Cultural History of Rap
Cultural History of Rap
Public Enemy opens the track with “Cant Truss It” in a rap merge with Flavor Flav who shouts “Confusion” their voices paralleled over the heavy and energetic baselines. Even though the song speaks about slavery as rapped by Chuck D about the legacy of slavery, the opening rhymes could as well be used to describe the cultural history of rap music (Rose 272).
While there is widespread perception that rap culture is nothing but a noisy and confusing genre of music that has crept into contemporary America’s culture, there are those who posit that rap is an educational tool, as a component of the hip hop culture it is a way of life, a representation of social activism and a music genre with deep social undertones that are drawn from its identifiable origins.
Any discussion on the aesthetic edge of rap cannot be made unless a critical analysis is done of the sequential developments in rap music. Never even in its tutelage did rap gain the adoration of the larger populace. The obstacles it faced as it grew from its roots to achieve its present status are so many that it would be a great disservice to take a criticism leaning on the concept of aesthetic edge to disregard rap and pronounce it dead.
Initially rap music was regarded as a passing fad that was nothing but a playful and ephemeral expression of black culture whose origins could be traced to the musical energies of the black urban teens. Wynston Marshalis dismissed hip hop as nothing but adolescent “ghetto minstresly” (Dyon xv). When it was realized that rap as a form of music was meant to stay longer than it had been expected, it received a novel christening that permanently fixed it as a form of music played by and for black ghetto youths.
It is at this point that reactions against rap became transformed from dismissal to denigration and it was commonplace to hear attacks from both the white and black quarters. Trying to chart the origins or rap music as a form of cultural expression is very tricky because we are either forced to accept that the cultural foundation existed but only gained expression through rap or view rap as an independent cultural facet that spontaneously erupted without deep cultural roots from where it had existed way before it gained wide applause or derision.
However, for the sake of charting the cultural history of rap and pinning it to what critics say about the music genre, it can be conclusively said that the first instance of rap could be traced to the revolutionary verse that was done by Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. Pigmeat Markham followed next with “Here Come de Judge,” to Bessie Smith rapping along to the beats in her blues (Keyes 17; Forman & Neal 61). For the purposes of pinpointing the origins of rap, it is also prudent to cite that Rap existed in some ancient African oral traditions and consequently in contemporary African American cultural practices.
Specifically, modern cultural history of rap begins in 1979, with Sugarhill Gang rapping in the song “Rapper’s Delight”. These early cases were mostly underground rap forms. Underground rap was viewed as the signal breaker and what followed next was the birth of hip hop and the beginning of the global popularity of rap music. Usually the first stage in production of rap music was the record production where the artist would place their rhythmic repetitive speech over known black music hits which were mostly R&B rhythms that were well known.
This stage would later on transform with the help of advanced technical virtuosity through drum machines, instrumentation and the sampling of existing records so as to make rap a form of music that was creatively symbolic(Forman & Neal 61; Keyes 122). Despite all these changes rap was still limited to the inner city neighborhoods, especially in at its cradle; the New York City. Artists like Cold Rush Brothers, Africa Bambataa, Kurtis Blow, Busty Bee, Kool Moe Dee, Funky 4 plus 1, Grandmaster Mel and DJ Kool Herc, began actively experimenting with this new music genre as well as proclaiming its African roots (Keyes 17).
Its development was thus marked by the description and analysis of the social, political and economic factors that stimulated its emergence and consequent developments. Such factors included police brutality, drug addiction, teen pregnancy coupled to a variety of cases of material deprivation. A notable case is Kurtis Blow’s lyrics in “Those are the Breaks”, and the “Message” a song merges between The Furious Five and Grandmaster Flash. These songs pictured the hues existent in the social misery as well as the stains that could be observed as profoundly reminiscent of urban catastrophe. A rendition of the “Message” was as follows;
“You’ll grow up in the ghetto living second rate/ And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate/ The places you play and where you stay, / Looks like one great alleyway/ You’ll admire all the number book takers/ Thus, pimps, and pushers and the big money makers/ Drivin’ big cars, spending like a jungle sometimes/ It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under. ” (Forman & Neal 62) This song together with Flash’s “New York, New York” became the pioneers of the social awakening that characterizes rap music in combination with musical creation, social protest and cultural expression (Forman & Neal 62).
