Rap music has become one of the most distinctive and controversial music genres of the past few decades. A major part of hip hop culture, rap, discusses the experiences and standards of living of people in different situations ranging from racial stereotyping to struggle for survival in poor, violent conditions. Rap music is a vocal protest for the people oppressed by these things. Most people know that rap is not only music to dance and party to, but a significant form of expression.
It is a source of information that describes the rage of people facing growing oppression, declining opportunities for advancement, changing moods on the streets, and everyday survival. Its distinct sound, images, and attitude are notorious to people of all areas, races, and cultures.
Rap artists like Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Ice-T, N.W.A., Ice Cube, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, Queen Latifah, Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Tupac Shakur, the Fugees, P-Funk, and many others produced a unique music genre of the urban underclass.
Given the relatively low expenses in producing and distributing popular music, black artists and producers themselves have often controlled this mode of musical production and have been able to create a form of communication, originally free of censorship and control by the dominant social groups. Rap is now a major force in hip hop culture that has become a dominant style throughout the world today.
Just as ragtime, jazz, R&B, and other black music forms entered mainstream culture earlier in the century, today it is hip hop culture and its distinctive sound of rap music that is becoming an important form of music and cultural style across the globe. Hip hop erupted from New York dance and party culture of the 1970s. Writing lyrics, producing beats, break-dancing, and graffiti art were the original legs to rap music. Now, with dance and performance, visual art, multimedia, fashion and attitude, hip hop is the music and style for the new millennium. Despite what some critics say, with global popularity increasing dramatically, hip hop culture is here to stay.
Hip hop culture is intense body culture; it finds its expression in dance and gesture. Hip hop is very energetic and gave rise to new forms of dance, like break-dancing, where gesture and body rhythms provide fluid motions to all different types of musical beats. Hip hop is a highly vocal culture and rap music provides its voice. Everyday rhythms and sounds can be turned into hip hop beats, as well as the sounds of traditional music. With creative use of previous musical technology combined with new musical technologies, hip hop provides a soundtrack for life in a high-tech world.
Hip hop is also highly visual, creating its distinctive art form of graffiti and urban art, as well as fashion (B Boy, wild style, and ghetto street culture) that provides strong visual pictures, which also serves as models of fashion. Together, these forms provide style, identity, politics, and a way of life for individuals throughout the world.
Rap is the voice and sound of hip hop culture; while dance and bodily movement show its rhythms and moves, graffiti presents visual pictures and identity, fashion provides a unique style, videos present hip hop’s sounds and images, and digitized multimedia helps hip hop move along with the pace of today’s technological world. With style, fashion, and attitude, hip hop culture is more than just music; it’s a way of life.
Rap music influences many other types of music, and has roots in genres including R&B, funk, soul, reggae, techno, pop, and house. You can find roots to rap music in the corners of virtually every national culture in the world. Hip hop breaks down the boundaries between music and everyday life. Because of that, rap is becoming popular as part of advertising, film and TV, and the new digital and multimedia culture. As it knocks down borders between musical styles, combining every kind of music genre, rap crosses the national borders of the world becoming a key component of global culture.
Rap is currently rocking the casbah and the ghetto, rolling across the mountains and the deserts, hopping across oceans, and flying through cyberspace. In the global popularity scene, hip hop now rules, and is a dominant cultural form in many parts of the world. Rap gives voice to every culture that produces and circulates it, not just African-Americans. As a new force, rap levels the playing field, opening doors to new cultural players, and ripens for new corporate snakes to pounce on. Circulating ideas, images, sound, and style, it is becoming central to the new multimedia global culture and is an expression of a multicultural world with no borders and limits.
A raw expression of urban hip hop culture, rap quickly became the sound of African-American anger, rebellion, cultural style, and experience. Anticipated by the ground-breaking work of the West Coast-based Watts Prophets and New York area Gil Scott Heron (whom I worked for at my senior experience internship at TVT Records) and the Last Poets in the early 1970s, the current configuration of rap emerged out of Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 “Rapper’s Delight” and Grandmaster Flash’s 1982 hit “The Message.”
