“Our art is a reflection of our reality.”
– Ice Cube, Straight Outta Compton
I have always loved rap. When I was in high school, in about the year 2000, I inherited my older brother’s case of 2Pac, Notorious BIG, Dr. Dre, and Jay-Z compact discs.
Not many of my suburban Christian school friends listened to “rap music,” or much “secular music” at all for that matter. It was said to be crass, demonic, un-Christian, perverted, and dangerous to society. And some of those things may be true: I recently read that N.W.A.’s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton uses the F-word 207 times, plus 16 miscellaneous curse words used 252 times, for a grand total of 17 curse words and 459 curses—in other words, if you had to put five dollars in a curse jar for each bad word, you’d be short about $25,000 in less than an hour.
But I’m convinced of a few things, namely that: (1) Hip hop has a rich and valuable history in American culture; (2) Rap is an underappreciated art form that has with good reason become one of the fastest growing genres in music history; and (3) With a grace centered perspective, non rap fans can come to appreciate this art form as having something quite profound to say.
So here’s the plan, Fidelity faithful. I’m doing a five-part essay series on hip hop. The first two essays build a brief and selective “Hip Hop History,” from 1973-91 and 1991-2015. The third article is entitled “Why Rap Matters,” and the fourth is a top ten list of the best hip hop songs of all time—I suspect this one will be the most controversial among rap followers. And, finally, I’ll present, as a sort of case study into the craziness and iconic-ness that is rap music, the essay, “A Kanye West Career Arc.”
It should be a good bit of fun. As much as possible, I’m eliminating explicit content, but some occasional curse words will be found in lyric quotes with a line through a vowel or two (cause somehow that’s better). I think it will become quite clear that I don’t endorse all the lyrics and connotations of the upcoming artists and songs—far from it—but rather “than throwing the baby out with the bath water,” as it were, I want to draw you into the story of American rap first, and then explain why I think it’s so important (especially for “outsiders” like white suburbanites or newcomers to hip hop culture). So even if you think this series is a terrible idea, bear with me for a while, and you might find that was worthwhile.
If nothing else, it should be pretty entertaining.
Humble Beginnings (1973-79)
Now what you hear is not a test
I’m rapping to the beat
And me, the groove, and my friends
Are gonna try to move your feet
– The Sugarhill Gang, “Rapper’s Delight” (1979)
According to legends, hip hop was officially born when a handful of Bronx DJ’s began incorporating elements of popular funk and soul genres during New York block parties in 1973. As the style gained positive reception, the Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc gave the dance-ready crowds isolated beats from different records—using two turntables side by side since the percussion solos were generally short on each track. Within a year or two, Grand Wizzard Theodore began scratching the records to mix and juggle beats, solidifying this particular style, and just like that, a new art form was born.
Rapping was an almost instinctive response to the new funk-soul-reggae beats. Rappers layered poetic verses on top of the new beats, using their voices primarily as an instrument to accompany the primarily bass beats.
[Side Note #1: One of the common, predominantly white critiques of rap music in particular and hip hop culture in general is that rap lyrics have little depth and meaning. This is often true, but it misses the point. Rapping is primarily a musical technique, an artistic creation of a new “instrument,” the smooth, rhythmic flowing of an individual’s voice to accompany and drive a simple beat. So yes, the rapper could be saying something not entirely profound, but it is still essential to the song. For example, in “Hip Hop Saved My Life,” by Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool (2007), “Stack that cheese” is repeated a number of times to make fun of simple rap lyrics, but it ends up sounding so cool, it sticks in your mind like Elmer’s. For another example, in Kanye West’s Presents GOOD Music (2004), some B-list rapper in the background just repeats “Swerve” over and over on “Clique.” But again, it’s dope because it’s part of the instrumentation, not an attempt to communicate important realities to a listener sitting in an office with a pen and a notepad.]
