Rap is an African-American term that describes a stylized way of speaking. Salient features of a rap include metaphor, braggadocio, repetition, formulaic expressions, double entendre, mimicry, rhyme, and "signifyin'" (i.e., indirect references and allusions). Folklorists credit the introduction of the term to the masses by the 1960s black nationalist H. "Rap" Brown, whose praise name "rap" suggested his mastery of a "hip" way of speaking, aptly called rappin'. Although Brown is lauded for the name of this genre, the roots of rap can be traced from southern black oral forms such as toasts, blues, game songs (e.g., "ham-bone") to northern urban street jive—all of which make use of the aforementioned features.
While rap's antecedents developed in the rural South during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, its northern counterpart, jive, emerged in urban communities as the prototype of rap around the early part of the twentieth century. Dan Burley, a scholar of jive, observed that jive initially circulated among black Chicagoans around 1921. The primary context of its development was in secular environs remote from home and religious centers, such as street corners, taverns, and parks, known among black urbanites as "the streets." Jive can be defined as a metaphorical style of communicating via the use of words and phrases from American mainstream English but reinterpreted from an African-American perspective. For example,
in rap lingo, man becomes "cat," woman becomes "chick," and house becomes "crib." The art of jive resided in its ability to remain witty and original, hence its constant fluctuation in vocabulary over the years.
From the 1920s to the 1950s jive proliferated on all levels in the urban milieu—from the church to the street corner; but it was also incorporated in the literary works of noted black writers of the time, such as Langston Hughes. Alongside its use by writers, jive became the parlance of jazz musicians. "Jam" (having a good time), "bad" (good), and "axe" (instrument) are some jive words commonplace in the jazz vernacular. By the late 1940s and 1950s this urban style of speaking was introduced over radio airwaves by two Chicago disc jockeys, Holmes "Daddy-O" Daylie and Al Benson, who utilized jive in rhyme over music. Even the boastful poetry of former heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali as well as comedian Rudy Ray Moore, known for popularizing audio recordings of toasts like "Dolemite" and "The Signifying Monkey," moved jive further into the American mainstream.
By the 1960s jive was redefined and given a newer meaning by black nationalist H. "Rap" Brown, who laced his political speeches with signifyin', rhyme, and metaphor. Although Brown's stylized speech inaugurated the shift from jive to rap, it soon gained popular acceptance among young urban admirers as rappin'. It was not, however, until the late 1960s that Brown's speaking style was set to musical accompaniment by such political poets as the Watts Prophets of Los Angeles, the Last Poets of Harlem, Nikki Giovanni, and singer-pianist-poet Gil Scott-Heron, who recited rhyming couplets over an African percussion accompaniment.
In the late 1960s and the 1970s rappin' to music emerged as two distinct song styles: the soul rap and the funk-style rap. The soul rap, a rappin' monologue celebrating the feats and woes of love, was popularized by Isaac Hayes and further developed by Barry White and Millie Jackson. The funk-style rap, introduced by George Clinton and his group Parliament, consisted of rappin' monologues on topics about partying. Unlike the music of the political poets, the love and funk-style raps were not in rhyme but rather loosely chanted over a repetitive instrumental accompaniment. These artists nonetheless laid the foundation for a type of musical poetry begun primarily by African-American youth of the Bronx called rap music: a musical form that makes use of rhyme, rhythmic speech, and street vernacular, recited or loosely chanted over a musical soundtrack.
There are certain factors that gave rise to rap music. With the overcommercialization of popular dance forms such as 1970s disco, geopolitics in the Bronx, and ongoing club gang violence particular to New York City, black and Latino youth left the indoor scene and returned to neighborhood city parks, where they created outdoor discotheques, featuring a disc jockey (DJ) and an emcee (MC). These circumstances are instrumental to the development of rap music, which is marked by four distinct phases: the mobile DJ (c. 1972–1978); the rhyming MC and the emergence of the rap music genre (1976–1978); the early commercial years of rap music (1979–1985); and the explosion of rap in the musical mainstream (1986–present).
During the first phase, an itinerant DJ, the mobile DJ, provided music performed in neighborhood city parks. Mobile DJs were evaluated by the type of music they played as well as by the size of their sound systems. Similar to radio jockeys, mobile DJs occasionally spoke to their audiences in raps while simultaneously dovetailing one record after the other, a feat facilitated by two turntables. They were well known in their own boroughs and were supported by local followers. Popular jockeys included Pete "DJ" Jones of the Bronx and Grandmaster Flowers and Maboya of Brooklyn. The most innovative of mobile DJs, whose mixing technique immensely influenced the future sound direction and production of rap music, was Jamaican-born Clive Campbell, known as Kool "DJ" Herc. He tailored his disc-jockeying style after the dub music jockeys of Jamaica, such as Osbourne "King Tubby" Ruddock, by mixing collages of musical fragments, referred to
as "break-beats" or "beats" from various recordings in order to create an entire new soundtrack.
