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.


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