Rap music is undeniably one of the most popular genres in America today. It’s birthed new subgenres, such as mumble rap, rapmetal and rapcore; it’s infiltrated almost every genre at least once or twice (looking at you, disco, jazz, and reggaeton); it bridged the gap between spoken poetry and instrumentation. Rap is one-of-a-kind and, simultaneously, a jack of all trades. So let’s talk about the history of rap music.
Where did it all really begin?
First thing’s first: If you’ve got the time, and enjoy humor with a little bit of your historical education, please block off some time to watch DJ Questlove explain the birth of hip-hop as we know it on Comedy Central’s Drunk History. Then, here’s a quick recap on the history of rap music.
The history of rap music
To understand where rap music came from, it’s crucial to also understand what rap music is actually considered.
What is it?
What is rap? Rap’s a delivery style that includes rhyme, rhythm, and spoken language, usually delivered over a beat. It’s a part of the wider hip-hop culture, which includes the spoken word (the MC), the beats (the DJ), break-dancing, and graffiti art.
What are the elements of rap? Rap consists of content, flow, and delivery. Content refers to what’s being said; flow is how it rhymes and its rhythm; delivery is the tone and speed in which it’s spoken.
The (pre-historic) beginnings of rap music
It is fairly widely accepted that the birth of rap music can be traced back centuries ago, to the griots of West Africa. Griots were historians who told rhythmic stories of the past to their villages over the simple beat of a drum.
Caribbean folk artists also told stories in rhymes, laying the foundation for the birth of rap music as we know it today.
The birth of the loop
While the official starting date for the history of rap music is somewhat debated, it’s undeniable that rap began as a genre when New York DJs would sample percussive elements from disco, soul, and funk as a means to create a repetitive beat
DJ Kool Herc is widely credited with kicking off the genre. His back-to-school parties in the 1970s were the incubator of his burgeoning idea, where he used his two record turntables to create loops, playing the same beat over again, and extending the instrumental portion of a song. You can still visit the birthplace of hip-hop today at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx.
After realizing this allowed for someone to keep the crowd excited during his parties, he invited his friend Coke La Rock to help host the events, and thus, rap over the loop was born.
Hip-hop hits mainstream
From there, the Bronx sensation known as hip-hop was unstoppable. The 1970s allowed all the DJs to flourish, including other Bronx-based legends like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. And although throughout the ’70s, the DJ was the dominant force, the MC also rose to prominence. Kurtis Blow was the first rapper signed to Mercury Records in 1979. The Fatback Band and Sugar Hill Gang released mainstream records, hitting the Billboard Top 40 in the following year. These records were mostly MC-driven because the most famous DJs of the time were uninterested in recording their music, preferring to gain notoriety through their parties.
In the 1980s, DJ Grand Wizard Theodore accidentally invented the act of scratching and the “needle drop,” pushing not only rap to a new level but also the physical act of DJing.
In 1982, MCs Melle Mel and Ed “Duke Bootee” Fletcher debut a song. Although released under the Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five name, it was really only a passion project between the two of them in an effort to change the lyrical content, and the hierarchy, of hip-hop forever. This song would mark the beginning of the end of the party-oriented DJs ruling hip-hop and bring in the next era of more socially conscious MC-driven rap. The song was called “The Message.”
The Golden Era occurs
Up until 1984, rhymes and raps had been relatively simple. The progression of sound, and techniques as mastered by previous MCs, allowed for the birth of a new generation of rappers, commonly known as “the Golden Era.”
It’s known as the era in New York where every new single seemed to shape the sound and direction of rap as we know it; each rapper’s art being more innovative than the last. Key players included Eric B. & Rakim, Run-DMC, A Tribe called Quest, and Public Enemy. Beat productions were denser, raps faster, and sampling technology skyrocketed. This also coincided with the time lyrics became a more vocal form of protest, focusing on the plight of social injustice, that was sparked by Melle Mel and Duke Bootee.
The West Coast gets in the game
With the overwhelming popularity of rap, it was inevitable it would spread geographically. The late 1980s saw the emergence of what are known as some of the most famous West Coast rappers, Too Short, N.W.A., and Ice-T. These rappers came from economically depressed areas in Los Angeles and Oakland and their lyrics often were a reflection of their personal experiences. More controversial content and rhymes, including pimping, liquor, and other aspects of urban life that was not typically showcased on hit singles were features of their music.
One of N.W.A.’s most popular singles, “Fuck Tha Police,” a response to police brutality, “officially placed N.W.A. on the FBI’s radar and labeled hip-hop, and gangsta rap in particular, as America’s real public enemy number one.”
This is also the time you see the foundation for the division between West Coast and East Coast rap begin to form.
Costal rivalry explodes
The 1990s saw rap’s most famous split. Oftentimes, people still discuss personal rap preferences from this era and beyond in terms of East Coast versus West Coast as a result in the evolution in stylistic and content decisions that came from the geographic divide in the two hotbeds for hip-hop.
Aside from stylistic differences, there were also personal differences that caused the national rift, most iconically between Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., which resulted in their untimely (and unsolved) demises. Their murders, though, led to an easing of tensions and paved the way for their protégés and contemporaries, like Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg, to become popular on both coasts and helped rap transcend its perceived origins in violent inner-city neighborhoods.
Women step into the spotlight
While the 1990s witnessed the battle of the coasts, it also saw the explosion of women MCs into the game. While there was plenty of content antagonizing women, a few stepped forward to shift the tone of rap music for good, paving way for female rap stars as we know it today.
Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Yo Yo got the ball rolling, while Da Brat and Lauryn Hill were some of the first to be officially recognized by mainstream standards, with platinum records and Grammys respectively.
Younger rappers move in
From the 2000s on, well, the rest is history, as they say. Streaming and new technological advances allow for more nuances within the genre, helping out with sampling, beat development, and distribution methods. A trend towards younger rappers who collaborate and feature on one another’s tracks, and on the tracks of artists in other genres, has also become more popular than ever, helping to form the inescapable mainstream genre we know and love today.