Hip hop culture began developing its style and sound in New York party scenes in the Bronx, Brooklyn and other ghetto areas in the late 1970s. By the 1980s, a whole cycle of New York-based hip hop and rap artists emerged to public attention, including Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Run DMC, Eric B and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-ONE, Tone Loc, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, Queen Latifah, and Public Enemy. Russell Simmons founded his Def Jam music label, winning wide-spread distribution for many artists now considered “old school,” representing the first wave of rap.
East coast rap ranged from the Black Nationalist ideas of Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation, to the radical issues of Public Enemy, to the feminism of Queen Latifah, to the emphasis on standards of living by Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, and KRS-One. Yet it should not be forgotten that from the beginning there was a strong component of dance and party music connected with rap, that it was always part of a larger hip hop culture, which was very energetic and expressive
The rap controversy started with the explosion of West Coast gangster rap. Ice-T, the “original gangster” said it was N.W.A.’s 1987 album “Straight Out of Compton” that brought a more controversial form of gangster rap, discussing the problems and pleasures of what became known as “thug life.” N.W.A. was a group of young African-Americans from the hood, including Ice Cube and Easy E rapping, Dr. Dre producing, and DJ Yella and Renn performing. N.W.A. brought attention to a new gangster genre.
In turn, Easy E put out his own record and split with the group, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre also separated from N.W.A. and produced their own records, and Suge Knight formed Death Row Records, which released Dr. Dre’s influential “The Chronic” in 1992 and then signed on Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac Shakur, who would become highly controversial rap superstars.
Meanwhile, the East coast put out its version of gangster-rap, with the Wu Tang Clan creating a sensation through its hard, gritty urban sounds. Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and his label Bad Boy Entertainment, featuring The Notorious B.I.G. brought a NY urban ghetto realism into rap, while the Fugees brought funk and R&B into the rap sound. A wide range of younger rap artists spun off of these groups and erupted from seemingly every corner of every major city, and even a few suburban areas.
In the mid-1990s, feuds between East and West coast rap groups broke out with highly publicized shoot outs and the murder of Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. Following the strange blur of the line between art and life in gangster-rap, with the artists living and dying for the things they said in their songs, a movement to stop the violence emerged to what became known as “New School,” or “Now School,” going beyond the sounds of “Old School”.
New York groups like De La Soul and The Fugees produced less harsh rhythms, more affirmative and romantic lyrics, and new influences of soul, R&B, and pop. Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill spun off the Fugees to create their own chart-toppers and multiple Grammies, including best album of the year, won by “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” in 1999. This showed that rap had matured, entered the mainstream, and gained recognition as a global force in culture.
Today, rap covers a large spectrum, ranging from the urban fury of gangster rap, to the rural fusion of blues and rap in Arrested Development, to the educated raps about black history of Chuck D, to the poetic and political issues of the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, to the G-funk melodies of Snoop Doggy Dogg and celebrations of thug life by the late Tupac Shakur. It is therefore a mistake to identify the genre of rap with its most extreme expressions such as gangsta rap, as there are countless varieties of urban rap, suburban rap, rural rap, rap and soul fusions, reggae rap, Latino rap, white rap, and even Christian rap groups. This is one of the most flexible genres, and can be used for a variety of purposes.
Yet it is gangster rap, G-funk, or what we’ll call “G-rap” that is still the cornerstone of rap’s billion dollar plus market, and probably the genre that elevated rap to global popularity. G-rap provided a distinctive language, style, and attitude that made rap a significant, yet controversial form. While break-dancing, graffiti, and other forms of hip hop have declined in significance, rap and the hip hop style embedded in rap performance and music video have become a highly significant part of contemporary culture.
Much rap music comes off as aggressive, as singers are seen threatening power structures, denouncing racial oppression and police violence, and celebrating a diverse realm of black cultural forms, like a “gangster” lifestyle. With its deep beats, multilayered sound, aggressive lyrics, in-your-face messages, and defiant style, rap is seen as a revolt in its music videos, and recorded forms. Blasting out of boom boxes in the ghettos, roaring from car stereos, and blaring from home sound systems, rap has a variety of sounds that some see as threatening the middle class order and status quo of power.