So now we had hip hop beats (thanks Kool Herc and Wizzard) and some rapping, but it’s not till the end of the decade that we got a breakthrough rap album: The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight (1979). Naturally, the great new The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed by Grantland writer Shea Serrano begins its year-by-year analysis of rap’s best singles with Delight. [Side Note #2: If you like rap, or enjoy these articles, or even if you don’t, you should get Serrano’s book.]
Serrano points out that if you’re starting a new genre of music, you have to start by explaining yourself, and “Rapper’s Delight” could not be more obvious. They start the first great rap song like they’re covering a syllabus on the first day of college: They introduce this strange new style (“Now what you hear is not a test / I’m rapping to the beat”) and its purpose (“And me, the groove, and my best friends, / Are going to try to move your feet”). It’s actually quite brilliant; they’re saying, right out of the gate, that their goal is to make simple music you can dance to.
As the song continues, some major themes are inaugarated that will soon be repeated in decades of rap lyrics. The lead rapper introduces himself (“See, I am Wonder Mike / and I’d like to say hello”) and welcomes his new audience (“To the black, to the white, the red and the brown, the purple and yellow”—basically to show that hip hop is an cross-cultural phenomenon, not just a street thing). And then, before stuff gets too serious, Wonder Mike gets back to his original purpose and throws out some random stuff that just sounds cool and fits the beat (“But first, I gotta bang bang the boogie to the boogie…”). Throughout the ten-minute long track, the Sugarhill Gang—who was not really a rap group, and certainly not a gang; the three rappers were selected by a broke record company trying to prolong bankruptcy—go on to rap about a number of topics that remain connected to hip hop culture today, from drugs, money, women, sex, money (again), and breakfast foods.
Hip hop may have been born in ’73, but it went public in ’79.
Age of Diversification (1980-86)
But see ah, ah, that’s the life, ah, that I lead
And you Sucker MC’s is who I please
So take that and move back, catch a heart attack
Because there’s nothin’ in the world, that Run’ll ever lack
– Rum D.M.C., “Sucker M.C.’s” (1983)
Fast-forward to the Eighties, and hip hop just takes off. I’m no art historian—my undergraduate degree in microbiology didn’t allow me many courses outside the “hard sciences”—but I have to assume the rise of hip hop as an artistic phenomenon has to be one of the fastest and most unexpected in history.
The 80’s gave us the diversification of hip hop into a number of distinct movements. You had the mixed beat samplings of Grandmaster Flash (1981); the African-inspired beats of Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation (1982), which was the primary influence for A Tribe Called Quest; and Rammellzee and K-Rob’s “Be Bop” (1983), which founded the slow jam subgenre—one of hip hop’s great contributions. Also during this time, hip hop went international, growing its own movements and subgenres in the Caribbean, South Africa, Japan, and Australia.
But stuff really began to get real in 1983. Already considered “new school hip hop,” NYC artists Run D.M.C. and LL Cool J began their rap careers. (Yes, the same LL Cool J from that current cop show; much more on the mainstream-ization of gangster rappers into family-friendly goofballs in a bit. Not surprisingly, Ice Cube will likely be indicted for everything after Friday).
For the first time, rap took on its aggressive, self-promoting style. The beats pumping out of the synthesizers were simple but sweet, so the lyrics took center stage. As a result, rap’s place in American culture became highly polarized, as much of the general Western public rejected it immediately.
Run DMC’s 1983 single, “Sucker M.C.’s,” inarguably set off another great rap tradition, the “battle rap” (much more on this later when we get to “East Coast vs West Coast” and the Jay-Z vs Nas feud). Even though Run DMC wasn’t calling out a particular rapper or group, they aggressively dissed all the, well, aforementioned sucker MC’s. Because the Run DMC trio had street cred and were way cooler than everyone else at the time, they pulled it off. They were the first hip hop group to be nominated for a Grammy, have gold album, and first with an MTV video.
Riding the momentum created by DMC and Cool J, the first rap album hit #1 on the Billboard chart came in 1986: unfortunately, it was the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill.
