A corpus Based Analysis into the Lyrics of Male American Rap Music icon

A corpus Based Analysis into the Lyrics of Male American Rap Music

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Chapter 2.

Literature Review

This literature review will begin with a brief account of the genre of Hip-hop, looking at the historical and social origins of the music and then the elements that constitute the overall Hip-hop culture. Following this it will look at taboo language as I feel that it is an integral part of Hip-hop music. The music of Hip-hop is part of an overall Hip-hop culture, for this reason I will look at research into subcultures and how they identify themselves from the mainstream ‘norm’. Finally this review will look at corpus research and previous studies that chose to use the same methods as this piece.


A brief look at previous research into other genres of music that have taken place, shows both Cohen’s (1972) research into Mods and Rockers and Trudgill’s (1983) research into the pronunciation of British artists. In his study Trudgill analysed the pronunciation of British popular rock artists, such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, identifying a number of ‘American’ phonetic patterns in their singing styles.. I will not look at these studies in detail.


The terms ‘Hip-hop’ and ‘Rap’ are used interchangeably in society, however the former refers to the whole culture and the latter to one of the key elements that the culture consists of. For ease of reading this paper will use the two terms interchangeably. Hip-hop is regarded as a culture that is made up of four elements: the DJ, emceeing, graffiti art and break dancing. This study will look at one of these elements, being that of ‘emceeing’, which is also known as ‘rapping’.

Due to the fact that very little linguistic research has been applied to Hip-hop music part of this review will refer to sources that are not necessarily academic, however I feel that their presence is vital to a complete review.

In his thesis Lewis (2003) proposes two key reasons why research into rap music is, to date, very minimal. It can be seen how initially the genre was perceived as a ‘passing fad’ (Lewis 2003:8), and that it is not until recently that the genre has spread from the ‘underground music scene appealing primarily to a subculture of Black youth…[to a] suburban white middle-class America’ (Lewis 2003:9). Lewis argues that it due to this ‘migration’ from a relatively small audience to the American, and English, mainstream that various academic scholars will begin to take notice in the near future.

Rap music is undoubtedly very different to other forms of music in that for the majority of the time an unfamiliar listener would not understand what the artist is actually saying. Whilst there are a variety of reasons it could be argued that both the rapid tempo and the specialised lexis pose numerous problems for individuals who are more familiar to other musical genres. Rhodes (2003) quotes Stephney’s argument towards this criticism in that:

the point wasn’t rapping, it was rhythm, DJs cutting records left and right. It

was the rapper’s role to match the intensity of the music rhythmically. No one knew what he was saying. He was just rocking the mike.’

(Stephney quoted in Rhodes 2003: http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/

units/1993/4/93.04.04.x.html – accessed 18/02/04 at 20:30).

Here it can be seen how Stephney’s perception of the ‘original’ rap music of the 1980’s shifts focus from the actual lyrics of the tracks, towards the ability to verbally match the rhythm of the music. It could be argued that this explanation applies well to the original commercial rap artists such as ‘Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’, however the complexity of the lyrics has shifted a great deal with modern day tracks and I believe that the content of the lyrics is equally important to that of the rhythm of the music.

Focussing on the lyrical content, it can be seen how mainstream rap artists such as Eminem have been publicly criticized by numerous pressure groups in the recent years. A brief look at file 1.2 (see appendix) shows an article about the controversy surrounding Eminem’s controversial lyrics. This article is one of many articles that have been published since the Detroit artist became popular. I will not refer to this article and have simply attached it to illustrate my argument. For this reason it is important not to stereotype all tracks of this genre, as Lewis (2003) points out

^ The lyrical content of the songs has ranged from political messages inciting

violence against police and the establishment, to catchy songs meant to

encourage listeners to dance…[incorporating] positive messages promoting

self-improvement and safer sex’ (Lewis 2003:9).

Here Lewis argues that it would be naïve to believe that the content of all rap lyrics is controversial and inundated with expletives, and that tracks that carry positive messages are ‘selectively excluded’ (Lewis 2003) by the media.


