Why Is Rap Music The Uncultured Cultural Phenomenon?

What is Rap Music?  It is a musical composition made of spoken word with often rhyming lyrics that was originally and still is predominantly performed over bass heavy beats with repetitive melodic phrasing but is now styled in a kaleidoscopic array of musical genres.  Yet, in order to illiterate the reason I feel that rap music is the uncultured cultural phenomenon, I would like to describe what is was, what it became and what it is, so I would like to start with some basic terms and information. 

Rap music is the most dominant and acknowledged music of the Hip-Hop culture but rapping was initially considered secondary to Dee Jaying2, the method of playing two record turn tables by a Disc Jockey or DJ in order to extend the length of popular dance songs at parties. The break technique is when the DJ used the second turn table to play the same record as on the first turn table to create a musical loop and if done well he could seamlessly extend the instrumental portions or “breaks”. DJ’s developed techniques of breaking, scratching and mixing to spontaneously accentuate particular grooves, common to a pair of songs by the same or different artists, to entertain the crowd at a party.  The dance style of break dancing gets its name from the break technique the DJ used while playing records and draws it movement from the odd (at the time) creations a DJ, with skills, could create on-the-fly at a party. This did a lot to enhance the recognition of the person throwing the party and ultimately influence the success of the DJ as their services would be sought after for upcoming parties.  The MC (slang for emcee) was an outgrowth of the need a DJ found to excite or “hype” the crowd even more and that increased revenue. The MC would introduce the DJ, fill the silent gaps a DJ might have when setting up a series of records and speaking over the breaks which became known as rapping.

Rap’s name is derived from the urban slang term used by African-Americans of the 1970’s that described the persuasive technique a young man would use to seduce a woman. Much of the early music demonstrated this dynamic of the genre and the MC’s rap soon seduced the party crowd away from the DJ and toward the MC. A feature that characterized this stage of the Rap genre was how each MC would urbanely describe himself as better than any other MC to demonstrate why he should be chosen.  Even the name Hip-Hop has its roots in urban street slang common in the middle of the 20th century when the dawn of Jazz spawned words like Be-Bop or the Lindy Hop to describe the music and dance of that era.  The Rap music phenomena started in New York City, New York in Brooklyn [the Bronx] and along with break dancing and tagging became known as the Hip-Hop scene.  Tagging is simply the graffiti that young toughs in many places had used to mark their territory for several decades. However during the formative years of Hip Hop a uniquely identifiable, artful and stylized form of tagging started showing up on the walls of businesses, schools, overpasses and playgrounds that was tightly associated with the then new culture of Hip-Hop.

The then new adaptation of music videos on MTV which seemed more at home with Pop, Grunge, New Wave or Rock & Roll, embraced the Hip-Hop culture and provided a forum to display the art, dance and music in a cohesive production that allowed audiences all over the world to experience this form of entertainment. The first successful group of white boys to find chart success as Hip-Hop artists was the Beastie Boys who closely imitated Run DMC’s style and one outstanding New Wave genre hit in 1980 that exposed new segments of the population to the Rap phenomenon was a song titled “Rapture” by Blondie and while new markets opened in the U.S. and Great Britain early in the1980’s, the first aspect of Hip-Hop culture to be widely recognized outside of the U.S. was break dancing which took a firm foothold in Brazil, Germany, Australia, Japan and South Africa3 .

Hip-Hop culture originated in the Bronx and during the early years Rap Music’s seminal influences was music from places like the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Brooklyn and Philadelphia; genre influences such as Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Disco, Afro-Caribbean and Salsa while “borrowing” heavily from prominent artists like Bob Marley, Gil Scot Heron, Isaac Hayes, Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder and especially James Brown.  In order to put this stage of the genre in a common context, I would relate the maturity level of the Rap genre as grade school or elementary. In light of the fact that the DJ used music that he knew was popular, he essentially plagiarized the work product of successful artists and called it his own, so as Rap music became more popular and therefore commercially viable the style of a DJ using an established artist’s work as the background for the MC to rap over clashed with the standard practice of the music industry and record company executives were reticent to sign the new Rap groups because it threatened their relationship with artists whose royalties depend on their ownership and control of their published music.  Copyright infringement was rampant at the beginning this genre’s rise to prominence but was ultimately settled in the courts by having successful Rap artists return a fair portion of their record proceeds to the affected artists.  However these acts which started purely as a testament to how much the young people revered these artists, it was the large sums of money that were reported to have been generated and returned as a result of court actions that caught the attention of youths who surmised that if it takes being a song thief to make it to the top then so be it.  Like a twist of  the title phrase of the Emotions5 song a decade before “If loving you [Rap music] is wrong, I don’t want to be right”, Rap artists, DJ’s, MC’s, musicians and fans alike were intrigued by this controversy. Along with the innocence of Rap music lost, a new image of the Rap artists as criminally minded was accepted.  At a time when the fun, precocious and sometimes clownish or circus image of the Hip-Hop culture that Rap music represented was besmirched, the controversy that dominated public perception cast the Hip-Hop DJ as a criminal. It became clear that the general public wanted to divorce the DJ from the MC’s which were becoming the new icons for Hip-Hop culture as if they were the grandmasters of the Hip-Hop circus. It is at this time that the MC’s reflexively and completely defended the value of the DJ and his role in their respective groups. MC’s respectively described how the DJ was the most integral part of their groups and this heralded the end of what is considered the Old School era of Hip-Hop when the DJ ruled the dance club and the tour stage backing up performers like Kurtis Blow, the Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash and the furious Five or the Fat Boys. 

