely ensure that is to [write] stuff about my life. Even if I’m writing things that aren’t necessarilymystory, it’s somebody very...

    • CAM’RON
      (pp. 590-592)

      Cam’ron was born and raised in Harlem amid poverty but also amid the atmosphere of creativity that has made Harlem synonymous with African American artistic achievement for generations. In the 1990s Cam formed part of the group Children of the Corn alongside his cousin Bloodshed, Digga, and two other MCs who would go on to have solo success, Ma$e and Big L. Cam’ron would ultimately found The Diplomats (also known as Dipset) and would help foster a roster of talented MCs that includes Jim Jones, Juelz Santana, JR Writer, and others.

      Cam’s solo career began in 1999 withConfessions of...

    • CEE-LO
      (pp. 592-594)

      Cee-Lo, who made his name first as a member of Atlanta’s Goodie Mob and later as the lead singer of Gnarls Barkley, has built his solo rap career on inventive and experimental sounds that fuse hip-hop with soul, funk, blues, and electronica. His themes range from the street to the spiritual. “There’s a bit of Buddhism, a bit of that Baptist and that Christianity, and Five Percent,” he says by way of explaining the faith expressed in his music. “My awareness is broad. To claim a religion is almost like to claim a gang or set, which would make you...

      (pp. 595-599)

      The Clipse’s brand of music is often derisively referred to as “crack rap” for its frequent references to the drug trade, but these lyricists are unconstrained by their subject matter. The group consists of Malice and Pusha T, a pair of brothers from Virginia Beach, Virginia. After connecting with Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes in the mid-1990s, they began working with the producer on crafting their distinctive sound. Though many of their songs tell tales of drug trafficking, their verses are rich and varied. As Pusha T explains, “It’s one thing to say ‘I sell bricks, I sell bricks.’ But...

      (pp. 600-604)

      Dead prez are hip-hop’s self-styled political revolutionaries for the new millennium. and M-1 have fashioned a body of work that goes beyond the music to describe an entire philosophy of living, down to dietary habits and exercise regimens. Beginning with their debut album,Let’s Get Free(2000), the incendiary cover art of which included a photograph of a slave with a whip-mangled back on one side and a group of young, gun-toting revolutionaries with their hands in the air on the other, dead prez reignited a long-standing hip-hop tradition of radical political rhymes.

      Their songs use an array of...

      (pp. 604-606)

      Devin the Dude is a hip-hop comic—not a clown but a trickster, finding humor in unlikely places. In the 1990s Devin signed with Houston’s Rap-A-Lot Records, which was best known for the raw street rhymes of Scarface and the Geto Boys. He forged an alternative persona: part stoner, part lady’s man, all lyricist. Describing his writing, he observed that “60 percent is really just personal shit I went through; 20 percent is stuff I know about somebody who’s close, or a story I heard. Ten percent is wishful thinking. And the other 10 percent is some high shit we...

    • DOOM
      (pp. 606-611)

      Doom (also known as mf doom) is among the most enigmatic figures in hip-hop—both for the trademark mask that he dons at concerts and for the recondite nature of his lyrics. DOOM’S raspy baritone weaves an intricate web of allusions drawn from comic books and metaphysics along with seeming nonsense and non sequiturs.

      Doom’s career began in the early 1990s under the name Zev Love X as a member of the group KMD along with his younger brother, DJ Subroc, and another MC, Onyx the Birthstone Kid. They produced only two albums,Mr. Hood(1991) andBlack Bastards(which...

    • EMINEM
      (pp. 611-626)

      Eminem is one of rap’s most polarizing figures—a global celebrity whose personal struggles play themselves out for public view, an instigator in the culture wars, an exhibitionist at times but also a recluse, and above all, a gifted lyricist. “Air Jordan. Tiger Woods. You know how a person is made for something?” remarks 50 Cent. “Eminem is made for hip-hop. The best rapper is a white man.”²⁰ That Eminem is one of the few white MCs to gain both popular success and respect among his peers has made him a pivotal figure in hip-hop’s emergence in the mainstream.


    • EVE
      (pp. 626-628)

      Eve, who once dubbed herself the “illest vicious pit bull in a skirt,” has defined her hip-hop persona in terms of both her femininity and her swagger. She made her name as a member of the Ruff Ryders, the crew that included DMX. After appearing on several compilation albums, Eve began her solo career with the release of three albums between 1999 and 2002. Her biggest hits included pop-friendly songs like “Who’s That Girl” and duets with singers Gwen Stefani (“Let Me Blow Your Mind”) and Alicia Keys (“Gangsta Lovin”). Her finest lyrical performances, however, may be on lesser-known tracks...

      (pp. 628-632)

      Eyedea, the rhyming half of the duo Eyedea & Abilities, may be best known for his freestyle battle raps, but his studio recordings deserve attention as well for their narrative drive and occasional tongue-twisting delivery. Eyedea sees a connection between freestyling and songwriting, both of which he believes emerge from the same creative place. “Hip hop has a great history of improvising—the MC freestyling it and the DJ scratching, even dancing—the whole thing,” he told theMichigan Dailyin 2009. “I think improvising is when you’re testing yourself and when you are experiencing the expression of those things that...

