If you look at lists of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, there’s a good chance you’ll spot Common’s “I Used to Love H.E.R.” which might not have gotten the attention it deserved back in 1994 because of the spectacle of Nas’ “Illmatic” and Biggie’s “Ready to Die.” Its place in hip-hop history seems secure, though, and what’s so brilliant about it is how it handles a narrative thread – Common contemplates a relationship he had with a girl who hung out with him at parties and brought him closer to his culture, only to lose her to show business, which requires her to give up her innocence for an image built on drugs and violence. He makes it clear at the end that the girl he’s talking about is hip hop, and given how much he’s done since that song, it’s funny that his relationship with her all those years ago was actually just starting.
On top of putting together a love letter for rap, Common helps us appreciate its history: He discovered hip hop during its formative years, around the time Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five made a splash on mainstream radio with “The Message.” It grew stronger when N.W.A. gave West Coast hip hop a voice with “Straight Outta Compton,” and Public Enemy cut even deeper with “Fight the Power.” Common thought it was all downhill from there, but even with the murders of 2Pac and Biggie on the horizon, the spirit of rap had plenty of life left in it.
Besides, for as groundbreaking as “I Used to Love H.E.R.” was, you can’t fit a genre’s entire legacy into a 5-minute song. Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois probably know that better than anyone – they went through three decades of lyrics to come up with “The Anthology of Rap,” a 920-page volume from Yale University Press that hits stores today. From 12-inch anthems like the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” to the off-guard maturity of Eminem’s “Stan” to bootleg phenomena like Immortal Technique’s “Dance with the Devil,” just about the only thing that isn’t here is Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is)”
Still, for a publisher whose other titles include “The Great Age of the English Essay,” you’ve got to wonder what potential Yale saw for this. DuBois, who teaches at the University of Toronto, said that rap’s survived its adolescence and achieved a deeper meaning, one academics are just starting to appreciate.
“Rap has been around long enough to be immune to the vicissitudes of quality that can threaten a burgeoning art,” DuBois said. “It has a history as well as a vibrant present, and that means that it has a future.”
It’s nice to know that hip hop can produce such a rich body of work, even if the book can’t take the place of the real thing. DuBois, though, said it’s not supposed to stand on its own. “The songs are more widely available than ever,” he said. “They’re not going anywhere.”
In fact, his colleague Bradley from the University of Colorado said focusing on the lyrics strips rap to its soul. “It’s that particular combination of words and beats that has made rap into a global sensation,” he said. “The purpose of the anthology, however, is not to say ‘All right, no need for music anymore!’ Rather, its purpose is to turn the spotlight temporarily on language alone so as to reveal the richness of rap’s poetry. Then, when you go back to listening to the music as a whole, you’ll have a greater appreciation for the artistry of rap’s language.”
As for what kind of curriculum would have a place for this, Bradley said there’s no shortage of professors eager to teach classes on rap. “For years now, professors – and the students they teach – have been bringing hip hop into the classroom,” he said. “‘The Anthology of Rap’ is designed to provide a basic resource for the kinds of critical investigations into rap that are already underway across the country. The lyrics within it provide a means of talking about everything from figurative language to rhyme, from social and cultural history to metaphysics. Together, these lyrics comprise a book of life – a view of the last 30 years as experienced and understood by a talented group of artists.”
Not everybody gets what all the fuss over hip hop is, though. In March, the State Board of Education in Texas killed an attempt to put rap-themed texts on the required-reading list, although Chair Gail Lowe said she can appreciate the influence they have. “While high-school students and their teachers certainly are familiar with hip-hop music, and it could serve easily as an example of a cultural movement in music for which students could describe both positive and negative impacts, the State Board of Education has neither required its study nor forbidden its study,” she said. “The curriculum framework we recently updated for the social studies outlines what must be taught in public-school classrooms. Teachers are free to add to this.”
Though Texas is a pretty big market for educational publishers, Lowe said the decision is more limited than critics might realize. “The Texas State Board of Education adopts the curriculum framework for the K-12 public-school students of our state,” she said. “Our actions would not affect college learning.”
Not that the board’s very supportive of “The Anthology of Rap” going on sale in campus bookstores, either. Don McLeroy, who’s on the Texas SBOE’s Committee on School Initiatives, responded to the question “What place does this have in college learning?” in an e-mail with just one word in capital letters: “NONE.” He never got around to explaining why.
Now that hip hop’s made its way into the classroom, though, “The Anthology of Rap” is bound to turn up at the top of the syllabus. Should you take a course where you have to study this stuff, you’ll probably find new meaning in that lyric from “Dead Wrong” that Biggie has: “Relax and take notes.”
This article originally appeared on AllMediaNY.com