This 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..
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 Comes, The 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 Nas‘ You 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)
Gil 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.
The 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
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