What can rap lyrics teach us about our culture? Tahir Hemphill, a lifelong hip-hop enthusiast, has spent the past four years compiling an “ethnographic database” of hip-hop lyrics to answer that question. Comprising more than 40,000 songs spanning from 1979 to present day, Hemphill’s exhaustive archive makes up the project Hip-Hop Word Count, a searchable rap resource that analyzes lyrics and assigns various metadata to them, such as time, geographic location, word count, syllable count, and readability. By indexing every metaphor, simile, cultural reference, meme and socio-political idea, the Hip-Hop Word Count charts a geography of language and aims to chronicle the migration of ideas throughout rap’s history. It’s a resource that can help answer probing socio-economic questions like, “How does the rise in slang terms for money used in hip-hop lyrics correlate to U.S. poverty levels?” But it also produces some really neat visualizations of iconic rap battles and can track the most popular champagnes cited in your favorite rap songs.
Next week, Hemphill’s project will be one of some 100+ works included in the MoMA’s much anticipated “Talk To Me” exhibition (curated by Paola Antonelli). Antonelli first spotted Hemphill’s work back in October after the artist gave a presentation at the GE & Seed Media Group Visualizing Marathon held at Eyebeam Art & Technology Center. Shortly thereafter, Antonelli selected Hemphill’s prints of Jay-Z and 50 Cent’s career analysis infographics for inclusion in the show, much to the artist’s delight. “I’m ecstatic,” said Hemphill. “I’m an artist and designer who has work in an art and design exhibition at the MoMA.”
We spoke with Hemphill over email to find out more about how Hip-Hop Word Count got started, how the project is developing and where he hopes to take it in the future:
The Creators Project: Your day job is as a creative director and strategic planner at an advertising agency—how did you make the transition to artist? What inspired you to start Hip-Hop Word Count?
Tahir Hemphill: I entered advertising already having been an artist. While in college pursuing a degree in electrical engineering, I taught myself photography and graphic design. During that time I made the commitment to this artist life and went back to school to get formal training. While in the graduate program at Pratt, I had a choice to get an MFA in Photography or an MS in Communications Design. Communications Design seemed like a much more practical use of both my artistic talent and student loan money. After college, I first worked publication design jobs and shortly after, I jumped over to Silicon Alley to support my fine art career. In 2002, I got a break from a boutique creative agency housed in a pre-Starbucks DUMBO where I learned advertising from a mad genius and the creative incubator for the Budweiser Wassup!? phenomena. All along the way my artistic tinkering, coupled with the science education, informed my advertising projects and vice versa.
Tell us about the Hip-Hop Word Count. What inspired this mammoth undertaking, and how did you compile all the data?
I was inspired by a general trend that I observed in modern commercial rap music of an oversimplification of language. I had the suspicion for a while, but then I started hearing this same commentary show up in the lyrics of the rappers themselves. “I can make a mil(llion dollars) saying nothing on a track.” – Mimms; “Them big words ain’t cool. Dumb it down.” – Lupe FIasco. And even more recently, Eminem made a posse cut with Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Dr. Dre called “Syllables” where he makes a commentary on today’s rap fans: “We don’t know a word to a verse, all we know is the chorus ’cause the chorus repeated the same four words for us…”
It seemed to me as if these artists were saying: As artists, we have many rap styles we can use that exercise our language skills and poetical finesse, but that’s not what’s selling; so I’ll give you this simple stuff instead.
I wanted to test my hypothesis that, for a lifelong hip-hop listener, the simplification of the language over time would adversely affect their intelligence. In other words, I wanted to see if this change in rap was making me stupider. After I realized the data from existing music APIs was either incomplete or incorrect
I, with the help of my team of programmers, scraped the internets to compile the initial list. I started with artist names, song titles and album titles, then filled in the rest of the fields with really affordable crowd-sourced labor.
How long did the project take to complete? How will it grow as the hip-hop lyric repository expands?
The initial idea came to me 4 years ago and I’ve been working on it in varying degrees since then. I’ve focussed on it full-time for the past 12 months. My vision is for the Hip-Hop Word Count to be exhaustive—to contain every hip-hop lyric. So as long as people keep making hip-hop music it will grow. The analysis tool will be completed soon, but in terms of new content, hopefully it will never be complete.
How does data visualization enhance the message you’re trying to convey? What does design provide that verbal communication can't on its own?
Datavis design helps with conveying The Hip-Hop Word Count‘s scope. We humans love pictures. After I reached the milestone of tagging every song with release dates and geo-coordinates, I set out to make infographics. Some of the first designs were parallel coordinate graphs of the entire careers of Jay-Z and 50 Cent. People saw this and got it. I'm currently matching sponsors to a research project I’ve just finished that charts every mention of champagne brands through rap music from 1980-2010. On one hand, it’s a quaint idea: rappers and champagne—rad! But when you take a closer look and consider champagne as an aspirational product, it takes on a more profound cultural meaning. The Champagne infographic also shows Jay-Z’s influence, especially his role in the decline of the popularity of Cristal in hip-hop lyrics.
