Even the most avid hip-hop fans sometimes stumble on deciphering lyrics, especially when there's such a wide range of styles and flows. You have guys like Busta and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony who spit rhymes at what feels like a pace of 150 words a minute, and Kanye and Fablous slowing it down; there's Eminem's Detroit dialect and Lil Wayne’s NOLA twang.
Realizing this, rap enthusiast Tahir Hemphill, the guy behind Staple Crops, decided to create the Hip-Hop Word Count, a searchable ethnographic database built from the lyrics of over 40,000 hip-hop songs from 1979 to present day that is set to launch this fall. After seeing him present his upcoming project at a N.Y. Ignite event, we spoke to Hemphill about this new search tool, how it works, and the cool info he uncovered while building it and during his research. Here's an example: New York rappers were the first to use champagne in their lyrics. Just a note.
Complex: Explain to us what the Hip-Hop Word Count is.
Tahir Hemphill: The Hip-Hop Word Count, is a searchable database built from the lyrics of over 40,000 Hip-Hop songs from 1979 to present day. The Hip-Hop Word Count describes the technical details of most of your favorite hip-hop songs. This data can then be used to not only figure out interesting stats about the songs themselves, but also describe the culture behind the music through lexical and ethnographic analysis.
Complex: Why did you think this was important or needed?
Tahir Hemphill: Analyzing these lyrics can teach us about our culture. Rap has been called the CNN of the hood and the Hip-Hop Word Count locks in a time and geographic location for every metaphor, simile, cultural reference, phrase, meme, and socio-political idea used in the corpus of hip-hop. It then converts this data into explorable visualizations which help us to comprehend this vast set of cultural data.This data can be used to chart the migration of ideas and builds a geography of language and is the engine for a teaching curriculum. So now we have a way to connect news data, census data, and cultural data to the content contained in hip-hop music.
Complex: How did you develop the idea?
Tahir Hemphill: Hip-hop has been woven into our lives and informs many of our life decisions: My views on work ethic are informed by Nas' lyric "Sleep is the cousin of death", my view on breakups was informed by Gangstarr's "Ex To The Next." Insight on how to navigate hood politics is informed by Diamond D's "I'm Outta Here", my views on self-actualization are informed by Rick Ross' hook on "Maybach Music 2." There is a pedagogical relationship between the content and language in hip-hop and its listener. It goes into our ears and affects our brain chemicals and in turn affects our physical bodies. I observed a growing trend for simplified lyrics over time. Many of the songs being played on the radio didn't have the same density that I grew up listening to, the radio songs are hot, but I was concerned with how the lyrics affected me. I wondered if as a life long hip-hop listener whether these types of lyrics were making me stupider.
Complex: What reactions did you receive when you decided to take on this project?
Tahir Hemphill: It was mixed. Some people thought it was genius and made suggestions on how to make it a scientific study. Some people told me it was impossible to do.
Complex: Well, apparently it is not impossible. Congrats on exceeding your $7,500 goal on Kickstarter, how does that feel?
Tahir Hemphill: Thank you. It feels great to have surpassed the Kickstarter goal because over 95 percent of the people who pledged to the project, I do not know. They shared the project's vision and put their money where their mouth is. That's dope!Complex: Have any rappers reached out to you about the project?
Tahir Hemphill: Yes. Fred Brathwaite (Fab 5 Freddy) supports the project and General Steele from Smif N' Wessun attended the last Rap Research Group that covered the (Im)Possibility of quantifying art. I'm sure the internet-savvy rappers have seen the project. Maybe they're waiting to see what my angle is or maybe they've just never heard of the project. I've learned that aside from the personal research I want to do with the database my primary job is to make sure that the search tool gives people accurate results.Complex: Whose else's opinions would you like to hear?
Tahir Hemphill: The Zulu Nation, Russell Simmons, Edward Tufte, KRS-One, Jay-Z, Cornell West, MF DOOM, E-40, Nicki Minaj, M.I.T., and Lil B.Complex: Interesting list. Lil B, Cornell West, and Nicki Minaj stick out.
Tahir Hemphill: Lil B because he is a phenomenon right now and a lot of young people love him. Just in terms of his content, it's wild to me. He is really interesting to watch. Nicki Minaji because she is basically the only commercial female rapper that’s out. Cornell West because he always has a Birdseye's view of how all of these things fit together in terms of American and African-American History. He is always able to pull together things together that usually seems separate from each other. He seems to contextualize them in a way that makes sense.
Complex: It's cool how you used technology to connect the almanac, explain the connection?
Tahir Hemphill: At first I would calculate the stats by hand. After posting the results to www.staplecrops.com, I got great feedback. People asked me to analyze specific rappers and whole albums. That was something that I wanted to see happen, but I wasn't going to do it by hand, so I had to figure out a way to automate the process. And that's what we have now.
Complex: It’s a search tool right? Explain how it works.
Tahir Hemphill: Yeah, you can do a keyword search such as searching by an artist, record label, or by date. If you want to research lyrics that talk about spinach or songs that have the word spinach pop up, you can search that, too. You can type in LL Cool J and all of his songs will pop up. You can search by geographical regions, city, or state. You can even search by education, reading level, or word count.
Complex: That’s great. So who are some of the smartest rappers based on your research?
Tahir Hemphill: [Laughs]. I don’t know because the difference between intelligence of a rapper and the reading level doesn’t always correlate. I did an analysis for Obama’s energy policy speech and John McCain’s energy policy speeches and I posted them to the website and they get the same score. I think it's because their speechwriters probably went to the same school. So just because you have a text written by someone doesn’t mean they are smart. I mean, the person could be dumbing it down, the person could be way smarter than the text they write and to actually do that you have to be pretty smart. To write to different audiences—that’s pretty advanced.
Complex: Well, you mentioned New York rappers were the first to start referencing champagne in their lyrics, any other interesting influences you would like to research?
Tahir Hemphill: New York is going to be the first in many things so it is definitely the case with the first mention of champagne in a rap. Los Angeles follows close behind with their first mention two years later. But what would be an interesting research project is to chart the influence of The South on The North. To see how slang has changed and even rhythm style over time.
Complex: Why should Complex readers try this new tool?
Tahir Hemphill: Complex readers and editors need it in their lives. Readers can have a wider context of the music. You have content and you have the lyrics, you have location on earth, and you have the time. If editors are doing a story about the history of sneakers, soda, or the migration of southern slang throughout the years, there is no other tool like this that will help you do it. You can piece stuff together or you can rely on your memory, but our memory often times fails us. It’s a nice way to take your opinion of hip hop out of conjecture and emotions of what you remember and what you feel and to actually base it on fact.
Complex: What’s next for you?
Tahir Hemphill: In the next version, we plan to have a graphing function. So people can come to the site do a search, graph the results, share it with friends and discuss whether or not living in higher altitudes creates a natural proclivity for gangster rap. Or people can search their names to see how many times a rapper has mentioned them and in what way. Or up and coming rappers can study the rich legacy that came before them.