Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture, showing ways in which the past and present interact by offering specially commissioned featured essays, photographic essays, and a selected list of articles that will further guide the reader. This month Raymond Codrington’s essay explores the people and musical styles that influenced the development of hip hop.
In the mid to late 1970s the cultural shockwave that would be known as hip hop emerged from the economic paralysis of New York City, especially the neglected black and Latino neighborhoods in the Bronx. However, while hip hop music was born in the Bronx, it both is part of and speaks to a long line of black American and African diasporic cultural traditions. Much of what is written about hip hop traces this culture through a series of stages, from a music- and dance-focused phenomenon created for and by people “on the block” to a dominant global youth culture. Many observers also make a connection between rap and West African griot tradition, the art of wandering storytellers known for their knowledge of local settings and superior vocal skills. Additionally, rhymed verses are an important part of African American culture in both the public and private realms.
Hip hop and rap have many important influences—R&B, funk, soul, jazz, rock and roll performers; poets, and writers like Iceberg Slim; and stylistic forebears like Muhammad Ali and Richard Pryor. Few of these can match the importance of the spoken-word artist, improvisational street-poet, and R&B performer Gil Scott-Heron. Born on 1 April 1949 in Chicago, Illinois, Scott-Heron grew up in Tennessee and the Bronx, New York, where he undertook a life of writing at an early age. His first novel, The Vulture (1970), was a respectable effort and well-reviewed, but Scott-Heron’s true fame would rest in his poetry and in his recordings. A radical reformer who wished to influence social change through words and ideas, Scott-Heron’s spoken-word recordings were themselves formed out of firsthand experience with prejudice during his time in Tennessee as well as his alarm at the increasing violence and hopelessness growing in America’s inner-cities. Tracks like the groundbreaking “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” (1974) as well as frequent attacks on the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan (“B Movie” and “Re-Ron” among others) would serve to make Scott-Heron an important figure among socially minded and politically inclined rap artists like KRS One and Public Enemy.
A profound influence on rap music comes from what many might consider an unlikely source: the black church. Black preachers and clergy combined testimonials and parables in a way that engaged the audience and brought their sermons to life. A main tool of black clergymen and women (one which virtually all music historians and critics draw attention to in black music) is the “call and response,” in which the preacher calls out a sentence or phrase to which the congregation responds, creating a connection between speaker and audience. Call and response challenges the line between speaker and audience by encouraging a discursive form of public address, an open dialogue between preacher and congregation that makes the church service a spiritual and interactive experience for everyone alike.
Another early and continuing influence on hip hop culture is the competitive oral competition called “playing the dozens,” which combines humorous insults and oral skills in a battle to shock and ultimately silence one’s opponent. A famous practitioner of this oratorical contest was Muhammad Ali, who used short rhymes to belittle his opponents and stupefy pundits. Often used to predict a victory in the ring, whether the odds were for or against him, Ali’s verbal skills became a metaphor for his fighting prowess—his mouth becoming an extension of his fist. In hip hop the “dozens” grew into the tradition known as “battling,” in which rappers face off against each other to see who has the best lyrics and stylistic flow. Battling, like the dozens and other oral traditions, relies on the art of exaggeration to bolster the status of the rapper.
Comedians such as Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, and Flip Wilson influenced the development of hip hop by using their gifts of oration to bring the style, rhythms, and stories of the streets into their comedic narratives. Like people playing the dozens, these comedians used humor to shock and provoke, at the same time imbuing their narratives with a knowing social commentary that reflected the black experience. As entertainers they told stories that the everyday person could understand but punctuated it with a style that was unique to black America. Early rap musicians used these and other oratorical techniques to impart knowledge and entertain through rhymed verses that form narratives. This interweaving of vocal skills and storytelling traditions affected how rap was produced and what was said in the lyrics, giving rise to a new expressive culture that reflected the social conditions of the day.
For its musical grooves, early hip hop incorporated elements of the party-based sound-system subculture popular at the time in Jamaica and brought to the Bronx by DJ Kool Herc from Kingston. Kool Herc transported the large mobile sound units used in Jamaica to parties in the Bronx. Herc also brought a form of the verbal art of “toasting” to his parties. Jamaican DJs excited crowds by making up short raps to the beat of music, adding “vibes” to the party. The toasts often referred to people in the crowd or to events at the party itself. Ironically this style of toasting was derived from the “rapping” of black American radio DJs from the 1940s through the 1960s, men who influenced the toasting style of the Jamaican dancehall producer Coxson Dodd. Dodd took rapping to Jamaica and Herc brought toasting back to the United States, where it quickly became known as rap, the verbal side of hip hop music. Herc is also credited with popularizing the break-beat style of DJing. Instead of playing an entire record or song, Herc focused on the break, a section of the record where there was a drum or horn solo, for example. By playing this section repeatedly, thereby creating and stressing a new rhythm that could be sustained as long as he wanted, Herc greatly heightened the crowd’s (especially the dancers’) excitement. Other pioneering DJs used these methods and the latest stereo and sound system technology of the day to create some of the most influential songs in hip hop history. Afrika “Bam” Bambaataa fused the R&B music of James Brown, the funk of George Clinton, and even the sometimes synthetic and cold European electronic music of groups like Kraftwerk to create songs like “Planet Rock” and “Looking for the Perfect Beat,” and helped deepen the musical roots of hip hop as a result.
In the music that they played and created Bambaataa and early DJs like Grandmaster Flash were part of a long line of music and oratorical traditions that coalesced into hip hop. The richness of African American and diasporic cultures, the mix of vocal techniques and storytelling traditions from those cultures, and the fluidity and ease with which DJs moved among musical styles all combined to launch a new form of expression for young men and women in New York City in the 1970s, which became hip hop as we know it today. All these influences and events together bring to hip hop a diversity not often acknowledged by the music’s critics, but well understood by its admirers.
– Raymond Codrington
Photograph of Gil Scott-Heron by Giacomino Parkinson.