What is Hip Hop?: A Historical Definition of Rap pt2 (Street Hustlers to Revolutionary Poets)

Davey-D-purple-frameThis is part 2 of an article we penned called  The Historical Definition of Rap pt1. In that piece we talked about how the term Rap had been around long before DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy Campbell threw that first landmark Back to School party August 11 1973 in the community center at 1520 Sedgwick Ave in the Bronx.

Many are not aware that when Herc and his partners Coke La Rock and later Clark Kent rocked the mic, they used the words ‘rhyming’ and ’emceeing’ to describe their vocal expressions. The word Rap became attached to Hip Hop in 1979 with the release of Rapper’s Delight by the Sugar Hill Gang.

Prior to ’79, the word Rap was attached to a variety of other vocal activities most notably slick, persuasive talk from street hustlers, pimps and players. Rapping was all about mesmerizing and dazzling folks with words with an end goal of convincing one to give up everything from money to property to sexual favors. if you were said to have ‘a good rap’, then it meant you had the gift of gab which in many circles was revered and respected.



With respect to the act of rapping, many seem to think that saying rhymes in a syncopated fashion over music is unique to Hip Hop. That’s a mistake. To not see Rap as something that is rooted in deeper histories, is to short change Hip Hop culture. Simply put Rap is part of a continuum. Every generation within Black America can point to an activity or music style that included rap-like vocal expressions. They range from little girls doing double dutch jump rope to young kids doing engine engine number nine type rhymes to determine who would be it when playing tag.

We’ve seen expressions that we associate with rap today show up in the form of popular artists like Rudy Ray More aka Dolemite who did tons of movies where he did routines like his signature Signified Monkey .

We saw it surface with singer song writer Clarence Reid aka Blowfly who did x rated songs like Sesame Street and Rapp Dirty which was released in 1980 but according to him was written in 1965.

Both More and Reid come from a generation where street talk that encompassed rhyme was not unusual. Sometimes called signifying, testifying or playing the dozens, such expressions are key foundations and precursors to Rap.

We saw Rap expression show up in songs like Here Comes the Judge released in 1968 by comedian Pigmeat Markham. Although not called ‘rap’ it clearly could stand alongside anything we hear today.


We saw rap with Louis Jordan and his group Tympany Five and their landmark cut The Meeting which was released in 1962

In the same vein as Pigmeat is actor Lincoln Perry better known as Stepin Fetchit. The controversial character who many felt kept alive nasty stereotypes of Black people being lazy and shiftless was during his heyday in the 1940s,  the most successful Black actor in all of Hollywood. In this memorable scene from the 1945 musical Big Timers we see Perry hit up the piano and rap, decades before what we know as Hip Hop emerged..


Last Poets

Last Poets

We saw Rap expressions manifest itself in the form of revolutionary acts like the Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron and the Watts Prophets who are considered the grandfathers and godfathers to  modern-day rap. These acts emerged on the scene in the late 60s early 70s with the express purpose of providing sound tracks for the various Black liberation struggles taken place all over the country…Songs like When the Revolution ComesThe Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Tenements respectively exemplified the type of vibe they were kicking on the eve of Hip Hop’s birth.

Over the years not only have many of the songs from these acts have been sampled, but some of these acts have from time to time been featured in songs with popular artists. For example the Last Poets are featured on Common‘s song The Corner and NasYou Can’t Stop Us Now‘ which borrows the baseline from a classic  Temptations cut ‘Message to a Blackman

The Last Poets rap influence is shown on cuts like the White Man’s Got a God Complex which was featured on the ‘This is Madness‘ album (1971). It was remade 20 years later by groups like Public Enemy and Def Jef. Below is the PE version which keeps alot of original cadence in tact.

