Thursday, March 17, 2011

urban dictionary

i started thinking about dictionary rap the other day after reading a memorial post on Smiley Culture (Rasta In Peace). Culture was an English reggae star who got away with repping 'ganja' and 'sensemillia' live on the BBC because apparently broadcasters had no idea what he was talking about.

and that's the thing about hip hop (or at least one of them): new slang comes up fast and furious, living out its popularity in a couple of songs, a particular region, or even for decades at a time (pretty sure i learned the word 'wack' from kriss kross back in '92), and challenges fans to prove themselves by how deep they 'get' it. wu tang clan thrives on this stuff. you can barely call yourself a listener before you know what the fuck 'shaolin land' means. even the stupidest slang can generate insider cred - remember when you learned what 'skeet' was all about? and how smug you felt at the next dance party watching innocents shout it?

at this point, deciphering hip hop slang is a cottage industry unto itself. peep rap exegesis - now rap genius - a website whose entire existence depends on music nerds scrambling to get up to speed on the latest rap neologisms - and on the cockiness of those fans who think they already know (a brief side note about this industry - do you think it's making any money? do you think it ever will?).

but sometimes rappers get so esoteric that even avid listeners can't figure out what the hell they're talking about. that's where dictionary rap comes in.

In 'Cockney Translation,' one of Smiley Culture's biggest hits, he explains a host of cockney slang terms in thick Jamaican patois (full lyrics here):

this is kind of tongue-in-cheek, cuz Culture doesn't actually use the terms he's defining. He's pointing at the divide between Jamaican immigrants and their poor white counterparts. In displaying his knowledge of Cockney, he's actually demonstrating his distance from it.

Kardinall Offishall's 'BaKardi Slang,' on the other hand, reps terms a little closer to home, here Toronto's west indian community:

and then there's Big L's  'Ebonics', the closest thing to a new york-style dictionary i know of:

you know, it occurs to me that the dictionary function of these songs, while being the unifying characteristic that made me group them together in the first place, is actually secondary in each case. mostly, dictionary songs work the way 'cockney translation' does - holding out vocab as a rough-and-ready way of defining a community. or, if you wanna get all linganth onnit, outlining speech registers and their tokens in order to mark off linguistic and social space (<- this is how i sound in my day job).

in that sense, i'm not even sure dictionary music is written to/for in-group members, who probably already know who they are. instead, they're all about displaying and maintaining distance from the rest of us. 'look at how different we are,' they seem to say. 'impenetrably so. we could say these things like you. but we're not like you, so this is how we say them.'

with this theory in mind (dictionary rap as community-marker), i did a quick search to find out which cities/parts of the country/whatever have their own. unfortunately, i could only find one, from the bay area (complete with helpful written definitions for the uninitiated and a kinda creepysweet beat):

there have gotta be more of these. i'm just not sure how to find them.

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