Chapter 38
The Roots of Rap

            One of the more controversial developments in American pop music – rap – is the latest in the series of deep-seated black socioeconomic protest movements that always precipitate a new musical style.  The sequence of events is a matter of historical record.  It starts out with field hollers, spirituals, and chain-gang blues, then proceeds to and through the urban blues, swing, be-bop, rhythm and blues, gospel, soul, funk, disco, and now rap.

            The new musical styles are a way for the black community to, on one hand, protest against four hundred years of oppression, and on the other hand, bath its wounds in musical therapy.

            Each time, the white community ignores the protest, cleans up what is too uncomfortable in the lyrics, "whitens" what is too "black" in the music, and turns the new musical style into a huge, new, profitable business.  This is a blazing over-simplification of a frightfully complex chain of events, of course, but the generalization holds firm.



            The specific musical style that triggered the rap explosion in America seems to have been the 1970s' Jamaican street-pop music industry led, by and large, by the disc jockeys with their provocative "toasting" and "dubbing" performances (see Chapter 33 on reggae).  Jamaican disc jockeys like Duke Reid (1915-1975) and Prince Buster (b.  1938) would shout their favorite catch phrases over the microphone as they played their records.  These talk overs ("toasts") became the way of the future.

            Ewart Bedford (b.  1942), better known as U-Roy, began to deliver weird rambling monologues, yelps, screeches, and assorted blistering asides on "Wear You To the Ball", "Flashing My Whip", and "Tom Drunk".  Roy Samuel Reid (1944-1999), known as I-Roy, followed with fatherly advice to "cool out the youth" in his talk-over patter on certain cuts on Crisus Time (1976).  U-Roy and I-Roy challenged each other in the style of the old African boast songs, mocking each other with insults and putdowns – "playing the dozens" as it's called in American black culture (Hebdige 1987, 84).

            All of this was done over the radio, and also on portable sound systems on the back of flatbed trucks, in open fields, on ghetto streets, in vacant lots, in a rental hall, wherever a crowd might gather to mingle and dance.  Mixed in with the chatter were bits and pieces of local news – updates on the latest political indignities, corruption, murders, cover-ups, and other grassroots events the people would want to know about.  In continuous three-way networking of artists, record producers, and the audience, the DJ served much like the "griots" in West Africa – resident story-telling historians for the exchange of information, tribal myths, and community attitudes and values.



            By the early 1980s, rap was a national craze.  In no time at all it was all the rage in the pop music industry.  A small crowd of artists pushed rap into the newspapers and the courts with their tough lyrics.  The famous obscenity trial of 2 Live Crew in Florida caused quite a stir.

            One of the nation's leading scholars in the field of black literature and culture, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Chairman of the Black Studies Program at Harvard University, testified at the trial of 2 Live Crew.  He explained that rap was a contemporary form of a four-hundred year tradition of "signifying" – rhythmic teasing, insulting, ridiculing indirectly to send a message to those listening in, punning often in lewd and off-color rhyme patterns, and teaching a lesson by circumlocution.  Male adolescents have been signifying in the black community for a long time, he explained, and they do it partly in earnest, partly tongue-in-cheek.  For them it was, and is, a release of pent-up anguish at the helplessness of their social circumstances.  It's a survival strategy.


DJ Kool Herc

            The Father of Rap is most certainly DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell (b.  1955)).  In the 1970s when Herc moved from Jamaica to the West Bronx in New York, he brought with him an intimate understanding of the DJ's powerful leadership role in street-level affairs, and he also brought with him the best sound system anyone had ever heard up to that time – clean and crisp, with brilliant highs and deep, rich lows.  Before long he was being copied by several neighboring disc jockeys.

            In the clubs where he used to DJ, Herc switched between two turntables, both with the same song on them, so that he could extend percussion breaks for dancers.  Eventually, a type of "one-upmanship" evolved, with each dancer creating more and more elaborate moves, leading to the type of dance now called breakdancing.

            Herc also hired an MC (master of ceremonies), Coke La Rock (b.  1955) to do some of the talk-overs for him while he concentrated on the turntables.  After Grand Wizzard Theodore (Theodore Livingston) (b.  1963) developed the technique of "scratching", that is, moving the record backward and forward in time with the beat of a tune on another turntable to produce a unique percussion accompaniment, Herc added that to his list of techniques as well.

