Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Slate's Takedown of Yale University Press's Anthology of Rap: Why I Love and Hate the Internet

Over the past month Slate's Paul Devlin has written an exhaustive critique—in several installments—of the recently published Anthology of Rap from Yale University Press. You can find it here, here, and here. Devlin discovered that the Anthology, which aims to be a collection of the most important rap lyrics since the genre's founding in the 1970s, has numerous transcription errors, many of which betray an ignorance of the songs context and many of which render a meaningful lyric nonsensical. Some of the errors also are identical to transcription errors made by amateurs who contribute to lyric archive websites. Further digging on Devlin's part revealed that the project's editors only consulted with their impressive advisory board briefly toward the beginning of the project (and never again) and that, while the editors sent proofs to about 30 of the featured artists, these artists were not given sufficient time to make corrections.

This paragraph—a quote from Adam Mansbach, founding editor of the hip-hop journal Elementary and a member of the Anthology of Rap's underutilized advisory board—is especially damning:

The Anthology is disappointing to me on several levels. Most importantly, this is a book that seeks to establish the relevance and artistry of hip-hop lyricism, and instead it's made many of the world's best MCs look downright incoherent by misrepresenting their words. When Ice Cube says "your plan against the ghetto backfired," and it gets turned into "you're playing against the ghetto black fly," more has happened than just a simple error in transcription; you've made an important song perplexing and impenetrable—while staking a claim, backed by institutional power and market presence, that your version is canonical.

Thank goodness for the Internet. Twenty years ago a critique such as the one Devlin has put together would have appeared in an obscure academic journal or possibly in an article in The Source (and it would have been much smaller in scope). The critique would have reached a small audience several weeks or months after the Anthology's publication. Today, I wouldn't be surprised if the number of people who have read Slate's critique of the Anthology is greater than the number of people who own a copy of the book. An anthology of rap lyrics is a worthy project and is something that I'm sure many scholars, students of culture, and hip-hop fans would love to have. But surely all interested parties are now aware of this volume's shortcomings and can decide whether they want to spend $35 on a book with dozens of critical errors or wait for a revised edition (or a better anthology from a different publisher).

This discussion has spread well beyond Slate, inviting many people to take a close look at lyrics they have heard but never analyzed and giving many readers a greater appreciation of the skill that the best MCs bring to their craft. Well done, Internet.

On the other hand, I feel bad for the editors of the Anthology and others involved in its production. While there's much that they could have done that would have limited errors and made the final product stronger, I'm sure they worked hard to create what they felt would be a quality piece. As someone with many years of experience in publishing, I understand that editors seldom have time to take all of the quality control measures they would like to take; there's a lot more to publishing, after all, than writing (or compiling) and proofreading (such as typesetting, copyediting, hitting catalog deadlines and trade lists). I don't want to excuse these editors' mistakes, but I feel bad that the Internet has exposed every flaw in their work and that people who otherwise wouldn't have known about the Anthology are well aware of its editors' goofs. I feel for anyone who has to deal with that sort of pressure (even if the pressure is somewhat warranted).

That said, good job, Internet. To all people: Know that the Internet could call you to account for anything you do or work on. No matter how obscure the subject matter, there are people out there who care and who won't accept anything resembling corner-cutting. This devotion to quality control is in many ways a blessing, but it also puts a lot more pressure on anyone who dares to create.


Blogger Matt Wittlief said...

I'll place my thoughts regarding this piece almost entirely in the "love" column.

While I can attempt to empathize with the trials and tribulations of publishing, the point of this article is clear that an entity such as Yale University Press needs to be called to the carpet for sloppy technique. It is refreshing that such institutional giants can be exposed for what they are: humans.

We have a tendency to give undue respect to such institutions or scholars and accept their works as fact. This is the true beauty of the internet - an army of average joes or a handful of experts can have their voices heard, their knowledge disseminated, and their names recognized.

I truly marvel at Wikipedia and the wisdom of crowds. It is a wonderful example of how the people can triumph over the elite. The editors and experts at Brittanica cannot hold a candle to elegance of Jimmy Wales's experiment.

The future of the internet holds many other wonderful and unforeseen advances. Let's hope the elites (big business and big government) can keep their hands off and let innovation rule.

6:53 AM  

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