Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



The dominant genre in American black pop of the '80s-90s, a post-industrial R&B with attendant hip-hop street culture of break-dancing, baggy clothes etc ('hip-hop' came from an early rap lyric). Music teaching had gone to hell in a great many American schools by the mid-'70s, and each generation has to make its own noise, so in New York's outer-borough black and Hispanic ghettos, in Harlem and especially in the Bronx, street parties saw kids tapping lamp-posts for free electricity and inventing a musical culture using turntables and microphones. Where disco DJs emphasized smooth transition from one song to the next, pioneer hip-hop turntable wizards Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash focused on the drum-break (hard rock bass and snare intros, Latin timbales and the taut funk patterns of James Brown, etc) extending the between-verse hiatus by dexterous manipulation (turntable 'scratching') of two copies of the same record: this was a metaphor for the endless dislocations of modern urban life, as well as creating windows for verbal improvisation.

Templates for improvised eloquence were numerous: the radical black lyricism of the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets and Gil Scott-Heron; the Jamaican toasting DJ microphone style of I-Roy et al (see Reggae: Herc, Flash and Bambaataa all had Caribbean antecedents); jazz-jive vocals of Babs Gonzales and Slim Gaillard and much else. The Sugarhill Gang's 'Rapper's Delight' '79 was a surprise global hit on Sylvia Robinson's Sugarhill label, taking rap off the streets into the charts and sparking a rush to commercial exploitation. (Robinson, the Sylvia of Mickey and Sylvia, long had her ear to the ground: she had also issued one of the first disco hits.) Grandmaster Flash produced the perfect seven-minute statement of rap's potential for cut-and-paste creativity with the Chic/Queen/Sugarhill Gang collage 'Adventures Of Flash On The Wheels Of Steel' '81 on Sugarhill, followed '82 by a shocking demonstration of its capacity for social comment, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's 'The Message', a UK/US top ten with powerful, compelling lyrics about 'junkies in the the alley/With a baseball bat'. Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force foresaw Techno in the Electro movement, inspired by Kraftwerk and video games, with 'Planet Rock' '82, a black science fiction retread of the seminal German outfit's 'Trans-Europe Express'.

In its early stages rap was based on 12-inch singles, and created a swiftly changing landscape reminiscent of '50s rock'n'roll (complete with lame dance craze exploitation movies) but without the star structure, allowing a downside of quick turnover of artists and an entrepreneur/huckster festival, but an upside of rapid-fire releases and inspired dancefloor dialogue, cf. the Roxanne answer-record craze of early to mid-'80s. Transition to an albums-based medium with mass white suburban following was effected largely by the Def Jam label, formed by New York students Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin '84-5, and Simmons's allied Rush management company. LL Cool J (Ladies Love Cool James) became the first rap solo star with his bone-crunching debut Radio on Def Jam. Run DMC, formed in Queens '82 by DJ Jam Master Jay and rappers Darryl McDaniels and Joe Simmons (Russell's younger brother), pioneered successful recording of rock breaks on their second album King Of Rock '85 and had rap's first platinum-seller with their third, Raising Hell '86; then teamed with Aerosmith for the single 'Walk This Way', which further dismantled the unofficial MTV colour bar. The Beastie Boys (see their entry) came through the breach into mainstream success, transcending their origins in Rubin's collection of Led Zep records and old Run DMC rhymes, and Public Enemy brought a political dimension to Def Jam (see their entry). Violence had long been a problem in rap, marring a Madison Square Garden show '85 and a Def Jam package tour '86, especially at Long Beach in August where a Los Angeles gang battle kept Run DMC offstage. Controversy about the relationship between the violence of rap lyrics and real-life wounding and deaths persists to this day, most bitterly surrounding 'gangsta' rap, lurid psychodramas of violent street culture pioneered by Philadelphia braggart Schooly D and the more thoughtful New York duo Boogie Down Productions, whose rapper KRS-1 went on alone in a more pacific mode after his social worker/DJ cohort Scott La Rock was killed trying to stop a street fight '87: Boogie Down's first two albums Criminal Minded '87 and By Any Means Necessary '88 are still among the most compelling in the canon. It was on the West Coast (until then something of a hip-hop backwater) that gangsta took its strongest hold. Ice-T (Tracey Morrow) built a career from Rhyme Pays '87 onwards, making up in charisma and astute marketing of his criminal past what he lacked in musical originality: he peaked with the OG -- Original Gangster album '91, coinciding with his big-screen impact (rappers have consistently been more effective acting presences than rockers) in the moralistic blaxploitation film New Jack City. His greatest notoriety followed the 'Cop Killer' scandal of Ice's thrash-metal spin-off group Bodycount, whose debut album '92 aroused public ire and threatened mass withdrawal of police pension funds from Sire/Warner coffers until the offending track was withdrawn.

The extreme poles of rap endeavour were equally unappealing to the mainstream pop audience, from pop cash-in merchants MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice (the latter described as 'all mouth and trousers') to censorship victims 2-Live Crew and NWA, 'Niggahs With Attitude' (see their entry). In September '96 Snoop Doggy Dogg (b Calvin Broadus, 20 October 1972, Long Beach CA) was acquitted on a murder charge, while thug rapper Tupac Shakur was out on bail on a charge of sexually abusing a fan and was being sued in connection with another incident in which a six- year-old child was killed by a stray bullet. Suge Knight, owner of Death Row Records, Shakur's label, was caught by a security camera stomping somebody just before Shakur was sprayed by bullets in Knight's car (Shakur d 13 September 1996); Knight was sentenced to nine years in prison '97 for his violence. The Notorious B.I.G. (aka Biggie Smalls, real name Christopher Wallace, a former crack dealer with arrests for assault etc), thought by some to have been responsible for the Shakur hit, was similarly murdered (d 9 March 1997). Shakur's record distributor, Jimmy Iovine, thought that public disgust with all this was 'racism, pure and simple'. Something like creativity flourished elsewhere, especially in the East Coast Native Tongues axis, a loose federation of like-minded rappers of whom De La Soul were the fulcrum (see their entry). Kindred spirits A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers and Queen Latifah all produced successful albums; new jazzy hip-hop inflections broadened with New York's Gang Starr and Canada's Dream Warriors. Rap spread throughout film and advertising media and worldwide (which seems foolish on the part of advertisers, since a lot of people don't like it), but for all the best efforts of overseas practitioners, from Mancunian roughneck MC Tunes to French MC Solaar to South Africa's Lords of Da City, the USA still leads the way in excess of every kind.

Despite occasional moribund spells, numerous court cases and the fervent hopes of its detractors, rap refuses to go away; evolutionary highpoints included rough-house dope-fixated Angelenos Cypress Hill (second Sony album Black Sunday a US no. 1), wholesome Atlanta 'agrarian rappers' Arrested Development, whose 3 Years 5 Months And 2 Days In The Life Of... '92 was a global hit thanks to a seductive Sly Stone influence, and The Score '96, a transatlantic no. 1 from New Jersey trio the Fugees, completing the circle of Caribbean/soul influence with Haitian refugee chic and an impeccable cover version of Roberta Flack's 'Killing Me Softly'. Rap has burbled along until some kind of imprimature with a book, The Anthology of Rap, from Yale University no less, in 2010. The editors were Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois; what professors of English are doing editing 867 pages of doggerel we do not want to know.