Jay Z and the Colonizing of Hip Hop: the Myth of the Fixed Text

The publication of Jay Z’s Decoded and the recent controversy regarding Yale University’s publication of The Anthology of Rap raise some important questions about the nature of our contemporary culture.

These events are significant, for they point to a schism between the academic and trade print and oral / electronic cultures that are at war with each other. Each event promotes the false assumption that there is a fixed text beneath hip-hop. If there is a fixed text, then hip-hop is just another form of a written text. Yet the opposite is true: hip-hop has no fixed text; each performance is different.

Without the concept of the fixed text, it is difficult for literates to conquer the oral, expressive culture. This couldn’t have been more apparent than when Jay Z was a guest on the Bill Maher show in August of this year.

Leaning over to the rapper, Maher asked him if the importance of rap was “Its much more bout what you are saying?”

Jay Z nodded, yes.

Then Maher brought out a large printed manuscript. “That’s why I ?I don’t know if anybody has ever done this? Has anybody ever done this for you?”

Jay-Z seemed puzzled, as he looked at the tome of empty pages. For a brief moment, he looks afraid. “I don’t know what it is…”

After joking that it was the Bible (the joke went nowhere), he admitted, “Its every one of your lyrics…printed out.-“

The camera went into a close up of the pages as Maher fanned them. “And look how much you have written!”

“Wow!” Jay-Z’s reaction was both astonishment and indifference. He was astonished because Maher’s arrogance was so obvious. Look, we used the alphabet to show that you really are intelligent. And he was indifferent because his aim in hip-hop is not to produce a book. His aim in hip-hop is to produce listeners.

Prompted by audience managers the audience applauds, as if it understood what was at stake.

“Wow,” Jay-Z repeated. “That’s fantastic!”

Then he reached his hand across the table and shook Maher’s hand. “Aw, man. Thank you.” He took the printed manuscript and looked it over, fanning the white pages in dumb amazement. When he noticed that Maher was following his enthusiasm with such attentiveness, he said, “I just wanted to see if they are real.”

Jay-Z assumed that if it is written down, it is real. The manuscript came to be called “The Book of Rhymes.”

Maher went on. “They are really you?”

Had Jay-Z ever realized that he had written this much?

“No, my friends say I gaff a lot but I didn’t know that I gaffed this much.”

“You do!”

The Bill Maher show with the Book of Rhymes provides an invaluable inside into the working of our culture. The context here is that the print culture wants to congratulate the speaker of oral traditions by making him feel that writing his lyrics down and printing them makes him great.

By not using the technical term transcription, Maher seeks to mislead by calling the transcriptions “writing,” as if Jay Z had actually written them. How is it possible to ask the question, “Did you know that you had written this many?” when the art of writing is itself a self-conscious act.

How is it possible for Jay-Z to write The Book of Rhymes, without actually being an author, without writing them? The same question has been asked of the ancient poet Homer. How was it possible to write the longest epic poem and the basis of Western civilization ? all this before writing was even invented?

That is the famous Homeric Question.

According to scholar Barry Powell this becomes the most significant question in the classics for hundreds of years.

(In the twenties, an American classics scholar, Milman Parry, was lying on the beach in Santa Monica, when he had a Eureka moment. He had noticed that in Homer there is a lot of repetition, but the repetition was occurred when epithets like “swift-footed Achilles” would be used even when Achilles was sitting down. He discovered that the poet was thinking of the line not because of the necessity of the plot or the narrative, but because it fit the line, the rhyme scheme.

He didn’t get a chance to research it until he was in Paris and overheard somebody talking about a Yugoslavian who could recite an entire epic even though he was illiterate.

Milman went there and discovered that he could now explain to the world that the key to the Homeric Question was solved. Although he didn’t live long enough to enjoy the success of his discovery?he died tragically from a gunshot wound in a hotel in 1936?his disciple Albert Lord wrote one of the great classics, The Singer of the Tales.)

Now, instead of the Homeric Question, we have the Jay-Z Question. Jay Z grinned at the television audience played the part of the noble savage to the hilt. Nowhere did he let on that he was in on the game.

Neither Homer nor Jay-Z are really writers in the sense that, for example, our President Obama was when he wrote his autobiographies. This is not to say that Jay-Z doesn’t ever write poetry on paper, but it is only a mnemonic device, a way to aid his memory when he is reciting. As an oral poet, neither he nor Homer thinks in terms of sentences, words or texts. Homer was an oral poet because he lived before writing and Jay-Z is one because, although he lives during the time of literacy, as a black man, it was denied him.

