Chuck D: Insights on the Anthology of Rap

The Anthology Of Rap

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 Rap is a landmark text. What makes it so important is that the voices included within it are from the artists themselves, but they are presented in a way that gives the words context and meaning as part of a tradition. Anyone could put together a bunch of lyrics, but an anthology does something more: it provides the tools to make meaning of those lyrics in relation to one another, to think about rap both in terms of particular rhymes, but also in terms of an art form, a people, and a movement. Every great literature deserves a great anthology. Rap finally has its own.

I first heard about The Anthology of Rap after meeting Dr. Adam Bradley at a symposium sponsored by the HipHop Archive at Harvard University. A few weeks later, I interviewed him on my Air America Network radio show, ON THE REAL, about his first book, Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. I was fascinated by what I would call the emergent “artcademic” perspective he was describing. Here was someone who grew up with the music and had gone on to study it in a social context as well as “gettin down to it” on the level of language. He was spitting out a well-considered, highly analytical point of view to a mass audience that too often defines rap merely by what they hear on radio and see on television. Along with Dr. Andrew DuBois, Dr. Bradley has now brought us a book that just might break the commercial trance that’s had rap in a chokehold for the last several years. Rap now has a book that tells its lyrical history in its own words.

My own history in hip hop goes back decades. I started out in back in 1979 as a mobile DJ/MC under a crew called Spectrum City in Long Island, New York. Most of the shows we did were in less than ideal acoustic situations. Luckily my partner Hank Shocklee, who is now regarded as a sonic genius in the realm of recording, was just as astute about getting the best sound available out of the least amount of equipment. The challenge for many MCs was figuring out how to achieve vocal projection and clarity on inferior sound systems. I’ve always had a big voice, so my criteria was different because my vocal quality and power were audible. The content of my rhymes was heady because of what I knew. I’d been influenced by big voices like Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I studied the rhymes and rhythms that worked and tried to incorporate my voice and subject matter in a similar manner. I had to be distinct in my own identity. That was a very important aspect to propel me beyond the pack.

Most MCs don’t listen to enough other MCs. As artists we need to open our ears to as many styles as possible, even—and maybe especially—those that are not commercially successful. In sports you must study the competition. You’ve got to game-plan. You’ve got to school yourself not just about the defending champions, but about every team in the league. In these times, the individualization of the MC has often meant isolation—artists focus on a single model, a single sound. Some focus is a good thing, of course, but too much leads to a lot of rappers sounding the same, saying the same things, finding themselves adrift in a sea of similarity.

Rakim's Flow on 'I Know U Got Soul' and Biz Markie's 'Nobody Beats the Biz' inspired Chuck D's flow on Rebel w/o a Pause

Having a range of lyrical influences and interests doesn’t compromise an MC’s art. It helps that art to thrive and come into its own. For instance, my lyrics on “Rebel Without a Pause” are uniquely mine, but even the first “Yes” I utter to begin the song was inspired by another record—in this case, Biz Markie’s “Nobody Beats the Biz,” a favorite of mine at the time. The overall rhyme style I deployed on “Rebel” was a deliberate mixture of how KRS-One was breaking his rhymes into phrases and of Rakim’s flow on “I Know You Got Soul.” Although the craft is difficult, the options are many and the limits are few. There are many styles to attend to and numerous ways to integrate them into your own art, transforming yourself and those styles along the way.

That’s where The Anthology of Rap comes in. It reminds us just how much variety truly exists in this thing we call rap. KRS-One raging against police brutality is far removed from Will Smith beefing about parents that just don’t understand or UGK explaining the intricacies of the street pharmaceutical trade, but all of them are united through rhyming to a beat. We learn more as rap artists and as a rap audience by coming to terms with all those things that rap has made.


Back in 2006 I did a collaboration with the great conscious rapper Paris. Paris singlehandedly created a Public Enemy album called Rebirth Of A Nation. At the time, people asked why an MC like me would relinquish the responsibility of writing my own lyrics. My reason was simple: I thoroughly respect the songwriter and happen to think there is a valuable difference between the vocalist and the writer. Rarely are people gifted in both or well trained and skilled enough to handle both at once. The unwavering belief that MCs should always and only spit their own rhymes is a handicap for rap. In my opinion, most writers shouldn’t spit and most vocalists shouldn’t write unless there is a unique combination of skill, knowledge, ability, and distinction. To have Paris write my lyrics as well as produce the music added a breath of freshness to my voice. I put my ego aside—a hard thing for a lot of rappers to do—and was rewarded with a new weapon in my lyrical arsenal, unavailable had I simply gone it alone.

In order for a lyric to last, it takes time and thought. Although top-of-the-head freestyles might be entertaining for the moment, they quickly expire. Even someone like Jay-Z, who claims never to write before rhyming, does his own form of composition. He has the older cat’s knowledge, wisdom, and understanding of the many facets of multi-dimensional life zones and the ability to exercise his quickness of wit and tongue. Few MCs have his particular combination of gifts. Lyricism is a study of a terrain before it’s sprayed upon like paint on a canvas. Most MCs would do better to think and have a conversation regarding what to rhyme about before they spit. While the spontaneity of the words to a beat might bring up-to-the-minute feelings to share, one cannot sleep on the power of the word—or in this case the arrangement and delivery of many words in rhythm.

When it comes down to the words themselves, lyricism is vital to rap, and because rap fuels hip-hop, this means that lyricism is vital to hip-hop culture as a whole. A rapper that really wants to be heard must realize that a good vocabulary is necessary like a good ball-handler sports his dribble on a basketball court. Something should separate a professional rapper from a 6th grader. Lyricism does that. Even when a middle school kid learns a word and its meaning, social comprehension and context take time to master. Even when a term or a line is mastered, the challenge should be on how many more peaks a rapper can scale to become a good lyricist. We all should know that the power of a word has both incited and prevented war itself.

Good lyrics, of course, have been around far longer than rap. They’re the life-blood of song. They direct the music and the music defines the culture. This is true for rap even though some mistake the music as being all about the beat. People sometimes overate the beat, separating it from the song itself. I ask folks would they rather just listen to instrumentals? The general response is no. Listeners want to have vocals driving the beat, but—importantly–not stopping it or slowing it down. It takes a master to ride any wild beat or groove and to tame it. Rakim, KRS-One, André 3000, MC Lyte, Black Thought and Nas are just a few such masters featured in this anthology. They will make the music submit to their flows while filling those flows with words to move the crowd’s minds, bodies, and souls. So reading lyrics on the page gives us a chance to understand exactly what makes these lyrics work. What’s their meaning? What’s their substance? How do they do what they do?

written by Chuck D

May 15 2010

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