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Rap/Hip Hop

Early Years of Hip Hop, Bronx Park Jam, 1984
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Rap Music, and the culture that surrounds rapping itself, hip-hop, is a genre of music and a lifestyle which originated in the housing projects of New York City, New York in the late 1970s but which now has global influence.  While not without controversy and numerous critics, rap music has emerged as one of the most popular musical forms in the world.  Its reach and longevity have been much greater that most expected when it was a New York City street phenomenon in the late 1970s.

Although no single individual can claim credit for the founding of rap music or the hip hop culture, New York DJ (disc-jockey) Kool Herc is generally considered the most important figure in the early years of the genre.   As a DJ Kool Herc would sample the danceable parts of jazz and funk records, typically the parts featuring drums and a consistent rhythm. These parts were inspired by and helped inspire a new kind of dancing called break-dancing. Kool Herc named the people who would break dance to his music "B-Boys," which was short for break-boys. Kool Herc also spoke and rhymed over the songs he played, which was one of the earliest versions of rapping in the hip-hop style.

While Kool Herc was influenced by funk and jazz records, other pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash were influenced by outside sources ranging from reggae to German electronic music.

As the new art form emerged many individual artists began rapping over the break dancing songs that DJs played. These people began to be called MCs (which in hip-hop stands for mic controller). This rapping was influenced by several older sources including The Last Poets, a spoken word group from Harlem who had been delivering political street-poetry since the early 1970s. Other influences were scatting in jazz and traditional black oration. African American public figures like Muhammad Ali, and his rhyming boasts and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s powerful speeches were major influences as was the musical style of rhythm and blues performers such as Issac Hayes.

The first recorded rap song is largely understood to be "You're My Candy Sweet" by The Fatback Band which was released in 1979. The first rap hit, "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang, which was also released in 1979, introduced a nationwide audience to this new genre. Despite the success of "Rapper's Delight," rap music did not consistently do well commercially until Run D.M.C. released its debut album in 1983.

The earliest rap recordings in the 1980s were largely positive in tone even as they explored and exposed the gritty conditions of life in the nation’s urban ghettoes.  By the 1990s this generation would be eclipsed by gangsta rap. West coast artists such as Ice-T and NWA related rugged and explicit stories of slum-life which often exaggerated gang violence and bravado.  Much to the consternation of the American public outside the hip hop community, gangsta rap became and remains one of the most popular sub-genres of rap music.

The implicit image of rap and violence became explicit with a number of incidents including most notably the murders of Tupac (2Pac) Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., two of raps biggest stars. Many observers debated whether gangsta rap caused or simply reflected the rising gang violence of the decade.

Rap music continues to be controversial and draws a wide range of critics both within and outside the African American community.  In 1990 the Miami, Florida rap group Two Live Crew was the focus of a widely publicized obscenity trial where critics urged censorship of their music because of its misogynist lyrics while defenders including Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates argued before Judge Jose Gonzalez that the group had a right under the First Amendment to utter their lyrics no matter how offensive they might be to some.  Judge Gonzalez ruled against Two Live Crew.  Two years later, however, the Florida Court of Appeals overruled Judge Gonzalez.

In 2003 conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly initiated a nationwide protest campaign that was largely responsible for Pepsi ending a partnership with rapper Ludacris when O'Reilly questioned the rapper’s lyrical content.

Even if many Americans consider rapping and hip-hop culture detrimental to American culture at large, their complaints are largely lost upon a now nearly thirty year old culture which accepts rapping as a legitimate art form.  Proponents of rap music point to its ongoing worldwide popularity and to a slowly evolving recognition of the genre by music critics.  Rap artists have won at least one award at the Grammy Award Show since 1989. In 2007 hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were the first rap group elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Sources:

James Haskins, One Nation Under a Groove: Rap Music and its Roots (New York: Hyperion Books, 2000); Adam Woog, From Ragtime to Hip-Hop: A Century of Black American Music (Detroit: Lucent Books, 2007).  

Contributor:

University of Washington

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