Although, he is credited as an “author” when the Book of Rhymes morphed into Decoded, he is not a writer, and good for him.

As with his every thing in his life, Jay-Z found a way to make money out of the Book of Rhymes.

Over the months, after the show, Jay-Z took the book of lyrics and, with the help of a ghostwriter, produced a book called Decoded.

When Decoded came out, at first it met with praise. Jay-Z turned the publication into a social network game of hiding pages and putting his reader into a savages hunt. Not acknowledging that he was not a literate author, he acknowledges his ghostwriter in the preface.

The schism between the print world and the oral performance world of hip-hop began to widen.

If the question of writing and transcription was swept under the rug with the Bill Maher show (it’s television), the issue raised its head again with the publication of Yale’s Anthology of Rap. From the very beginning, critics began to see a rip in the fabric. There were too many errors in the transcription of the words to the page. Here the conflict between word and oral performance was obvious. What the critics were bringing out was that even here, there is a discrepancy.

A few weeks ago, for example, jay smooth, posted an article on Slate about the anthology. In his own words, “I blasted it for being ‘rife with transcription errors'” The following week, he added another article, “14 More Mistakes I found I the Anthology of Rap.”

Then on Nov 10, Paul Delvin pointed out more errors. “Why are there so many errors” in the anthology? He asked.

When these scholars put their errors together, they discovered that most of them?90%–came from an online rap dictionary called OHHLA.

THE OHHLA is an online rap lyric that represents the shoddiest of transcriptions.

“Of the 15 of the 18 instances listed here, the error also appears on OHHLA,” He wrote.

The errors were from mis transcribe a name, or phrase, or whole sentences. These transcriptions give a different meaning to the whole song, in many cases.

Both writers give many examples, including audiotapes that one can listen to and clearly hear what is being said.

When one listens to the audio tracks with the ear of an oral person, it is immediately clear what the rapper is saying. The editors of the anthology, Bradley and Andrew Dubois, English professors, couldn’t understand the lyrics because they, like many highly literates, cannot hear oral traditions.

The students who helped the professors are equally tone deaf to black speech. Like their English professors, the white students are as clueless to the black vernacular as their teachers.

After all, it is not age that is at stake, but the inability of the phonetic alphabet users to comprehend the oral traditions that are living in what Walter Ong, in Orality and Literacy, called “secondary orality.” Although African Americans live in a highly iterate society, they do not let go their oral traditions that have been horned for centuries under a system that denied the use of the alphabet.

Devlin reports that he contacted Julian Padgett one of these undergrads that helped the Adam Bradley with the transcriptions. “I’d like to personally apologize for some of the errors in the book, a” Julian said. He said that they were encouraged by the English Professors to go online and look up the rap lyrics. The editors of the anthology, Bradley and Andrew, admitted that the transcriptions were often flawed.

“The editors are aware of the mistakes in language of the online transcriptions.”

But they wanted to find the mistakes and correct them.

In order to do correct the mistakes, you had to find them. This is where the undergrads ran into trouble.

They couldn’t find the mistakes, because they couldn’t hear them? Why?

Because, like many students, they don’t hear the words of oral traditions at all. But more significant, the meaning of oral performances like Hip-Hop eludes them.

It is the oral tradition, with its alignment with sight, sound and rhythm that escapes the literate college student. The white students are trained by the reading tradition.

Furthermore, the real argument is not between correct or incorrect texts, but between the learned, highly literate print-oriented academics and a new oral cultural that hip-hop represents. For centuries, the values of the literate clasess have dominated over the oral cultural values. But now the tables are turned.

White literate culture, based on the print technology, is pale against the vibrancy of the oral and electroni-based culture that hip-hop represents. One of the ways to fight back is for Yale University Press is to pretend that by pushing an “anthology of rap lyrics” thy are making hip-hop legitimate art form, that somehow this practice was not an art for before it was written down.

The literate is depended on the alphabet, which divides the experience into a visual mode. The auditory mode, the rhymed mode, is shut down. “As an intensification and extension of the visual function, the phonetic alphabet diminishes the role for the other senses of sound and touch and taste in any literate culture.”

In Understanding Media, published over thirty years ago, Marshal Mcluhan believed that damage done by the reading experience is a “sudden breach between the auditory and the visual experience o man. Only the phonetic alphabet makes such a sharp division in experience, giving to its ?an eye for an ear.”


The students are not trained to understand the difference between their culture and the culture of African Americans, because most universities have taken African American professors out of the classrooms. Anthologies about African American expressive practices are self-serving. The white professor who attempts to explain the power of oral traditions by reducing them to writing on a page.

