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“I noticed a growing trend of MC’s complaining about having to dumb down their lyrics in order to sell records: MIMS on This Is Why I’m Hot, Lupe Fiasco on Dumb it Down and Jay-Z, Eminem and 50 Cent on Syllables. As a close listener of Hip Hop I started wondering if this trend of dumbing down lyrics would also dumb me down. My scientific training kicked in, and I thought, ‘There must be a way to do a study on this.””
Tahir Hemphill, Author, to MIT OpenDocLab
Hip hop is all around us: on the radio, on TV, streaming online, in stores, and in films. But how often do we think of hip hop as a corpus of written and spoken art, as a massive collection of work to be studied? Hip Hop Word Count author Tahir Hemphill realized that archiving rap lyrics would allow a greater ability to study their changing meaning and discover what they’ve been capturing about the culture since the 1970s. Hemphill entered the lyrics to more than 50,000 rap songs into a massive database, searchable by date, artist, word, word complexity, locality, and a host of other metrics.
Hip Hop Word Count is a powerful tool that has spawned satellite projects by author Tahir Hemphill and other artists, visualizing and sharing fascinating revelations from the database. With “Maximum Distance, Maximum Displacement,” for example, Hemphill pinpoints the geographic terms in each song, and then uses a light-pen and a robotic arm to sketch out the distances the lyrics “travel,” capturing those distances as light drawings inspired by Pablo Picasso.
Author Tahir Hemphill has been an artist-in-residence at Eyebeam in New York City, a 2012 Creative Capital Grantee and a fellow at Harvard University’s WEB Du Bois Research Institute’s Hiphop Archive. Currently, Tahir Hemphill runs the Rap Research Lab where he is growing the archive of lyrics and producing creative technology projects based on findings generated by the database. The Rap Research Lab also serves as a place to impart Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math knowledge to students through a curriculum that visualizes Hip Hop as a cultural indicator.