            Although he has since become a legend, DJ Kool Herc never switched from live performances to commercial recording.

            These American modifications of Jamaican DJ techniques came to be known as "rap" and the funk-driven street music as "hip hop".  Soon there were boast raps, party raps, insult raps, news raps, message raps, nonsense raps, and motherly-fatherly-sisterly-brotherly raps (Erlewine 1994).

Afrika Bambaataa

            Afrika Bambaataa (b.  1957) was another major figure in the early days.  He tried to turn black street culture into a positive force through his music.  Born Kevin Donovan in the Bronx, Afrika Bambaataa Aasim took his name from a 19th-century Zulu chief.  In his late teens, Bambaataa was one of the most skillful disc jockeys in the Bronx, and he began to organize block parties and breakdancing competitions to get the kids off the ghetto streets and into less violent and dangerous behavior.

            Bambaataa entered the record business as a producer of a single by Soulsonic Force, "Zulu Nation Throwdown" (1980).  Two years later he made his debut as a performer with "Jazzy Session" and "Planet Rock".  "Planet Rock" introduced a new, technologically-driven style of black popular music, which Bambaataa referred to as “ElectroFunk”.  Inspired by German electronic band Kraftwerk, Bambaataa created his own uniquely African-American version of European electronic dance music.  "Planet Rock" reached No.  4 on the R&B charts and joined the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" (1979) as one of the early classics of hip-hop.

            Afrika Bambaataa went on to a big career, often collaborating with other artists:  James Brown, John Lydon, George Clinton, UB40, Bootsy Collins, and Boy George.  Afrika Bambaataa justly deserves his reputation as one of the founding fathers of rap (Erlewine 1994).

Grandmaster Flash

            Another founding father of rap enjoys the same kind of respect.  Calling himself Grandmaster Flash because of his speed and precision at the turntables, Joseph Saddler (b.  1958) put together a group called the Furious Five, consisting of  Cowboy (Robert Keith Wiggins), Melle Mel (Melvin Glover), Kidd Creole (Danny Glover), Mr.  Ness/Scorpio (Eddie Morris), and Rahiem (Guy Williams).

            The trio of Cowboy, Melle Mel, and Kidd Creole called themselves the Three MCs, who are considered to be the first emcees in the history of rap, with Mel being the first to call himself an MC during a performance.  Cowboy is also credited with creating the term "hip hop".

            Grandmaster Flash made art forms out of manipulating records on his turntables – scratching them and repeating particular instrumental sections – and "punch phrasing" – hitting a particular break on one deck while the record on the other deck is still playing.  The effect is like an acoustical exclamation point.  He thus created new music out of collages of existing recordings.  The most important recording of such a technique was the single "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" released in 1981 (Erlewine 1994).

            Nearly all of the Grandmaster's recordings, however, consist of interlocking raps by the Furious Five.  Their most important recording, "The Message" (1982), turned away from the party subjects of the time to focus on urban social issues – creating a new genre of rap.


            In addition to the three pioneers mentioned above, several artists were especially influential in the growth and development of rap in America.



            In the early 1980s, entrepreneur Russell Simmons (b.  1957), founder of Def Jam Records, coaxed his little brother, Joe "DJ Run" (b.  1964), and a friend, Darryl "D.M.C." McDaniel (b.  1964), to form a rap duo.  Upon graduation from high school they did just that, and enlisted their friend Jason "Jam Master Jay" Mizell (1965-2002) to scratch turntables.  All three members of Run-D.M.C.  were from middle-class New York families in Hollis, Queens.

            Their first single "It's Like That"/"Sucker MCs" (1983) sounded like no other rap at the time – it was spare, blunt, and skillful, with hard beats and with powerful, literate, daring vocals.  Several other singles and a self-titled album appeared soon thereafter.

            By 1985 and their second album, King of Rock, Run-D.M.C.  had become the most popular and influential rappers in America, with dozens of imitators.  They were breaking down the barriers between rock and rap, and single cuts from the album were lodged high up in the R&B charts:  "King of Rock", "You Talk Too Much", and "Can You Rock It Like This?"  Also in 1985, they appeared in the rap movie Krush Groove.