Kool Herc who was a Jamaican DJ in the Bronx is credited with revolutionizing the rhythms in rap. Herc had a unique style of deejaying where rhymes could be recited over instrumentals. In places where he was deejaying such as house parties, he would rap on the microphone while involving a variety of the in-house references. These duplicates of house parties where Herc was deejaying quickly diffused to Manhattan and Brooklyn and followers of rap music began to grow in number (Keyes 40; Adaso 1). Next stage of growth was the increment in financial fortunes from rappers.
However, at the background there were still beliefs that rap was nothing but an epiphenomenol cultural activity that would with time wane off after the youth became bored or acquired a different diversion in life just like what had happened to graffiti art and break dancing. But the growth of groups such as the Run-DMC rap group entrenched rap as an independent sphere of an expression of art that increasingly took control of its destiny. Run-DMC became the progenitor of the modern form of rap that is basically a creative integration of diverse musical elements, social commentary and uncompromising cultural identification.
This strong integration pushed rap into the mainstream of American culture as well as securing its future as a music genre that has a clearly identifiable tradition. The commercial and critical success that Run-DMC accomplished almost single handedly, pushed rap music into American homes by being certified gold, being featured on MTV as well as being the first rap album(Raising Hell in 1987) to go triple platinum(Keyes 67). Moreover, with the song “Proud to be Black” they intoned unabashed racial pride that was missing in those days of chronic racial discrimination.
It can also be said that it was at this time in the cultural history that Run-DMC acting like a self proclaimed ambassador of rap music began to concentrate its characteristic subversive cultural didacticism to address issues of racism, classism, urban pain, and social neglect. In rap concerts, rappers engaged in ritualistic refusals to abide by the censoring of speech. The concert also acted as space for cultural resistance, loosening the strictures that Blacks were subjected to through demoralizing condemnation and tyrannizing surveillance.
The latter actions by the hegemonies white ruling class only served to muffle cultural creativity and self expression. Based on these developments rap music became a strong social force fighting for their civil rights and liberties. Commercial success was instrumental in pushing rap music to the mainstream American culture on one hand but on the other, another charge was levied on rap music: that rap expressed and promoted violence. A notable personality, Tipper Gore has often retained his repeated stance that rap music only appeals to those kids who are angry, disillusioned and unloved.
He posits that rap tells them that it is okay to engage in violence. To this day there is a popular perception that there exists an intimate linkage between rap music and the violence exhibited in the social arena especially by Latino and black inner city youth. However, much people may try to substantiate these claims, they are merely side shows and have nothing to do with the deep understanding of rap as a genre of music as well as a cultural and historical identity of the American people. There are countless numbers of rappers who have spoken against violence.
On point is rapper KRS-One on his track titled, “Stop the Violence” in the top selling album of 1989, “Self Destruction”. In the track KRS-One raps that violence predates rap and is therefore not a characteristic of rap music. He urges a stop of black on black violence as it only erodes the social and communal fabric that had for decades debased inner cities where blacks resided across America (Forman & Neal 66). Despite the potency of the message that KRS-One put across, categorically negative images in against rap have persisted.
In a nutshell, rap music is emblematic of the existence of glacial shifts in aesthetic sensibilities that have for decades progressed as blacks moved from one generation to the next with regard to the severity of economic barriers that have been at play in the movement from the ghetto life to middle or upper middle class blacks. Fortunately, these negative perceptions of rap have led to the development of a fierce competitive steak among rappers and hence their continual transcendence across boundaries to global markets.
