2006-06-08 / Letters to the Editor

Understanding rap's evolution

Sam Bari's claims in "Who's gonna take the rap?" figure into the larger debate over whether or not rap is music, not to mention the larger cultural debates about whether violent, misogynistic, and sexually explicit lyrics reflect or reproduce their content. However, Bari oversimplifies musical history when he claims that rap and hiphop are a "stolen art form" and "nothing more than a marketing ploy that was unleashed on the young people of this country some time in the '70s." Although rap did become commercially successful when white suburban middleclass youth bought into it, they did so because of the beat. (Baby Boomers can relate to the longstanding American Bandstand joke - "I'll give it a 95. It's good to dance to. It's got a good beat.") Although commercial exploitation figures into rap and hip hop, their origin and history are larger and more positive than merely a commercial ploy. Bari's objection is primarily a matter of taste - apparently, he doesn't like the dominance of the percussion instruments in rap.

More importantly, though, accusing rappers of stealing the concept of social protest and commentary from the beatniks and early hippies doesn't quite jibe with rap's historical evolution. While parallels can be drawn between rappers and the beat poets, their individual forms of social and political commentary grew out of their unique historical and cultural circumstances.

Hip-hop, a subgenre of rap, is influenced by Jamaican and West African musical forms, as well as the socio-economic conditions experienced by African-American youths in the the Bronx during the

'60s and '70s. Although street gangs have figured into rap's development, reducing rap only to gangsta rap stereotypes, it excludes a long list of positive and progressive rappers such as Queen Latifah, Kanye West, Will Smith, and Black Eyed Peas, to name a few. As a whole, rap has been influenced by African-American verbal traditions such as "signifyin( g)" - a method of linguistic coding used by African-American slaves to protest and resist cultural assimilation. Similarly, the verbal insults and hyperbole often found in rap can be traced to a form of African-American street vernacular or verbal jousting known as "namin(g) or playin(g) the dozens." This is only a snippet of rap's rich history and musical repertoire, revealing a wide array of beats, rhythms, and rhymes that can range from atonal shouting to catchy and pleasing melodies. R

Regardless of an individual's musical taste, understanding rap's evolution can lead to appreciating its socio-economic and ethnic significance in cultural history.

Helen O'Grady,


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