The Aesthetics of Rap

By Salaam, Mtume ya | African American Review, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

The Aesthetics of Rap


Salaam, Mtume ya, African American Review


After reading many articles supposedly concerning rap music - about the social aspects of rap music, the criminal elements in rap music, the lawsuits caused by rap music, sampling in rap music, gossip concerning rap musicians, how other musicians feel about rap music, etc. - I realized that I had yet to read about the music itself. In other words, I had not read about the "aesthetics" of rap, about the qualifies which made particular examples of rap music good music - not necessarily good rap music, but simply good music.

Good art is distinguished because it possesses at least one - and usually more than one - attribute such as sincerity, originality, honesty, or creativity. Good art is usually emotionally involving and/or thought-provoking. These, I believe, are attributes that almost all "good" art shares. While many rap records possess these attributes, far more do not. This is true with most art forms, however. In general, unsuccessful artistic productions far outnumber successful ones.

To discuss and critique any subject intelligently requires both adequate knowledge of that subject and the ability to illustrate that knowledge. The ability to distinguish, qualitatively, between good and bad rap music requires sufficient knowledge about a variety of rap music, past and present, popular and less well-known. The majority of articles regarding rap music are written by music critics, or - far too often - social or political personalities who are not knowledgeable enough to be involved in a serious discussion about rap music. Rap music, it seems, is not considered worthy of serious, learned discussion. To those who actually understand the music, though, rap is a true art form - as much so as jazz, classical, rhythm and blues, or rock 'n' roll.

I bought my first album, Run-D.M.C.'s self-titled debut, in 1983, when I was 13 years old. I grew up in a household dominated by the arts - most prominently, the art of recorded music. My father was a jazz and pop music critic by trade. I didn't know it at the time, but my father's job gave me the predilection for listening to music both casually and critically. Even though I can now appreciate the breadth of my father's mostly non-rap and seemingly endless LP collection, until approximately 1989 I listened to rap music almost exclusively. I saw jazz, R&B, reggae, and the other musical forms that my father enjoyed as his music; and until 1989 or so, I saw rap music as mine.

Around 1989, there was a significant and negative change in the artistic direction of rap music. The major record labels began to see the commercial potential for rap music and began signing rapper after rapper without regard to artistic integrity or originality. The music, of course, suffered from this lack of selectivity.

Rap music was first recorded on independent labels, and the independents did not, in general, sign unoriginal or otherwise inferior artists because they had a much smaller margin for error than did the major labels. The indies needed virtually every record they released, if not to become a huge hit, at least to sell well enough not to cost them money. One way the independents could ensure this, in the early days of rap, was simply to sign and record the best rappers they could find. At the time, the audience for rap music was such that quality, hard-core (i.e., non-commercial) material was generally more successful than less artistically inclined material.

The second reason the indies avoided signing inferior rappers was that they depended on the quality of their artists' recordings to establish their overall reputation. Initially, a rap fan could buy any release from such independent rap labels as Sleeping Bag/Fresh, Def Jam, Cold Chillin', Tuff City, Tommy Boy, Next Plateau, or Profile and be assured of hearing a decent, if not always indispensable record. As a generalization, signing too many commercial or just plain bad rappers, by association, would slow the sales of all of that independent's releases, and so the general quality of recorded rap music in the early and mid-'80s remained high. …

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