Where did Rap Music Come From?

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Rap in the 1960s meant to talk seriously about something. At the time, “rap lines” sprung up for troubled teens to dial into’ black militant H. “Rap” Brown got his nickname from his abilities at public speaking and persuasion. The term all but disappeared for more than a decade, until a hybrid of talk and music revived it. A subculture called “hip-hop” (a term used in the very first successful rap record) emerged around the music, featuring stylized graffiti, break dancing, gang-inspired clothing styles and a bad-guy attitude.

Ad-lib rhyming over a beat had a history in the black culture long before rap. For example, competitions in good-natured rhyming insults and brags were a feature of the “dozens” in the 1940s and ‘50s. African American radio DJs from the 1940s into the 1970s made a practice of it, as did black poets in the 1960s like the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets. And Jamaican “toasters” or “dub artists” made an art of the same word-play traditions.

Jamaican influence most directly spurred rap in the 1970s. Its earliest practitioners were of Caribbean descent. One of them, Kool Herc, who left Jamaica for the South Bronx in 1967, is credited as the first DJ to buy two copies of the same record because he liked a 15-second instrumental segment in the middle. With two turntables, Herc could repeatedly switch between them to create an endless rhythm track to rap over.

It’s hard to imagine that in the earliest days of rap, the instrumentation was provided by playing short music segments from vinyl records repeatedly using two DJ turntables, manually cuing and starting the records right on beat. (Digital sampling recorders have made this process easier, so that tracks can be easily programmed before the fact instead of performed “live.”) According to rap pioneer Kurtis Blow, it was largely a matter of economics: “Gifted teenagers with plenty of imagination but little cash began to forge a new style form spare parts. Hip-Hop was a product of pure streetwise ingenuity; extracting rhythms and melodies from existing records and mixing them up with searing poetry.”

As with punk rock in the white teen culture, rap was largely a homemade reaction against the slickness of disco, which had taken over much of black culture.

While “cutting” with his two turntables, Herc also joked and boasted into the microphone in Jamaican “toasting” style. It was a time when carrying a blaring boombox everywhere was de rigueur; fans recorded Herc’s live performances on them, then used the boomboxes to spread the music through the Bronx, Brooklyn and uptown Manhattan.

Herc’s sound inspired imitators, including Afrika Bambaataa, a Black Muslim who got good enough to engage Herc in direct competitions at clubs, parties and in city parks (where they powered their sound systems with hotwired street lamps). While Herc primarily used sounds from funk and disco, Bambaataa added rock music and even TV themes into the mix inspiring other rap DJs to plunder samples from third World folk recordings, spoken-word tapes, bebop music and anything else that suited their fancy. (Bambaataa reportedly owned more than 25 crates of records that he could choose from.) “It became a little like ‘Name That Tune,’ trying to figure out what snippet came from which record,” remarked on observer of the scene.

In 1976, grandmaster Flash (Joseph Saddler) introduced “quick mixing,” using dozens of short sound bites combined for a sound-collage effect, and “backspinning,” in which the record was spun quickly backward to repeat a snippet of sound. Shortly after, his partner and “MC” (master of ceremony), Grandmaster Melle Mel, added the next important component to rap – real words. Before that, rappers improvised simple rhymes on the spot, often referring to what was going on at the club or party (fro example, this early Herc couplet: “Davey D is in the house / An’ he’ll turn it out without a doubt”). Mel composed the first pre-planned, full-length rap song.

In 1978, either Grandmaster Flash or thirteen-year-old Grand Wizard Theodore (there’s some controversy about this) introduced the technique called “scratching” – manually turning a record back and forth so the needle would make a rhythmic fwheet-fwheet sound.

In 1979, the first two rap records appeared: “King Tim III (Personality Jock),” by the Fatback Band, and “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, a band manufactured by the owners of Sugarhill Records, who had heard the new sound and decided it had commercial possibilities. The producers bypassed the DJs that had been the backbone of rap: They hired studio musicians to replicate the basic groove of the disco hit “Good Times” by Chic, and then hired three employees of a New Jersey pizza parlor and coached them in performing a rap song that stole heavily from the style and lyrics of more genuine rappers. Still, the song became the first rap record to hit the top 40. Another successful record that year was Kurtis Blow’s “Christmas Rappin’.”

Ironically, the next rap record to hit the charts was “Rapture” in 1980, by the New Wave band Blondie.

In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa’s “PlanetRock” became the first rap record using synthesizers and a drum machine, starting a trend away from depending on others’ pre-recorded backing tracks.

In 1986, rap became assimilated into mainstream pop culture with “Fight for Your Right (to Party)” by the Beastie Boys and “Walk This Way” by Run-DMC and Aerosmith. It began rivaling rock as the dominant musical form among young people. Still, sampled sounds from pre-existing tracks continued to be the rule, to the consternation of much-sampled artists like George Clinton and James Brown, who found their work appearing on other people’s hit records without compensation. Finally, by the early 1990s, threats of legal action established a standard practice of compensating for samples. The effect was that Clinton and others released CDs containing dozens of sound bites for the express purpose of facilitating sampling by others. just party and bragging songs into politics, and then mutated into subcategories, including the most controversial: “gansta rap,” with lyrics glorifying guns, drugs and misogyny. Feuds and vendettas among the self-proclaimed gangsters resulted n several prominent rappers being shot, maimed, and killed.

Other spinoffs, inspired by the “black science fiction” of Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” and using many of the same techniques, include electronic-heavy house and techno music.


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