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Friday, August 6, 2010

What's With All The Misspelled Names in Hip-Hop?: An Examination

Posted By on Fri, Aug 6, 2010 at 1:35 PM

Chali 2na
  • Chali 2na
So Chali 2na's coming to Yoshi's tonight. Dude may be the most likeable member of Jurassic 5, with his booming voice and salaam-to-that-ass demeanor, but he's also the one whose name mounts the most nihilistic assault on orthographic sensibility (distant second: Mark 7even). Not that there's not precedent: hip-hop history is rife with willful misspellings, from Kool Herc down to Soulja Boy, from the West Coast (Makaveli, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Invisibl Skratch Piklz) to the East (Mobb Deep, Canibus, and perhaps most spectacularly Onyx) and territories in between (Geto Boys, Mystikal, Twista...). Nonetheless, one is not out of line to ask: how necessary is this?

Cop-out answer: depends. The transgression can be a mark of pride; in some cases, as in those of Curren$y and Nipsey Hu$$le, the intruding character glosses almost literally as bling. (I still haven't forgiven CurT@!n$ for making me type his name a bunch of times yesterday, but that's not really the same thing.) In other cases it seems more like a kneejerk thing, the way everyone in 2Pac's entourage started replacing S with Z at every given opportunity circa All Eyez On Me, but still an intentional one. Simple thought experiment: how much less appealing is Outlaws than Outlawz? The Dog Pound than Tha Dogg Pound? Would anyone listen to a rapper who called himself Corrupt rather than Kurupt? Even if so, would they be the same people?

Perhaps it's only when it looks like an accident that it's bothersome. Fabolous, Digable Planets, Da Lench Mob -- were those decisions? What got me thinking about this was the title of Big Boi's long-delayed and justly lauded album, Sir Lucious Left Foot, which I assumed for at least a year was just an internet-propagated typo for "luscious" until I saw the album art. (Census data confirms that Lucious is also a valid, if arcane, variant of Lucius, but that doesn't inspire a whole lot more confidence than, say, this high-heel company.) But still: isn't Big Boi more credible than Big Boy? Doesn't OutCast sound more like a gay telecom provider than a Southern rap group?

The thesis-worthy question here -- and lord knows I haven't put in the time or work to answer it -- is whether hip-hop has any greater claim to or need for this kind of alpha-poetic license than any other medium does. Rap's relationship to the plasticity of language is at once more reckless and more reverent than any other music (or for that matter any other literature) I know of, but that doesn't exclude the same trick, or the same idiotic oversight, from being effective elsewhere. After all, isn't Wavves still more interesting, and more reflective of that band's lo-fi shtick, than Waves? How different is the J in Wooden Shjips from the (second) J in Jeru the Damaja ? How different is Only Built 4 Cuban Linx (which should be "built only" anyway) from Odessey and Oracle?

In Chali 2na's case, anyway, it was presumably a question of copyright infringement. Although that obviously didn't stop this guy.

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Daniel Levin Becker


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