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Fri, 04.03.1970

RAP, a Music, Business, Culture and Heritage

R.Kelly

On this date we explore Rap music. RAP is urban music that grew out of the hip-hop movement of the South Bronx, New York, in the 1970s.  It blends rhythmic instrumental tracks created by a disc jockey, with the spoken, rhyming lyrics of an MC, (Rapper).

Rappers verbalize about politics, sexual exploits, conditions of daily life, and their personal uniqueness. Many critics consider rap the greatest example of postmodern music. It’s the first truly popular music to adapt to the fast, fractured, constant self-promotion that is television and the mediums visual base. Unlike television, however, rap gives some African Americans a voice of leverage. It offers freedom for political dispute. The fact that rap music seems complex and frightening to some listeners adds to its political insult.

The eager embrace of rap by young whites, confuses the dynamic. Rap reflects racial confusion as well as cultural innovation in an age of cable television, digital technology, and marked class stratification. The content of many rap songs—ego, self, and competition follows traditions of African and African American "toasting" and "signifying." The importance that some African tribes assign to oral humor, confidence, and derision has an after-thirst in the United States. Writer Khephra Burns compares rap music with the "pattin' juba" of the 1850s, where African Americans together traded stories, using verbal neglect in verse, and creating their own rhythms, such as chest-whacking, and thigh slapping (Ham Bone). Rap also draws from urban street jive that came from Black Chicago, Illinois of the 1920s.  It was here where common words, wit, and creativity spawned language substitutions such as "cat" for man, "chick" for woman, "crib" for home, "axe" for instrument, and "bad" for good. This new language, so-to-speak, enabled many Blacks to share messages only they understood which was an ever-present survival tool for African Americans in times of slavery too.

Other cultural influences have rap lyrics coming from Black radio DJs from the 1950s through the 1970s.  From heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali, to Black Nationalist "H. Rap" Brown, to the Watts Prophets of Los Angeles, and the Last Poets of Harlem, a kind of proto-rap setting with a speaking style to a rhythmic background has roots in this present art forum. The music of rap reaches back in time and geography, to African and Afro-Caribbean and African American rhythmic styles. Unlike Western European music’s harmonic progression and forward feel, African music often marks time, stressing cycles, rhythms, and non-harmonic percussion.

Rap took its pulse from the soul and funk of James Brown, George Clinton, and others who came from the R&B tradition. As rap developed, other kinds of music were sampled and imitated. Some history gives the birth of rap to Jamaican immigrant Clive Campbell, who worked under the name DJ Kool Herc. In Jamaica, he had spent time at backyard dance parties, powered by loud speakers and attended by the locals. When Herc gave his first party in New York City in 1973, he featured DJs, mixing the music of James Brown, Sly Stone, Rare Earth, and the art of Jamaican toasting, where DJs speak with humor and syncopation over remixed instrumental versions of records. Herc and other Bronx DJs blended old songs with new, ones containing "break beats," which is where break dancing got started. Then some popular DJs carved the Bronx into competing musical territories. Friendly competitions began (producing innovation). It was Herc in the west, Afrika Bambaataa in the east, Breakout in the north, and Grandmaster Flash in the south and central Bronx. Grandmaster Flash invented backspinning, in which he played one record while turning a second one backwards, repeating phrases and beats in a stuttering, rhythmic style. Grandwizard Theodore invented scratching, moving a record in both directions under the needle of a turntable. DJs first gained popularity by providing a soundtrack for dance, graffiti art, and fashion of the hip-hop movement.

Soon, mixing became an exhibition on its own and dancing would stop in order to watch DJs spin. To keep people on the move, DJs recruited "MC"s, who led call-and-response sessions and fired up the crowd with shouts of "get up," and "jam to the beat," in the fashion of James Brown. Such oratory came from gospel music, the covert rituals of slave religion, and the traditions of West Africa. Grandmaster Flash's MCs, The Furious Five (Melle Mel, Cowboy, Raheim, Kid Creole and Mr. Ness) completed the genesis of rap when they began speaking to the rhythm of the music, trading rhymes in sync with each other and the DJ. Rappers often tried to best one another’s lyrics and watching was entertainment in itself. Independent record labels such as Enjoy, Winley, and Sugar Hill Records began to record rap, and the music soon spread to other parts of New York City.

