Examining Rap’s Origins
The rap music of today is an outgrowth of the mid-1970s hip-hop, a brash mixture of rhythm and boastful talking. Out of nowhere, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” rhymed over CHIC’s “Good Times” and cut in 1979, became a commercial hit on the R&B, pop, and U.K. charts. By the early 1980s, hip-hop pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow (the first rapper signed to a major label, Mercury Records), the Funky Four Plus One, and Run-D.M.C. were changing the music scene. Run-D.M.C.’s 1986 album Raising Hell, which became the first rap album in the Billboard Top 10, along with their rock collaboration with white rock band Aerosmith on “Walk This Way,” paved the way for hip-hop’s subsequent dominance.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five had shown rap’s political potential with 1982’s “The Message,” which detailed the horrendous conditions of ghetto life, but Public Enemy completely embodied it. Signed to Def Jam Records, Public Enemy, marked by lead rapper Chuck D’s preacher-like presentation, directly politicized rap in the late 1980s and beyond with hits like “Fight the Power.”
Hip-hop also came into its own artistically. The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s producers, took hip-hop production to another level with multitextured layering and customized beats. Artists such as Rakim from Eric B & Rakim and KRS-One placed a greater emphasis on lyricism, as metaphors became a hip-hop staple. Others, such as X-Clan, the Jungle Brothers, and A Tribe Called Quest, comfortably flexed their Afrocentric views. During the late 1980s into the early 1990s, a variety of hip-hop styles flourished. Def Jam’s first artist, LL Cool J, even emerged as a sex symbol.
The West Coast opens rap up
The West Coast was the first area to expand hip-hop beyond the East Coast. Initially, Too Short, Ice T, and N.W.A. were the artists that shined the brightest. Too Short injected the pimp game into rap lyrics, and Ice T incorporated themes of pimping and hustling into his rhymes. N.W.A., however, had the biggest impact.
The brainchild of Eric “Eazy-E” Wright, N.W.A. core members included Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E. Although “Boyz-N-the-Hood” was their first hit, the group headed in a bolder direction with their second album, Straight Outta Compton, released in 1988. Guns, women, liquor, and other aspects of urban life weren’t new to hip-hop, but those things viewed from the perspective of a gangster were. Ironically, N.W.A. uncovered both the hopelessness and resiliency borne out of oppressed conditions. “F*** Tha Police,” a response to police brutality, officially placed N.W.A. on the FBI’s radar and labeled hip-hop, and gangsta rap in particular, America’s real public enemy number one.
After leaving N.W.A., Ice Cube successfully established a solo career as a lyricist from the West Coast with his 1990 debut, AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted. Meanwhile, Dr. Dre’s 1992 multi-platinum solo debut, The Chronic, officially ended the East Coast’s rap dominance. It also formalized a new sound, G-Funk, inspired by the music of funkateers Roger Troutman (and Zapp) and George Clinton, and established Snoop Doggy Dogg, whose 1993 debut Doggystyle entered the charts at number one, as a star. Heavily influenced by his family’s Mississippi roots, Snoop’s rap style arguably made the Southern drawl more acceptable to the rap masses.
Personal arguments and misunderstandings between the West and East Coast rap communities — most notably between label owners Suge Knight and Sean “Puffy” Combs and their rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. (also known as Biggie) — culminated in the violent, unsolved murders of Tupac in 1995 and Biggie in 1996. Stunned by the tragic loss of two hip-hop titans, the rap community took steps to mend the rift between the coasts. Violence, however, has remained an issue. In 2002, Run-D.M.C.’s Jam Master Jay became another victim of violence. Equally as frustrating to the rap community has been the police’s inability to make arrests in any of these murders.
Women and the state of rap
Rap has continually battled allegations of misrepresenting women. Miami-based 2 Live Crew fueled those objections with its signature Miami Bass music, featuring pulsating rhythms and sexually explicit lyrics such as those on the 1989 hit “Me So Horny” off the Nasty As They Wanna Be album. In addition, the mostly naked women featured on the group’s album covers and in their videos generated more outrage.
Some women, however, have grabbed the mic to represent for themselves. Rap’s most visible female pioneers have been Salt-N-Pepa, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Yo Yo. Guided by Atlanta-based hip-hop producer Jermaine Dupri, Chicago native Da Brat became the first female rapper to go platinum with 1994’s Funkdafied. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Lauryn Hill made a big splash, first as a member of the Fugees and then as a solo artist, with her hip-hop infused The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her 1998 album that won five Grammys. Lil Kim, Foxy Brown, Missy Elliott, Eve, and Trina created a second wave of female rappers. Mary J. Blige, known as the queen of hip-hop soul, mastered the fusion of hip-hop with R&B, especially with her 1992 debut What’s the 411?, to give the everyday young urban woman a voice within the hard-edged genre.