From its roots in West African tradition to its surfacing in the Bronx and its emergence in pop culture, rap has a deep and vast history. Through its 30 years of evolution, hip-hop and rap continue to endure public debate and critique.
Controversy is reasonable, as rappers commonly produce work with profane, misogynistic, and violent rhetoric. However, despite the controversy, rap music and rapping are widely accepted as a profitable art form that gives America’s minority youth a voice.
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Rap is a verse composed of rhymes, figurative language, and varying syllables. It's commonly written using first-person, with the lyrics directed towards a real or imaginary rival.
Rap music is a verbal expression accompanied by synthesized beats and sounds that evolved from hip-hop. People often mistakenly categorize rap and hip-hop together because of the similar style these genres share, but unlike rap, hip-hop doesn't need a rap verse.
Rapping requires a specific vernacular and rhythmic speech accompanied by stylistic elements of MCing (master of ceremonies), DJing (disk jockey), breakdancing, and graffiti writing.
Popular myth says that rap is an acronym for Rhythm And Poetry, however, it’s not possible to determine the veracity of such a statement.
Although now it has become known as a music genre, there are arguments to be made about the contrary. Rap is a style of lyrical performance that can be found, for example, in a lot of hip-hop, r&b and pop songs.
As a genre, rap draws from music sounds from funk, soul, jazz, and disco.
When rap emerged from hip-hop, it advanced into its own artistic subculture of music. From the early years of rap to its mainstream breakthrough, influential rappers’ contribution to the discipline has completely transformed the genre through the years.
During hip-hop’s formative years, block parties emerged from the burrows of New York City. The purpose of old-school rap was to have a good time. So, as a result, it was less technical than rap in the late-80s and, instead, consisted of short and straightforward rhymes.
In the new school hip-hop period, rappers found that producing short songs had a better chance of making it on the radio, and the music started to become more cohesive.
Rappers during the golden age of hip-hop showed more complexity and professionalism in their discipline. This period of hip-hop and rap focuses on the westward expansion of these music genres, and, as a result, there was a proliferation of stylistic innovations.
Rappers have a penchant for words, they love innuendos, and they can find humor in scarcity. But, most importantly, they are poets bringing further awareness to the human condition through stories spoken with clever alliterations and modulations.
Characteristics of rap during the golden age include a catchy chorus, real instruments, loud volume, and harmony. This period also introduced a novel style called “gangsta rap,” a phenomenon widespread on the West Coast.
The characteristics of “gangsta rap” are contradictory because the verses are soft, funky, and soul-fueled, but they are also problematic, “thug-like,” and drenched in profanity.
“Rapper’s Delight” by the illustrious rappers Mike Wright, “Master Gee” O’Brien, and “Big
Bank” Hank of the Sugarhill Gang is an indispensable contribution to rap. Released in 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” is a 15-minute disco-based and light-hearted masterpiece that’s popularity continues to hold up in the present day. With over two million copies sold, the song’s exposure transformed the market of hip-hop and opened new doors for many rappers.
Kurtis Blow is recognized as the first rapper to sign with a major record label. Released in 1980, his song, “The Breaks,” involves segments of beats/music that are absent from rapping as a tribute to “breakers” (break dancers) of the formative hip-hop days in the South Bronx and Harlem. He also discusses the good and bad breaks that people experience in life.
Recorded in 1981 by Afrika Bambaataa and the Jazzy Five, “Jazzy Sensation” is the first record listing Afrika as an artist. Afrika is a prominent leader and pioneer of the hip-hop movement.
Grandmaster Flash is a prominent figure who spun records at block parties and disco clubs in the Bronx during the rise of hip-hop. “The Message” contains social commentary from legendary MC/rapper Melle Mel. In the song, his lyrics have stories that portray the isolating experience of African American youth growing up in poverty-stricken communities.
Famous and influential hip-hop and rap force, Run-DMC released “Sucker M.C’s” in 1983. The song tells the story of the group’s discovery and their subsequent rise to fame.
Slick Rick is a legendary storyteller and one of many pioneers during new school hip-hop in the mid-80s. Legendary artists Doug E. Fresh, the “Human Beat Box,” and Slick Rick released “La Di Da Di” in 1985. According to a Ted Talk, the song is the fifth-most sampled song with 547 samples.
