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'The Anthology Of Rap': Lyrics As Poetry

Hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash
Scott Gries
Getty Images
Hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash

Now almost 40 years old, rap burst out of the Bronx to become one of the dominant musical and cultural forces in this country.  A new book, The Anthology of Rap, tracks the development of the genre -- from New York house parties to Eminem and Jay-Z -- by presenting lyrics from some of America’s greatest rappers as poetry. Adam Bradley, co-editor of the book, tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz that rap's origins had no words at all.

"Before there was rapping, there was DJing," Bradley says. "A DJ would be at a party playing songs and focusing on the breaks, those most exciting, energizing drum sequences, and running those back and forth to get the dancers excited. Then they had to do something on the microphone to keep people's attention ... so what developed out of DJing was the very concept of MCing: putting words in rhyme to the music."

Some of the earliest rappers began as DJs, Bradley says.

"Eddie Cheeba, DJ Hollywood, even Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers ... these are people who started often as DJs and then made the transition into the lyrical art."

In the book, Bradley traces many of the classic rhymes to DJ Eddie Cheeba.

"The great Chuck D of Public Enemy once said about Eddie Cheeba that he was as important to hip-hop as Ike Turner was to rock 'n' roll. You go into the lyrics and you can see just that," Bradley says. "Think about a phrase that's become really a part of the popular idiom, something like, 'Wave your hands in the air.' This is Eddie Cheeba in 1979. This is part of an oral tradition that stretches much further back than the actual history of recorded hip-hop."

The first mainstream hip-hop hit was "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang. The lyrics to that song, Bradley says, are about the art form itself.

"When he gets to the verse, he says, 'Now what you hear is not a test, I'm rapping to the beat' ... it's written about its stanza!"

A little while later, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released a song that would change the direction of hip-hop forever.

"'The Message' really was a kind of turn in hip-hop -- it was a turn towards social consciousness," Bradley says. "It looked at the world around these folks and talked about their realities. ...

"Rap has always been about these tensions, the tension between the party and the profit, between the sense of social responsibility, but also the need to rock the crowd ... to make people think and move their feet. Rap is all of these things at once, and it's still that way today."

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NPR Staff