In the fall of 1979 a group of rappers from Brooklyn called the Sugarhill Gang released the hit single Rapper's Delight. Because it came from Brooklyn, many Bronx residents flouted it as derivative. The song however, pushed rap into the public eye, topping the R&B charts and reaching Number 36 on Billboard's Top 40. In 1980 Kurtis Blow had two (gold) hit singles, Christmas Rappin' and The Breaks. The same year, he played Madison Square Garden with Bob Marley and the Commodores. Hip-hop musicians began to perform in Manhattan's downtown clubs, bringing rap to urban white culture. In 1981, The Funky Four + 1 More appeared on Saturday Night Live while the Village Voice and 20/20 gave coverage to break dancing and rap. In 1983, Style Wars took rap to the movies, and there was a PBS documentary. Innovation accompanied acclaim. In this decade, drum machines and synthesizers, created the new sound of "techno-pop" which led to digital manipulation of samples, placing rap in the revolution of music technology.

Rappers who preceded this were called "old school," and included The Fat Boys, Whodini, Kool Moe Dee, and Melle Mel. New school rappers included Queen Latifah, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Tone Loc, Ice-T, and Ice Cube. In addition to New York musicians, Los Angeles-based rappers began developing new styles of their own. Eventually Houston, Atlanta, and Chicago each produced their own new artists. Though money was tight as rap developed, early rappers seldom wrote socially conscious lyrics. As rappers attracted larger audiences in the early 1980s, however, they began to address ghetto conditions and economic inequalities of the United States under President Ronald Reagan.

The Message (1981) by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five marked the arrival of political rap, inspiring KRS-One (short for Knowledge Reigns Supreme-Over nearly everyone), Sister Souljah, Public Enemy, and Arrested Development. Run-DMC fused rap and hard rock with eponymous 1984. The song completed rap’s break into the mainstream. The album sold more than 500,000 copies, becoming the first rap LP to go gold. Run-DMC's label, Def Jam Records, became the most successful independent record company in the business. In 1985, they signed a major distribution agreement with Columbia Records supporting success among white audiences. This prompted many to speculate about underlying issues of race.

To some Blacks, white listeners appeared to be seeking thrills from racially motivated fantasies. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, however, the popularity of white rappers like Vanilla Ice, the Beastie Boys, Third Bass, and House of Pain demonstrated that more than race was at play. Latino rappers began performing in Spanish (Mellow Man Ace, Kid Frost, and Gerardo), while Cypress Hill, with its mixed Black and Hispanic membership, suggested that the integration of rap was happening at all levels. Although rap began as a predominantly male activity, a number of successful female performers punctuated its history. Hit acts included MC Lyte, the Real Roxanne, Roxanne Shante, and Yo-Yo. In the 1990s women rappers often followed the male model, however, portraying men in the same derogatory way that men portrayed women. Sister Souljah broke this cycle by addressing drug abuse, Black-on-Black violence, and national politics, while Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Pepa spoke of female self-empowerment. The successful rap arranger, writer, and producer Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott gained fame as a performer with the 1997 release of her solo debut album, Supa Dupa Fly.

In the late 1980s, a more brutal brand of rap developed, which described drugs, sex, and violence in detail. White’s bought most of the music making the grim, lurid, and angry lyrics profitable. "Gangsta" rap, as performed by the Geto Boys, N.W.A., Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Too Short, supplied this desire. The praise of misogyny and violence had devoted critics among both the Black and white establishment. In 1990 a Florida district court declared the album Nasty as They Wanna Be, recorded by the Miami group 2 Live Crew, to be legally obscene—a ruling that outlawed the sale of the record.

When Ice-T released Cop-Killer in 1991, policemen organized a boycott against Time Warner, the company that distributed the album. In addition, police started blaming crimes on rap songs, as criminals cited the influence of gangsta rap as part of their defense. Many Black critics declared white anger hypocritical, however, by pointing to the uncensored obscenity of popular white comedian Andrew Dice Clay as well as antipolice messages in songs by Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie. Other African American leaders, however, dissented. Although most opposition reflected nothing more than a generation gap—parents scorning rap as their parents had scorned R&B—some of the criticism was grounded in ethical and political concern. Black religious and political leaders mentioned that the words of gangsta rappers and groups like 2 Live Crew only hurt African Americans in their struggle against racism. Some events in the 1990s led to question the lifestyle of gangsta rappers as well as the responsibility of the media in celebrity-related crime.

