Since the release of a hit recording in 1979 called Rapper’s Delight, by a group named the Sugarhill Gang, a lot has happened in the world of music, especially of rap music.
Nowadays one could not imagine the Billboard pop charts without at least one hip hop track on them, or a disco in which rap music isn’t played. Teenagers all over the world listen to the songs by artists such as Jay Z, 50 Cent, and Tupac (2Pac) Shakur. And, in addition to buying the music by the millions, they also imitate the way they act and dress. According to Awad El Karim M. Ibrahim, “hip hop culture is also a way of dressing, walking, and talking” (M. Ibrahim 2003: 173). Thus, hip hop clothing, for example, is an essential part of the movement’s lifestyle. Hip hop gear can be purchased in almost every store, and is often designed by some of the biggest names in the industry (Jay Z, Eminem, LL Cool J etc.).
Rap artists have become entrepreneurs and actors that earn millions of dollars each year. In other words, the musical genre of rap has developed to the most lucrative one in the world, outselling rock n’ roll, country music, and other genres of popular music. Today,
African-American musicians are a commanding presence in the marketplace: top-selling artists routinely sign multimillion-dollar contracts, and their fans fill stadiums and consume heavily promoted CDs by their favorite artists (Ramsey, Jr. 2003: 164).
Rap or hip hop music, and the hip hop culture as a whole, is undoubtedly the most popular form of musical entertainment and lifestyle of the late 20th and early 21st century.
These are the facts, but how did it all begin? Where are the roots of this globally successful movement? Why did hip hop become that big and influential? And, most importantly, did hip hop develop from a grassroots movement to a global entertainment industry that has nothing to do with its original motivation as a cultural and social movement? And, finally, does the immense commercialization of hip hop culture mean that the core ideas of the movement no longer play a major role but were taken over by the goal to earn as much money in what rappers call tha game? This will play a major role as many critics argue that by adapting to capitalist ideas and only talking about how much money and cars they have, rappers tend to forget that this form of expression should be about telling legitimate stories about life in the ghetto. I will try to address this controversy within my work.
In order to answer these questions I will first address the origins of the movement. Then, I will show the developments that hip hop made, and present diversities within the movement/music. Another important part will be the question of the language of rap music, for it constitutes an essential feature of this particular cultural movement.
For the purpose of analyzing the hip hop movement, the main focus will be on the American hip hop community, as it provides the foundation on which all other forms of hip hop cultures throughout the world are built.
II. Hip Hop/Rap
II. 1. A Definition/ Early Developments
Sometime in 1974, in an apartment in the Bronx, Joseph Saddler, who was to become known as Grandmaster Flash, plugged two turntables [...] into the same speaker. Placing a different record on each turntable, he switched from one to the other [...] - until he had an exciting mix of sound (Shaw 1986: 292).
These were the first steps of what was to become known as DJing, one essential part of rap music. The other one is rapping itself. The rapper’s or MC’s (master of ceremonies) task is the rhythmic delivery of rhymes. Along with this, the main job of an emcee is to “control the crowd with his voice and crush opponents with his lyrics” (http://www.b-boys.com/hiphopculture.html). Because of the “spoken or semi spoken declamations, usually in rhyming couplets” (Ramsey 2003: 165), rap can be placed somewhere between speech, prose, poetry, and song.
In Tommy Lott’s article, Black Vernacular Representation, he argues that this distinctly African-American practice has roots that “can be traced to the oral and music making traditions of West Africa” (Lott 1994: 243). He thus gives it a distinct place in the black vernacular representation as rap music, along with spirituals and coded sermons by slaves, presents a “unique form of expression” (Ibid.) and “provides a paradigm of African-American cultural resistance involving transformed African retentions” (Ibid.).