The division between oral traditions and literate print technology is illustrated clearly by the anthology editors’ methodology.

When asked by Devlin how they went about collecting the correct transcriptions, Bradley replied: “Listen toreach song multiple times, typing out an original transcript with the song as the primary “text.”

What he misses is the necessity of supplying context of the song. If there is no discussion of context, it is impossible to understand the transcriptions. Words in oral traditions are not things on the page. Their meaning depends on the context. Sometimes the context is hidden in the song itself. At other times, it is necessary to dig the context out. But it would never occur to the literate mind that there is anything that cannot be written down.

Devlin rightly asks about this kind of conflict between the ear and the eye.

“Using the original as the primary text?seems prudent. When you work from an existing transcription, it can be too easy for your ears to start hearing what your eyes are seeing on the page.”

The print dominates the auditory track and the listener hears what he reads.

“What remains puzzling, however, is how so many errors made it into the anthology.”

One blogger believed that the “errors” didn’t distract from the “Anthology’s raison d’?tre. The most arguable mis-intrepations don’t warrant the discrediting that is happening here. It only works to delegitimize a book that seeks to legitimize an art form that many people still have trouble accepting.”

What is the raison d’?tre of the anthology? He believes it is to “legitimize” hip-hop. Wasn’t hip-hop an art form before the Yale’s publication? Isn’t the oral performance as old as writing? If Blacks had the same access to literacy as whites would we even have any oral forms left.

“As a longtime hop head, I’d been eagerly awaiting the anthology,” another blogger, John Swansbury, wrote, “not just because I knew I’d enjoy reading it and having it as a reference piece, but because of it potential to burnish the intellectual merits of an art for that can all too easily be dismissed to its lesser incarnations.”

Again, like many, Mr. Swansbury assumes that a literate text can help show people that rap is an art form. Can it not be art without somebody writing it down?

The colonizing of oral culture is a process that goes unsuspected.

We should be asking why literate editors are so off the mark about hip-hop. They are off the mark because literates are trying to make it a fixed text. There is no such thing as a fixed text in the oral tradition, which is where hip-hop as an oral performance resides.

A white man with a good handwriting could use it to write a black man into slavery. Not many years ago, a black man would get his fingers chopped off, if he expressed a desire to read and write.

Today, with the help of the digital technology, a rapper can earn hundreds of million dollars a year. No writers of books can come close to that. Institutions like English departments would love to get some attention, but their efforts fail, for the reasons that Mcluhan pointed our in his books and articles.

The irony of the Yale book is that it reveals how desperate print technology has become. Even as English professors scramble around trying try explain why English majors are so lame, they make false claims for literacy.

Students rarely examine the literary bias that oral traditions are based on a text that is impenetrable and invariable. Yet their own practices belied this rule.

Literate professors not only look down on oral cultures, but they raise their disciple high above the Internet culture as well.

They have maintained that the Internet is not a reliable source of information for print. Yet here they were relying o the Internet for the printed versions of lyrics.

“This so terrible,” ‘Werner von Wallerod blogged. “You know if you were a student at Yale and you took 95% of your content from one or two Internet sources and didn’t credit them, you would be in front of the academic review board explaining how your parents would freak if you got suspended. And now the professors are doing it (and encouraging their students to do it) in a book they’re commercially profiting from.”

But the English professors want to sell books. They link their book to the Internet, with a book trailer.

The problem goes even deeper because there is a schism between the print and oral traditions.

“To some Westerners the written or printed word has become a very touchy subject, ” Marshall Mcluhan wrote. He saw how easily the literate white man falls into a “moral panic,” when one talks about literacy and the spoken word. “?Because of its action in extending our central nervous system,” Mcluhan went on, “electric technology deems to favor the inclusive and participation spoken word over the special written word.”

In this illustration, the written specialist would be the Yale professor, and the spoken word would be the rappers. While the printed word is closed, McLuhan claimed, the spoken word is inclusive and participative.

The spoken word is rich with connections to all of the senses, whereas the written word is limited to a visual component. “Suppose,” McLuhan suggested, “instead of displaying the Stars and Stripes, we were to write the words ‘American flag’ across a piece of cloth and to display that.”

The written symbols wouldn’t convey the same richness of the visual mosaic of the Stars and Stripes.

So it is with hip-hop. The words on the page are a pale replica of the rich oral experience. Yet professors want the students be believe they are understanding hip-hop because they have a book in front of them.

