The Roots of Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture: One Perspective

by Yvonne Bynoe President Urban Think Tank, Inc.

Rap music is part of a continuum of the experiences of black people in America. But, despite the political insights rap music often presents, it is not inherently political, radical or revolutionary. This music along with its associated hip-hop culture was developed as a source of entertainment for poor and working-class black and Latino youth in New York City. The paradox of rap music is that while it often alerts the public to problems concerning Black Americans, the values and behaviors frequently promoted in rap lyrics and hip-hop culture may actually exacerbate those very problems.
Born in the South Bronx in the early 1970s from the musical innovations and political activism of the late 1960s, rap music and hip-hop culture has become a multi-billion dollar industry facing critical questions of artistic and cultural integrity. The original rap music audience was primarily poor and working-class black and Latino teenagers. Today, anecdotal accounts portray the hip-hop community as multiracial and multi-generational, and no longer necessarily poor or working class, although rap artists overwhelmingly still come from these backgrounds. Middle- and upper-middle-class African Americans interested in this form of cultural expression, however, are more likely to support the "spoken word" or poetry movement, which many view as more intellectual and "positive." Indeed, within the spoken word movement itself, some spoken-word artists embrace hip hop as their aesthetic foundation, while others shun it.
Hip Hop began when DJs, audiophiles and technical wizards who collected records and searched all musical genres for new beats, developed such innovations as "scratching" and "sampling" that enabled them to signify on the messages of recorded music or to create entirely new music from the records. Lyricists played supporting roles as ghetto philosophers, telling tales of life, fortune and love, and graffiti artists provided the visual backdrop for hip-hop’s evolution. Initially, this street culture was almost exclusively black; and thus this commonality encouraged young, gifted and black hip-hop performers to assert the fundamental elements of a black cultural identity inherent in their upbringings.
By the time the Sugar Hill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight" hit the radio airwaves in 1979, rap music and hip-hop culture had been thriving underneath the commercial radar for almost a decade. By the mid-1980s it had been fully discovered by the forces of commerce, notably MTV, and white middle- and upper-middle-class youth. Data from the computerized sales tracking system used by middle-to-large record retailers indicates that now 71 percent of rap music consumers in America today are white and approximately 29 percent are black and Latino. This data has justified rap music as being marketed to appeal to a white consumer market–despite the fact that the industry’s tracking system, by excluding record purchases made at "mom and pop" record stores that can’t afford to install the tracking system, doesn’t accurately gauge the buying capacity and tastes of black and Latino rap fans.
Whites are drawn to rap music made by black artists–who, along with the music, represent the flagrant disregard for authority and social norms that they no longer find in rock and roll. Thus if rap music and hip hop became more "white," it might lose its appeal to a significant segment of white fans. This offers a critical prism through which to view the success of white rap artist Eminem. In nearly thirty years of rap music history, there have only been four successful white acts, Vanilla Ice, The Beastie Boys, Third Base, and now Eminem, although it must be said that Emimen differs from his white predecessors in that he tells his story–that of a poor white boy from Detroit–rather than simply aping or spoofing black rap artists. Although black talent and black interpretations of American life still dominate hip-hop culture in the media, black rap fans increasingly find themselves marginalized in the public dialogue of who and what constitutes hip hop. The related issue is whether rap music and hip-hop culture can really be egalitarian in a society still plagued by racial discrimination. If whites are by and large the hip-hop industry’s owners and gatekeepers, and blacks are primarily the hired talent, does this configuration constitute new racial harmony or is it simply an updated version of the same old power structure? The concerns of black and Latino youth remain different from those of white youth, if for no other reason than intractability of racial discrimination. In other words, can hip hop, which now aggressively targets white fans, simultaneously represent the interests of poor- and working-class black and Latino youth? As the music industry’s rap music customer has morphed during the past decade from black and Latino urban youth into white suburban youth, it has fixated on renegade black rap artists who epitomize the anti-social behavior preferred by rebellious white youth. Thus, instead of "conscious" rap artists like Common and Mos Def, or political rap artists like dead prez, who discuss the empowerment of the black community, the music industry tends to more heavily promote those who celebrate individualism, lavish lifestyles, promiscuity and criminality. This approach, rather than inspiring hip hop to be progressive or educational, is actually reactionary, reinforcing old stereotypes.
Many within the hip-hop generation believe that the country’s leadership has used rap music as a scapegoat to avoid doing the hard work of actually changing the circumstances of poor- and working-class black people in this country. In order to change the messages of rap music and hip-hop culture, the circumstances from which they spring must first be changed. This means working with the hip-hop community to foster a dignity and humanity in the ’hoods, wards and barrios of America through the development of substantially improved schools, health care, employment and housing opportunities, and child care and counseling services. Rap music and hip-hop culture can be agents of change if people are willing to look beyond its hard façade and inelegant language in order to fully examine what really needs to be done in America.