      (pp. 632-637)

      Lupe Fiasco represents the changing face of hip-hop, expanding the meaning of the culture and the music. He also represents a return to hip-hop’s emphasis on lyrical content—skills over swagger and shine. His rhyme style is fluid and lyrical, rich with multisyllabic internal rhymes, assonance, and alliteration. One can hear on songs like “Dumb It Down” and “Go Go Gadget Flow” a near-incessant lyrical play with sound.

      Lupe’s records to date have all been concept albums in which he frequently adopts fictive personas. He understands this as a natural outgrowth of his desire to use rap for storytelling. “I...

    • 50 CENT
      (pp. 637-642)

      Few artists have been so shaped by personal catastrophe as 50 Cent. After several years toiling in relative obscurity as an underground artist, 50 Cent (often known simply as “50”) burst onto the mainstream scene with his major label debut,Get Rich or Die Tryin’(2003). The hype surrounding it had as much to do with its infectious lead single, “In Da Club,” as it did with his celebrity label, Shady/Aftermath (the imprints of Eminem and Dr. Dre—each of whom produced tracks on the album). More than that, however, was the violence in 50’s personal story. “Being shot defines...

      (pp. 642-650)

      Jean Grae is among the most admired and accomplished underground MCs. Now over a decade into her career, she is finally beginning to earn public attention to match her underground credibility. In the words of Talib Kweli, Jean Grae is “one of the last true MCs left.”²⁶ Though her purposefully uninflected delivery has sometimes been criticized as monotonous, Jean Grae responds to these critics with the same force and directness she does with her rhyme adversaries. Her greatest contribution to rap poetics may be in storytelling, where she has found a way of inserting varied female personas and narratives into...

      (pp. 650-656)

      Immortal Technique is a defiantly political, stolidly independent artist known for clever wordplay and fearless commentary on a range of controversial subjects. “I’ve heard ‘Revolutionary Rapper,’ ‘Street Politician,’ ‘Political Rapper,’ ‘Activist MC,’ all that shit,” he says. “I pay it no mind. I know what it is to be pigeonholed in the game, so I don’t worry about what people say. The hardest albums, even the birth of gangsta rap, was all revolutionary:AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, The Chronic, Ice-T’sO.G. How can someone listen to these albums and not hear a revolutionary message encoded in them? I represent the streets...

    • K’NAAN
      (pp. 656-660)

      K’naan is a Somali-born, Toronto-based rapper who grew up amid the violence and refugee camps brought on by his native country’s ongoing civil war. On his debut,The Dusty Foot Philosopher(2005), he raps in stark detail and emotion about the horrors he witnessed in Mogadishu. “What’s Hardcore?” is a lyrical broadside against the gangsta rappers in America who glamorize the war going on in the streets of New York or Los Angeles or Atlanta when the real war of which K’naan speaks is far from glamorous. “My Old Home” is a rich and complicated portrait of his native land...

      (pp. 661-668)

      In rap, Talib Kweli’s name is synonymous with depth and excellence. Even Jay-Z, considered by many to be the greatest rapper ever, famously named-checked Kweli on “Moment of Clarity”: “If skills sold, truth be told / I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli.” Though some consider Talib Kweli a “conscious” rapper rather than a commercial one, he rejects the designation, preferring to understand hip-hop as a culture without divisions. “I’m a fan of demolishing those terms because I think those terms divide our music,” he told hip-hop journalist Davey D.²⁹

      Talib Kweli is a technically sophisticated rhymer who makes ample use...

      (pp. 669-675)

      Lil Wayne divides people into sides, with some—including himself—calling him the greatest rapper alive, and others dismissing him as a gimmick rapper or a victim of his own vices. Much of what surrounds him carries the weight of myth: He never writes down a single line of lyrics. He records almost every waking hour. He is—again in his own words—a Martian.

      Whatever one might think of him, he is a lyrical craftsman in the oral tradition, using the fact that he does not write down his lyrics to his advantage. Wayne relies heavily on aural devices...

      (pp. 675-677)

      Little Brother is a rap duo from Durham, North Carolina, comprised of two MCs, Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh; the producer 9th Wonder was a founding member but left the group in 2007. Their debut,The Listening(2003), was laced with 9th Wonder’s soulful, booming beats and Phonte and Pooh’s often comic tales of everyday life. “All for You,” transcribed below, appeared onThe Minstrel Show(2005), a loosely conceptual album that critiques potentially nefarious trends in commercialized rap.

      Both MCs approach their craft with analytical focus. Reflecting on his writing style, Big Pooh notes: “I write everything like one...

      (pp. 677-682)

      Ludacris is a wild card, capable of comedic performances, head-bobbing club bangers, menacing dis tracks, and songs of emotional reflection. In each instance, his personality and charisma are at the forefront. “Just as my name implies—Ludacris—that’s how my music is,” he says in explaining his style, “as long as they understand that Ludacris means crazy and wild and ridiculous, that is exactly how I would explain it . . . It’s looking for a little fun in [people’s] lives.”³³

      Though born and raised in Illinois, Ludacris has long called Atlanta home. After a successful career as a radio...

