The popularity of Rap music has elicited a variety of critical responses, but very little focus on the poetry itself. This essay discusses Rap's ties to earlier forms of African-American folk-poetry and analyzes the conventional structures of rhetoric, rhythm, and rhyme within which Rap artists operate.
Twenty years after its genesis, Rap poetry remains a vastly popular art-form across the continent and around the world, although its importance as a new type of poetic expression has been virtually unexplored by the scholarly community and by most poets. The reasons for this lack of attention include cultural differences between Euro-American and African-American sensibilities, the reluctance of academic poets and critics to embrace popular culture, and the inability of print-based analysis to deal adequately with oral artistry. Recently, however, a number of critics have begun to explore Rap from a variety of perspectives. Richard Shusterman (1991), for example, presents a case for Rap as a postmodern art-form by focusing on the music's technological aesthetic and rampant intertextuality. Houston Baker's Rap, Black Studies and the Academy (1993) treats the roles of race and class in determining attitudes toward Rap. Russell Potter's Spectacular Vernaculars (1995) pulls back the various facades of Rap to rev eal an inspiring subversive politics. Other critics, like Tricia Rose (1994), take a sociological perspective, while still others, such as Tim Brennan (1994) and Robert Walser (1995), focus on the musical aesthetic.
While each of these studies has its own obvious merits, what seems most required at this point is a more basic and "poetic" approach, one which would give poets and scholars some context and keys to understanding Rap as poetry and not merely as a phenomenon of popular culture. What is needed, in short, is a focus on the three R's which form the material essence of Rap: rhythm, rhyme, and rhetoric. Thus, in the following essay, I will attempt to demonstrate that Rap is a contemporary form of the ages-old tradition of folk-poetry and that it derives its rhetorical power from a unique use of rhythm and rhyme. Specifically, in the first part of this essay I will show how the rhetorical traditions of African-American folk-poetry co-evolved with electric communication technology and how both eventually came together to form the Rap style. This overview will provide the necessary context for the second part of this essay, in which I will illustrate the interrelationship between the three R's of rhythm, rhyme, and r hetoric through an analysis (and attempt to chart the beat) of the recordings of several well-known, commercially successful Rap artists, all of which should be readily available (for listening purposes) in libraries and used-record shops.
I should state at the outset that I will be writing about Rap as a poet and a musician who loves and honors African-American poetic and musical traditions, and that I make no claim to provide a thorough review of the pantheon of professional Rap artists, nor to do any more than lay out the basics of this art-form. To prevent any misunderstanding, I should also state that in this essay I will be discussing Rap strictly as vocal performance and that I will be using the term "Rap" to refer to the principally rhythmic vocal component of the music which has come to be known more generally as "Hip-hop," a term which also refers to the urban subculture and includes expression through graffiti, fashion, dance and lifestyle. I should mention as well that the term "Rap" itself predates the style being analyzed here, originally being used to refer to verbal exchange in general and later to declaming poetry over music, and in fact has fallen into disuse in Hip-hop culture--where such performers are more likely to refer to themselves as an "MC" (from "Master of Ceremonies") or a "rhymer," than as a Rap artist.
It is fruitless to attempt a critical appreciation of Rap as poetry without a historical context to help explain its significant differences from contemporary print poetry. "Folk-poetry" is the category under which the Modern Language Association lists articles on Rap, and thinking of it as folk-poetry is a good way of acquiring a basic sense of how it functions. Rap meets most of the criteria normally associated with folk-poetry in English: no formal musical or literary training is required, there is a relatively free borrowing of music and words between pracitioners, it is often locally-oriented, it does not assume literacy, and there is a union rather than a separation of music, dance, and lyric. Like other forms of folk-poetry, Rap is practiced not only by professional artists but also by amateurs at clubs, by groups of friends at home, and by school children in the playground.
Given the ubiquity of sound-reproduction sources in today's world, it ought to be no surprise that oral tradition and postmodern culture have many of the same characteristics. Musicologist Chris Cutler (34-35) has argued that the innate characteristics of sound-recording are identical with those of the folk mode of music. Thus Shusterman's analysis of Rap in terms of postmodernist aesthetics focuses on recycling, appropriation and style-mixing, the very same elements which Tim Brennan attributes to Rap's roots in African and Afro-diasporic culture. Neither Shusterman nor Brennan, however, makes it clear that these characteristics are not exclusive to African culture but are characteristic of oral culture in general.
In oral culture, poetry, music, drama and dance tend to function as complementary parts of an integrated, cooperative artistic expression. This integration was still very much the case in the West African oral tradition when the slave ships began to sail. Although many customs were lost through centuries of brutal slavery, the forces that guided those customs survived and continued to organize the ways that African-Americans employed the English language, Christian religious codes, and European-derived musical instruments. In pre-literate and newly-literate African-American society one finds folk-poetry in work songs, prison songs, ring shouts, the Blues, sermons, Spirituals, chanting and children's rhymes. By the time African-Americans were handed the keys to written English, electric communication had already begun to redefine the power structures and culture of North America, and by the 1 920s African-American music and literature was already …