But hip hop culture does not only consist of the mere music making practices we have seen so far. Along with them come two more features, which together define what is called hip hop culture. The first one is break dancing; a form of street dancing that was invented in the black ghettos of New York City – again the Bronx – in the late seventies and early eighties. In this unique form of physical expression the dancer “spins on the head, the back, and/or the hands” (Shaw 1986: 293). Another form of break dancing that emerged in those years was called pop-locking. Here “the dancer looked as if an electric current were passing through his body, locking his joints for a moment and followed by his popping one joint out of line and back again” (Ibid.). This created a robot-like movement and “was popularized by superstar Michael Jackson [‘s] [...] Moonwalk” (Ibid.). Break dancing, as well as rapping, bore a social chance for young African-Americans because it was “a way to be No. 1 without blowing somebody away” (Ibid.). In other words, dancing and rapping were means to escape violence and crime in the ghettos of the US.
The feature to complete the spectrum of hip hop culture is a form of art called graffiti (people might argue about that as it includes spraying pictures and the so-called tags on public property such as trains and walls).
However, I would like to concentrate on the musical part of hip hop in order to address the questions posed before.
As to the pioneers of rap music, there are several important names that have to be mentioned. In the introduction we have already encountered the Sugarhill Gang and their hit “Rapper’s Delight”. Another artist who made rap music popular was also the man who plugged the two turntables together: Grandmaster Flash, who had one of rap’s most influential hit singles in 1982, “The Message”, which was written in only two hours (Cf. Dufresne 1991: 23). The song was even ranked #51 in the List of Rolling Stone 's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (The Rolling Stone Magazine is one of the most influential music magazines in the world) (http://www.rollingstone.com/news/coverstory/500songs). Grandmaster Flash as well as the members of the Sugarhill Gang came from the Bronx in New York City, a poor quarter inhabited mainly by African-Americans; a so-called ghetto.
But, at this stage we can already make a distinction, as the two songs deal with rather different topics. “Rapper’s Delight” can be referred to as a happy dance-anthem in which one MC passes the microphone (MIC) to the next without any real message but being fresh, which means new. Thereby they created a worldwide boom for hip hop music. In contrast, “The Message” deals with more serious issues and is concerned with a variety of topics such as television, women, school, drugs, god, life in prison, and life in the ghetto; thus, it is far more socially orientated and controversial (Cf. Dufresne 1991: 23). So even at this early stage we are presented with one source of diversity within rap music. There are artists that prefer to rap solely because of the music, and those that try to use their music to talk about the things that concern them personally, or the whole community they represent. A member of the Wu-Tang Clan, a famous New York rap band, who is known by the name Raekwon says,
Rap, to me, is slang poetry. It answers your questions: why young kids is doin’ bad, why they turn to drugs to get away from their misery. This is the shit we talk about – and how to escape it (Light 1999: 98).
However, both songs contributed greatly to the popularization of rap music and hip hop culture in America. They brought hip hop on its way and it even could not have happened without them!
II. 2. The Development of Modern Rap
By the early 1980s, hip hop had become very prominent within the American popular culture; and it was no surprise that new artists appeared on the scene (Cf. Perkins 1996: 14). According to William Eric Perkins, LL Cool J and the members of Run DMC had middle-class backgrounds, and therefore the contents of their music were different as well. Run DMC contributed a lot to the widespread recognition of the hip hop culture by the mainstream media. They were the first rap act to produce a crossover single – “Walk this Way” – with the famous rock band Aerosmith in 1986. Being the first hip hop hit on MTV, it marked a big step in the commercialization of this art form. Furthermore, Run DMC renewed hip hop music by using electronic beats and nothing else. Along with this, their dressing style also differed a lot from their ancestors’. Unlike them, who wore leather suits and walked around in boots, their trademarks were pants, Adidas sneakers with the shoelaces removed, and Fedora hats. This contributed a lot to the above mentioned importance of clothing within the hip hop community. Despite their middle-class background, Run DMC was “one of the numerous rap combos advising kids to keep off drugs” (http://www.cyberessays.com/Arts/37.htm). They also told children that reading and learning was a means to escape poverty and violence. Thus, one can see how rappers use their popularity to address social issues and spread a positive message in their communities.