For the past few months, my dad and I have been having a series of arguments over whether rap has any musical value. He thinks it has no value whatsoever, and I think it can be one of the most poetic and moving genres of music there is. I eventually got fed up with all this arguing and decided to make him a rap CD for Christmas to try and persuade him that perhaps rap did have some redeeming value. He hasn’t touched it since, but that’s another thing altogether (and, truth be told, he did enjoy the persuasive piece I wrote to accompany it). The series of lively discussions got me thinking about rap and it’s bad “rap” – no pun intended.
Over the 30-plus years it has existed, rap has gained a reputation for being, as my dad would say, “prison music.” And sometimes this is true – if you listen to Scarface or an N.W.A CD, you’ll hear that rap has a strong connection to the streets. However, not all rap promotes guns and violence, or degrades women. In fact, there is plenty of rap that contains a positive message – just listen to “Keep Ya Head Up,” a song by 2Pac that sends an uplifting message to women everywhere. Rappers and rap groups like A Tribe Called Quest and KRS-One have flourished as MCs with a socially conscious message. It may have a reputation for violence, but rap is so much more.
Rap has roots in Africa, but also in many other places. Its deepest roots go back to the Griots of West Africa, who would tell stories using a rhythmic delivery. Listening to rap, you can hear hints of old slave spirituals, the blues music of the early 1900s, as well as Jamaican “toasting,” which is chanting and talking over a beat. Rap first rose to prominence in the 1970s in New York City. Block parties around this time became popular, and DJs were hired to provide entertainment for the event, often playing funk and soul music. Eventually, DJs began to extend tracks using turntables, and when rapping was put into the song to fill in the breaks, hip-hop music was born.
Rap has always had a strong connection to the streets and urban life. “The Message,” a song by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is a tale of the strain of ghetto life and its effects, and is possibly the best rap song ever made. With many artists basing their music around harsh, gritty street narratives (see Scarface), rap has gained a reputation for promoting violence, drugs, demeaning women and pretty much every bad thing imaginable. Many a parent treats rap as if it were polio – debilitating and harmful to impressionable young minds. But rap isn’t all big bad wolf – much of it is a form of criticism, almost a running commentary on the issues present in today’s society. Public Enemy made a career of exposing the problems with urban life, with songs like “Night of the Living Baseheads,” “Rebel Without a Pause” and “Fight The Power.” I believe rap is, in its purest form, poetry – perhaps with more cursing and grittier topics, but poetry nonetheless. Listen to a song by Lupe Fiasco or Common – you’ll find their music rife with metaphors and other literary devices. Not only that, but rappers like KRS-One – a Bronx legend – have campaigned to stop violence in hip-hop. For all the bad press it gets, perhaps this nasty reputation is a little undeserved.
Not all rap is the rap you hear on the radio. Not every rap artist brags about doing a drive-by or materialism and their fancy bling (though granted, I do enjoy a Meek Mill song or a Rick Ross song once in a while). Rap isn’t just about that. Rap can be about change, or the problems with the world today, or the struggles of poverty and crime. Rap is something much more; a vehicle for the frustrations of everyday life, and a way to express feelings.
For those of you who believe in my dad’s point of view, I’d like to recommend two rap CDs that might open your mind to the possibility … and maybe even change it, if only just a little:
“Raising Hell” by Run DMC: The hard-hitting beats with a heavy drum background, together with the band’s fusion of rock and hip-hop was a game changer. Key cuts: “Walk This Way,” “Peter Piper,” “My Adidas.”
“Paid in Full” by Eric B. and Rakim: With perhaps the best MC ever on the mic in Rakim, and Eric B. DJing, this is truly a classic. When it was released, Rakim’s flow and delivery changed the way rappers rap. Key cuts: “Paid in Full,” “Eric B. is President,” “I Know You Got Soul.”
Zachary Jabine is a freshman at City Honors.