‘Rapping’ is a term used to denote a vocal presentation in which a rapper uses spoken or semi-spoken declamations, most usually in the form of rhyming couplets. These declamations, rather than any other, more traditional musical elements, are considered the emotional focal point of the performance.
Rapping’s verbal virtuosity has many predecessors in black expressive culture, although direct lines of influence may vary from artist to artist. These include: the dozens and toasting traditions from Jamaica and the United States; children’s games like ‘Pattin’ Juba,’ black girls’ cheerleading and doubledutch chants; black preaching; jazz vocalese; radio DJs’ verbal patter; jive scat; courting rituals; lovers’ raps (i.e., Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Millie Jackson); the political storytelling of Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets; and the half-spoken vocal delivery of performers such as James Brown and George Clinton, among others.
The practise of rapping emerged during the mid-1970s from the underground ‘hip-hop’ culture of African-American and Afro-Caribbean youths in the South Bronx and upper Manhattan neighborhoods of New York City. Hip-hop culture comprised graffiti writing, break dancing, a distinctive style of dress and rap music. Most accounts consider the commercial origin of rap performance to be a hit recording, ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugarhill Gang, which climbed to number 36 in the US charts in 1979.
Within rap practise itself, a musical division of labor appeared which has continued to shape rap developments. In the early days of rap, DJs working in the New York City club scene, in parks and at neighborhood parties supplied music by mixing various ‘beats’ and snippets of sound from recordings in order both to compel their audiences to dance and to establish their reputations. Some DJs would supply relatively simple ‘raps’ along with their beats, a practise that ultimately developed into more elaborate rhyming lyrics. Eventually, MCs (a term borrowed from ‘Master of Ceremonies’) or rappers appeared, and they became the focal point of rap performances as they raised the artistic stakes in rap’s lyrical sphere. The role of DJs also attracted keen interest as the technology they used became more electronically sophisticated. DJs began to take recorded ‘samples’ from a dizzying variety of sources and mix them in inventive ways to create appealing rhythm tracks over which rappers would spin out their dense epic narratives. The historical trajectories of musical developments growing out of the DJ legacy are rich enough to deserve their own attention.
Whether performed ‘freestyle’ (completely or semi-improvised) or meticulously planned, rap performances are crafted to sound fresh and spontaneous. Equal evaluative weight is given to the poetic invention in the lyrics and to the musical means of delivery, although listeners experience the emotive import of the lyrics, varied tim-bral intonation and subtle rhythmic delivery as a resolute composite. The poetry itself must convey to listeners – through complex uses of metaphor, simile, irony, parody and double entendre, among many other techniques – both an immediacy of communication and a museful virtuosity. Subtle plays on language use abound in rap practise. Rappers perform their verses primarily in rhyming couplets, but a rich variety of poetic structures exists within the practise. A performance typically encompasses an extraordinary number of intertextual references, including current events, US history, popular culture, black folk culture, other rap performances and up-to-date, geographically specific slang from youth culture. It is impossible to generalize about the subject matter in rap because, as a genre, the lyrics range from the socially responsible to the most outlandish, calculated nihilism designed to generate controversy: acrid social critique, self-help philosophies, notions of racial uplift, misogyny, comedy, phallocentric braggadocio, artistic rivalries with other rappers, inner-city violence, love, racial strife, gender relationships, Islam, sexuality, parties and youthful leisure are among the many topics covered in a typical performance. Although rapping in performance practise has been from its beginning an essentially male endeavor, many female rappers are also recognized as leading figures in its brief history.
While many accounts stress the revolutionary aspects of rap practise, a good number of its aesthetic requirements fit squarely within the traditions of other African-American musical styles. As with the best jazz soloists and virtuoso soul singers, the quality of a rap presentation is judged by a rapper’s mastery of several elements of musical performance, including clarity, originality, timbral inflection, emotional focus, culturally coded ‘body attitudes,’ and rhythmic flexibility and invention. At the same time, the degree to which rapping – an essentially non-sung vocal performance – has become such a widely accepted practise within the popular music sphere indicates that it should certainly be considered a significant development in the history of popular song.
As a set of performance practises that have given rise to a range of successful commodities in the global marketplace, rap music has responded in many strikingly self-conscious ways. Many rappers critique and, in some cases, celebrate, capitalism, their relationships with record labels and conspicuous consumption, among other related topics. Digital sampling itself presents a direct challenge to the traditional legal and ethical issues surrounding ownership of musical gestures and culture. These issues, together with the supply and demand imperative of the music business, continue to shape the narrative, thematic and musical content of rap recordings. If a specific thematic or musical approach is successful in the marketplace, it will most certainly be reproduced by other artists; and it will most certainly be critiqued in practise by others.
That rappers appear frequently as guest artists on non-rap recordings demonstrates the practise’s influence in US musical culture. Fashions sported by rap artists have continually influenced trends throughout the United States and the world. The rapping practise itself has attracted an international following and has inspired similar developments in many countries around the world (where rappers perform in their own language rather than in English).
Gaunt D. Kyra 1995. The Veneration of James Brown and George Clinton in Hip-Hop Music: Is It Live? Or Is It Re-memory?’ In Popular Music: Style and Identity , ed. Will Straw et al. Montreal: The Centre for Research on Canadian Cultural Industries and Institutions, 117–22.