The Def Jef version of  God Complexx, shows not only the influence of the Last Poets but also Gil Scott-Heron as he uses the beat from Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Ironically groups like NWA who were perceived as having an anti-revolutionary message sampled the Last Poets ‘Die Nigga‘ off their album ‘The Original Last Poets Right On‘ (1970) and made them known to younger generations with songs like ‘Real Niggaz Don’t Die‘ off the ‘Efil4zaggin’ (1991)


GilScottheronGil Scott-Heron is often called the Godfather to Rap. It was a title he shunned, stating he preferred to be known as a bluesologist. Nevertheless, Heron was a towering figure whose signature song Revolution Will Not be Televised was redone by too many Hip Hop artists to name. Cuts like B-Movie and ReRon which were released in 1980 and 1984 respectively demonstrated his Heron’s rapping ability.

He was also one of the first artists from the 60s/ Black Power generation to jump on a song with than modern day rap artists..The anti-Apartheid song Let Me See Your ID  (1985) which features, Run DMC, Kurtis Blow and Mele-Mel to name a few was monumental. The content and purpose of the song was incredible, but also although unintended it contrasted the generational differences in rap styles.

Watts Prophets Rapping BlackThe Watts Prophets have not only been heralded as important figures in the emergence of West Coast rap, but  in 1970 they released an album called ‘Rappin’ Black in a White World’. Many consider that to be the first to use the word ‘Rap’ to describe a  recording that featured rhyming, This groundbreaking album proceeds   ‘Rapper’s Delight‘ by almost 10 years.


One artist who is in the same vein as these revolutionary poets but not as well-known is Stax Record recording artist John KaSandra nick named ‘Funky Philosopher‘. He did a bunch of black conscious songs in the early 70s including one that is many ways a head of its time for the emerging Hip Hop rap scene at the time..  ‘(What’s Under) The Natural Do’ (1970) is an incredible song that talks about Black power  and how folks are gonna have to do more than just wear an Afro hairstyle in order to uplift the community.


One can’t talk about the Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron and Watts Prophets and their influence on Rap without talking about the Black Arts Movement which proceeded them and exerted profound influence. BAM  introduced a style of spoken word that was hard-hitting, uncompromising and often recited over Bebop and Jazz. BAM co-founder Amiri Baraka than known as Leroy Jones illustrates that style with his famous piece Black Art.

Baraka’s ‘rap’ along with the spoken word and slang executed by others within the Black Arts Movement were such that it was hard for folks outside the scene to pick up and appreciate.It was for the Bebop crowd who coincidently called themselves ‘Hip’. It was deliberate in challenging the mainstream and being anti-establishment. It’s deliberately uncomfortable Many like to draw parallels to Hip Hop.


BAM member Sonia Sanchez gives a brief history of that time period and how their spoken word paved the way for modern-day raps heard within Hip Hop. Sonia Sanchez: From Black Arts to Hip Hop


Members of BAM

Members of BAM

Just for added understanding, one may wanna peep this brief documentary on bebop which was the precursor to the Black Arts Movement. Again here you will be able to draw some strong parallel to Hip Hop, especially when you consider that Bebopers called themselves coined the term ‘Hip’ which is how they referred to themselves. Peep  Bebop Jazz the Evolution of Culture Through Music.

These are just a few highlights of the many artists and expressions that are akin to rap to be in our midst before the birth of Hip Hop..Look out for pt 3 which deals with the influence of Black Radio deejays on what we know as Rap..

written by Davey D

15 comments on “What is Hip Hop?: A Historical Definition of Rap pt2 (Street Hustlers to Revolutionary Poets)

  1. I am aware of linguistics and not the def on the mens history _Ism,..so the narrations in the USA have an impact of struggles by revolutionary,..good,..but the message was all the time the same:

    If Jacques Lacan [the Rap artist] saw much of what we construe to be “self” or “reality” as merely a social/linguistic construct then does that not also include his own construct of this construct?

    In other words, post-structuralists and lyrical listeners are embedded in the paradox that revolves around using language rationally to explain how much of what others use language for is, instead, encompassed as a pseudo-rational existential contraption that is merely a manifestation of historical and cultural constructs. As though postfascist European Rap and his followers are not ensnared existentially in the same set of historical and cultural contingencies.