Herc's contemporaries included Grandmaster Flash, Grand Wizard Theodore, and Afrika Bambaataa. Flash extended the Jamaican DJ-ing style with a mixing technique called backspinning (rotating one record counterclockwise to the desired beat, then rotating the second record counterclockwise to the same location, thus creating an echo effect) and "phasing" (repeating a word or phrase in a rhythmic fashion on one turntable during or in between another recording). Grand Wizard Theodore popularized another mixing technique called "scratching" (moving a record back and forth in a rhythmic manner while the tone arm's needle remains in the groove of the record, producing a scratching sound). Bambaataa, on the other hand, perfected Herc's style of mixing by incorporating diverse beats ranging from soul, funk, and disco to commercial jingle and television themes. But, more importantly, he is credited with starting a nonviolent organization called the Zulu Nation—a youth organization composed of local innercity break-dancers, graffiti artists, DJs, and MCs—which laid the foundation for a youth arts mass movement that came to be known as hip-hop. Hip-hop not only encompassed street art forms, it also denoted an attitude rendered in the form of dress, gestures, and language associated with street culture.
The second phase of rap music began around the mid-1970s. Since mixing records had become an art in itself, some DJs felt the need for an MC. For example, with the hiring of MCs Clark Kent and Coke La Rock, Kool "DJ" Herc became the Herculords. At many of his performances, Bambaataa was also accompanied by three MCs, Cowboy (not to be mistaken with Cowboy of the Furious Five), Mr. Biggs, and Queen Kenya. Other noted MCs during this phase were DJ Hollywood, Sweet G, Busy Bee, Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Caz, and Lovebug Starski (the latter credited with the term "hip-hop"). MCs talked intermittently, using phrases like "Get up," and "Jam to the beat," and recited rhyming couplets to motivate the audience to dance while the DJ mixed records. However, it was Grandmaster Flash's MCs, the Furious Five (Melle Mel, Cowboy, Raheim, Kid Creole, Mr. Ness), who set the precedent for rappin' in rhythm to music through a concept called "trading phrases"—the exchange of rhyming couplets or phrases between MCs in a percussive, witty fashion, and in synchrony with the DJ's music—as best illustrated by their hit "Freedom" (1980).
During rap's third phase, the early commercial years from 1979 to 1985, independent record companies like Winley, Enjoy, and Sugar Hill Records initially recorded rap music. Of the three, Sugar Hill Records, cofounded by Sylvia and Joe Robinson, succeeded in becoming the first international rap record company, producing such artists and groups as Sequence, Spoonie G., Lady B., Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Sugarhill Gang (best known for recording the first commercial rap song "Rapper's Delight"). By 1982 Afrika Bambaataa pioneered the "electro-funk" concept with rap—the fusing of "techno-pop" or synthesized computerized sounds with funk as heard in "Planet Rock" recorded by his group, Soul Sonic Force. Bambaataa's electro-funk concept ushered in more experimental ventures with rap through the art of sampling, the digital reproduction of prerecorded sounds—musical or vocal—in whole or fragmentary units anywhere throughout an entire soundtrack.
Bambaataa's musical innovation also provided the transition from the early commercial sound of rap, known as the "old school," to the "new school" rap. The former refers to earlier innovators and performers of rap music—for example, Kool Moe Dee, Melle Mel, Fat Boys, and Whodini.
The "new school" performers are basically protégés of the pioneers, who comprise those of the fourth phase. In the fourth phase (1986 to the present), rap music gained access to the musical mainstream. Prior to the mid-1980s, this genre received minimal radio airplay outside urban areas. Contributing to its ascension into the mainstream is Run-D.M.C. and their fusion of rap music with rock as popularized by "Rock Box" (1984), the first rap song aired on the syndicated rock video station MTV, followed by the trio's rendition of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" (1986). Also contributing to Run-D.M.C.'s success was the vision of its then management, Rush Productions, founded by Russell Simmons, rap's first "b-boy" mogul. Simmons and his business partner, Rick Rubin, cofounded Def Jam Records. Their initial roster of artists consisted of LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy.
During the mid-1980s, rap's musical production shifted from manual mixing (hands-on-the-turntable) by DJs to digitally produced tracks facilitated by drum machines, samplers, and computers. Among groups who worked with production units was black nationalist act Public Enemy. The Bomb Squad, masterminded by Hank Shocklee, produced Public Enemy's musical tracks, most notably with sampled sounds from James Brown's music and 1970s funk to black nationalists' speech excerpts. Furthermore, the use of sampling, funk-style drum rhythms with heavy bass drum (kick), a boisterous-aggressive vocal style of delivery, and/or moderate to excessive application of expletives and rhymes contributed to rap music's hard edge, a street-style aesthetic called "keepin' it real."
