The Development of Modern Rap
Rap music as a musical form began among the youth of South Bronx, New York in the mid 1970's. Individuals such Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash were some of the early pioneers of this art form. Through their performances at clubs and promotion of the music, rap consistently gained in popularity throughout the rest of the 1970's. The first commercial success of the rap song "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang in 1979 helped bring rap music into the national spotlight. The 1980's saw the continued success of rap music with many artists such as Run DMC (who had the first rap album to go gold in 1984), L.L. Cool J, Fat Boys, and west coast rappers Ice-T and N.W.A becoming popular. Today, in the late 1990's rap music continues to be a prominent and important aspect of African- American culture. Rap music was a way for youths in black inner city neighborhoods to express what they were feeling, seeing, and living and it became a form of entertainment. Hanging out with friends and rapping or listening to others rap kept black youths out of trouble in the dangerous neighborhoods in which they lived. The dominant culture did not have a type of music that filled the needs of these youth, so they created their own. So, rap music originally emerged as a way "for [black] inner city youth to express their everyday life and struggles" (Shaomari, 1995, 17). Rap is now seen as a subculture that, includes a large number of middle to upper white class youths, has grown to support and appreciate rap music. Many youth in America today are considered part of the rap subculture because they share a common love for a type of music that combines catchy beats with rhythmic music and thoughtful lyrics to create songs with a distinct political stance. Rap lyrics are about the problems rappers have seen, such as poverty, crime, violence, racism, poor living conditions, drugs, alcoholism, corruption, and prostitution. These are serious problems that many within the rap subculture believe are being ignored by mainstream America. Those within the rap subculture recognize and acknowledge that these problems exist. Those within this subculture consider "the other group" to be those people who do not understand rap music and the message rap artists are trying to send. The suppresser, or opposition, is the dominant culture, because it ignores these problems and perhaps even acts as a catalyst for some of them. "The beats of rap music has people bopping and the words have them thinking, from the tenement-lined streets of Harlem, New York, to the mansion parties of Beverly Hills, California" (Shomari, 1995, 45). Rap music, once only popular with blacks in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, has grown to become America's freshest form of music, giving off energy found nowhere else. While the vocalist(s) tell a story, the sic jockey provides the rhythm, operating the drum machine and "scratching". Scratching is defined as "rapidly moving the record back and forth under the needle to create rap's famous swishing sound" (Small, 1992, 12). The beat can be traditional funk or heavy metal, anything goes. The most important part of rap is "rapping," fans want to hear the lyrics. During every generation, some old-fashioned, ill-humored people have become frightened by the sight of kids having a good time and have attacked the source of their pleasure. In the 1950s, the target was rock 'n' roll. Some claimed that the new type of music encouraged wild behavior and evil thoughts. Today, rap faces the same charges. Those who condemn this exciting entertainment have never closely examined it. If they had, they would have discovered that rap permits kids to appreciate the English language by producing comical and meaningful poems set to music. Rappers don't just walk on stage and talk off the top of their heads. They write their songs, and they put a lot of though into them. Part of rapping is quick wit. "Rappers like L.L. Cool J grew up rapping in their neighborhood, and they learned to throw down a quick rhyme when they were challenged" (Nelson,Gonzales, 1991, 135). But part of it is thoughtful work over many hours, getting the words to sound just right so that the ideas come across with style. As L.L. Cool J describes it, "I write all my songs down by hand. Each song starts with a word, like any other sentence, and becomes a manuscript." (Nelson, Gonzales, 1991, 137). Many performers set a positive example for their followers. Kurtis Blow rapped in a video for the March of Dimes' fundraising drive to battle birth defects and he has campaigned against teenage drinking as a spokesperson for the National Council on Alcoholism. On the television show "Reading Rainbow," Run-D.M.C. told viewers how books enabled them to become "kings of rock." On another occasion, group member Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniels said, "Little kids like to follow me around the neighborhood. I tell them to stay in school. Then I give them money to get something in the deli." Run-D.M.C. is one of the numerous rap combos advising kids to keep off drugs. Doug E. Fresh and Grandmaster Flash