The New School of era of Hip-Hop included artists like Run DMC, MC Lyte, Heavy D and the Boyz but was not limited to Rap artists because the culture was now more mainstream and also was embraced by new R&B artists that incorporated Rap, House, Techno, Soul, R&B, Rock & Roll, Salsa, Break Dancing, and Tagging in a dizzying array of rainbow colors, an audio-visual bombardment with dynamic camera movement by creative video production editors and directors that created a gymnastic feast for the eyes.  This period of Rap music saw Run DMC create a cult classic with “King of Rock” the title cut of their second album. Their collaboration on their third album with Aerosmith in the hit “Walk this Way” solidified their position as Rap music’s #1 act in 1986.  This collaboration was notable because it showed the rappers on the same stage as a chart topping band, showed how both the original artist and rappers could make fresh revenue streams out of hits whose sales had flattened and legitimized both the Rap genre along with Run DMC’s earlier boast of being the “King of Rock”. In this period Rap Music was exposed to its widest audience and experienced an exponential growth in the revenues generated by performers and the record companies that represented them.  Russell Simmons translated the chart topping success of  Run DMC into a new record company poised to capitalize on its market position named Def Jam records. The positive, conscious rap of groups like Public Enemy, A Tribe called Quest, Kool Moe Dee, De La Soul and Digable planets gave voice the educated, militant, political, and thought provoking style of rap that won over some of its detractors, like myself, by finding clever ways to express ideas that I found to be more relevant to my life.

The next phase of Rap Music is the Gangster rap music phase which has redefined the way the Hip-Hop culture is viewed by those outside of it.  I would consider this the High School through College phase of the genre. The gangster MC was territorial, boastful but in a more disparaging way than his “Old School” predecessors. Controversial fights or beefs were the hallmark of this sub-genre of Rap music. LL Cool J, Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane, and Rakim were the first to exemplify this gangster rap trend but in my opinion they also mirrored the unrealized potential of image Run DMC portrayed. The difference is just that their speech matched the menacing looks and macho attitudes. Each reinforced their respective dominance and skill in the craft by being able to show versatility in their vocal styling whether slow and smooth or fast and syncopated these artists blazed a new trail of verbal destruction laying waste to “lame” MC’s that didn’t have the chops to convince the crowd that they could beat any of these artists in a freestyle battle.  Of these four Big Daddy Kane was my favorite, LL Cool J was too commercial but respected because of his great skill.  I abhorred Kool Moe Dee and Rakim. 

Their NY accents and voices seemed grating and irritating to me for a long time and even after a younger supervisor I had refused to play anything else during the hours that we worked together and doggedly tried to convince me that not only were they viable but they were the best rappers, I still didn’t like them.  Well, one day when I least expected it I heard and understood every word that Rakim was saying and his words created one mental picture after another, I realized the realness of the poetry in his vocals and soon after became a Rakim devotee.  This experience made me realize that most of what I didn’t like about rap music was that my ears were not accustomed to the patterns.  As a gospel musician I had often scoffed at church members who rejected music styles that was unfamiliar to them and now I had had an experience that showed I was just as susceptible to discount the validity of rap music because some of it just went by my ears faster than my brain was conditioned to accept.  This experience helped me grow as a listener which is the key to learning anything.  Immediately the value of rap music became clear. If young people are better able to process language vocally and are exposed to argument and rhetoric in a style that appeals to them, then they are much more likely to become adept at deciphering the language of law, then being to create a cadence that could help them memorize lessons and ultimately learn any subject which should be easier for them because of this experience.  That was the potential that seemed so apparent then but as gangster rap became so dominant in its popularity that even I, like the refrain from an Ice Cube song, “Can’t get enough of this gangsta shit!”, it is hard to see Rap which held on to its youth longer than I could reach it’s working adult stage and be lost about where to turn.  The music that grew up too fast is now at a crossroads and it could remain associated with criminality.  It could develop its atrophied social conscious muscles and find a place in new militant, political protest.  It could remain the elementary teaching tool of choice. What will not happen is that it will not entirely disappear as it has been co-opted by so many other genres and cultures it will always be a part of the world’s music but gone are the easy, breezy days when having just a microphone and a notepad could turn a “nobody” into a rock star.  I believe that by natual attrition that as the youths that have grown up in a world full of rap music move into positions of power, the new high culture will be the rap music that is now struggling.  Not because it is better but because it is closer to the present. After break dancing becomes part of the Olympics and the X games create new devotion to the Olympics it will just finally make sense.

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