            In 1986, Run-D.M.C.  had a Top 5 hit (the first hip hop song to hit that high on the pop charts) with a cover of Aerosmith's "Walk this Way", featuring Steven Tyler and Joe Perry on vocals and guitars.  The video featured the two bands on either side of a wall, until Tyler breaks through the wall and both bands join forces for a collaborative concert.  It's considered a pivotal moment for the rap/hip hop genre, as it was the first hip hop video to be played in heavy rotation on MTV.

            Although they continued to record together through 1993, personal issues and other business enterprises took precedence for the members of the group throughout much of the 1990s.  Run-D.M.C.  officially disbanded in 2002, after Jam-Master Jay was shot and killed outside of a recording studio in New York.


The Beastie Boys

            White rappers had dabbled in the genre since its inception, but it was the Beastie Boys – three upper-middle-class white kids – who made rap a serious option for white musicians and popular with large numbers of white listeners.  The Beasties attracted a large black fan base, too, a testament to their abilities to rap "authentically".  Comprised of Michael "Mike D" Diamond (b.  1965), Adam "MCA" Yauch (1964-2012), and Adam "Ad-rock" Horovitz (b.  1966), the trio signed with Def Jam Recordings, which, due in part to the Beasties' success, would eventually become rap's biggest and most successful independent record label.  Although they had released singles on the Def Jam label in 1985, it was their first full-length album, License to Ill (1986), which brought them worldwide fame.

            Met with critical acclaim when it was first released, License to Ill became the biggest selling album of the year, and it went on to be the best selling rap album of the 1980s.  Because of it, millions of kids all over America raised their voices with a new battle cry:  “You’ve got to fight / for your right / to PAAARRR-TTTTYYYY."

            The Beasties, former punk rockers, played up their obnoxious image at every turn.  They were rude, crude, obscene, and well beyond what most audiences had seen before.  Women in cages, simulated sexual acts, and mechanical and inflatable penises were all a regular part of the live show experience.  The Beasties were teenage sexuality gone wild.  But beneath all the theater and obnoxious behavior were solid rap lyrics, delivered over complex, sample-heavy music.

            Largely because of, and in response to, the Beasties' music, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was formed in 1985 as a way of protecting children from harmful lyrics.  PMRC introduced a content warning label to advise parents of lyrics about sex, drug use, violence or the occult.

            After nearly thirty years of performing, the group finally disbanded in 2012, after member Adam Yauch died of cancer.

2 Pac Shakur

            The late rapper Tupac Amaru Shakur had a controversial career, but there was no doubt about his raw talent, ambition, and skill in his chosen field of entertainment.  The former member of Digital Underground became a solo performer with 2Pacalypse Now (1992), and was highly praised for originality.

            In 1996, he released the first double-disc set of all new material in hip-hop history, All Eyez on Me.  It entered the charts at No.  1.  In September, 1996, 2 Pac was shot in the chest as he was riding in a car in Las Vegas.  He struggled for a week, but died on September 13, 1996 (Ron Wynn, AMG scholar).

            Despite the fact that he's supposedly been dead for over 15 years now, 2 Pac (or his estate) have put out seven studio albums, two live albums, and ten compilation albums after his death, leading some to believe that he survived the shooting, but is living incognito under an alias for security reasons.

The Notorious B.I.G.

            Chris Wallace (1972-1997), called The Notorious B.I.G., also known as "Biggie" and "Biggie Smalls" came out with his first album, Ready To Die, in 1994, and it was one of the most popular hip-hop releases of the year.  In June of 1995, his single, "One More Chance", debuted at No.  5 in the pop singles chart, topping Michael Jackson's "Scream/Childhood" as the highest debut single of all time.  The single later won the Grammy for Rap Single of the Year, and Biggie won the Grammy for Rap Artist of the Year.

            As the Notorious B.I.G.  was preparing his second album, Tupac Shakur was killed in Las Vegas.  Many in the media speculated that Biggie's camp was responsible for the shooting, which Biggie and his producer, Sean "Puff Daddy/Puffy/Diddy/P.  Diddy" Combs, denied emphatically.