By looking at the history of hip-hop and the anti-affirmative actions in the 1970s, we can see why there is a raging war between the literates and the oral traditions like hip-hop.

Hip-hop without a social context is the way that literates like to see the issue. That way they don’t have to explain that hip-hop is a reaction to being locked out of the American Dream, that way they don’t have to explain much about American History.

By the time that the first rappers, Kook Herc and Grandmaster Flash, were beginning to set up their turntables and sound systems in the streets of the Bronx, it was obvious to many that young blacks would have to find another way out of the ghettoes. From the high hopes of the sixties, to the devastating drop by the end of the sixties, I had followed the unfolding events with alarm.

At the beginning of the sixties, I felt as many blacks did that college was an answer. But by the end of that decade, I was not so sure. I knew many blacks who had graduated from Berkeley and had jobs in the school system. Then, after the Bakke decision this all changed. Blacks lost their jobs without being able to get another one.

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Allan Bakke, and declared that blacks seeking justice in education had discriminated him against. The Supreme Court’s decision signaled doom for millions of blacks. If they were to pull themselves up, it wouldn’t be through education. That was when most of the inner-city kids turned to the ethics of hustler.

In 1978, when Kook Herc set up his sound system in the Bronx, he was responding toan apathy that had sweep in on black people after a long period of failure to get affirmative action. The moral panic, which had peaked during the sit-ins, had now been evoked not among white southerners but white northerners. White liberals didn’t want blacks in their schools, either.

Then came rap music, a reaction to the despair, and a reaction that pulled on the music from the sixties. What Kook Herc did was to give the young people hope by playing music that had been popular a decade ago, when black people were black and proud, so he played James Brown: “Say it loud, I’m Back and I’m proud!”

This was not the music of the young blacks in the late 1970s. What Herc did was to bring it back. Just as Homer’s language is not the contemporary of the generation he lived in. It came from another generation, a previous age.

The electricity allowed the rapper to retrieve music from a previous decade to act as a salve against the pain of desegregation. Blacks were desegregated from Education, and as a consequence from the job market.

The response was the creating of a music, which would produce another frame of reference.

Even the tern ‘Hip-hop” derives from the folk culture of the American South, the slave South.

How hip-hop came to be the name of the new music is recorded by Kool Herc as follows: “One day I was setting up my speakers, and this little old lady came by. I notice her from before. She would always be there, in the background. But this time we were alone. She asked me, “When you going to do your hippity hop again.”

Kool Herc liked that so much that he started calling his show hip-hop. What he may not have known was that this lady was referring to “Mr. Hippity Hop,” a game that started in slavery, and was played by black children through out the South.

In the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, ‘Old Man Hippity Hop’ “?tuck my chile; Put him over in de corn fiel’,”

The game describes how “the mother steals her children one at a time from him ?Old Mr. Hippity Hop, who runs around with them behind him. When he is between them and the mother, she cannot get one. He dodges expertly, always limping ” (p. 53).

In the game, one child plays the lead, Mr. hippity Hop, an old man who limps. Mr. Hippity Hop is trying to get the children from the child who plays “The Mother.” What does Mr. Hippity Hop want? He wants the children to work on his plantation.

This lady who gave the name of “Hippity Hop” to Herc was probably from the South, and most likely played the game herself. If you were watching an early group of teenagers dancing to James Brown in the late seventies, it would look like the “Mr. Hippity Hop” game. The character that “walks with a limp” in the black community is sometimes characterized as a pimp, but most certainly he is Mr. Hippity Hop.

The break-dancer, with his legs breaking down, was the epitome of Mr. Hippity Hop, who was always limping. This lameness, which was the slave child’s inversion of the moral disease of slavery, still lived in the 1970s. Mr. Hippity Hop was the original break-dancer.

Furthermore, white professors don’t know this part of our history. When they bring in a book of rap lyrics to their students, they won’t spend much time explaining why blacks resorted to the oral tradition?or why they are not sitting in the classroom. Or why they are not teaching the class on hip-hop.

It is doubtful that he will explain how hard Ward Connerly fought to keep the number of qualified blacks out of U C Berkeley.

The most original of the hip-hoppers were the Last Poets. Interestingly enough, there was never a book of lyrics for this seminal group. Like hip-hop, the songs existed in the hearts and tongues and ears of the living people, as a living legend.

The new interest that university presses find in Hip-hop–under the guise of legitimizing hip-hop–is simply trying to get back into the game.

CECIL BROWN is the author of I, Stagolee: a Novel, Stagolee Shot Billy and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. He can be reached at:



Cecil Brown is the author of Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department?. His latest book is Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor.