Science

Steven studies styles of rap

‘Eminem taught me how to swear’

Last month, Steven Gilbers went viral on Twitter. Not because he’d posted a funny video or good picture, but because he tweeted about his research into how American rappers use language.
By Thijs Fens / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photo & Video by Lidian Boelens

‘My phone was ringing off the hook’, says Steven Gilbers. A month later, he still can’t quite wrap his head around it. The 28-year-old PhD candidate in linguistics published a tweet on November 6 to draw attention to his article, which was published in the academic journal Language and Speech. ‘It immediately became their most-read article. It was bizarre.’ His tweet was liked, shared, and retweeted hundreds of times.

Barely anyone’s studied this yet, so I have to keep inventing the wheel

His article, part of his PhD research, dealt with famous rappers, such as Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, and 50 Cent. It centred around the question of why some rappers have a completely different style than others.

Steven focuses on the difference between African American English-speaking rappers from the East Coast and the West Coast. He wants to know whether the rappers’ accent influences the way they rap, and whether New York-born rapper 2Pac manipulated his accent and flow to better fit in with the West Coast hip hop scene.

‘No one’s really studied that yet’, says Steven. ‘On the one hand that’s really cool, because it means I’m at the front lines of this kind of research. But it’s also hard, because I have to keep inventing the wheel.’ For his research, he’s analysed interview and tracks from West Coast and East Coast rappers. He also spent six months in the United States, doing fieldwork, talking to experts, and lecturing.

Hooked

His interest in hip hop started when he was very young. His father Dicky Gilbers, who works as a phonologist at the arts faculty, is a talented musician. ‘There was always music playing at our house, even when I was little’, says Steven. When I was eight, my father brought home an Eminem album: The Marshall Mathers LP.’

When I was eight, my father brought home an Eminem album: The Marshall Mathers LP

Little Steven was hooked immediately. He barely spoke any English, but Eminem’s music was energetic. ‘It just sucked me in. I wanted to know exactly what he was talking about.’ He looked up every single word, though they may have been a bit much for his eight-year-old self. He laughs: ‘Eminem definitely taught me how to swear.’

He started listening to hip hop artists like 2Pac, Biggie, and Dr. Dre. As he got older, the joined a rock band. When he asked them if they could maybe play some hip hop some time, his band mates looked at him funny. No, they could not. Steven quit the band and decided to make his own hip hop, occasionally aided by his father.

Through hip hop, Steven came into contact with English quite a bit, leading to his decision to study the language. ‘Whenever I had any kind of freedom in writing an essay I’d try to slip in a mention or two to hip hop. I’m sure my teachers got sick of me after a while.’

Ideal research material

When he was writing his thesis for his master in linguistics, he knew exactly what he wanted to do it on. His idol, 2Pac, had originally been an East Coast rapper. At some point in his career, he moved to the West Coast. ‘He was the ideal research material, because I was able to study whether his speech had changed.’ He got a 9 on his thesis, but Steven felt he hadn’t yet exhausted the subject. ‘That’s when I decided to do a PhD on it.’

I have a podcast on hip hop and my girlfriend is even a hip hop dancer

Steven’s love for hip hop isn’t limited to his research and making his own rap songs. ‘I also have a podcast, Kick Knowledge. I talk to people from the hip hop scene about hip hop and research. My girlfriend is even a hip hop dancer’, he says, laughing.

The fact that his research is so closely intertwined with his hobby can be a burden. He likes to listen hip hop to relax, but it can be hard to turn off his need to analyse. ‘My friends like to call me the “slang professor”, because I can’t listen to hip hop without studying it.’ That doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy it. ‘Even if I do over-analyse it. I do like to turn my brain off sometimes, but I wouldn’t want to lose the expertise.’

2Pac

Steven plans to finish his research next year. All his research questions have been answered. He realised that West Coast rappers’ speech and rap both vary in rhythm and pitch and contain longer vowels. East Coast rappers speak and rap much tighter and more monotonous. ‘That was really clear with 2Pac. His speech and rap changed when he moved from the East Coast to the West Coast.’

After repeatedly analysing 2Pac, he feels like he really got to know the rapper. ‘It’s so weird. I feel like I’ve got a bond with someone who’s been dead for twenty years.’

He hopes to continue in academia when he finishes his PhD. ‘It’d be great to make money with my research. I’d love to write about it in such a way that it reaches a wide audience. I’d love that.’

Own album

In the meantime, he’ll keep making music. He’s been working on an album of his own for a while: the concept has been ready for a few years and some of the songs were written as long as ten years ago. ‘It’s almost finished, but I haven’t been able to work on, because I was working on my PhD research.’

The research has influenced his own style of rap, says Steven. He used to be more of an East Coast rapper, tight and monotonous. But since he’s listened to so many West Coast rappers, his timing has loosened up. ‘I’ve started using a lot of the tricks they use.’

Which is his favourite style? He’s silent for a while. ‘I used to be a big East Coast fan. But since I started my research, West Coast has become more attractive to me. I’ll play it safe and say Eminem. He’s from Detroit, right in the middle. Besides, he’s my biggest idol’, he says, laughing. ‘All right, if I really have to pick one, it’d be East Coast. But only just.’

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