Other factors that contributed to the broadened appeal of rap in the mainstream during the mid-1980s included the distribution of independent rap music recordings by major record labels and the rise of female MCs (e.g., Roxanne Shanté, Salt N Pepa, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah), and the diversified sound of rap: social conscious rap (e.g., Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan); party rap (e.g., Kid 'N' Play, De La Soul, Big Daddy Kane, Biz Markie, DJ Jazz Jeff and the Fresh Prince); a cross between party and hardcore (e.g., Eric B & Rakim, Schoolly D, Heavy D, EPMD).
Because of the entertainment industry's use of rap to advertise fashion and other products, rap artists forayed into acting from television to the silver screen. Some of these early film classics are Wild Style (1983), Breakin' and Breakin' 2 (1984), and Krush Groove (1985).
The late 1980s and the early 1990s marked more stylistic shifts in rap. For example, rap fused with other styles like rhythm and blues, dubbed "new jack swing," as well as jazz, as evident with such acts as A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr, Digable Planets, and Us3. Also, this shift expanded to include artists from California, who introduced a heavy bass sound of rap with a laid-back feel.
Commercially dubbed G-funk or "gangsta rap," the West Coast sound is driven by funk music and lyrical themes about harsh life in the ghetto, gangbanging, and police repression. Pioneers of the West Coast rap scene include Toddy Tee, Ice-T, and NWA, formed by Eazy-E along with Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella. However, it is Dr. Dre who is credited with establishing a West Coast signature sound identified by the sampled sounds of Parliament and the Funkadelics. In 1992 Dr. Dre left NWA and joined forces with ex-college football player and bodyguard Marion "Suge" Knight to form Death Row Records. Both Knight, known for his shrewd yet brutal tactics, and Dr. Dre, respected for his music production skills, made Death Row a major force of the gangsta rap substyle. Death Row recording artists included Dr. Dre (Chronic, 1992), Snoop Doggy Dogg, alternately known as Snoop Dogg (Doggystyle, 1993), and Tupac Shakur or 2Pac (All Eyez on Me, 1996). The latter was considered one of the label's most visionary and prolific artists who also had a blossoming but short-lived acting career owing to his murder in 1996. Other West Coast artists who emerged on the scene are Digital Underground, MC Hammer, Paris, Too $hort of Oakland, and Sir-Mix-A-Lot of Seattle.
Gangsta rap was further exploited by the Geto Boys of Houston and the sexually explicit lyrics of 2 Live Crew of Miami, whose first album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, became rap's first censorship court case sensation.
By 1994 rap music embraced an MC from Brooklyn, Biggie Smalls or the Notorious B.I.G. of the Bad Boy Entertainment label. Sean "Puffy" Combs, also known as "Puff Daddy" or "P. Diddy," founded Bad Boy in 1994 at a time when Death Row was at its commercial peak. Although Smalls employed graphic lyrics, he also created radio-friendly rhymes about urban romance, complemented by Combs's soul-pop musical productions with heavy bass. Among these songs were "Big Poppa" and "One More Chance" from Ready to Die (1994) and "Hypnotize" and "Mo Money Mo Problems" from Life After Death (1997), released posthumously. Small's success was joined by other East Coast MCs: Jay-Z, Junior M.A.F.I.A. with Lil' Kim, Nas, Terror Squad, Wu-Tang Clan, the Fugees, and Busta Rhymes, to name a few. Despite commercial success, East and West coast rappers eventually succumbed to unhealthy rivalry resulting in the unsolved murders of 2Pac and Biggie Smalls nearly six months apart. Nonetheless, rap artists managed to ameliorate coastal rivalries by promoting themes of unity via music projects.
While gangsta rap undoubtedly impacted rap's landscape, a "dirtier" sound emerged from Atlanta and New Orleans, commonly referred to as "the Dirty South." Sometimes called "crunk," the Dirty South style is distinguished by its voluminous bass, sung refrains, and singsongy execution with a noticeable southern drawl. A pioneer of "The Dirty South" is Master P of New Orleans, who is not only an MC but also a successful entrepreneur and founder of No Limit Records. Similar to Russell Simmons, Sean Combs, and Jay-Z, who own record labels and clothing lines (e.g., Phat Farm/Def Jam Rec., Sean John/Bad Boy Ent., Roca Wear/Roc-a-Fella Rec, respectively), Master P has ventured into filmmaking and sports management. Artists affiliated with his label are Tru, consisting of his brothers Silkk the Shocker and C-Murder, his son Lil Romeo, and the production team Beats by the Pound. What distinguishes a New Orleans hip-hop sound from other southern rap styles are ticking snare drum beats and a booming bass style called "bounce." Other prominent rap acts of New Orleans include Juvenile and members of The Hot Boys (Lil' Wyne, B.G., and Turk) with producer Mannie Fresh of Cash Money Records.
