Magazine article The New Yorker

Rap Sheet

Magazine article The New Yorker

Rap Sheet

Article excerpt

Here's the origin story for Hip Hop Word Count, the database of fifty thousand rap songs, beginning in 1979, which, among other things, can tell someone when a particular word, such as "champagne," first appeared in a rap song, whose song it was, and where he or she came from (February, 1982; Curtis Blow; Harlem). Also, how many times it has appeared (eight hundred and eighty).

Tahir Hemphill, the Word Count's designer, an artist and a scientist, forty, with a corona of black hair, was sitting in his car in 2006--on West Twenty-ninth Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues--listening to the radio, when "This Is Why I'm Hot," by Mims, a New York rapper, came on. "Very simple song, monosyllabic words, a big hit," Hemphill said. "It's sort of Southern style. It's singsongy, it's got a repeated chorus, it's anthemic, very loud and percussive, it's a party starter, and it's a commentary about rap, because he's saying, 'I can sell a mill / Sayin' nothing on the track.' " He went on, "I remember rewinding rap songs on cassette to hear the words. I started wondering if the trend of dumbing down lyrics was dumbing me down, too. My scientist kicked in, and I thought, There must be a way to do a scientific study on this. At the time, I was working at an advertising agency, and my friend was saying, 'I have to Fry this copy.' I was, 'What are you talking about?' 'I'm writing this pharmaceutical copy,' she said, 'and it's got to be readable by someone with a seventh-grade education or lower.' So she showed me readability formulas."

Readability formulas rate complications in a piece of writing. The Fry formula, developed by Edward Fry, a reading teacher, uses sentence length and syllables to assign the grade level necessary to understand a specific text. Hemphill decided that he would employ two readability formulas: SMOG, the acronym for Simplified Measure of Gobbledygook; and Flesch, designed by Rudolf Flesch, a champion of plain English. From the length of sentences and words, SMOG calculates the number of years of schooling a reader needs in order to comprehend a text, and Flesch determines how challenging the text is to read.

"First rapper I did was Rakim Allah," Hemphill said. "Mid-eighties to early nineties. He's very intelligent, and touted as having the most complex and best metaphors." Hemphill was sitting in his studio, at the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, in Chelsea, where he has been an artist-in-residence--he is now a fellow at the Du Bois Institute Hiphop Archive, at Harvard. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.