Some rap singers have the rebel image through their clothes, their lifestyles, and in many cases their crimes, serving as a warning of the rage and violence in ghetto communities. But other rap artists engage in political rap, or “conscious rap,” seeing themselves as “knowledge warriors” and spokespeople for an oppressed underclass. Rap points to the diversity of the African-American community and is itself a musical genre that makes its audiences aware of the differences between various social groups in U.S. society and the oppression of the underclass.
Although there were rap artists in the 1970s, it was in the 1980s that rap became most popular, coming of age during the Reagan-Bush era. As a result of conservative attacks, the 1980s was a period of intense hardship for blacks as the Reagan right shifted wealth from the poor to the rich, cut back on welfare programs, and neglected the concerns of blacks and the poor. During this period, the standard of living and job possibilities for African-Americans declined, and living conditions in the inner-city ghettos deteriorated with growing crime, drug use, crack cocaine, teen pregnancies, AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, gangs, and urban violence.
Rap music arguably stands between the modern and the postmodern, using postmodern techniques of sampling, quotation and combination of various sounds for self-expression. Rap has a close relation with musical technologies and can be seen as a form of technoculture. It depends heavily on voice for its effects, but its production involves highly skilled use of new musical technologies. While early hip-hop music mocked the sophistication of disco through the medium of a DJ’s turntables, and while some early rap was technically underdeveloped, later rap evolved into a highly complex sound, using sampling, multi-track overlay, computers, and a variety of sophisticated mixing techniques.
There is, in fact, often not much “real” or “original” music, but simply basic drum beats and guitar riffs, overlaid with recorded sounds. Starting around 1987-88, Public Enemy and other rap groups began experimenting with multilayered sound combination, taking sounds from media and everyday life, and mixing them into their beats. So a DJ, such as Public Enemy’s Terminator X, plays an important part in the production of the sound of rap, and is often highly respected.
In particular, rap groups “sample” previous music, sometimes respectfully by quotation, sometimes ironically with another song, and sometimes satirically by using violent street sounds in a romantic love song. Rap groups regularly sample black classics like James Brown, but also engage in crossover, like with DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince ironically sampling the “I Dream of Jeannie” theme for their rap “Girls Ain’t Nuttin’ But Trouble.” The group De La Soul created controversy by sampling an Aerosmith song in the early 1990s, but by now this is accepted as normal. For example, when Coolio sampled Kool and the Gang’s song “Too Hot” to make its catchy chorus and lyrics more relevant for the 90s: ” ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste/That was the slogan/But now it’s ’95 and its ‘Don’t forget the Trojan.'”
When listening to rap, you can easily see that most of it has to do with identity and self-assertion. The rap artists frequently call attention to their origins, usually grounded in a particular region like South Central Los Angeles, the Bronx, or Compton. There is much awareness and sense of place in rap music. In particular, rap is frequently music of the ‘hood that arises from distinct neighborhoods where identification with place supplements the strong identification with race, which is stronger than the identification with the nation as a whole. The rap singer wants you to know who she or he is, where they are from, what time it is now, and what is happening.
The images of the music videos show specific urban sites, mostly the ghettos of the underclass. Ice T’s videos of the songs in “Original Gangster” show him in the ‘hood, experiencing the stories he narrates in his songs, as do many videos of N.W.A., Ice Cube and other ghetto-based rap artists. The images and lyrics show and tell us that it is a time where the differences between the haves and the have-nots are more evident than before; that it is a time of urban crime and violence, a time of gangs and drugs, a time of STDs, HIV, and AIDS, a crazy time of extreme sexuality, a time when the urban underclass is striking out and striking back, and therefore is a tense and frightening time for the culture as a whole.
The lyrics and images of rap stars like Ice-T and Ice Cube soon became a significant part of rap as an icon, showing what is going on in the urban underclass and its rage and fantasies at the end of the millennium. Public Enemy’s music video of “By the Time I Get to Arizona” shows black revolutionaries going to Arizona to protest the state banning of the Martin Luther King Day holiday and depicts them assaulting white politicians and attempting to bring revolution to the state. Their video of “Shut it Down” also projects images of black revolution, mentioning the legacy of Karl Marx, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and Angela Davis, with the rappers calling for the shutting down of the system of exploitation and oppression.