Released in 1986 during hip-hop’s golden age, “6 in the Morning” by rapper, actor, and producer Ice-T tells a story of escaping from the police out of his bathroom window during active criminal involvement and continuing a relationship with a girl. He is known for the controversial commentary composed in his music.
West Coast hip-hop group, N.W.A., is both respected and notorious for its controversial “gangsta rap” music. N.W.A. is a group of five modern-day artists, well-known by their stage names: MC Ren, DJ Yella, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre. Released in 1988, “Straight Outta Compton” signaled a socially and politically driven rap style in the West Coast.
Many consider Dr. Dre’s “Nutin’ but a ‘G’ thang” one of the greatest hip-hop/rap songs of all time. Shortly after his single placed second in the Billboard Hot 100, it received platinum status, meaning it sold over a million copies. “Nutin’ but a ‘G’ thang” is about the “gangsta rap” lifestyle of money, violence, and music.
The Notorious B.I.G.
Christopher Wallace, better known by the name(s) The Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls, or Biggie, was a master at his craft. His skillful storytelling and clever rhyming are why many label him as one of the greatest rappers of all time.
He was only twenty-four years old at the time of his murder in 1997. Released posthumously, his second album, Life After Death, sold more than ten million copies. His work continues to impact aspiring rappers.
Thirteen-time Grammy winner, Jay-Z, started rapping at fifteen years old. According to Forbes, he has a current net worth of 1.4 million. He earned his first Grammy for his album, released in 1998, Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life.
Jay-Z's accomplished many things throughout his career; he’s released thirteen solo albums, co-produced a Broadway musical with Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, created a clothing line, has a signature shoe with Reebok, and manages a sports bar.
When Eminem’s Slim Shady EP caught the attention of legendary rapper and producer Dr. Dre, his career truly set off. His lyrics are distinct from its energy, unrestrained profanity, and immaculate delivery. As a result, many consider Eminem’s Grammy award-winning album, The Marshall Mathers LP, the best rap album of all time.
William Michael Griffin Jr, otherwise known as Rakim, is considered one of the most talented MCs of all time. He entered the hip-hop scene in New York City at the age of eighteen. Many consider his work with Eric B. as the most influential MC and DJ duo during the golden age of hip-hop.
Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, better known as Nas, is a successful American rapper whose debut album Illmatic went double platinum. Many of his albums like I Am and It Was Written were nominated for Grammy Awards, but it wasn't until 2020 he received his first Grammy for his album, King’s Disease.
To appreciate rap music, you first have to understand hip-hop – the father of rap. Hip-hop is more than a genre of music; it’s a culture that, from its genesis, has defied societal and political barriers and changed lives.
DJ Kool Herc, widely considered the founding father of hip-hop, was a Jamaican native who moved to the Bronx and pioneered the technique of drawn-out percussion breaks. Also, he essentially laid the groundwork for rap by commandeering the mic to encourage dancers, that he called B-boy and B-girls, to mobilize.
Influenced by DJ Kool Herc’s style, Afrika Bambaataa influenced the culture of the hip-hop movement by stressing hip-hop as a positive and unified expression of the African American community. Bambaataa classified rap, and other stylistic elements, as a component of hip-hop.
While hip-hop and rap music originated in the early 1970s from the burrows of the South Bronx, its roots trace back to the West African culture of telling rhythmic stories over percussion instruments and Caribbean nations that told stories over simple beats.
Old school hip-hop consisted of block parties that brought communities together. These gatherings had spinners with people dancing and clapping along. People would contribute to the rhythmic noise in any way they could and participate in linguistic battles against one another.
Rap began when DJs placed long percussion breaks in their set, and MCs would take that time to converse and humor the crowd. Over time, these breaks had MCs speaking per the instrumentals.
In addition, there was influence from groups in Harlem who engaged in political street poetry in the early-70s. Other influences were the speeches from prominent African American leaders like Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr.
When rap first surfaced, many saw it as a brief craze that would fade with time. But, as we know, that didn’t happen. Instead, many ascribe the first indication of rap's lucrative viability to the Sugar Hill Gang. In 1979, the Sugarhill Gang used rhythms of disco to create “Rapper Delight,” the first officially recorded rap single.
