Paul Devlin has a fascinating series of articles at Slate on transcription errors in the recently-published Anthology of Rap. Well, the first one starts out as a review of the book, but after the first paragraph or so, it's all about the Mondegreens: "Fact-Check the Rhyme (The Anthology of Rap is rife with transcription errors. Why is it so hard to get rap lyrics right?)", 11/4/2010; "It Was Written (Why are there so many errors in The Anthology of Rap? The editors respond)", 11/10/2010; "Stakes Is High (Members of the Anthology of Rap's advisory board speak out about the book's errors. Plus: Grandmaster Caz lists the mistakes in his lyrics.)", 10/19/2010.
Some of the cited errors are more consequential than others:
1. At the 1:58 mark, the anthology transcription reads "against the very best." Caz told me it should be "we rock the very best."
2. At 2:03, the anthology has "And you'll be so impressed." Caz said it should be "And baby I want your address."
As Devlin admits,
Transcription of rap lyrics is excruciatingly difficult, due to speed of delivery, slang, purposeful mispronunciation, and the problem of the beat sometimes momentarily drowning out or obscuring the lyrics.
We can add the problem of background noise in live recordings, and the difficulty of decoding local or personal allusions. But there seem to be a lot of errors that are just careless, and Devlin points out several places where unlikely mis-hearings seem to have been copied from on-line collections of lyrics, contradicting the anthology editors' claims of a painstaking seven-step transcription methodology. One particularly egregious case:
Here is an example in which it seems like nobody bothered to even listen to the song, but instead must have relied on some incorrect transcript. On the 1979 song "Superrappin'," Melle Mel of the Furious Five does not say "1-2-3-4-5-6-7/ rap like hell make it sound like heaven/ 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 …" He says "one, 23, 45, 67/ rap it like hell make it sound like heaven/ seven, 65, 43, 21 …"
But ironically, Devlin himself is rather careless here, at least by the standards of scholarship that he (appropriately) would like to see The Anthology of Rap uphold. In the first place, he slightly misquotes TAR's transcription. Here's an image of the relevant part of p. 72, courtesy of amazon.com:
In his account of TAR's transcription, Devlin omits "You say" from the 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 line, and the "and" from the "Rap like hell (and) make it sound like heaven" line. He also leaves out an initial "fifty" in the second next-to-last line, which I transcribe (see and hear below) as "fifty-seven sixty-five forty-three twenty-one".
As for what Melle Mel really sang in the "hell and heaven line, it was this:
which (after listening carefully several times with headphones) I transcribe as
rappin' like hell to make it sound like heaven
There are a couple of plausible differences of opinion here. There's definitely a sung syllable between "rap" and "like", and another between "hell" and "heaven". TAR omits the first; Devlin omits the second. I hear the first one as the participial ending "-in" , while Devlin hears it as "it"; I hear the second one as "to", while TAR hears it as "and".
Devlin is absolutely right to excoriate TAR for its transcription of the number-sequence lines. Here's the first one:
I transcribe this as
((I)) say one twenty three forty five sixty seven
TAR's version is so completely wrong that Devlin wonders if they even bothered to listen, rather than just copying some website's version of the lyrics:
You say 1-2-3-4-5-6-7
I wonder whether this might have been botched by a copy editor, who saw something like "1 23 45 67" and figured it had been badly typed by the transcriber. Whatever the reason, it's a bad mistake. (On the other hand, Devlin didn't listen very carefully either, since he leaves out the initial "fifty" two lines later.)
Devlin notes that the editors promise to correct some of their errors in future editions.
While we're on the subject of possible improvements in future editions of The Anthology of Rap, I'd like to note that a critical aspect of these lyrics is systematically missing from the kind of transcripts that this anthology provides, no matter how textually accurate they might become. I'm talking about the relationship of the lyrics to the metrical background. This is implicit in the original recordings, of course — but so are the words themselves.
As an example, here's the whole passage whose TAR transcription is shown above:
Here's my transcription:
uh comin' up and I got ta step above the rest
((a guy that uses)) that ladder they call success
((I)) say one twenty-three forty-five sixty-seven
rappin' like hell to make it sound like heaven
((fifty-))seven sixty-five forty-three twenty-one
come on Rahiem uh come and get some
(There are lots of things I'm not sure about. For example, is the syllable before "comin' up" a version of "I" or "I'm", or (as I've transcribed it) just "uh"? This is a good reason, as Devlin suggests, to ask the authors for corrections while it's possible to do so.)
