It’s not every day our minds get blown by an original concept. In this case, the social experiment is entitled The Hip-Hop Word Count (HHWC). It is a searchable ethnographic database built from the lyrics of over 40,000 Hip-Hop songs from 1979 to present day.
“The idea to build the Hip-Hop Word Count came out of having hundreds of heated and passionate discussions about Rap music”, writes creator Tahir Hemphill on his Kickstarter page. Then he poses a few of those sample questions: “Which rapper had the smartest songs? Which was the most popular champagne in Hip-Hop during 1999-2003? Which city’s rap songs use the most monosyllabic words? Does living in higher altitudes create a natural proclivity for Gangster Rap?”. The HHWC then turns all this mined data into visuals, charts, and images to create a new “geography of language”, perhaps to put a mirror up to ourselves and teach us something about the climate of our own words.
Is your mind reeling yet? Take a look at the video to further illuminate the concept. When you’re done, sit back and enter the mind of Tahir as he sat down to answer a few questions about his childhood, his inspirations, and how this whole thing came together as a life-long project.
Tell us a bit about your background about yourself — where you are from, your past career trajectory?
I was born in the L.E.S., Manhattan, raised in Corona, Queens and schooled in Fort Green, Brooklyn. From an early age I was groomed to be an engineer – it was a respectable profession for an aspirational New York City working class family that valued education. I was on that path from Junior High School through to College. In College I found true satisfaction making photographic based art and with all of my science training I jumped ship. Most of the art I’ve created since then has been heavily influenced by my science training. I’ve never been satisfied with using my hand to put marks on paper, I’ve always had an intermediary: a camera and darkroom, a screen and ink or a mouse and keyboard. In this case of the Hip-Hop Word Count, its a database.
I’m a self-taught designer but went back to school to get a formal training in communications design from Pratt Institute where I conducted research on the methodologies of creatives who use traditional advertising techniques to promote subversive and prosocial campaigns. After graduating I began my career in media, as creative director, producing design-based solutions for businesses in the entertainment, advertising, and nonprofit industries.
How the hell did you come up with this idea? Was there a “eureka” moment when you realized that there must exist a database of hip hop words?
Listening to Hip-Hop in the 80′s and 90′s it was customary to learn rhymes by transcription. I would stay up late, illegally record songs from the radio (allegedly), write them down word for word, recite and learn them. Some words I didn’t know so I’d come to school the next day and ask friends what they thought was said. Sometimes I’d have to ask my parents, aunts and uncles what certain words meant like “Ma what’s a sacroiliac?”
In terms of semantics some songs are just so linguistically dense. For example I can listen to a Rakim, Posdunous or DOOM verse years later and still get new meaning from it because of the metaphor and cultural references. There is a pedagogical relationship between the content and language in hip-hop and a serious listener.
Over the years I observed a growing trend of simplified lyrics. Many of the songs being played on the radio didn’t have the same density of language that I grew up listening to. The radio songs are hot, but my need to rewind and study songs had stopped. The fact that the language in the songs were less nuanced and complex also changed the way I consumed music. In the 90′s I would rock a cassette album on auto-rewind for months, whereas 10 years later .mp3s would get consumed and disposed of after a week. I was concerned with how the lyrics affected my mind. The same way that people carry books of brain teasers, Sodoku or crossword puzzles to sharpen their cognitive skills I wondered if as a life long hip-hop listener these simpler types of lyrics were making me stupider. So I decided to figure out a way to gauge this and started to build the Hip-Hop Word Count. The project has grown into something much more.
I realize there are several uses for this platform. In your own minds eye, what do you believe is the greatest usage for these tools?
Some people will use the Hip-Hop Word Count to search to see how many times their name is mentioned by a rapper, some will search to find out which was the most popular Champagne in 1989, some will search to find out if there’s a relationship between Rap lyrics and recidivism rates by county. My job is not to place judgement on what people will use it for but to make sure the tool gives them correct results. The research projects coming out of our monthly Rap Research Groups will help set the bar for the platform’s use for both scholars and pop culture fans.
Are you more of a math kind of guy or a a poetry guy — which does your brain gravitate to instinctually?
Math and poetry are the same. In my first homework assignment as a math major at Morehouse College, Dr. Henry Gore told us to write down all of the examples of mathematics we found in the Old Testament. “In the beginning…” there’s a lot in those 3 words alone. This is how I was taught to understand mathematics. After a few years I ended up switching majors because I was way more into the esoteric concepts than I was in solving for x. This pull between the profound and profane; between art and science; still informs my creative process.
What has been the most glorious thing you’ve learned about a hip hop statistic?
I’m looking forward to mapping the geography of language contained in all of Hip-Hop. In general it will be glorious to put solid facts against the many things today’s Rap experts think they know. We humans have a way of creating narratives in order to make understanding out of what we experience. A lot of times these narratives have little bearing on reality. I have a friend that swore the rapper Biz Markie was the first to name drop Marcy Projects in a rhyme, he was wrong. I should have bet him money.
What is the most pathetic finding you’ve encountered when searching the database.
The first time I did a search for the word ‘BITCH’ in an earlier version of the database, the search crashed the site. ‘BITCH’ appears in approximately 1/3rd of the lyrics contained in the database. We’re currently working on a few research projects and data visualizations that focus on how Hip-Hop frames images of women throughout the years.
On a political level, what would you say is the biggest torch that the hip hop genre sings about the most? If the answer changes per decade, then tell us a few different torches you feel Hip Hop has championed the most?
That’s a great question. I haven’t done the search yet but I would guess that the most popular political theme would be the traditional American aspiration to rise to the top by hook or crook. Hip-Hop has championed different themes across the decades. It will be great to start a research project to map those themes.
You posted your project on Kickstarter for some funds. How did that experience go, and would you recommend it to other entrepreneurs?
Launching the Kickstarter campaign was awesome. It’s a great platform to share ideas and get support for creative projects. Over 95% of the people that backed The Hip-Hop Word Count were people that I’ve never met. People saw the video and see the vision — that’s pretty Dope.
What’s next for you? Projects on your plate?
I have a few projects that I’m working on that come from the content produced by this dataset. The first is creating the English Language Arts and Mathematics teaching curriculum for High School and Junior H.S. students. Other projects focus on making art: works on paper, sculptural, audio and performance. There’s a lot to do so I’m looking for collaborators, patrons, assistants and interns.
For more info or to support the cause, you can find Tahir Hemphill on Kickstarter.com
Currently Hemphill enjoys his role as cultural entrepreneur, operating the Brooklyn-based creative enterprise, Staple Crops. He also manages the media arts education program for Red Clay Arts, a nonprofit incubator for contemporary artists that he co-founded in 2000. Tahir recently joined the Hip-Hop Education Center at NYU as an Assistant Director, Research.
Originally written for The Standard Culture Website by Jauretsi