Atlanta established its place in rap during the early 1990s with acts like Da Brat (of Chicago), Kriss Kross, rap/rhythm-and-blues trio TLC, and the nation-conscious group Arrested Development. However, its "Dirty South" concept, masterminded by Rico Wade and the production crew Organized Noize, laid the foundation for its unique sound. Atlanta-based acts (collectively known as ATLiens) like OutKast, the Goodie MOb, and Ludacris have moved successfully into the twenty-first century, joined by producer Lil Jon and his affiliates.
While the 1990s witnessed a proliferation of artists from various areas—Nelly and the St. Lunatics of St. Louis, Three 6 Mafia of Memphis, Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony of Cleveland, Missy Elliott and Timbaland of Portsmouth—rap expanded its roster to include nonblack acts. Once existing in the shadows of black artists, white rap acts—the Beastie Boys, Third Bass, and House of Pain—crossed over into wider acceptance in the 1990s. Following his bitter departure from Death Row Records, Dr. Dre launched his own label, Aftermath. Within two years, he added Eminem, a white MC from Detroit, whose successful debut album, The Slim Shady LP (1999), and sophomore follow-up, The Marshal Mathers LP (2000), became the first all-rap album to be nominated by the Grammy Awards under the "Best Album of the Year" category.
Rap music flourishes in the mainstream via television, film, commercials, and fashion, thus making it a vital component of youth culture, nationally and internationally. Because rap artists bring to their performances all that hip-hop embodies from street fashions, attitude, gesture, and language, hip-hop is used interchangeably with rap and as a marketing term to denote rap music. Although rap music continues to be exploited in the mainstream by the entertainment industry and is subjected to much criticism by the media, other arenas such as underground venues—local clubs and neighborhood hangouts—remain as vital sites for rap's creative sustenance.
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Keyes, Cheryl L. Rap Music and Street Consciousness. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Mitchell, Tony, ed. Global Noise: Rap and Hip-Hop Outside the USA. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
Pinn, Anthony B, ed. Noise and Spirit: The Religious and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music. New York: New York University, 2003.
Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-Hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004.
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cheryl l. keyes(1996)
Updated by author 2005
rap1 / rap/ • v. (rapped , rap·ping ) 1. [tr.] strike (a hard surface) with a series of rapid audible blows, esp. in order to attract attention: he stood up and rapped the table | [intr.] she rapped angrily on the window. ∎ strike (something) against a hard surface in such a way: she rapped her stick on the floor. ∎ strike (someone or something) sharply with stick or similar implement: she rapped my fingers with a ruler. ∎ inf. rebuke or criticize sharply: executives rapped the U.S. for having too little competition in international phone service. ∎ say sharply or suddenly: the ambassador rapped out an order. 2. [intr.] inf. talk or chat in an easy and familiar manner: we could be here all night rapping about the finer points of spiritualism. 3. [intr.] perform rap music. • n. 1. a quick, sharp knock or blow: there was a confident rap at the door. 2. a type of popular music of U.S. black origin in which words are recited rapidly and rhythmically over a prerecorded, typically electronic instrumental backing. ∎ a piece of music performed in this style, or the words themselves. 3. inf. a talk or discussion, esp. a lengthy or impromptu one: dropping in after work for a rap over a beer | [as adj.] a rap session. 4. inf. a criminal charge, esp. of a specified kind: he's just been acquitted on a murder rap. ∎ a person or thing's reputation, typically a bad one: there's no reason why drag queens should get a bad rap. PHRASES: beat the rap inf. escape punishment for or be acquitted of a crime. rap someone on (or over) the knuckles rebuke or criticize someone. take the rap inf. be punished or blamed, esp. for something that is not one's fault or for which others are equally responsible. rap2 • n. the smallest amount (used to add emphasis to a statement): he doesn't care a rap whether it's true or not.
To say that rap reflects television doesn't discount its deep roots in black culture; the networks didn't invent rap, ghetto disk jockeys did. Rap comes out of the story telling and braggadocio of the blues, the cadences of gospel preachers and comedians, the percussive improvisations of jazz drummers and tap dancers. It also looks to Jamaican ‘toasting’ (improvising rhymes over records), to troubadour traditions of social comment and historical remembrance, and to a game called ‘the dozens,’ a ritual exchange of cleverly phrased insults. (‘The Etymology of Rap Music’, The New York Times, Jan. 1990)
Pareles considers that rap's chopped-up style reflects the impact of television, in which programmes are accompanied and interrupted by commercials, previews, snippets of news, and the like, as well as by using a remote control to ‘zap’ from channel to channel. See AFRICAN-AMERICAN VERNACULAR ENGLISH, BLARNEY, DUB, JIVE, PATTER, REGGAE.
So sb. XIV.