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Published: 11/14/2010

Ex-Toledoan translates rap for the unhip

If somebody bragged about his "chips," would you think Pringles?

Head for the freezer if a woman requested "ice" for her arm?

Call a locksmith (or suggest use of spellcheck) if your globe-trotting neighbor text-messaged you that he lost a couple "kees?"

Then you could benefit from the interpretation skills of William Buckholz.

The 30-year-old Chicago resident and onetime Toledoan is the author of Understand Rap: Explanations of Confusing Rap Lyrics You and Your Grandma can Understand (Abrams Image, 181 pages, $12.95).

The reader can learn that, in the parlance of popular rap songs, "chips" are money, "ice on the arm" is a diamond bracelet, and a "couple of kees" is short for two kilos of cocaine.

The book is an adjunct to a Web site Buckholz created two years ago, UnderstandRap.com, where members post rap lyrics and share ideas about their meanings.

While having fun with the often obtuse meanings, the book's author says it is not meant as disrespectful and is intended to improve understanding of a musical genre that many people find baffling and some find infuriating.

Rap's influence has spread beyond its birthplace in the predominantly black culture of America's urban core into suburbia and today affects everything from clothing styles to casual conversation. Expressions like "What up?" flow off the lips of even the un-hip.

"Rap is very much mainstream now," says Matt Donahue, an instructor in the popular culture program at Bowling Green State University who studies popular music. One example of the growing reach of the genre: "I am Not a Human Being," a CD by rapper Lil Wayne, in recent weeks shot to the top of pop charts, a perch long dominated by acts regarded as having mainstream appeal.

And, in a testament to its longevity, listening to rap isn't limited to college dorms and the kid flipping your burger. A fan introduced to the genre as a teen through the songs of Public Enemy in the late 1980s, for example, is now flirting with 40, Donahue notes. Rap first achieved mass appeal 31 years ago with release of the single "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang.

Donahue is disappointed that many mainstream rappers have shifted from the genre's original focus on weighty social issues like racial profiling by police to girls, drugs, and money. But, he says, those themes have been a preoccupation of popular music dating back to Elvis Presley.

The author of Understand Rap hopes that there are enough people who are curious or who are unfamiliar with rap — a term that today is often used interchangeably with hip hop — to make his book a success. "My hope is that people who are not familiar with the genre can come away learning something from it," he says.

At times, however, the explanations, with their dry — sometimes "nerdy," the author concedes — tone, are downright funny.

Lil Wayne, in his tune "Lollipop," raps: "Got so much chips, I swear they call me Hewlett Packard."

Buckholz' interpretation: "I am so wealthy that people might mistakenly refer to me by the name of a large multinational computer manufacturer whose integrated circuits are commonly referred to by the same name that I and others use for money."

Singer Nelly, on his "Sweatsuit" album, raps: "Call me George Foreman ‘cause I'm sellin' everybody grillz."

Explains Buckholz: "I am receiving money in exchange for the decorative gold-and-diamond-studded mouthpieces people in the community are wearing, and my popularity is similar to that a former boxer had while successfully selling convenient food-cooking appliances."

When performer Dr. Dre raps that "I was strapped wit' gats when you were cuddlin' a Cabbage Patch," what he really means, says Buckholz, is: "When you were still a child and had no concerns other than playing with dolls in the comfort and safety of your home, I was carrying guns around to defend myself in my dangerous urban neighborhood."

The author, a former resident of West Toledo who graduated from Start High School in 1998 and later Bowling Green State University, is an unlikely intermediary to the world of rap.

As a teen, his musical tastes leaned to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and other performers from the Seattle-based grunge movement. He began listening to rap casually while in college.

At BGSU, he pursued a bachelor of science degree in technical writing. He went on to work for Bayer Health Care in Seattle, where he helped prepare the firm's application to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to open a new manufacturing plant there.

He started the Web site in 2008 after listening to a rap album recommended by his brother and "finding myself confused by what was being said —not just the slang but references to other rappers and events," Buckholz recalls.

Since then, hundreds of visitors have posted lyrics or added explanations.

He is not aware of any rap performers visiting, but was pleased that rapper M.C. Hammer paid it a compliment on his Twitter account.

Buckholz isn't sure how the book is doing, but notes that the retail chain Urban Outfitters stocked and prominently displayed the book at its stores in Ann Arbor and suburban Chicago.

Toledo rap artist Francois Jenkins, who performs under the name S.S. Fame, said the book is bound to elicit criticism in the rap community.

"They take this seriously and don't want to be laughed at," says S.S.

"But I don't necessarily think it is a bad thing." Many rap lyrics are meant to be funny, he adds. "It doesn't have to be serious all the time. Life isn't completely serious all the time and rap is about life."

S.S. tries to raise awareness that many artists in the genre rap about subjects other than sex, guns, and drugs.

Toledo rapper Dasit, otherwise known as David Shinavar, agrees that humor is an important part of rap. "I write different types of songs, some political, some real funny, some that are meant to jam to in clubs."

And, Dasit says, rap artists themselves have never shied away from taking on sacred cows. He points to lyrics criticizing some of the industry's legendary stars. "You wouldn't see any other genre where an artist takes a shot at older music," he says.

Some reviewers familiar with rap have complained that the explanations in Understand Rap are too obvious.

Buckholz doesn't agree.

"There is both a generational and a cultural gap when it comes to rap music and lyrics that are obvious to a certain group may not be obvious to somebody else," he says.

Buckholz' approach when encountering a confusing song is to study lyrics while listening to the song. "You can read along with it and follow the narrative that is being told," he explains.

Even readers turned off by Understand Rap could do no worse than the person referenced on the album "the Nine Yards" by artist Paperboy.

"Leave you kinda startled like the funk off of Fritos," the performer raps.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082



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