Voice, lyrics, and rhyming are very important in rap, which can be read as an acronym for Rhythm and Poetry. The songs are often long, highly complex, and expressive, continuing a rich African-American tradition of stories with individual variations, influenced by genres such as rag-time, jazz, and the blues. Rap continues earlier African-American traditions of things like “playing the dozens” involving verbal contests to demonstrate verbal flexibility, vocabulary, mental quickness, and creativity. The “dissing” or mocking of other rap groups, women, and white politicians, reproduce the African tradition of the toast or boast, making some rap seem confrontational.
Yet other rap artists are like ministers with a message for the audience, which the rapper conveys in distinctive ways. And like in the black church, rappers often have choruses in the background. This lays down a steady, organized message to otherwise confused fragments of speech. Some rappers go as far as to count syllables to ensure their lines flow correctly with the beat and the chorus, while others just let it flow and adjust their lyrics accordingly.
Rap involves an expression of black experience, style, and cultural forms. By the late ’80s, Rap replaced R&B as the most popular music for young blacks, but the largest audience for rap music is white suburban youth, calling to attention the “white negro” discussed by Norman Mailer in 1957. According to Mailer, this expression is first found in the “hipster,” the cool white cat who drops out of white culture, condemned as a boring conformist, in order to enter the exotic world of black culture with its mesmerizing rhythms and powerful expressions of sexuality and soul. Fleeing from the culture of “spiritual death”, the white negro finds passion and creativity in black culture. From jazz to rock and roll to rap, many white males have identified primarily with black music, language, dress, and style.
Young suburban whites identify with rap because they too feel deeply alienated and rebellious, and like to identify with the “gangsta” image, such as “the wigger” subculture which integrates the forms of black culture with white racial identities. As Ray Mazarek, the keyboard player for the Doors put it in a VH1 interview, without black culture, Americans “would still be dancing tippee-toe to the minuet.” Rap groups appear on every continent in various languages and cultures. Drawing on rich African traditions and its rhythms, rhymes, and rebellions, rap is attractive to numerous cultures. Gangster-rap is especially attractive to white youth with its disrespect for the authority, laws, and conformity.
It is clear in songs like Ice-T’s “Mic Contract” that the microphone is seen as a symbol of power, a gun that enables rappers to engage in warfare. Rap reveals that the word “n*gger” has been introduced by African-Americans in various ways, either as a positive term of solidarity, as a term of hostility toward a peer, or as a political identity for a member of an oppressed class, such as when Ice-T insists in “Straight up N*gga” that “I am a n*gger, not a colored man, negro, or black,” terms widely accepted by white culture that represent conditions faced by blacks, and which a harsh word like “n*gger” will not let sit.
Much rap music attempts to communicate the situation of young blacks in the inner cities, and especially, to call attention to the problem of police violence which they confront on an everyday basis. While the police are supposed to “serve and protect,” young blacks find instead that the cops are there to harass and exploit, and that these “guardians of the peace” in fact pose one of the gravest dangers to the community. Films like Menace II Society, or the Mark Fuhrman tapes during the O.J. Simpson trial, which one African- American commentator described as an appropriate soundtrack for the Rodney King beating, help portray this.
In “Body Count,” Ice-T satirically reflects on the white utopia of Ozzie and Harriet and the Cleavers, as a time and place where cops would help a kitten down from a tree. Nowadays, in the inner cities, Ice-T notes that “Sh*t ain’t like that!” Every day, from L.A. to New Orleans, Philadelphia to New York, the complaints of the rappers are confirmed as white police have been caught beating and killing minorities, ordering their execution, imprisoning them on bogus charges and planted evidence, and shaking down their communities for whatever blood money they can extort, often from the poorest of poor. To these conditions, N.W.A. dedicated their anthem, “F*ck tha Police!”
Tupac Shakur’s Me Against the World paints an especially vivid picture of life in the inner city. Titles like “If I die 2nite” and “Death Around the Corner” describe the danger and paranoia of living in no-peace zones where bullets fly more than birds, while “Me Against the World,” “So Many Tears,” and “F*ck the World” express both sadness and rage concerning this situation. Reminiscing about his past, he says “I was raised in the city/ sh*tty ever since I was an itty bitty kiddy/ drinkin’ liquor out of my mama’s titty/ And smokin’ weed was an everyday thing in my household/ and drinkin’ liquor `till you’re out cold.”
