LYRICS / Spread the word, take the rap: Rappers have a new shock in store: they're inciting peace, love, the three 'R's and cholesterol-free diet. Kevin Jackson reports

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The Independent Culture
At last, an American lawyer has had the guts to bring these foul-mouthed, psychotic, drug-crazed rap stars to book. The lawyer in question is Lawrence Stanley, a specialist in obscenity trials and recent winner of the august H L Mencken award; the book is Rap: The Lyrics (Penguin), which collects the words to 150 of the form's greatest hits. Thanks to Mr Stanley, hard-core rap fans will have the chance to find out exactly what their heroes were bellowing about even from the depths of the most impenetrable mixes, while pale, timorous liberals will be able to discover what has been going on in rap since about 1980 without having to endure the torture of actually listening to the stuff.

The latter group of readers should be warned that the contents of Rap: The Lyrics may disquiet, anger or shock them. They will encounter savage visions of urban criminality:

Now, as I get to school, I hear the late bell ringing

Running through the hall I hear the glee club singing

Get to the office, I can hardly speak

'Cause it's the third late pass that I got this week.

(Young MC, 'Principal's Office'.)

They will be confronted with ferocious rejections of the American way of life:

I don't eat no ham 'n' eggs

'Cause they're high in cholesterol

(A Tribe Called Quest, 'Ham 'n' Eggs'.)

They will be sickened by mindless glorifications of violence:

Why, you can blow me away and I can still see blue

Agape compels me to love you

(P M Dawn, 'To Serenade a Rainbow'. Hands up all the first- year theology students who can define 'Agape' accurately.)

Above all, they will put down their copy of Rap: The Lyrics horrified at the sheer nihilism and contempt for all humane, responsible standards that poisons its pages:

It's never too late to correct your mistakes

So get yourself together for your child's sake

And be a father to your child.

(Ed O G & the Bulldogs, 'Be a Father to Your Child'.)

So much for scare tactics. Opportunistically chosen as these extracts may be, though, they do help establish both the good and the bad aspects of Mr Stanley's lengthy book. The bad is that about 90 percent of the lyrics to rap songs tend to look a bit awkward in the chill of print, just like the lyrics from other kinds of popular music. (The classic footnote for this principle is Tom Wolfe's account of a meeting between Phil Spector and some lofty intellectuals who tried to crush him by quoting the inane words to one of his early hits. Spector yelled at them that by missing the beat, they were missing the point, and proceeded to demonstrate exactly what he meant. Loudly.)

The good aspect is that even though Mr Stanley has assembled this book in the service of freedom of expression and the Bill of Rights - royalties from Rap: The Lyrics go to the National Coalition of Censorship - most of the pieces reproduced here are so innocuous as not to stand in the faintest need of appeals to the First Amendment. Rap's most militant act may be called Public Enemy, but some of the announcements here are more like Public Service, from anti-drug diatribes such as Grandmaster Melle Mel's 'White Lines (Don't Do It)' to Stetasonic's crash-course in current affairs and political geography, 'AFRICA':

Kenneth Kaunda's in Zambia, I'm in America

SWAPO'S in Namibia, Nyerere's in Tanzania

Muagabe's in Harare, Jesse just came back

From the homeland, the green and the black]

Indeed, what Rap: The Lyrics demonstrates most forcefully of all is the simple diversity of the stuff dismissed by many unbelievers in the very same words their parents probably applied to their records by Elvis, Mick Jagger or the Grateful Dead (all of whom receive sardonic name-checks here) as All Sounding The Same.

Among the goods on offer: straightforward dance numbers, shaggy dog stories ('I Left My Wallet in El Segundo'), woozy psychedelia, Black Nationalist rhetoric, comic fantasy (including Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's knockabout hommage to Freddie Krueger, 'Nightmare on My Street'), plenty of old-fashioned protest songs, feminine and -ist diatribes against men, and brag songs - all the traditional boasts about sexual prowess, money and machismo, to be sure, but also a newer habit of flaunting cerebral virtues: 'On the scale of intelligence I score a '10' ' (T La Rock), 'She needs a guy like me with a high IQ' (UTFO), or, especially pleasing, 'My vocabulary is very extensive' (Run-DMC). Word]

And, true, the book also contains a fair quota of the kind of thing that keeps Vice-President Gore's wife Tipper awake at night, and prompts Warner Brothers to drop Ice-T from their roster - though it appears to have gone to press before the ever-tactful Mr T released last year's notorious 'Cop Killer'.

Whether all or any of this brand of rap can be justified under the heading evoked by Mr Stanley and Ice-T alike - 'Freedom of Speech' - may still be a more vexed question than either of them is prepared to concede. Even so, Rap: The Lyrics does perform the useful function of showing that, say, the psychotic fantasy of the Geto Boys' 'Mind of a Lunatic' must been seen as coming from an ugly district of a much bigger and more varied country, if not continent. Had this book had been given an epigraph, the most appropriate one would surely have come from Public Enemy: 'Don't Believe the Hype.'

'Rap: The Lyrics' is published by Penguin at pounds 8.99