    How then do we go about extricating ourselves from these linguistic traps—so as to grasp a more truly rational assessment of the “human condition??

    In many crucial respects, we can’t, of course. Post structuralism becomes just another kind of structure…just another world of words that largely eschews the world.

    Therefore, in my view, modern philosophy really begins with Ghetto neighbor Hoods. In other words in [t]his assessment of the human condition as profoundly embedded in the unfolding of political economy. Post-structuralism and Rap is just another footnote to that. Everything ultimately revolves around the manner in which human communities agglomerate in order to sustain themselves fukkin biologically. And here it’s in infrastructure, stupid. It is about the means of production. Philosophy and critical theory and all those post-modern insights are germane only to the extent they acknowledge this as the foundation of human interaction.

    What a pity.

    To put aside enmity: Rap’s point is not that the self and reality are ‘pure’ socio/linguistic constructs. What sets this apart from the post-structuralist camp – and Davey D. is someone who has repeated this point over and over again – is that reality is always ‘stained’ by what he calls the Real (As opposed to ‘reality’ – This is parallel to Freud’s ‘return of the repressed’). Most importantly – and I can’t stress this enough- The Real is an internal limit: it is not something that the Symbolic (a term he uses for what might be called ‘the universe of discourse’; everything that can be articulated and communicated) excludes, not something that is ‘outside’ of the Symbolic. Instead, the Real is internal to the Symbolic. What it is is nothing but the failure of the Symbolic, it is not a substantial ‘thing-in-itself’ that ‘blocks’ the Symbolic from the outside, because it only exists insofar as the symbolic itself exists. The Real marks the point where the Symbolic breaks down. (The Ego, on the other hand, is an Imaginary formation… but I won’t get into that).

    Thus ‘the self’ and the reality it experiences is always split in between the Real and the Symbolic, caught between two worlds as it were, the world of Being and the world of Language. This is the famous Rap artist dissin ‘split subject’. By doing this, Rap brings the World back in, that refuses to say that ‘everything is a socio/linguistic construct’ of the global lyrical commune in – Cops out…. One of the defintions of the Rap in postfascist Europe subject is that, precisely as a subject Rap is already alienated by language itself. Also, remember that Rap was primarily a clinical practitioner. So how does this relate? Well, the entire practice of (Cccops) psychoanalysis revolves around re figuring the Real through the Symbolic. That is, once the subject realizes that the Symbolic does not constrain the movementh, once an artist sells out,… realizes that there is a dimension in which language fails, she can begin to start to ‘traverse the fantasy’. This doesn’t mean Rap no longer exists in language and somehow has direct access to being (language is inescapable for Rap), only that Rap can begin to re figure the terms in which the Symbolic works for record deals.

    In fact, one of the signs that analysis is getting somewhere is precisely when the subject begins to resist the analyst, where the artist says ‘no, you’re wrong’. And to vulgarize it, analysis comes to an end precisely when the subject realizes that all this talking is actually useless, and Rap has to do something, to make a choice in regards to the warm bread selling demo symptom. The corollary here is the Subject can’t do this for equal struggles – the culture of people of color needs someone/something (not necessarily an analyst) to relay her own (unconscious) message back to her. Rap was fond of referring to the analyst as a ‘pure mirror of an unruffled surface’, whose role was purely structural, who, as a mirror, reflected the subject’s unconscious back to youth frames. In short, the analysts has no idea how to ‘cure’ Rap and the youth culture behind, but time windows’re supposed to be a master of communication/language.

    Only a critical white_ness choice of my acoustic aesthetical practice…Salaam!

  2. Pingback: jimi izrael dot com » it’s hard, but it’s fair. » What is Hip Hop?: A Historical Definition of Rap pt2 (Street Hustlers to Revolutionary Poets) | Davey D’s Hip Hop Corner

  3. Pingback: US musician Gil Scott-Heron dies | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  4. Pingback: GHHB Honors The Last Poets For Black History Month [audio] | Global Hip Hop Battles- The site for online battles and hip hop news updates

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