It is upon this developments that rap modeled the modern definition of hip hop which opines that it is a form of music comprised of emceeing and deejaying coupled with graffiti and break dancing. These are the four components of hip hop that catapulted it to its current big business nature. As this evolution progresses other components like clothing trend, lifestyle, slang and the general mindset are becoming more and more incorporated into the hip hop culture. In differentiating rap and hip hop it can be said that rap is a genre of music in the hip hop culture.
Hip hop is a lifestyle complete with its own dress codes and lingo. To borrow the words of KRS-One, hip hop defines how you life while rap is definitive of what you (Adaso 1; Cheryl Keyes interview with KRS-One). Therefore, as a product of decades cross cultural integration with deep roots in the African culture, African oral tradition and consequently African American tradition, it is deeply weaved into the social fabric that pronouncing it dead based on the basis of aesthetic edge is simply parochial.
First, it is prudent to understand the cultural developments of rap music because it is only in such an understanding that it becomes considerably plausible to attribute lack of aestheticity in its present forms. In context, rap music brings together so many complex social, economic, cultural and political issues. Its contradictory articulations are neither signs of losing the aesthetic edge nor signs of the absence of intellectual clarity. As stated in the beginning of this discourse, the obstacles that rap has survived to become what it is today are may and variable.
Therefore, the contradictory articulations that are existent today are but common features of cultural dialogues that not unidirectional but multi directional in that they include the social, cultural and political contexts that define the everyday struggles over pleasure, resources and meanings in the environment where we live and interact(Rose 274). Rap music is a cultural expression that is a preserve of the black community since it prioritizes black voices living in the inner cities of urban America. It is highly rhythmic with a very strong storytelling component.
The music is basically electronically based. These are some of the characteristic features of rap music. It is upon these tenets that rap music should be judged so as to form an opinion on its relevance. Rapping which is currently embedded on the powerful technological, industrial as well as ideological institutions usually involve the telling of long and sometimes abstract stories that are necessary in passing the information to the wider audience. Memorable phrases and rhymes that are themselves black sound bite packaged in an ever changing black slang.
In essence, rap music wizards, all sounds, images, icons and ideas for recontextualization, mockery, pun and celebration. All these characteristics lie at the core of rap and are therefore definitive of it. In his book, Hip Hop Matters, Watkins, quotes David Samuels who asserts that “rap has forfeited whatever claim it may have has to particularly by acquiring a mainstream white audience whose taste increasingly determined the nature of the form. What whites wanted was not music, but black music, which as a result stopped really being either” (85).
This statement confirms that rap has lost its aesthetic edge because owing to its origins that clearly defined the cultural difference between white and black music, such a divide was broken by rappers like Eminem who symbolized the first breakage of that division. The fact that Eminem rose to a celebrity status despite his white background also confirms that from the earlier days when rap was a preserve for only the black kids, rap has revolutionized and rewritten the racial and cultural history of America.
This assertion can be counterbalanced by the fact that the existence and the inevitability of social change cannot be used as a reason to proclaim that rap has completely lost its aesthetic edge. Moreover, the American landscape has changed both socially, economically, politically and culturally. Days when white hegemonies and racial discrimination have gone by. There cannot be a greater explanation for the political changes than the mere fact that a Black president is occupying the white house.
In introducing the book, Know What I Mean, by Dyson rapper JZ reiterates the socio-economic underpinnings that defined his life as he grew on the tough streets of Detroit. These conditions of life opened up his mind to the benefits of learning. He could have become a teacher at Baltimore to show the young kids the benefits of leaning just like Tupac had been shown that there existed a power in knowledge and understanding a people’s history (Dyson ix). He further points out that hip hop are not only Black American but American as well.