Hip hop was here to stay; in fact, it was just getting started.
Hip Hop Blows Up (1986-91)
You are now about to witness
The strength of street knowledge
– N.W.A. “Straight Outta Compton” (1988)
All true rap fans argue about the exact timing of the so-called Golden Age of Rap. Some say it began with the release of Ice-T’s first single, “6 In the Morning” (1986). Others point to the formation of N.W.A. and the release its first single, “Straight Outta Compton” (1988). Still others, like myself, greatly value this moment in hip hop history, but view it as a steep climb to a coming Golden Age in the Early Nineties. Whatever the case, the Late Eighties were huge for rap.
[Side Note #3: If you haven’t seen Straight Outta Compton yet, my goodness, I just don’t know what to say. A number of references back to this groundbreaking film will be made throughout the series, so just do yourself a solid and see it. However, SOC has a good bit (okay, an obscene amount) of cursing and nudity, so let your conscience guide you, and probably don’t see it with your mother-in-law. If you wait till it comes out on blu-ray so you can fast-forward the dirty stuff, you won’t lose any respect from me.]
Of course, the meteoric success of NWA established the age of gangster rap, but it also displaced the epicenter of rap for the first time. NYC and, to a lesser extent, Philly were the capitals of rap music—and there was definitely gangster rap by the Mid Eighties—but West Coast began to find its voice. National attention surrounded NWA’s inconspicuously titled track, “F—k the Police,” which was famously identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its anti-policing lyrics in 1989.
(In the upcoming essay on the importance of hip hop, I’ll spend more time on NWA and some great scenes from Straight Outta Compton, but for now, just hold that thought.)
If you need proof that rap had not yet reached its Golden Age, look no further than the 1990 success of MC Hammer and his iconic “U Can’t Touch This.” Not that I don’t enjoy re-listening to Hammer break it down, but it’s a stretch to put rap’s pinnacle too close to his aluminum-foil-looking parachute pants. MC Hammer’s success demonstrates the diversity of rap’s subgenres, including a subgenre we’ll look at in a later segment: I call it “Positive Rap” and include artists from Will Smith to Lecrae, and its influence is found in other subgenres including “Mostly Positive Street Rap,” which would include A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, and Kanye West.
A history of hip hop wouldn’t be complete without these hilariously awful lyrics. You are welcome.
My-my-my-my music hits me so hard
Makes me say, O my Lord
Thank you for blessing me
With a mind to rhyme and two hype feet
That’s good when you know you’re down
A super dope homeboy from the Oaktown
And I’m known as such
And this is the beat, uh, u can’t touch.
– MC Hammer, “U Can’t Touch This” (1990)
I’m pretty sure “Oaktown” disowned Hammer somewhere between “two hype feet” and “a super dope homeboy.”
In closing, let’s get back to this historical period of predominantly gangster rap.
Perhaps the best part of Shea Serrano’s book so far (and I’m not done yet) is his 1986 entry on Ice-T, who also writes the book’s foreword. [Side Note #4: Did you know Ice-T made a groundbreaking appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1990, and that he has written a handful of books, including an autobiography entitled, Ice: A Memoir of Gangster Life and Redemption—From South Central to Hollywood? He’s one thoughtful and eclectic guy.]
Anyway, here’s a paragraph from Serrano’s time with Ice-T, under the title “Some Other General Knowledge About Ice-T.”
“Ice-T was asked to star in the film New Jack City by Mario Van Peebles after Van Peebles heard him talking sh-t in a bathroom in a nightclub. Ice-T was paid $28,000. The movie grossed over $60 million. Ice-T was also in a movie about a leprechaun who murdered people for gold coins, which is a real, actual thing…. Ice-T went to a Tupperware party once because he thought Denzel Washington was going to be there. Denzel Washington was not there. Ice-T is interesting.”
Stay tuned for Part Two: “Hip Hop History, 1991-2015.”