In the beginning, rappers like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaata were hostile about the Sugar Hill Gang making it big. In a podcast by NPR, Kurtis Blow explained that the Sugar Hill Gang wasn’t a part of the Bronx, and they didn’t participate in hip-hop’s spread.
Leading MCs and DJs like Kurtis Blow, Melle Mel, Rakim, and Grandmaster Flash transformed disciplines of hip-hop and rap into a complex and sophisticated artistic outlet. During this period of hip-hop/rap, rappers showed more complexity and professionalism in their profession and, in turn, contributed new styles to rap.
Eventually, these musical genres evolved from old-school hip-hop to the golden age of hip-hop.
Beginning in the late-80s, the golden age of hip-hop represents a period when rappers were consistently pushing the artistic boundaries of rap and, subsequently, helped the discipline penetrate the market and evolve into the conventional sound of rap music that we know today.
Otherwise known as “gangsta rap,” rappers in the 90s portrayed themselves as gangsters or “thugs” to find success in the industry. N.W.A. was a West Coast hip-hop group and is an excellent example of “gangsta rap.” This type of rap consists of allegories about violence, crime, and growing up in poverty. It also commonly echoes themes of partying, gang activity, drive-by shootings, and women.
Present-day rappers don’t need hard-life personas to find success. Music by rappers like Drake, Kanye, and J Cole represent this shift in rap culture. Their music speaks on an assortment of topics from religion to lifestyle.
Rap continues to evolve to fit the mainstream needs. The early to mid-2000s consisted of R & B rap, autotune rap, ringtone rap, and Southern rap. There were also stages of mixing rap into genres of electronic and alternative rap.
Present-day rap is called trap/mumble rap due to the heavy use of autotune making it challenging to decipher, as well as for the extreme use of hi-hats in the background. While this rap genre receives mixed feedback, overall, it’s proved successful given the attention from the masses.
Many people consider hip-hop and rap as just a genre of music, but, like most music genres, there is a rich backstory. Through its decades, rap culture has bent and twisted with fresh ideas, prompting new definitions of rap to materialize. And, what started as a fad turned into an influential and worldwide phenomenon practiced by many.
One thing, however, that hasn’t changed with hip-hop/rap's growth is its deep African American and Caribbean cultural roots and the legends that built and advanced rap from its birthplace in the Bronx.
The majority of other countries began rapping to voice social and political concerns in their region; however, over time, they diverged from activist-driven rap and into mainstream rap. The hip-hop and rap culture is now seen worldwide and, most notably, in France, Japan, Cuba, and Africa.
An article committed to defining what is rap music isn’t complete without a synopsis of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry in the United States.
The feud centers around East Coast and West Coast hip-hop fans and artists. And, most importantly, it has a consequential focus on The Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie) and Tupac Shakur, two illustrious rappers existing in opposite states: New York and Los Angeles.
However, the core of the rivalry is between the two record label companies, Bad Boy Entertainments (East Coast) and Death Row Records (West Coast).
Many recognize that the hip-hop/rap culture emerged from the East Coast, but by the late-80s, rap scattered through the States. And, as a result, West Coast rappers started to profit and flourish. But, unfortunately, this made the East Coast hip-hop/rap industry feel undervalued.
In response, Tim Dogg, a rapper in the Bronx, produced Penicillin on Wax, a diss track against West Coast rappers, which provoked the beginnings of this tragic rivalry. The West Coast retaliated with the ‘w’ hand gesture to signify a unified community.
Biggie and Tupac became key players in the feud after attracting media attention following the shooting of Tupac in ‘94 and Biggie's single called, Who Shot Ya?, released shortly after the incident.
Then, in ‘96, Tupac released a diss track about Biggie called, Hit Em Up. The rivalry continued until Tupac was shot and killed in September 1996. Then, about six months later, Biggie was killed in a drive-by shooting in February 1997.
To this day, their murders remain unsolved and, while there is no evidence linking their rivalry to their murders, their deaths have sparked numerous theories and conspiracies.
While rap proved itself as a viable genre in pop culture, it continues to endure controversy and critique due to its history and current status, involving obscene and crude language and misogynistic and, sometimes, violent themes. It's similar to others in our music genre list.
However, a rapper is a versed writer. And, through thirty years of rap culture, it’s established itself as a profound medium that’s provided an outlet for an artist’s voice and stories that we otherwise would most likely not discover.