Category: Music


Rapper’s Delight

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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The Magic Dragon

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“Puff the Magic Dragon” is probably one of the best-know folk songs in the world.  But is it really, as many people believe, about drugs?

Lenny Lipton’s first year of college wasn’t easy.  Not because he was homesick, he was glad to finally be out of Brooklyn, but because he was having a hard time getting used to being on his own.  There were so many things to think about:  girls, money, a career.  Growing up obviously wasn’t going to be easy.  Lipton secretly began to miss his childhood.

The fall of 1958 and winter of 1959 passed.  So did Lipton, who managed to survive at Cornell in spite of his emotional turmoil.  And then one evening in the spring of 1959, a few days after his 19th birthday, Lipton made one of the most important decisions of his life.  He decided to go to the library.

He was supposed to have dinner that night with a friend who lived off-campus, but it was still early.  So Lipton wandered over the library in the Cornell Student Union.  He scanned the shelves until he found a volume of poems of Ogden Nash, then pulled it from the shelves and retired to a chair with it.  Lenny was struck by a simple rhyme about the “Really-O Truly-O Dragon.”  In fact, he was inspired by it.  “If Ogden Nash can write that kind of stuff, so can I,” he thought.

Lipton returned the book, left the library, and headed from his friend’s house.  As he walked down the hill that led from Cornell into the town of Ithaca, he thought of Ogden Nash’s dragon.  And then he thought of his own dragon.  As he approached his friend’s house, Lipton incorporated his dragon into a little poem about a subject that was never far from his mind in those days, the end of childhood.

When Lipton got to 343 State Street, he knocked on the door.  No answer.  Apparently neither his friend nor his friend’s roommate, Peter Yarrow, was home.  But Lipton wanted to get this poem onto paper, so he went inside anyway.  He headed straight for a typewriter, which happened to be Yarrow’s, sat down, and began typing as fast as he could.  In three minutes, he typed out his poem, then he got up and left.  He didn’t bother taking “Puff the Magic Dragon” with him.  He didn’t care, he’d gotten it out of his system.  He just left it sitting in the typewriter.

Folk music was popular at Cornell in the late ‘50s, and Peter Yarrow was a big man in the folk scene.  Although he was still an undergraduate, he taught a class on folk music, performed, and often organized concerts.  As Lipton tells it, Yarrow returned home that night, found the poem sitting in his typewriter, and wrote a melody for it.  Eventually Yarrow became part of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and they included the song about “Puff” in their act.

Years went by, and Lipton forgot all about his three-minute poem, until a friend from Cornell happened to mention that he’d seen Peter Yarrow perform “Puff” with his new group.  Yarrow had told him that Lipton had written it.  Was it true?

Suddenly, Lipton’s little poem came back to him.

In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, one inevitably runs into stories about unscrupulous operators who’ve stolen songs from their rightful owners.  So it’s nice to be able to write about a case in which an honest man went out of his way to find a writer.  That’s what happened here.  When it began to look as if “Puff” was really going to be worth something.  Peter Yarrow tracked Lenny Lipton down to let him know about it.  And he’s always listed Lipton as co-writer, even when Lipton didn’t remember having invented the world’s most popular dragon.

For years, people have speculated about the meaning of “Puff,” but Lenny is quite clear about what was on his mind when he wrote it:  “Loss of innocence, and having to face an adult world,” he says.  “It’s surely not about drugs.  I can tell you that at Cornell in 1959, no one smoked grass.”  None of the “suggestive” names were thought out, they just popped into his head as he was walking along that night.  “I find the fact that people interpret it as a drug song annoying,” he says.  “It would be insidious to propagandize about drugs in a song for little kids.  It think it’s a very sentimental tune.”

“Puff the Magic Dragon” has had remarkable success for a poem that took three minutes to write.  As a song, it reached #2 on the national charts in 1963, and in the ‘70s became the basis of a continuing series of children cartoons.

The Story of Layla

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Eric Clapton can play the blues as few others can, a talent that both satisfied and tortured him.  He believed that you had to suffer in order to be able to play the blues, so he was miserable a lot of the time.  He was particularly unhappy when he wrote his famous composition “Layla.”

The real “Layla” was named Patti Boyd, or, more accurately, Patti Boyd Harrison.  She was the wife of Beatle George Harrison when Eric Clapton began pursuing her.

Harrison first met her on the set of A Hard Day’s Night in 1964.  A stunning 19-year-old blond model, she was only supposed to make a brief appearance in the film and leave; instead, she and George fell in love and eventually married.

George and Eric were close friends.  They’d know each other since the days when the Beatles and the Yardbirds (Eric’s group at the time) were becoming popular.  As they both became superstars, they hung out together more and more.  They even contributed to each other’s recordings.  Eric played a magnificent solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”; George co-wrote and played on the Cream’s “Badge.”  George wrote “Here Comes the Sun” while sitting in Eric’s garden; he wrote “Savoy Truffle” specifically for Eric, who was having dental problems but still couldn’t resist chocolates.

George didn’t realize, however, that over the years Eric had quietly fallen in love with Patti.  Eric told Patti (but not George) about his feelings, but she wouldn’t hear anything of it.  She remained dedicated to the man who had written “Something” for her.

Already a tortured soul, Clapton was plunged into despair.  In an outburst of emotion, he wrote “Layla.”  Later, when people asked him who he was singing for, all he would say was, “’Layla’ was about a woman I felt really deeply about and who turned me down, and I had to pour it out in some way.”

You be wondering how “Patti” became “Layla.”  The answer:  Claption lifted the name “Layla” from a Persian love story called “Layla and Mashoun.”  The tale had little similarity to the Eric-Patti-George love triangle.  Clapton just liked the title.  The song was recorded and released in 1970, but it flopped.  The reason:  the record was attributed to Derek and the Dominoes: no one knew it was Clapton, so it didn’t get airplay.

Clapton, who had poured his heart and soul into the record, threw in the towel.  He gave up music and took up heroin.  “I basically stayed in the house with my girlfriend for two and a half years,” he told Rolling Stone magazine, “and we got very strung out.  Dying from drugs didn’t seem to me then to be a terrible thing.”

Ironically, during this low point in his life, “Layla” was rereleased and became one of the all-time FM favorites. . .then struck gold as a Top 10 single.  In 1974, Clapton kicked the heroin habit and reemerged on the music scene with “I Shot the Sheriff,” his first #1 song.

Patti eventually divorced George and, in a secret ceremony in Tucson, Arizona, in 1979, married Clapton.  Patti and Eric later joined George in a recording of the Everly Brothers’ old hit, “Bye, Bye Love.”

Then in 1988, Patti and Eric’s nine-year marriage ended.  Patti was granted an uncontested divorce on the grounds of Clapton’s adultery with Italian television personality Lory del Santo, with whom he had a baby boy.

Though the marriage was over, the music lived on.  In 1992, Clapton’s acoustic version of “Layla” became a hit, introducing a whole new generation to the song.