Rap Music Audiences

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Rap music audiences have changed over time in important ways in both form and function. Over the past twenty years, rap has moved from a local, party-oriented art form to one driven by mass mediation. The majority of rap is produced today in a studio and is received in solitary settings, such as in cars and through Walkmans. While many more people are exposed to rap in such settings, the art itself is increasingly a part of a global recording industry. Audiences are more and more dispersed, heterogeneous, and unpredictable today.

Hip-hop began as a local artistic practice, one dependent on a whole series of artistic activities, including dance, music, and graffiti. Events took place in parks, basements, gyms, and clubs like Harlem World, Club 371, Disco Fever, and the Funhouse in New York City areas such as the South Bronx and Harlem (Rose). Rap's connection with live performance can be seen on early rap singles as well as on bootleg tapes from early shows, from groups like the Fantastic Five and artists such as Busy Bee. This sense of the event is evidenced in the use of "call-and-response" routines. For example, on the 1979 single "Rapper's Delight," by the Sugarhill Gang, the group raps, "Go Hotel, Motel, What ch'a gonna do today?" and the in-studio audience responds, "Say what?" to which the rapper answers, "Say I'm gonna get a fly girl, gonna get some spank, and drive off in a def O.J." These routines were ever-present in live hip-hop shows and were also featured on nearly all the earliest rap singles, showing how hip-hop was a local face-to-face art form.

These call-and-response routines disappeared from hip-hop during the early to mid-1980s, a period marked by the rise of Run-D.M.C. and related artists. Run-D.M.C. was the first mega-successful rap group, earning rap's first gold, platinum, and multiplatinum album awards (for Run-D.M.C. [1984], King of Rock [1985], and Raising Hell [1986]). They were the first rappers to appear on MTV, the first to grace the cover of Rolling Stone, and the first to have a major endorsement deal with an athletic wear company (Adidas). Rap became a popular American music with the ascent of Run-D.M.C., one that circulated widely in traditional commodity form, attracting broader and more dispersed audiences.

This move into the studio enabled the art's base of production to expand. During the early to mid-1980s, the outlying areas of New York City such as Hollis, Queens (the home of Run-D.M.C.), became increasingly important, as did areas around the country like Los Angeles (the home of Uncle Jam's Army and the World Class Wreckin' Crew). The so-called suburbanization of hip-hop began during this period, as a much wider group of performers and audiences began to have access to the art.

The widening reach of rap music opened the art up to new possibilities around this time. Specifically, a kind of black nationalist identity politics became apparent in rap during the late 1980s, especially on the East Coast, as its community and audience stretched beyond local boundaries. For example, Public Enemy's second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is structured as a fifty-eight-minute, self-contained radio broadcast, its individual songs linked together conceptually. Tracks are interspersed with portions of a concert, static, the sound of a radio dial turning, and bits and pieces of radio shows. Communication itself became most important as Public Enemy envisioned an African American community and audience that could be linked together through media technology.

In addition, "gangsta rap" emerged at almost exactly the same time on the West Coast that Public Enemy and other nationalist rappers did on the East. While there are important differences between the lyric content of "positive pro-black" artists such as Public Enemy and "negative gangsta rap" artists such as NWA, these groups share some key characteristics. In particular, both groups engaged hiphop as a mass-mediated art form—one no longer continually linked to live practice and performance. The now familiar "rap as ghetto reporter" equation entered West Coast parlance during this period as Chuck D's oft-quoted "rap as black America's CNN" entered the East's. As a concurrent phenomena, the video became a much more prevalent part of rap during the late 1980s and early 1990s, primarily through the influence of MTV's Yo! MTV Raps. The video medium reinforced prevailing currents in hiphop music during this period, dispersing its stories on a mass scale. Audiences were linked across the country and globe to this more informational medium.

The gangster narrative has become a big part of the art form, fostering an entire musical genre. Its wild financial success has helped to shape the contours of rap's present landscape. Most artists of the early twenty-first century acknowledge the genre either implicitly or explicitly, as values such as "hardness" and "realness" dominate. "Hardcore" artists of the 1990s and early 2000s such as Method Man, Nas, Redman, 50 Cent, and Jay-Z all embraced the violently impenetrable outlaw stance on some level, though they all proclaimed a love for rap as an art form as well. They all employed performance tools, though they are all operating on a popularly determined landscape, both in medium and message.

In conclusion, rap music audiences have grown and dispersed in complex ways. Accordingly, more attention was being given to the ways young people were using these texts both in the United States and globally. In the early 2000s, rap music was a global media. Young people from around the world were using its complex cultural markers to help them navigate their own particular concerns and needs. These young people were appropriating the work of U.S. artists in specific ways, conjuring up their own local circumstances. This is a move made clear by paying attention to the changing role and nature of rap music audiences.

See also: Radio Listening, Car and Home; Record, CD, Tape Collecting and Listening; Rock Concert Audiences


Dimitriadis, Greg. Performing Identity/Performing Culture: Hip-Hop as Text, Pedagogy, and Lived Practice. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

Dolby, Nadine. Constructing Race: Youth, Identity, and Popular Culture in South Africa. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Mitchell, Tony, ed. Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1994.

Greg Dimitriadis