The history of rap is in no way linear. Inspiration for this distinct, rhythmic genre stems from countless sources and artists from all walks of life. Consequently, the variety of influences has created a genre rich with diversity.
Artists are helping rap get the recognition it deserves by topping charts and sweeping awards shows. Blondie’s 1980 song, Rapture, was historical; it was the first time a rap song ever topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. In 2002, Eminem won an Oscar for Best Original Song for Lose Yourself. In 2018, Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for his album DAMN. These are just some of the significant events in rap history. The evolution of rap is as complex and as rich as the genre itself. But how has the rap style evolved? Who are the most impactful people in the genre, who have paved the way for the biggest rappers of the 21st century?
Let’s start from the beginning. In the early 1970s, disco, rock, and soul music were the dominant genres. In 1973, DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock, two twenty-something Jamaican-Americans, were known to emcee parties accompany the music with rhythmic speeches. Originally their shout-outs were to crew members and acquaintances; however, the sets eventually evolved to more poetic raps. The “shout-out” style of rap can still be found in songs today, such as J Cole’s Note to Self. Kool Herc (born Clive Campbell) also played a crucial role in forming the music framework for rap tracks. Herc spun records in New York City and eventually developed a unique strategy for his sets. After realizing that the dancers preferred the percussive sections of funk and soul songs, Herc isolated these short sections, known as breaks, by alternating them between popular tracks. This method, known as the Merry Go Round, became the template for hip hop tracks. This musical framework is how DJ Kool Herc and Coke la Rock earned the title, “the Fathers of Hip Hop”. Thanks to their collaboration, these two New-Yorkers developed the blueprint for modern rap.
After the introduction of rap, a time known as the “proto-rap” era, came what is now referred to as old-school hip hop. This period is distinguished by its simple rhythms and smooth flow, musical elements that are still fundamental to modern music. Melle Mel (born Melvin Glover) was the artist who prompted this shift. In addition to giving rise to widely used cadence, he popularized themes of important political issues in his music. Essentially, Melle Mel ignited a rap movement that strayed from its funk roots. Mel’s music has since been widely sampled by rap giants such as The Notorious BIG and Snoop Dogg. For example, fifteen years after Mel released The Message with the group Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Puff Daddy produced Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down, recycling many of Mel’s lyrics as well as sampling his background music.
When it comes to rap, you’ve most likely heard the term “flow”. Basically, flow is the combination of pitch, rhyme, and rhythm that distinguishes each artist. Rakim (born William Michael Griffin Jr.) has been credited with revolutionizing flow. He modernized rapping by introducing more complex delivery in his songs and emphasizing clever wordplay. After Rakim’s influence graced the hip hop genre, the genre as a whole further developed its diversity and complexity. His intelligent lyrics and innovative cadence made him one of the defining rappers of the renowned “Golden Age” of hip hop, which spanned from 1985 to 1994.
In the 90s, women were more widely appreciated in the rap realm, marking a positive industry shift. MC Lyte was the first female rapper to release a solo album. Lauryn Hill also furthered the feminist movement in the rap industry. While Hill was part of the hip hop group the Fugees, she not only dominated the vocals but clearly outshined her bandmates in numerous songs. Given the prestige of her partners, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel, this was a monumental step for female rappers going forward. Hill later released a solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Not only was the album successful at the time, selling over eight million copies, but, to this day, it still inspires rappers. For instance, the music of Drake’s Nice for What consists mainly of Hill’s vocals from her hit, Ex-factor. Even though hip hop production is still undoubtedly a male-dominated industry, Hill made serious strides in getting up-and-coming female rappers the respect they deserve.
It is indisputable that artists of any medium can influence one another, but there other performers, world events, and technology can have an immense impact on a genre. For example, the comedian, Rudy Ray Moore, has been deemed one of the “Godfathers of Rap” due to the fact that many artists were inspired to include his crude and sexually explicit messages in their music. From new developments in the capabilities of recording studios to the fluctuating state of world politics, it is hard to compile an accurate list of everything that has influenced modern rap. What can be said for certain is that rap as a genre has been shaped by an unbelievably driven group of musicians. Rap’s history is not finalized: it will surely transform with every new artist that joins the movement.
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