Back to table of Contents

Rap might well be viewed as a form of musical piracy. Both its live and recorded output are built upon the sampling of existing source material with the record player and recording studio functioning as primary instruments. On the other hand, its emergence represents perhaps the most important cultural development within the rock scene over the past twenty years. Based largely on the urban black experience, it is a form of populist poetry based on the street vernacular and set to funky rhythms suited to dance venues.

The genre incubated outside of the pop mainstream during the 1970s. Hip hop pioneer, Kurtis Blow, whose recording "The Breaks" was the first rap record to go gold, credits Kool DJ Herc with being the godfather of rap (Public News, August 27, 1997, 10-11):

Kool DJ Herc spun records at the Heavelow in the Bronx. His ideology became

the essence of hip hop culture--of being a record collector, of finding any artist

whether jazz, rock or reggae, as long as they had a funky drum break in the

middle that you could dance to. Kool DJ Herc attracted a crowd from the

Bronx and Harlem who became known as B-boys....The dances the B-boys

did they'd make up, cop from Soul Train and so on....In the beginning, around

1973-74, hip hop was strictly a black thing. Then by the late '70s, the Puerto

Rican kids were getting into the game. There used to be dance contests....We

were winning most of the battles but the 'Ricans went home and did their

homework and came up with the power moves: windmills, backspins on one

hand, flairs, which are gymnastics, turtle crawls and so on. They took it to

the next level, and that's when it became known as break dancing.


Blow feels Grandmaster Flash provided the final impetus in making rap an art form, merging DJ Pete Jones' precision timing and Herc's playlist.

You have to understand in the early days that when the breaks came in, that's

when a DJ rapped or a b-boy would do his best moves....[Flash] specialized

in playing just breaks and extended the break for five minutes and would then

go to the next break beat. It was a definite art form, the way he played the

record....Instead of mixing it softly, Flash would bang it in--bamm! That's

where they get cutting from. Scratching was actually taking the beginning of

the beat, holding the record with your finger and making it go backwards and

forwards with your finger....He created a whole new rhythm, like a musician.


In the meantime, rap culture had spread to other urban centers, with club or street dance deejays providing the impetus by speaking over a seamless blend of recorded snippets. The Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight" (1979), the first rap record to be a hit on the pop singles charts, brought the entire scene into the mainstream. Follow-up pop successes were slow to appear over the next few years, however, as many of the pioneer rap stars (e.g., Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, Grandmaster Melle Mel) tended to focus on harsh social commentary.

Rap truly achieved crossover appeal when Run-DMC ushered in the "new school" with the release of its debut album in 1984. By incorporating rock rhythms and instrumentation into the genre, Run-DMC stimulated the appearance of a wide array of subgenres. These included (listed along with leading exponents):

Gangsta Rap (Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Ice T, N.W.A., Snoop Doggy Dog, Tupac Shakur)

Bawdy Rap (Biz Markie, 2 Live Crew)

White Rap (Beastie Boys, Snow, 3rd Bass, Vanilla Ice)

Political Rap (Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One, Public Enemy)

Jazz Rap (Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, UB3)

Pop Rap (DY Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, De La Soul, Eric B. and Rakim, L.L. Cool J., M.C. Hammer, P.M. Dawn, Puff Daddy, Salt-N-Pepa, Roxanne Shante)

Alternative Hip Hop (Arrested Development, Basehead, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy)

"Screw Tape" Mixes (DJ Screw, other Big Time Recordz mix-masters)


Rap's diversity would seem to hold something for everyone. Nevertheless, the genre has continued to offend mainstream sensibilities due to its blatant sexuality, off-color language, spoken lyrics devoid of traditional singing, and glorification of misogyny, lawless behavior, the use of force to settle disputes, etc. In this sense, rap appears to have much in common with early rock 'n' roll, punk, heavy metal, and other styles which have taken a strong anti-establishment stance.