Notes on the Bibliographic Description of Hip-Hop
In January 2017 I began work as an Ask-A-Librarian Intern under the supervision of Columbia’s Music Librarian, Nick Patterson. A great feature of the Ask-A-Librarian internship at Columbia is the ability of supervisors to tailor the on-site portion of the internship to suit the interests of the student. Since I have aspirational interest in music cataloging, Nick arranged for me to spend time with Russell Merritt, resident expert Music Cataloger. When we met, Russell asked if I would be interested in working with a collection of hip-hop LPs that was recently donated by Columbia College alumnus and DJ, Benjamin Netter. This was a happy coincidence as I am interested in the representation of hip-hop in academic music programs and libraries. It was a mutually beneficial learning opportunity: Russell could begin teaching me the complex ins and outs of music cataloging, and I could share my enthusiasm for hip-hop with a self-admitted jazz purist. Throughout this process, some questions came up regarding bibliographic control. As was the case in my later Tibetan Studies A/V Internship, issues arose with reconciling the materials to be cataloged with the current cataloging structure.
1. A New Kind of Producer
We consistently ran into issues dealing with a diverse range of definitions for a single term. One such issue was the encoding of ‘producer.’ (For the purposes of this post, I will use ‘hip-hop producer’ to distinguish from other versions of the word.) Due to a diverse range of roles which a hip-hop producer can occupy, it is difficult to establish an exact definition of the term. An internet search for the definition of ‘hip-hop producer’ results in a melange of conflicting information, making precise bibliographic description seem rather challenging. However, contradiction can form the basis of understanding when we consider who a hip-hop producer isn’t.
In their article “Cataloging Popular Music in RDA” Tracey Snyder and Kevin Kishimoto talk about the role of a producer in ‘popular music’ culture. ‘Popular music’ is the designator appointed to mean “non-classical” in the cataloging realm. This is distinct from other understandings of “pop music” as it has nothing to do with the popularity of the music in question. According to Kishimoto and Snyder, “producers and engineers take an active role in the creative process, deciding which instrument or voice to highlight and how to create a good musical progression over the course of the song’s duration”. It seems Kishimoto and Snyder are applying this definition of the term to all non-classical/’popular music’.
Parts of this definition could be accurate when referring to ‘producer’ in hip-hop creation. But it does not fully encompass the varying roles of a hip-hop producer. Simply put, that is not who the hip-hop producer really is. So who is the hip-hop producer?
The producer is related to the DJ in hip-hop music, as both DJs and producers create the musical setting for the lyrical content of the MCs. Whereas the DJ makes music by reinventing, repurposing, and reviving pre-existing recordings (via turntable techniques such as scratching and spinning), the producer accomplishes a similar goal with sampling and other technologies. The producer orchestrates sounds, builds them from pieces of other songs, and/or creates beats from synthesizers. Some refer to this as making beats.
One could think of the role of producer evolving parallel to the rise of electronic production. According to The Encyclopedia of Rap and Hip-Hop Culture: “The concept of the producer most likely coincides with the advent of the drum machine, which gave DJs (and others) the ability to partially compose original scores.
The ability of producers to create “new” music was further enhanced with the emergence of digital samplers, which allows a producer to digitally record and save small sound clips from an output device, such as a turntable. Digital samples replaced the need for live instrumentals, because a producer could sample horns, guitars, pianos, and upright basses to play along with their drum sequences to produce the sounds of a complete band.”
The producer can be credited as a part of the band/group (like 9th Wonder, formerly of Little Brother, DJ Premier of Gang Starr, Cut Chemist of Jurassic Five, and RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan).
“A hip-hop producer is not looked at as a musician. We re-imagined what making music is…
We are musicians. We are producers. We are innovators. Everybody outside the genre probably won’t get that until 30 years down the road… the genius that we had.”
(link to full interview below)
It seems the inclusivity issues in the current model for sound recording cataloging is a microcosm of this larger societal regard of hip-hop musicians that 9th Wonder refers to. Many individuals steeped in more ‘traditional’ modes of music might not know how to listen to the radically inventive sounds of hip-hop. This same confusion translates to hip-hop’s categorization. Since the model for sound recording cataloging is established for the description of classical music, finding an accurate means of cataloging hip-hop recordings proves challenging.
Many catalogers observing the item-in-hand might be unfamiliar with hip-hop terminology. They might see the term producer and assume adherence to standards in RDA Appendix 1.2.2, where producer is clearly associated with business aspects of musical production. The primary RDA definition is as follows: “An agent responsible for most of the business aspects of a production for screen, sound recording, television, webcast, etc. The producer is generally responsible for fund raising, managing the production, hiring key personnel, arranging for distributors, etc.” These are clearly two separate definitions of the word producer.
The closest RDA term related to the hip-hop producer is “remix artist”, defined in RDA Appendix I.2.1 as “an agent responsible for creating an audio work by manipulating, recombining, mixing, and reproducing previously recorded sounds. Remixing activities that do not substantially change the nature and content of the original work, and mixing recorded tracks together to appear as one continuous track are excluded.” As many hip-hop producers favor production techniques which do not require sampling, this definition is not a true equivalency. (It is also inconsistent with the self-identity of the parties in question.)
We could record the name of the individual credited as ‘producer’ in a MARC field associated with creation/production, and add a corresponding relator code for ‘audio engineer.’ However, the RDA definition for audio engineer is similar to the definition of producer that Snyder and Kishimoto describe. Hip-hop producers are music-builders, not just music-tweakers. In addition, producers can be performers.