The basic rhythmic analysis of this piece is fairly easy, since its minimal time unit (of a bit more than 1/8 of a second) is pretty clear throughout, either in the rapping or in the musical background. (That doesn't guarantee that I made no mistakes in the analysis below — but it should make it relatively easy to correct errors — Breffni O'Rourke pointed out several in my original transcription — and settle most disagreements.)
These minimal units are grouped four to the beat — i.e. every fourth unit is nominally stronger — and there are typically four beats per line, both in the metrical background and in the lyrics. Generally, the stressed syllables in the lyrics align with the strong beats in the background meter, except in the last position in lines with masculine rhymes, where the last stressed syllable generally anticipates the musical beat by one minimal unit. However, sometimes (as in the last line of these three couplets) there is more extensive "syncopation". This line has only three strong syllables in the lyric, and the last of them is only one that aligns with a strong beat in the metrical background!
(As always in such cases, there's an interesting question whether this should be thought of as a superficial deviation from an underlyingly square rhythm, or rather as a different draw from a set of available polyrhythmic patterns. For some more discussion, see e.g. "Rock syncopation: Stress shifts or polyrhythms?", 11/26/2007. Note in any case that the mixture of four-beat and three-beat (lyric) lines evokes the traditional English ballad meter, whatever we're to make of the variations in alignment.)
In the metrical transcription below, I've used lower-case letters for off-beat minimal time elements, and upper-case letters for the time-points corresponding to the "beat", with X and x for time-points aligned with syllables in the lyric, and O and o for time-points without a corresponding syllable. The audio clip is repeated here for convenience:
This notation is somewhat clunky, and it would be easy to do better, say with some system of diacritics (for indicating the beat alignment of syllables) and interpolated symbols (for indicating beats without aligned syllables). But however we notate it, it seems to me that anyone who cares about rap or hiphop as poetry ought to be interested in its meter. The fact that European and American art poetry has largely been largely unmetered for the past century shouldn't prejudice the analysis of the genuinely sung lyrics of the same period, where the musical background and its relationship to the words is isomorphic to traditional notions of metrical structure in accentual-syllabic verse during the previous five centuries or so.
The metrics of hiphop and rap are particularly rich and interesting, in my opinion, and many scholarly books and papers will no doubt be written on this subject eventually. In retrospect, TAR's lack of any substantive discussion of rap meter will (I predict) seem even stranger than the scholarly carelessness of its transcriptions.
The first 30 or so comments on this post were mostly about nit-picky points of who-heard-what-where in the particular passage that I reproduced above. For a while, I tried to respond to questions, and to delete repetitive "me too" posts on various aspects of this debate — but the problem is, all of these comments are essentially beside the point, except for underlining the fact that transcription of rap lyrics has a subjective aspect.
No one commented on what seem to me to be the essential (and interesting) aspects of this topic:
- How should an attempt at a scholarly treatment of rap lyrics deal with transcriptional uncertainties? Similar problems exist in editing texts from old manuscripts, which may contain unclear regions, scribal errors, mutiple copies with different material, and so on. There are several traditional solutions: which would be most appropriate here? Or is there a need (or an opportunity) for something new?
- How should we think about the meter of rap? In the particular case I discussed, an application of Temperley's theory of rock syncopation turns it into a rather traditional structure of rhymed couplets with 4+4 or 4+3 beats. Is this a good way to look at it, even though it ignores the patterns of performed beat alignments? What's the historical and stylistic distribution of this particular pattern? (My not-very-well-supported impression is that it was common 30 years ago, around the time of Superrappin', but was largely replaced later by other forms.
So I've put the original post and its comments (well, those I didn't delete earlier) here, deleted (most of) the repetitive bickering, retitled this one, and opened the floor to further discussion. Comments that contain no contribution beyond something like "I think line three started with 'you say'" or "I did/didn't hear 'fifty'" will be deleted — if you want to have a spirited debate about the proper textual transcription of these particular six lines (among the many thousands of lines in the anthology), feel free to set it up on your own blog, and I'll link to it here for those who want to participate.