Welcome to Know Your History, your monthly dose of hip-hop knowledge. This is the transcript of the fifth installment of the show. If you haven’t been with us for the previous four, you can download each episode for free or stream them with the player at the bottom of the posts. You can also read the transcripts as you listen to each episode.
So, without further ado, let’s move on to the topic for today.
Today rap is born.
Actually, it wasn’t born today. Who knows when it was born? We cannot pinpoint the date exactly and say. “This is rap. This is when it started” but we can with hip-hop. We need to remember that there is a subtle difference between rap and hip-hop. Rap is the music, hip-hop is the culture based around the music. For today, we are just going to focus on rap music.
In the mid 1970’s, deejays still owned the parties and were held in reverence. Emcees or rappers really weren’t around at this point. DJs such as Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash quickly became legends by playing street parties and getting everyone hyped up and dancing to the music they played.
The DJs were naturally competitive with each other and as such, strove to improve their deejay skills. Up until that point, it was a one-man show. The DJ ruled the party. They played the songs. They got on the mic and did what was called toasting, where they would use short, pithy rhymes to introduce themselves and hype up the crowd.
With the event of the scratch by Grand Wizard Theodore and the new techniques that allowed the turntable to be used as an instrument, the deejays really needed to focus just on the music. So they started to employ MCs. MC meaning “master of ceremonies.” Now, the master of ceremonies started adapting the toasting style made popular by Kool Herc in The Bronx. They introduced the DJs. It was still all about the DJ. The MC was only there to back up the deejay.
MCs weren’t rapping verses at that time. At this point, raps weren’t songs. They were short rhymes and that’s all. So rap wasn’t really even around in the mid 1970s. That’s one key detail we need to realize. MCs weren’t ruling; DJs were. It was all about the deejay. The emcee was secondary at this point.
The first rap song ever recorded was by a group called The Fatback Band and it featured an emcee called Kim Tim III in 1979. Shortly after that, The Sugarhill Gang released “Rappers Delight,” which really reflected the block party vibe. There wasn’t much substance to the rhymes. It was just about having fun and hyping up the crowd so people could dance. That’s the foundation of hip-hop right there.
How did rap actually become involved in the culture then? Because the culture was about playing music live, having a party, and dancing to it. It wasn’t about rhymes. Really, it wasn’t.
I played the Sugarhill Gang song in the first episode. Once again, the rhymes were quite simple but they were basically telling a story in that song. Songwriting took a step-up in the 1980s with a kid named Kurtis Blow. In his song “The Breaks” he spoke about poverty but it still sounded like something that you would hear at a hip-hop block party. It was still about having fun at this time. As such, Kurtis Blow doesn’t really dive too deeply into the socioeconomic problems of the day. However, it is important to note that he started something there.
You gotta give it up to Kurtis Blow for stepping the game up for emcees. He tried to talk about issues affecting the poor neighbourhoods in New York where hip-hop originated from. Of course, he just has fun with it. The song is about a bunch of bummers like your woman cheating on you. So he’s having fun with it and not getting down and dirty with the issues that he touches upon.
This next song came out two years later. It’s from Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five. Notice how the deejay’s name comes first because the DJ is the centre of hip-hop culture. The DJ is what birthed hip-hop culture. Grandmaster Flash was one of the original deejays as well.
The song is called “The Message.” This song takes it to the street and really explores the socioeconomic realities of the poor, black neighbourhoods. This song actually convinced people about the power of rap and what it had to offer. So listen to the lyrics here and compare it to what you just heard.
That song touches on a lot of issues. One of the lyrics says, “living in the ghetto is like second-rate living.” It talks about jail and drugs, Another line mentions a crazy lady from the garbage can. They mention bill collectors, inflations, and strikes. The people living there have headaches, migraines, cancer, and of course, the classic line, “It’s like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder, how I keep from going under.”
There’s a section where a child is talking to his father about all the drugs the kids are doing at school, how everything is about money, and how it’s crazy after dark and he can’t go to the park. This group is exposing some real issues in this song and covering a lot of ground in their subject matter.
You can see that the art of rap got elevated there. It’s not simple party rhymes anymore. The rhymes are more intricate, they are telling a story, and dealing with some real issues of every day life.
This sparked a shift in the art form. The focus had, up to this point, been on the DJ but was now starting to move towards the MC and what he was saying.
Come back tomorrow to read the conclusion of this transcript.