How has the hip-hop community reacted to the project?
Overall, the response from rap fans, journalists, academics, research institutions and advertising folks has been great. It lets me know that I'm communicating about the project clearly. I view critics as the unconverted and strategize on ways to address any valid criticism in the next version of the search tool. I’m looking forward to a response from media moguls.
The response from supporters has been so great that I started holding Rap Research Groups made up of enthusiasts, historians, creatives, technologists, cultural critics, linguists, teachers, MCs and academics. Each session focuses on one theme. As of now, we’ve covered Masculinity, Religion, Migratory Aesthetics and The (Im)possibility of Quantifying Art & Metaphor in Rap. In Autumn 2011 we will meet to discuss Feminism.
How do you think interactivity affects art and intellectual projects? What contributions to your work have you gathered from the public?
The dimension that interactivity gives to art is the one that makes the piece a living thing. Its life isn’t terminal, like a painting’s, it can be updated and renewed by input from its viewers. In a current project that I’m working on with Mozilla, I look at just that concept—using the Tesseract as a jumping-off point. The project allows the viewer to navigate within an interactive capsule of media from a seminal time in New York's history: 1991. The project is inspired by the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights riot and focuses on a critical re-reading of historical events and facts via hip-hop videos, news reels and the larger set of current events and pop culture trends that shaped the public consciousness.
As far as contributions, I get user experience feedback from beta testers. Both supporters and haters have given really thoughtful feedback in the comments section. Both are integral to the work. The lyrics are user-created content, transcribed by fans. In a future version, there will be a CMS where authorized users will be able to correct lyrics that were incorrectly transcribed, etc.
What can the project teach us about our culture? What did you learn while working on the project that you didn't anticipate?
The corpus of hip-hop contains some of the most influential creative writing and performance of the past 30 years. Rap’s aesthetics have migrated to almost every part of the world and are used as a blueprint for self-actualization, class aspiration, liberation, or for simply pissing off parents. The research projects we tackle in The Rap Research Groups live within this type of cultural analysis. The Hip-Hop Word Count allows a contextual view of rap that has never existed in a research tool before.
I’m learning a lot. Hopefully I won’t turn into Hip-Hop Rainman. As a result of organizing so many lyrics, I’ve been reading hip-hop music more so than listening to it. In one way, it seems that listening to the lyric’s performance is the rapper’s intended method of delivery but, then I think about the process of writing, and how lyrics also have to hold their weight when they’re on a page.
I’ve learned that more than 1/3 of the songs in the database contain the term BITCH.
I've learned that rap songs from the 1980s and 1990s generally contain more words than post-year 2000 songs.
I’ve learned that Queens County has the most rappers per capita in the world.
I’ve learned that artists from NYC, L.A. and Miami were first to mention champagne in raps.
Who is your favorite rapper and why? Has your work with the HHWC influenced this at all?
My favorites change constantly. I am biased toward New York City and Atlanta Rap. NYC is where I grew up and I attended Morehouse College in Atlanta so, the cultural references of songs made in these cities resonate with my experience. Because of the vantage point that this project gives me, I’m able to separate my like for an artist from my appreciation of the artist’s importance in hip-hop.
But if you need a list and a reason:
MF DOOM – his references on “Born Like This” are so rooted in 1980s NYC esoteric pop culture, it goes way beyond an inside joke
Cam’ron – for his trife raps
Ghostface – for his food raps
Mos Def – for his liberation raps
Random Axe – for their intelligent hoodlum raps
Kanye – brought emotion back to rap music. Even when he’s posturing you can tell that it’s still a portrait of the artist as a young man
Kid Cudi – because he crystalized what was going on in the mid 2000’s McKibbin Street loft scene. Also because he took Kanye’s emo rap a few steps further
School Boy Q – because in the first lines on his latest independent album he makes a clear demarkation between Kanye clones and himself
Elzhi – because Elmatic, his new remake of Nas’ Illmatic, gets mad rewinds
Big K.R.I.T. – because he’s building on that Organized Noize vibe and legacy
Tyler, The Creator in his earlier, pre-Goblin years – because he has the technical M.C. skills not often displayed in rap’s new generation
Lil’ B – because the ritual spectacle and cult-like positivity he preaches reminds me of Jim Jones (no Dipset)
Nicki Minaj – because as the only visible, female commercial rapper, she is carrying a lot of weight
The HHWC hasn’t influenced who I like, but it does influence my music discovery. For example, I can lock into L.A. County Chicano Gangster Rap from the early 2000’s and explore the themes contained in the lyrics and album covers—that’s pretty fun.