have each made records telling of the horrors of cocaine. On Grandmaster Flash's hit "White Lines," he details how the drug can ruin a life, and shouts, "Don't do it!" From it's inception, rap indured a lot of hostility from listeners--many, but not all, White--who found the music too harsh, monotonous, and lacking in traditional melodic values. However, millions of others - often, though not always, young African-Americans from underprivileged inner city backgrounds - found an immediate connection with the style. Here was poetry of the street, directly reflecting and addressing the day to day reality of the ghetto in a confrontational fashion not found in any other music or medium. "You could dance to it, rhyme to it, bring it most anywhere on portable cassette players, and, in the best rock 'n' roll tradition, form your own band without much in the way of formal training" (Small, 1992, 177). The basic workouts of early rappers like Kurtis Blow and the Fat Boys can sound a bit tame today. Many were still expecting the music to peter out before Run D.M.C. came along. Rap was, and to a large degree still is, a singles oriented medium, but these men from Queens proved that rappers could maintain interest and diversity over the course of entire full-length albums. Combining hard beats and innovative production with material that emphasized positive social activism without ignoring the cruel realities of urban life, they found as much favor with the critics as the street. Among the first rap groups to climb the pop charts in a big way, they also were among the first to make big inroads into the White and Middle-American audiences when they teamed up with Aerosmiths's Stephen Tyler and Joe Perry for the hit single "Walk This Way." The mid- and late '80s saw rap continue to explode in popularity, with the "birth" of superstars like LL Cool J and Hammer (the latter is often accused of providing a safe rap- pop alternative). Although most early rap productions originated in New York City and its environs, the music took hold as a national phenomenon, with strong scenes developing in other East Coast cities like Philadelphia, as well as West Coast strongholds in Los Angeles and Oakland. Production techniques became increasingly sophisticated; electronics, stop-on-a-dime-editing, and sampling from previously recorded sources became prominent. The increased emphasis on electronic beats led to the popularization of the term "hip-hop," a designation which is by now used more or less interchangeably with rap. The Beastie Boys, obnoxious white ex-punks from New York, brought rap further into the Middle American mainstream with their "vastly popular hybrids of hip-hop, hard rock, and in your face braggadocio" (Nelson, Gonzales, 1991, 12). While rap had always forthrightly dealt with urban struggle, the late '80s saw the emergence of a more militant strain of the music. Sometimes advantaged neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles, although performers like Philadelphia's Schoolly D probed that the genre was not specific to the area. Boogie Down Productions laid down a prototype that was taken to more extreme measures by N.W.A., who reported on the crime, sex and violence of the ghetto with an explicit verve that some viewed as verging on celebration rather than journalism. Enormously controversial, and enormously popular with record buyers, several N.W.A. members went on to stardom as solo acts, including Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre. The most popular and controversial of the militant rappers, the New York based Public Enemy, were perhaps the most political as well. Their brand of activism, like that of Malcolm X's two decades earlier, made a lot of people, including liberals, pretty uncomfortable, with their emphasis upon Black Nationalism and careless anti-Sematic, homophobic, and sexist references. Groups such as Public Enemy ignited an ongoing debate in the media. Activist-oriented critics and audiences found a lot to praise in their music. At the same time, they could not let the xenophobic tendencies of these acts pass unnoticed, or ignore the frequent quasi-celebration in much rap music of misogyny, drugs, and violence, and the status to be gained in the urban community by the practice thereof. Passionate advocates of civil liberties and free speech wondered, sometimes aloud, whether rappers were taking those privileges too far. Newly emerging gangsta rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg, Slick Rick, and 2Pac not only take the violent subject matter of their lyrics to new extremes (and to the top of the charts), but have been accused of enacting their scenarios in real life, landing in jail for manslaughter or fighting similarly grave charges. These performers often unrepentantly contend they are only reporting things as they happen in the 'hood, of a culture that not only shoots people, but is being shot at. Many critics find their line between art and reality too thin, and hate to see them spreading their gospel from the top of the charts (2Pac's 1995 album "Me Against the World" debuted at No. 1 even as he was serving a prison sentence), or serve as role models for