We could put ‘producer’ in the 511 performer field with ‘DJ’ and/or ‘hip hop producer’ as added roles, and add an authorized access point for the name of the producer, with relator code for ‘instrumentalist’. But does encoding the producer as an instrumentalist misrepresent their true role, or roles? What about the artists that act as their own producer, like Erykah Badu and Dr. Dre? To further complicate matters, artists like Kanye West can be both ‘executive producer’ and ‘hip-hop producer.’ One can add multiple relator codes to the authorized access point to reflect the various functions of the artist, with bibliographic notes to clarify the meaning of these functions.
2. Transforming Words: DJ and Arrangement
To return to my statement about the model for sound recording cataloging being established in ‘traditional’ music, several other words in the hip-hop encyclopedia have been transformed from their original usage. At the most basic level, a DJ is someone who spins records. However, a disc jockey like Casey Kasem clearly differs from a disc jockey like Cut Chemist. Russell and I found that ‘arrangement’ is often used in hip-hop credits. The term ‘arranger’ in its “traditional” sense is used to refer to an individual who rewrites a piece for a different medium of performance. In RDA 184.108.40.206, the rule for popular music is as follows: “record ‘arranged’ only if the expression is: an instrumental work arranged for vocal or choral performance or a vocal work arranged for instrumental performance.” Conversely, in hip-hop production, it seems the roles of the producer and the individual credited for ‘arrangement’ are similar. Arrangement in hip-hop seems to be more of an architectural role versus a rewriting or editing role. Therefore, encoding arrangement as it relates to hip-hop is tricky.
Prioritization of self-identity has been a central factor in the radical cataloging movement. Achieving ethically responsible bibliographic control is a question of reflecting self-identity of the parties in question, e.g.: Should we really be crediting individuals as remix artists if they self-identify as producers? How do we encode arrangement if it is given a new meaning? Diverse definitions for single words create problems when it comes to bibliographic control. It’s a very “meta” metadata issue. Perhaps the simplest solution would be to re-examine the encoding of these roles in their “traditional” sense, and add these “new” definitions for catalogers to utilize. Is this a loss in nuance? Or is it numerous truths existing simultaneously?
3. Rap Versus Hip-Hop?
Another issue we discovered is found in genre/form. Currently, all hip-hop is being categorized under Rap (Music). (‘Music’ is in parentheses to indicate a difference between other types of rapping versus rapping to music.) While hip-hop is listed as a topical subject heading in LCSH, in LCGFT it only appears as a “variant” term of Rap (Music), meaning a search for ‘hip-hop’ in subject fields will ultimately direct back to Rap (Music).
“I’m an MC, you’re a rapper. I’m as real as they come while half the guys you idolize are just actors.”
-Substantial, “Think Different”
Some might take issue with the apparent conflating of these terms. Sources indicate that not all hip-hop is rap and not all rap is hip-hop, explaining that hip-hop music can be seen as a contribution to the culture whereas rappers can be commercialized identities/products of record companies. As stated in Encyclopedia Britannica: “Although widely considered a synonym for rap music, the term hip-hop refers to a complex culture comprising four elements: deejaying, or “turntabling”; rapping, also known as “MCing” or “rhyming”; graffiti painting, also known as “graf” or “writing”; and “B-boying,” which encompasses hip-hop dance, style, and attitude…” Though hip-hop is thought of as a musical genre, perhaps the reason it has not been established as a genre/form in the LCGFT is its reference to a range of cultural expressions. One of our solutions to this issue was to add ‘hip-hop’ in a 500 note field.
Accurate bibliographic control might prove difficult in the case of hip-hop and rap due to currently insufficient literary warrant and structural bias towards ‘traditional’ instrumentals. Also, catalogers might not be familiar enough with hip-hop to be able to reliably encode the varying roles associated with hip-hop production. Nevertheless, we can strive for more accurate access points. As C. Rockelle Strader stated in the conclusion of “Cataloging Music Sound Recordings in the United States: An Evolution of Practice and Standards,” the catalog should evolve to suit changing media types and genres. There has been considerable progress by way of bibliographic control in popular music cataloging, but perhaps best practices are yet to be established in regards to hip-hop. As librarians, we are both the literal and symbolic keepers of this knowledge, but the bibliographic structure is not set up to describe it. One can see the sheer revolution of the movement reflected in the difficulty of accurate description via the current cataloging ‘language’.
Hip-hop as a multiform visual and musical expression has evolved into a complex cultural signifier utilized globally by oppressed populations; a field of sociopolitical and musical scholarship that is rife with opportunity for engaging intellectual pursuit. Hip-hop is the voice of new generations— a catalyst that has both inspired social change via confrontation of police brutality and systemic racism, and sparked further musical movements.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “as the hip-hop movement began at society’s margins, its origins are shrouded in myth, enigma, and obfuscation.” Unfortunately, negative stereotypes associated with the genre have been perpetuated by popular culture, contributing to the prevalence of misinformation as well as discriminatory attitudes towards hip-hop culture. Libraries can act to reconcile this. A more hip-hop amenable model of sound recording cataloging could represent a positive shift in institutional attitudes which are less receptive to hip-hop, and hip-hop scholarship.
© Laura Haynes
MSLIS Candidate, Pratt Institute
Primo Hip-hop librarian resources:
RE: Hip-hop collections:
RE: Hip-hop pedagogy:
“The Rap Research Lab is a place for teaching art, design, data analysis and data visualization to students using a project based curriculum that visualizes Hip Hop as a cultural indicator.”
RE: Hip-hop producers:
RE: Hip-hop scholarship: