The Roots of Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture: One Perspective

By Bynoe, Yvonne | National Urban League. The State of Black America, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Roots of Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture: One Perspective


Bynoe, Yvonne, National Urban League. The State of Black America


"Music is time, played live, played at seventy-eight rpms, thirty-three and a third, backwards, looped whatever. There's no translation. You understand or you don't. "

From the novel, White Boy Shuffle, by Paul Beatty

Today even the most casual observer of popular culture has heard of rap music or hip hop, yet few can talk about either intelligibly. What is most significant to know is that rap music and hip-hop culture are American cultural expressions with their roots in the African Diaspora; they are part of a continuum steeped in the experiences of blacks in America. Moreover, despite the political insights that rap music often presents, it is not inherently political, radical or revolutionary. This music along with its associated hip-hop culture were developed as a source of entertainment for poor and working class black and Latino youth in New York City. The paradox of rap music is that it often alerts the public to problems concerning black Americans, however the values and behaviors that are frequently promoted in rap lyrics and hiphop culture may actually exacerbate these issues.

The often-regurgitated story of rap music declares that it began in the early 1970s as the by-product of the desolate wasteland that was the South Bronx. In reality the seeds for rap music and the ethos of hip-hop culture were planted during the late 1960s in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and in the debris of decaying American cities, which finally exploded into the riots of 1966-1968. Despite hopes that federal civil rights legislation would facilitate racial equality, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Johnson in 1967 to study the "urban problem" concluded that "America was moving toward two societies, one black and the other white" and that white racism was the principle cause of the 1967 disturbances.1 Rather than rebuild devastated black communities or provide incentives for businesses to return, the government offered fleeting antipoverty schemes. In addition to government divestment in its cities, the influx of heroin into urban communities and a national recession further ravaged an already vulnerable Black America; the South Bronx represented just one war torn region.

In the late 1960s and in the early 1970s, right before the advent of rap music, traditional R&B/soul artists realized that it was no longer enough for them to simply be singers. A select group of musical artists used their popularity and public platforms to be voices of change. In 1969 the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, joined the new black consciousness with "Say It Loud-I'm Black and I'm Proud" and Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions shifted from love songs to message songs like, "We're a Winner," "Choices of Colors" and "Check Your Mind." Crooner Marvin Gaye to the chagrin of Motown boss Berry Gordy in 1971 released the album, "What's Going On" that detailed ghetto life and the destruction of the Vietnam war and in 1973 Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" became the first major hit to include a political message and samples of street sound (i.e., business, traffic, and voices).

The Last Poets pioneered street poetry, hard beats and scathing social criticism and in years to come would be known as the forefathers of hip hop. On May 19, 1968, these young poets came to Mount Morris Park in Harlem to commemorate Malcolm X's birthday. As these young men stood on stage accompanied by a drumbeat, they goaded the crowd to act with their chant, "Are you ready niggas," "You got to get ready." The work of The Last Poets predates the start of the controversy surrounding rap artists use of the word "nigga" (Nword) by nearly twenty years. In 1970, The Last Poets released their eponymous debut album and introduced the masterpiece, "Niggas are Scared of Revolution," a seething indictment on black apathy and mental slavery. Peter Bailey, a reporter with The New York Times said, "They used the same techniques-[used] repetition, parable, testifying, signifying-that all great orators, preachers and soul singers so when they are trying to reach out and move the crowd. …

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