Their Characteristic Music: Thoughts on Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture

by David W. Brown Associate Editor of The State of Black America


If it’s true that African-American music is inextricably linked to African-American history, then examining hip-hop music is crucial to understanding the under-35 generation of African Americans. Because this music reflects the environment, artistry, ambitions, fears, and possibilities of young black people, it also sheds light on some of the enduring incongruities of American race relations. Rap music has not only withstood two decades of predictions of its imminent demise, it has soared. Last year its sales accounted for 12.9 percent of the $14.3 billion national music market, making it second in popularity only to the 25-percent share held by rock music. Further, hip-hop culture–an irreverent attitude, a pose, and a way of talking and behaving–has deeply influenced American culture in myriad ways: through music videos, movies, fashion, technology, the entire canon of consumer advertising, and sports. Thus, hip hop, the innovation of black youth who lacked the resources to assemble a band that used expensive instruments, is a testament to the resourcefulness and inventiveness of Black America’s post-civil rights era generation.
Hip hop also demonstrates the continuing tendency among black people toward self-reinvention. And its increasing growth and mainstream popularity shows that black youth are maintaining an old tradition: they are again America's music and cultural vanguard. Hip hop’s crossover appeal has been readily apparent since the mid-1980s, and, despite its birth and continued rootedness in gritty inner-city neighborhoods, it has also begun to echo the rise of the black middle class and this demographic group’s increasing visibility in American life.
Nonetheless, some aspects of hip-hop culture have always been troubling. The reason is that rap reflects some of the most serious dilemmas facing these young African Americans–such as the staggering incarceration of young black men (and, increasingly, women), the persistent lack of meaningful opportunity, and the casual veneration of violence, misogyny, and other forms of social pathology. Three of the most disturbing trends in the music are its fetish for crime and violence, obsession with materialism, and degrading treatment of women. Gangsta rap, a catchall phrase to describe music in thrall to these trends, also expresses an obsessive devotion to materialism–some songs sound like a rhyming catalogue of high-end consumer goods; and disturbingly often gangsta rap lyrics paint the ideal male lifestyle as one of pimping, and malign women as whores who will do anything for money. On the one hand, gangsta rap can be defended. Many gangsta rappers are simply expressing the circumstances in which they have been raised: It is useful to recall that Amiri Baraka characterized the bebop style of jazz as "willfully harsh and anti-assimilationist" music that was born out of black frustration with white America. Gangsta rap can be described similarly. Furthermore, rappers, and their music-industry promoters, are not only reflecting the values of the inner city; they are in tune with mainstream trends. Sex sells everywhere in America today, and the unprecedented economic booms of the 1980s and 1990s fueled an extraordinary preoccupation with gaudiness throughout society. Moreover, outlaws, both fictional and real, have long fascinated America. The criminal braggadocio that infuses gangsta rap helps to sell millions of these albums in the suburbs; not surprisingly, the bitterness, raw anger, and rejection of middle-class values in this genre of music make it even more appealing to rebellious and disaffected white youth.
However, these rationalizations for the increasing popularity of controversial hip-hop music can be countered with justifiable concerns about the coarsening of American culture and the searing images and sounds of depravity to which impressionable young people are exposed. That’s one reason hip hop is also a fault line that divides African Americans of different ages; it is keenly disparaged by many blacks over 35. How best to address such concerns is difficult to answer for a society that prizes First Amendment ideals of free speech and freedom of expression, and celebrates the free market. Yet, reflective of a deep-rooted tradition in black music, an extraordinary dimension of rap music and hip-hop culture is that the most insightful and effective commentary can be found within the genre itself.
After years of wandering in the gangsta wilderness, there are signs that hip hop is addressing more pressing topics than diamonds and guns. Today, some of the best critique of the gangsta rap mentality of American social problems comes from more "conscious" hip-hop artists who emphasize that these social dilemmas are obstacles to be overcome, and that the African-American tradition is rich with examples of high achievement. Some of these artists, such as Mos Def, have also noted that the gangsta image is "minstrelsy because that's what white people want to believe about us–that it's about 'money, cash, hos' for all of us." Others condemn anti-intellectualism and warn that the gangsta lifestyle is likely to lead to self-destruction, or advise that the pursuit of spiritual enrichment is more rewarding than material gain. And by avoiding the temptation to get paid by using their talents to celebrate urban nihilism, these musicians are providing an example of personal integrity and social responsibility for their generation. They demonstrate that it's possible to have a hit single that is positive without sounding preachy, profound and not profane. Together with the current resurgence of a more soulful, more conscious form of rhythm ‘n’ blues, hip hop's earnest backlash against gangsta rap is a good indication that some part of the under-35 generation is more community-oriented than its critics may realize. There will always be a market for gangsta rap, because what it expresses is as American as cherry pie. But the black musical tradition continues to reverberate with the moral resiliency and artistic creativity of the African-American spirit.

RETURN