Shakur regrets his mother and the preachers couldn’t save him from a life of drugs, drunkenness, and violence. Although he often appeals to God and affirms struggle and hope, he condemns the world that has taken so many of his friends (“I’ve lost so many peers/I shed so many tears”) and which threatens to take his own young life at any moment: “**** the world ’cause I’m cursed/ I’m havin’ visions of leaving here in a hearse/ Will I survive to the morning to see the sun?” The paranoia of life is intense: “If you’re black, you’d better stay strapped,” or: “You want to last? Be the first to blast.”
The expectation of death is especially heightened in Shakur’s “Death Around the Corner,” which opens with his young son asking him why he is standing by the window with his gun and the father answering that by saying: “My destiny is to die.” The rapper explains that “I guess I’ve seen too many murders” and is prepared for more violence at any moment. Still, he is not afraid to die, figuring that any place will be better than the ghetto: “Don’t shed a tear for me /I ain’t happy here.”
Rap, like some other forms of expression, is a powerful message of racism, oppression, and violence that calls our attention to the crisis of people living in inner cities. Rap also provides a positive black tradition, celebrating black culture, pride, intelligence, strength, style, and creativity. It supplies a voice for a social group excluded from mainstream communication and gives power to members of other social groups to better understand the experiences, anger, and positions within the black community. It is a wake-up call urging African-Americans and other audiences to break out of the cycle of drugs and violence, accept self-responsibility, and begin to restore their lives and communities in whatever ways possible as they struggle for societal changes.
At its worst, G-rap is racist, sexist, and glorifies violence, being little but a money-making vehicle that is part of the problem rather than the solution. Many of its images and models are highly problematic, such as the gangsta rap celebration of the outlaw, pimp, and drug dealer. Some rap is random in its circulation of violence and anger, channeling it against the entire world, while other rap artists correctly target anger against the actual forces of oppression that have historically plagued the black community. In short, G-rap is a part of a much broader hip hop culture that has become a dominant cultural form and style today.
Rap can be a destructive type of identity politics, promoting differences between white and black, cops and gangsters, men and women, straight and gay. However, with its heavy emphasis on color, rap music calls attention to the importance of racial difference and focuses attention on whiteness as well as blackness. Rap can force white audiences to reflect on their own racial construction, on the ways that whites oppress blacks, on the ways that they may be constructed against someone else who may be presented in a negative light. Rap is a significant part of the postmodern culture that forces an increasingly multicultural and multiracial society to become aware of its differences. and to learn to live with them.
Rap music is highly complex. It is an awesome example of multicultural communication, enabling white audiences to listen to black voices and hear black views that they might otherwise miss. Rap music makes the listener painfully aware of differences between black and white, rich and poor, male and female. Rap music brings to white audiences the uncomfortable awareness of black suffering, anger, and violence. More upscale and privileged audiences are enabled to experience the painful effects of deprivation and pain suffered in the urban ghettos.
They can also confront views of mainstream celebrations of wealth and materialism by the in-your-face counting of their new found wealth by rap artists. The expression of males’ violence toward women in some rap is a reminder of male violence and the hostile attitudes that many men hold toward women, as its homophobic and racist attitudes indicate that oppressed also have prejudice and anger against other oppressed groups. Very often the oppressed direct their rage against their own people and other groups, which in turn oppresses their own group even more.
Rap is a unique form of expression, crossing all boundaries, and an indicator that maybe current societies are structured according to a system of differences between dominant and subordinate classes, groups, races, and genders. Rap music is an anthem of postmodern conflict, a vivid expression of the extent to which difference and opposition are structuring principles of society, and a reminder of the growing differences between the haves and the have-nots. It is the thorn on the rose of culture that pricks its listeners into awareness of the problems of American society. It is a reminder that all is not well in the home of the brave and the land of the free. Rap reminds us that the red, white, and blue of the flag does not always exactly stand for a multicultural society where the colors of the rainbow complement each other and harmonize, rather then clash.