The death of rapper Eazy-E from AIDS, and the murders of East Coast—West Coast rivals The Notorious B.I.G. and TUPAC supported this. Gradually a more popular and gentrified form of rap developed alongside gangsta rap. In the late 1980s lighthearted songs, more in the spirit of early Bronx rap, had a following. Young MC, MC Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock, and DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince recorded clean hits filled with playful braggadocio. Rap-based Saturday morning cartoons appeared on television. In 1990, rap reached prime time television in the form of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" a situation comedy. Even the more serious rappers often found themselves in the thick of popular culture. L.L. Cool J. landed a sitcom, while Tone Loc, Ice-T, Ice Cube, and Queen Latifah appeared in Hollywood films. Will Smith (the Fresh Prince) went furthest in this direction, starring in two summer blockbusters, Independence Day 1996 and Men In Black 1997.

Most "alternative" rappers disowned the art forms of violence while trying to preserve its edge. KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions initiated the "Stop the Violence" movement and the West Coast Rap All-Starts began the "Human Education Against Lies" (H.E.A.L.) program, both of which pitted rap's influence against social problems. Acts, such as A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, focused on the music, developing the art, rather than the politics, of rap. In the late 1990s, the widespread popularity of the Fugees reflected the new, international direction of rap. They dealt with problems both within and outside of the United States, and one of their members, Haitian Wyclef Jean, released material performed in Creole. Wu Tang Clan, a group of nine rappers from the East Coast, rejected R&B roots, adhering instead to global sensibilities and trends.

At the end of the last century, rap scenes were growing all over Europe; MC Solaar of France lured an international following while Japanese youth began to imitate Mary J. Blige and other the rap cultures of the West.  Rap began as a homespun music and its commercialization did not steal it from its base. In the late 1990s, amateurs across the U.S. and the world continued to create innovative hip-hop sounds, generating a culture far larger than endorsed by the recording industry.  Rap became famous by virtue of mainstream listeners and media, while fresher sounds often remained community-based and undiscovered. The genre continues to thrive as a living art, always leaving behind its commercialized, pop-chart forerunner.

Currently RAP as a culture and industry moves forward in America and the world. African Americans continues to reap benefits financially while gaining ground on a route possibly conflict with its previous generation. Violence remains a part of the world of RAP.  Ten years after his March 26, 1995 death, the music world continues to mourn gangsta rapper Eazy-E. The mutual coexistence between traditional Black culture and urban culture in the African American community is a question that remains unanswered.

The media impact of RAP music and culture is everywhere. A joint venture between B.I.G.'s mother, P. Diddy, and "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua is in the works for a film on the Notorious B.I.G. Also, Jay-Z was in talks to create the music for Scarface, the much-anticipated video game and artist Trina has launched 'Diamond Princess' fragrance line. Finally philanthropy is not something practices by RAP performers. The Game and Chingy are the most recent artists to lend their talents to a collaborative effort to raise money for Tsunami and now Sri Lanka earthquake victims.

Starting in 2005, sales of hip hop music in the United States began to severely wane.   Billboard Magazine found that, since 2000, rap sales dropped 44%, and declined to 10% of all music sales, which, while still a commanding figure when compared to other genres, is a significant drop from the 13% of all music sales where rap music regularly placed.  In Byron Hurt's documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, he claims that hip hop had changed from "clever rhymes and dance beats" to "advocating personal, social and criminal corruption." In the first half of 2009 alone artists such as Eminem, Rick Ross, Kanye West, The Black-Eyed Peas and Fabolous all had albums that reached the #1 position on the Billboard 200 charts. Eminem's album Relapse was one of the fastest selling albums of 2009.  In 2017, Forbes reported that hip-hop/R&B had recently replaced rock as the most consumed musical genre, becoming the most popular genre in music for the first time in U.S. history.

Reference:
The Encyclopedia of African American Heritage
by Susan Altman
Copyright 1997, Facts on File, Inc. New York
ISBN 0-8160-3289-0

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