Rap is very popular today. It seems that just about every car I drive past is playing rap music. But what is rap, and how did it start.

A lot of people think hip-hop is the same thing as rap. Hip hop is the urban youth culture that was developed by black Americans and Latinos in the Bronx (New York) in the seventies and eighties. Dee-jaying (disc jockeying), emceeing (speaking with/over a record, which is what evolved into rapping), graffiti (where artists would leave their personal sign on walls and subways), and break dancing (fast energetic dancing) were all included in hip hop at it’s beginnings and contributed to it’s development and growth. Rap music was derived from hip-hop. According to the rap artist KRS-One, hip-hop is “something one lives or experiences” and rap is “something one does or performs” copyright free songs

Hip-hop was an expression of the anger felt by black Americans. It called for social relevance, originality, and an effort to challenge the artistic culture of mainstream American society. According to scholar Cornell West, it was an effort to cope with the frustrations and conditions of urban life in the ghetto, and a celebration of the black poor working class and underclass. It openly acknowledged and confronted the coldheartedness, criminal cruelty, and hopelessness of the ghetto. Rap developed as an expression of this impoverished experience that black people had.

The “founding father” of hip-hop was DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) who introduced into America a style of DJing that had evolved in Jamaica. He built a sound system that emphasized the bass elements of dance music, he practiced “dubbing” or extending the sections of a song that his audience preferred dancing to, and he spoke with/over the music on a microphone “toasting” (encouraging) members of the audience to dance. These “toasts” were long narrative poems composed in rhymed couplets, and often made use of exaggerated language, metaphors, expletives, and boasting, which are elements that we often see in rap today. Kool Herc’s style created a strong sense of shared identity between the performer and the audience.

Rap is a music form that is still new and constantly expanding and evolving. It is sometimes rock-based, sometimes funk, and sometimes very close to the original “street” sound. There are even some female rappers. Rap lyrics are about problems such as poverty, crime, violence, racism, poor living conditions, drugs, alcoholism, corruption, and prostitution that rap musicians have seen in the ghetto. The rhythm or beat is one of the biggest attractions of rap music, and it is sometimes difficult to understand the words. People complain that rap music is sexist and against women; and that it glamorizes violence, criminality, and materialism. There is another way to look at it though. Cheryl L. Keyes sees it as a display of cultural values, an educational tool, and a political forum, as well as a vehicle for self expression and social control within the hip-hop community.

It is interesting that, according to David Samuels in his article titled “The Rap on Rap: the ‘Black Music’ that Isn’t Either” in “The New Republic”, even though rap is proportionally more popular among blacks, it’s main audience is white people living in the suburbs. He also says that the more that rappers were packaged as violent black criminals that the bigger the audience of white people became. Maybe that is due to the appeal of things that are considered taboo by one’s social group. Maybe there is some deep down rebellion about the way these white people see their society which rap music speaks to. When you have a group of people who make music that is, for whatever reason, clearly more attractive to all American youth; and when that group of people has a history of poverty and discrimination, you have a recipe for an effective way to protest and hopefully change society for the better.

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