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Meet the rap-ademics

The Ivy League offers its esteemed interpretation on the ‘virtue and complexity’ of hip-hop lyrics

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / December 14, 2010

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Maybe you missed rapper Jay-Z (real name: Shawn Carter) “in conversation’’ with former Harvard African-American studies professor Cornel West and aesthete-at-large Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library last month. Your loss.

Rapmaster West, familiar to millions for his cameo roles in the “Matrix’’ movies, likened Mr. Z to the golden age Greek philosophers. That prompted Z to observe: “I have been playing Plato to Biggie’s Socrates.’’ Biggie refers to Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G. (real name: Christopher George Latore Wallace), who perished in an unsolved drive-by shooting in 1997.

Not to be outdone, Holdengraber compared Z to Ezra Pound, and praised the “Talmudic’’ commentary in Z’s new book, “Decoded’’: “You are interested in the virtue of difficulty and complexity and ambivalence.’’

Here is a snippet of that complexity and ambivalence, quoted from Yale University Press’s just-published “The Anthology of Rap’’:

But since when y’all [deleted] know me to fail? [deleted], naw Where all my [deleted] with the rubber grips? Bust shots And if you with me, mama, run on your [deleted], and whatnot.

Yes, the Yale press has taken a break from publishing books like “From Land to Mouth: The Agricultural ‘Economy’ of the Wola of the New Guinea Highlands’’ to celebrate the latter-day Ezra Pound and his contemporaries, such as Pharoahe Monch, dead prez, Doom, and of course Ludacris. Finally, the academy has caught up with and embraced hip-hop. Welcome to rap-ademia.

The first rap-ademic was Henry Louis Gates Jr., then at Duke, now at Harvard, who provided expert testimony at the 1990 obscenity trial of rappers 2 Live Crew. Florida had tried to block distribution of the Crew’s hit album “As Nasty as They Want to Be.’’ The song titles can’t be printed here, but here is a sampling of their work — inexplicably overlooked by the editors of Yale’s rap anthology:

I [deleted] all the girls and make them cry I’m like a dog in heat, a freak without warning I have an appetite for sex, ’cause me so horny.

Commenting on his testimony in The New York Times, Gates explained that Crew’s “exuberant use of hyperbole (phantasmagoric sexual organs, for example) undermines for anyone fluent in black cultural codes a too literal-minded hearing of the lyrics.’’ The Florida obscenity charges were dismissed on appeal.

Thanks to Yale’s groundbreaking scholarship, rap exegesis is the order of the day. When Slate magazine writer Paul Devlin started to question the accuracy of Yale’s transcriptions, a ripple of criticism quickly became a tidal wave. Slate even recruited “hip-hop pioneer’’ Grandmaster Caz into fact-checking his own lyrics in the Yale book.

Not surprisingly, Caz found errors in Yale’s version of his famous 1981 rap battle with the Fantastic Five. At one point in the text, Yale renders “And baby I want your address’’ as “And you’ll be so impressed.’’

More errors: Yale: “Like Reggie Joe on the seven-oh.’’ Caz: “Like Crazy Joe on the seven-oh.’’ The reference, Caz told Slate, “is to a South Bronx beat cop known as Crazy Joe, who patrolled 170th Street . . . a well-known figure in South Bronx street lore.’’

I’m glad we cleared that up.

The assiduous Devlin even tracked down several members of Yale’s rap advisory board, who fretted about the lacunae in the hip-hop canon. In an e-mail to Slate, novelist Adam Mansbach, founding editor of the hip-hop journal Elementary, wrote: “The stakes are always high with hip-hop; it’s a perpetual battleground in the culture war being waged in this country, and we can’t afford to be mangling the words of our most articulate spokespeople.’’

Not to be outdone, Harvard has its own Hiphop Archive, curated by professor Marcyliena Morgan. I wanted to hear her opinion on Yale’s shoddy rap scholarship, but she didn’t return my call.

In the late 1990s, two California newspapers, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times, helped feed a conspiracy theory that the CIA had introduced crack cocaine into the state’s inner cities to keep African-Americans down.

No need! Rap and hip-hop, with their celebration of ignorance, gangster-ism — sorry, gangsta-ism — and violence against women are doing the job just fine. Forget the CIA. Rap moguls like Jay-Z and the businessman known as Diddy or P. Diddy (real name: Sean Combs) have got this one covered.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com