            Early on the morning of March 9, 1997, the Notorious B.I.G.  was returning to his hotel in Los Angeles after a Soul Train Award party when a car pulled up aside his car and opened fire, killing him instantly.

            The Notorious B.I.G.'s second album, the double-disc After Death, was released three weeks later, and entered the charts at No.  1 (Erlewine1994).  As of this writing (2014), his murder still has not been solved.


Public Enemy

            Born on the streets of New York, Public Enemy ushered in a new era of attitude-driven rap, combining biting lyrics with the hard edge of rock and roll.  With videos produced by filmmaker Spike Lee, Public Enemy added a new topic to the world of rap that only folk rock had dealt with before:  social criticism.  While the Sugarhill Gang was rapping about dancing, drinking, and sexual exploits, Public Enemy, who called themselves “the prophets of rage” were rapping about poverty, politics, and racism over complex beats, samples, and music provided by an expert team of DJ-producers referred to as “the Bomb Squad”.

            Rappers Chuck D (Carlton Douglas Ridenhour, b.  1960), Flavor Flav (William Jonathan Drayton, Jr., b.  1959) and the rest of Public Enemy called for social action with hits like "Fight the Power" and "Bring the Noise".  The group caused controversy from its earliest days, openly aligning themselves with Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, whom they frequently referred to as a prophet, who had made anti-Semitic remarks against Jews.

            Flavor Flav got into legal trouble in the 1990s with an assault conviction and a charge of attempted murder.  While the band stopped recording in the late 1990s, Chuck D continues a successful career as a college speaker, and Flavor Flav has hosted reality TV shows and opened a string of restaurants.


NWA (Niggaz With Attitude)

            Perhaps the most notorious group in the history of rap, NWA were unapologetically violent in their raps.  Blunt, harsh, and aggressive, this five-man rap crew seemed not only to discuss but also to celebrate the criminal life on the tough streets of Los Angeles.  The fathers of gangsta rap sang of gang violence, police brutality, and drug use.  Their 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton, received virtually no radio play at all, but cemented their image as hardcore rap outlaws with songs like "F*** tha Police" which resulted in a letter from the Federal Bureau of Investigations, warning the record company to “watch their step.”  Three years later, the group was disbanded, but members Dr.  Dre and Ice Cube went on to successful solo careers of their own.  Just as English punk band the Sex Pistols had done ten years earlier, NWA came onto the scene, created a violent hardcore version of their respective genre, and then disbanded.



LL Cool J

            James Smith, known as LL Cool J (for "Ladies Love Cool James") (b.  1968), fused the beat box minimalism of Run-D.M.C.  with a b-boy's snarl of defiant lyrics, and pushed rap into new terrain, opening the door for numerous hip-hop contenders.  He was the first hip-hop act to appear on American Bandstand.  His biggest hit was Mama Said Knock You Out (1990) (Erlewine 1994).  These days, he appears on TV, on NCIS: Los Angeles.


Queen Latifah

            Beginning as a beat boxer with the hip-hop group Ladies Fresh, Queen Latifah (b.  1970) made her first solo statement – "Ladies First" – count on her 1989 album All Hail the Queen, a nice mixture of soul, dub reggae, and straight hip-hop.  Her persona was intelligent and no-nonsense.

            Born Dana Owens in Newark, New Jersey, Latifah (an Arabic word translating as "delicate" and "very kind") landed an acting role as a cast member of the Fox sitcom Living Single, and then released Black Reign (1993), dedicated to her brother who had been killed in a motorcycle accident a year earlier.  "U.N.I.T.Y.", a hit single on Black Reign won a Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1993.

            Although she started out in the realm of hip-hop, these days she casts a wider net, including soul, jazz, and traditional pop (she sang "Who Can I Turn To" with Tony Bennett on his album, Duets) in her repertoire.

            Latifah was later nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actress category for her portrayal of Mama Morton in the film Chicago (2002).  Latifah lost to one of her co-stars, Catherine Zeta-Jones.  She also had a major role in the film version of Hairspray (2007), based on the Broadway show of the same name, which itself was based on an earlier movie, also called Hairspray, directed by John Waters.

            Latifah continues to appear in films, and her last album, Persona, was released in 2009.