    • M.I.A.
      (pp. 682-685)

      M.I.A.’s music collects sounds from all around the world and blends them in a musical genre she playfully identifies as “other.” For those familiar with her dynamic vocals and eclectic soundscapes, her style is something less ambiguous: a polyphonic and political music for a new hip-hop era.

      Maya Arulpragasam was born in London but raised in Sri Lanka, where she witnessed civil war firsthand. When her father left to found a Tamil revolutionary party, she relocated to London with the rest of her family. Her family history shapes her music—her first two albums,Arular(2005) andKala(2007), are...

      (pp. 686-692)

      Pharoahe Monch is known for multisyllabic rhymes and intricate flows that use idiosyncratic rests to lend rhythmic variety. He released three albums in the 1990s as part of the duo Organized Konfusion along with Prince Poetry. Later, he signed a solo deal with the independent label Rawkus, releasingInternal Affairs(1999), an indie classic led by the anthem “Simon Says.”

      Pharoahe Monch’s lyrical complexity has led some to criticize him for being too technical. “With me a lot of times, it is a concerted effort to do a dense piece of work—and I guess that’s not for everybody,” he...

    • MOS DEF
      (pp. 692-701)

      Mos Def helped take the underground aboveground, gaining popular acclaim and record sales without making simple songs. He is a multitalented performer, known for his singing and acting as well as for his rhyming. As a singer, Mos has recorded in the dulcet tones of a song like “Umi Says” or in the hard-rock sounds of his Black Jack Johnson project. As an actor on both the stage and the screen, Mos has elevated the reputation of the much-maligned rapper/actor hybrid.

      Mos Def also stands out for the force of his political voice and vision, on display in the scathing...

    • T.I.
      (pp. 701-705)

      On his first album, T.I. dubbed himself the “King of the South,” a title that he seems to have grown into, having released nearly an album a year between 2001 and 2008. His rhymes frequently concern hustling, partying, and women. However, as his public profile increased, for good and for ill—through pop-friendly collaborations with Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, and Usher; a budding film career; and federal conviction on weapons charges—his songs began to show a greater thematic and emotional range. Always a lyricist with tight command of his flow and frequent use of chain rhyming, he puts those skills...

      (pp. 705-713)

      Kanye West has quickly emerged as one of the leading figures in hip-hop—a tastemaker in beats, rhymes, and fashion. His lyrical content spans everything from traditional themes like his own ego to subjects rarely if ever discussed in rap, like folding shirts at The Gap.

      Born in Atlanta to a Black Panther father and an academic mother, West moved to the South Side of Chicago at the age of three. West’s breakout moment came when he produced a number of songs on Jay-Z’s multiplatinum-sellingThe Blueprint(2001), including the lead single “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” The following year West suffered a...

      (pp. 713-718)

      Young Jeezy is part of a new wave of southern rappers that swept through hip-hop in the middle of the decade. Drawing inspiration from the first rise of the South with artists like The Geto Boys, 8Ball & MJG, Master P, and others, this new generation of regional rhymers spits lyrics about crime and urban blight, but also about the strength of friendship and community.

      Young Jeezy draws inspiration from his upbringing in Atlanta. His solo debut,Thug Motivation 101(2005), put his street credentials on display with rhymes about hustling in the drug game. “I always had a way with...

  10. LYRICS for Further Study
    (pp. 719-788)

    What follows is a varied selection of lyrics, most of which are from artists not otherwise found in the anthology. Given the constraints of space, we can only gesture toward these artists’ bodies of work with a song. The selections are drawn from three decades of hip-hop history and represent a diversity of regions, genres, styles, and themes. They include recognized gems like EPMD’s “Strictly Business” and Pete Rock & C. L. Smooth’s “They Reminisce over You (T.R.O.Y.)” as well as lesser-known but still memorable lyrics like Crooked I’s “Grindin Freestyle” and Binary Star’s “Reality Check.” This representative selection simply begins...

    (pp. 789-796)

    We are living in a period of growth for hip-hop culture, led this time not simply by artists but by students and scholars. The word-revolution in rhyme has been reflected in a slew of necessary critical perspectives that shed light on hip-hop’s history and development. Books and multimedia on hip-hop culture and rap music have entered a boom period—or should I say boom bap period: a time in which the recorded history and the breakdown of interpretations may be more entertaining than a lot of the new music being made today.

    The Anthology of Rapis a landmark text....

    (pp. 797-800)

    What you hold in your hands is more than a book. This is a culture. This is hip-hop. This book is Biggie and Pac and Rakim and Lauryn Hill. It’s Run-DMC and Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s also Sequence and the Treacherous Three and the Cold Crush Brothers. It’s Arrested Development and Goodie Mob and Freestyle Fellowship. It’s all of these and so many others. Together, MCs have made music and also poetry. We have created a living language through rap.

    Strip all the performance away from rap and what do you have? A new perspective. Reading rap...

    (pp. 801-802)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 803-808)
  15. Index of Songs, Albums, Movies, and Books
    (pp. 809-818)
  16. Index of Artists, Authors, and Labels
    (pp. 819-828)
    (pp. 829-867)