It is correct in the context of cultural discourses to pinpoint forms of music that are termed as rap and are indeed not. Nas’ assertion that hip hop is dead is welcome as it denotes artistic vigilance. Moreover, Nas forms the caliber of rappers who have maintained the original style and content of rap music. As a rapper he has come into contact with a variety of musicians who are not driven by the basic nature of the rapper to use music as a form of activism against social ills.
In his book, Dyson describes Nas as one of his generation who is not illiterate, destructive or materialistic, a man who read for passion, pleasure and intellectual stimulation (iv). At the core, rap music can never be called rap without an examination and acceptance of its true nature in the social fabric of America’s landscape. According to Nas, hip hop is dead is a title he used for his album because he felt that unlike in the historical past, people no longer have political voices. Speaking in an interview with MTV, he said, “When I say ‘hip-hop is dead’, basically America is dead. There is no political voice. Music is dead …
Our way of thinking is dead, our commerce is dead. Everything in this society has been done. It’s like a slingshot, where you throw the m- back and it starts losing speed and is about to fall down. That’s where we are as a country … what I mean by ‘hip-hop is dead’ is we’re at a vulnerable state. If we don’t change, we gonna disappear like Rome. I think hip-hop could help rebuild America, once hip-hoppers own hip-hop … We are our own politicians, our own government, we have something to say” (MTV. com) In another interview Nas said that he used the title as a way of engendering reaction from other artists which like he expected happened.
Nas blamed the hip hop world especially those in the South for reducing the quality of rap with sub genres like snap music and crunk. Such productions were ideally an affront to Nas’ street credibility. It is aspect of street credibility that Keyes refers to as street consciousness. A critical analysis of the lyrical content as well as the social message in many of today’s rap hits confirms Nas’ assertion that hip hop is dead. The noble quest for social voice that had existed in the past has been replaced with a music genre that is solely driven towards material possession and the pleasures that accompany such acquisitions of wealth.
In another interview he could not be more exact, he said that rappers were simply monkeying around and just scrambling for attention. As a counter attack to the notion that hip hop has lost its aesthetic edge, Young Jeezy, Ludacris, Lil Wayne and Kanye West scoffed at the assertions made by Nas. Specifically, Ludacris intoned that hip hop ain’t dead that it was indeed living in the South. Saying that it was the South keeping it alive, he added that hip hop is what you make it to be.
Moreover, they believed that due to the booming South, saying that hip hop is dead does not make sense as the south would have been dead too(http://tbohiphop. net). According to Keyes, Rap music if a forum used by rappers to address economic and political disfranchisement of youths especially black youths, it fosters ethnic pride, displays cultural values and aesthetics. At the core rap is artists, the themes they portray and the variation of styles in the portrayal of these themes as a sure reflection of urban life and street consciousness values and aesthetics.
Therefore as countries, cultures and cultural components change and socially restructure, there is going to be a continual transformation across cultures and not even rap music can escape such an onslaught. However, a dominant cultural force like rap genre can never be erased. There are core components that will forever define and differentiate rap music from other musical genres. Works Cited Dyson, E. Michael. Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop. Westview Press, 2007 Forman, M. & Neal, A. Mark. That’s the joint! the hip-hop studies reader. Routledge Press. 2004 Keyes, L. Cheryl. Rap Music and Street Consciousness.
University of Illinois Press. 2004 Rose, Tricia. Voices from the Margins: Rap Music and Contemporary Cultural Production. In Popular Culture in American History. By Jim Cullen. Blackwell Publishing, 2001 Watkins, C. Samuel. Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Beacon Press, 2005 Websites Adaso, H. A Brief History of Hip-Hop and Rap. http://rap. about. com/od/rootsofraphiphop/p/RootsOfRap. htm Is Hip-Hop Dead? Luda, Big Boi Disagree With Nas. http://tbohiphop. net/is-hip-hop-dead-luda-big-boi-disagree-with-nas/18/ MTV. NAS Interview, “Hip-Hop Is Dead”. MTV. com