Taboo Language

The majority of Hip-hop compact discs carry a sticker with the warning ‘Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics’, for this reason I feel that it is vital to look at research that has been carried out on the topic of expletives.

In this account the following words will be used interchangeably, however there are variations in their actual meanings: taboo words, swear words, expletives and cursing.

The Chambers Dictionary defines the swear word as ‘an obscene word or a sacred word used irreverently, used in anger.’ (Chambers 1992:770). There are a vast amount of swear words available in the English language and such words are in constant sate of flux, as Baker (2002) argues, if an individual is frequently exposed to particular expletives such words may ‘lose their power to shock us’ (Baker 2002 :http://www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/alevel/q10.htm - accessed 18/02/04 at 21:00) and for this reason powerless expletives are replaced by newer swear words. Here it can be seen how expletives that may have shocked our grandparents have become part of everyday language and as a result society no longer perceives them as being as offensive.

In his work Hughes (1993) illustrates how the meanings of expletives have shifted over the years, Hughes gives the example of drat, which originally meant ‘God rot your bones!’ (Hughes 1993:4) Such a word would rarely be used in society due to the idea that ‘there [was] always the alarming possibility of the words coming true.’ (Hughes 1993:4). Here it can be seen how in the nineteenth century individuals believed that swear words such as drat, could summon a religious force that could invoke a curse on themselves or the recipient. What can also be seen is a shift in the language of the courtroom, whereby from the 1870’s sacred oaths such as Gorblimey, which comes from the statement ‘God blind me!’ (Hughes 1993:5), have been replaced by formal legal language. Whilst honesty in the nineteenth century courtroom was based on the individual’s fear of a higher being, and thus what might happen if he does not tell the truth, today has been made illegal to lie under oath and as a result the penalty is imprisonment.

Whilst the meaning of curse words has changed considerably throughout the past it remains to be true that these words are:

emotionally powerful…or emotionally harmful expressions…[serving] the

emotional needs of the speaker and [affecting] listeners emotionally’

(Jay, T 2000:10).

Taking into consideration what some cultures view as ‘taboo’ topics, Jay (1993) related the term ‘offensiveness’ to classify curse words. In Jay’s ^ Massachusetts Study (1978) 49 subjects, 25 female and 24 male (most were white and middle-class natives of Massachusetts) were presented with a list of 155 words and behaviours. Part of the experiment was to rate the data for degree of offensiveness and frequency of usage, and subjects were urged to write down their first impressions.

The results showed that the most offensive behaviour categories related to the witnessing of violence. In terms of word ratings, the results identified that ‘words which point out deviant or derogatory features of sex…are atop the list…’ (Jay, M 1993:164). Here it can be seen how words such as motherfucker and fuck are perceived as being extremely offensive, gaining the offensiveness ratings of 6.93 and 6.38. The majority of the words which were rated as offensive were related to sexual practises to some extent. Jay continues to relate the concept of offensiveness to that of taboo, whereby he argues that the more taboo a topic is the more offensive related words will be rated. This theory is not restricted to Western culture, as in Urdu and Punjabi speaking societies maayada/maayadi (meaning someone who has sexual relations with a sibling) is perceived as one of the most offensive terms in the language.

What has been shown above is that society uses a large number of expletives to express emotions, however as Jay (2000) argues ‘^ Curse words are not always used for insults’ (Jay 2000:9) and in certain situations expletives are used to add ‘force’ to what is being said. Arguments have been put forward that persistent exposure to curse words results in a type of desensitisation to such words and it is due to this that new swear words are being continuously coined in society.

An example of a curse word used in Hip-hop lyrics is skeezer, which refers to a female that is ‘sexually aggressive’ (www.rapdict.org), this word is accompanied by various other expletives that are only used in rap lyrics and in the Hip-hop culture. Although I argue that due to the lack of common use of this word it would not be seen as ‘offensive’ to an individual who has not previously been subjected to the genre in question. In the following section I will look at work that has been carried out on the construction of antisocieties and particular lexical items that they have available to them, such as the expletive skeezer detailed above.

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