international youth. Gangsta rap may have gotten a lot of the headlines in recent years, but the field of rap as a whole remains diverse and not as dominated by the shoot-'em-out minidramas of gangsta rap, as many would have you believe. De La Soul took rap and hip-hop productions to new heights with their 1989 debut Three Feet High & Rising, an almost psychedelic sampling and editing of a wildly eclectic pool of sources that would do Frank Zappa proud. Their humorous and cheerful vibe inspired a mini-school of "Afrocentric" acts most notably the Jungle Brothers and A Tribe Called Quest. Arrested Development, Digable Planets, and Digital Underground also pursued playful, heavily jazz- and funk-oriented paths to immense success and high critical praise. The work of rap is a highly macho (some would say sexist) environment, but some female performers arose to provide a much needed counterpoint from various perspectives: the saucy (the various Roxannes), the pop (Salt-N-Pepa), and the feminist (Queen Latifah). It is a measure of rap's huge influence that the style has infiltrated mainstream soul and rock as well. Producer Teddy Riley gave urban-contemporary performers like Bobby Brown a vaguely hip edge with his brand of "New Jack Swing," White alternative rockers like G. Love and most notably Beck devised a strange hybrid of rap, blues, and rock. Vanilla Ice probed that Whitbread pop-rap could top the charts, though he was unable to sustain his success. More than most genres' rap/hip-hop has become a culture with its own sub-genres and buzzwords what can seem almost impenetrable to the novice. Despite this proliferation of schools of production and performance, many rap records can appear virtually indistinguishable from each other to a new listener. And there's no getting around the fact that a lot of them are. "The market is saturated with repetitive beats and monotonously uncompromising slices of urban street life, to the point that they've lost a lot of both their musical novelty and shock value" (Rose, 1994, 56). Rap music has lost none of its momentum as we head into the last half of the 1990's. Scenes continue to proliferate, not just on the coasts, but in Atlanta, Houston, and such unlikely locales as Paris. It may appeal more to inner-city adolescents than anyone else may, but gangsta rap may be bigger than anything else in R&B music may commercially, and there are more multiplatinum rap/hip-hip acts than you can count. Shinehead, Shabba Ranks, and less heralded performers like Sister Carol have fused reggae and rap. And the jazz and rap worlds are being brought closer together than ever through the efforts of "Gang Starr and their lead Guru, US3, and the landmark Stolen Moments: Red, Hot + Cool compilation, which united many of the top names of hip-hop and jazz" (Rose, 1994, 67). Rap is still a new music form. It is expanding every day, and the sound has grown wide enough to include scores of future stars. Some rap is rock-based, some is funk, and some is very close to the original "street" sound. A few of the present stars will definitely have a noticeable impact on the future of rap. Themes that are found more and more in rap lyrics are: pride in an African heritage and the call for harmony between men and women. Queen Latifah and MC Lyte are working hard to open doors to women in the music business. Rap fans are also starting to accept more white artists. 3rd Bass and Vanilla Ice are new white rap acts with promise. The time is near when all of America will be bopping to rap. Rap has already shown signs of crossing over to a new audience. A Grammy category was added for rap music in 1989. D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince were the first winners for their single, "Parents Just Don't Understand." In 1990 Young MC took home the prize for "Bust a Move." And with real proof that rap is reaching more people, Tone Loc became the first rapper ever to reach number one on the pop charts. He did it with his hit single "Wild Thing" in 1989. Of course, there are still plenty who are afraid of rap and won't listen to it's message. Along with the birth and growth of rap comes censorship. This has become a big issue within the music industry, and rap music is at the center of the controversy. Some people want to put warning labels on certain rappers' albums and newspapers and magazines have been printing articles about the bad influence that some rappers have on kids. What is it about the music that people find so troubling? Some rappers use strong language. Others are accused of writing racist lyrics, or lyrics that are insulting to women. As with all kinds of music, the more popular it becomes, the more likely you are to find both good and bad sides. But the positive side of rap greatly outweighs the negative. And its positive messages seem to be spreading. The number of new rappers that grows everyday will bring about new forms of rap and constant changes on the "old school" versions of the music. With these new versions and variations comes new fans and renewed faith from old fans. Regardless of how many rap artists land in jail or end up dead, this music will live on. The fans will make sure of it.