Data Nerds Meet Rap Music in Kakaako

I confess, I’m hopelessly unqualified to fully appreciate rap and hip hop music. But it turns out there’s a way to start with rap and hip hop music, add in some databases and algorithms, and with some serious talent in design and data visualization, generate a whole new level of art.

Two years ago, one of the hottest but oddest startups out there was Rap Genius. It mixed the idealistic crowdsourced vision of Wikipedia with, well, rap music fans. It grew to became a complete and exhaustively annotated database of rap music lyrics.

Tahir Hemphill, an artist and a Harvard University, built upon that idea to crowdfund and create the Hip Hop Word Count, a living, breathing database of every word in every rap song ever. And with that database, Hemphill was able to analyze and visualize a number of interesting facets of the music. For example, how prevalent mentions of certain brands of champagne were:

Champagne in Hip Hop

Or, references to famous painters:

Famous Painters in Rap Music

Hemphill has been able to datamine an entire genre of music to gain solid insights into its evolution. And those insights can be beautiful. Here, in “Li’l Wayne,” he collected every geographic mention from the works of 12 rappers, translated them to geographic coordinates, then fed those into a robotic arm holding a light pen. Add a long-exposure camera, and you get this:


From there, Hemphill built a whole exhibit visualizing in 3-D space the geographic scope of different artists, “A Mapper’s Delight.” Pretty cool stuff. And these ideas that could be applied to nearly any dataset, drawn from any community or culture. Can you imagine?

Hemphill is in Honolulu now, and he’ll be featured in a two-day program hosted by Interisland Terminal at Kakaako Agora. Tomorrow night, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., Hemphill will be interviewed by David Goldberg. Then on Saturday afternoon, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., there will be a hands-on workshop Rap Research Lab Workshop. Participants will be able to explore the Hip Hop Word Count database and “scour the rap canon for insights on romance, rejection, and everything in between.”

Benjamin Trevino, a talented data visualization expert himself, joined us on Hawaii Public Radio last night to preview Hemphill’s two-day program in Honolulu. Listen:

Saturday’s workshop is free, but you should RSVP.

Photo courtesy TED Conference on Flickr.

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