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From Kool Herc to 50 Cent, the story of rap -- so far

Bustin' rhymes / First in a three part series

Sunday, February 15, 2004

By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"When we started, they said none of this would last six months."

-- Grandmaster Flash, 2003

Spend a few minutes watching MTV or listening to Top 40 radio, and what you find, over here, is some whiny, faceless rock group that still sounds like 1992 and, over there, a party going on with bad-boy MCs, hot models, shiny rims and more hooks than the school gym lockers.

It's no wonder the kids wanna party with Ludacris. It's no wonder rap is starting to dominate the music culture.

And they said it wouldn't last. They said rap music would go the way of disco in short time.

Like with rock, they were wrong.

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette illustration

Click photo for larger image.

Bustin' rhymes series

Today: From Kool Herc to 50 Cent, the story of rap -- so far

Part Two: What up, gangsta? The hardcore rap of the '90s

Part Three: Diversity training: The gangsta alternatives

We're 25 years past rap's first hit single, and the party is only raging harder. Last year, the biggest sensation and No. 1-selling artist was hardcore gangsta 50 Cent, leading a rap scene that accounted for half of the top 20 Billboard Hot 100 artists. This year, rap's reach extended well into the top categories at the Grammys, where it ran away with Album of the Year (OutKast). And remember when Top 40 stations used to boast that they didn't play rap? Well, they're not saying that now. In fact, they've co-opted it from the "urban" stations who used to just slip it in with the R&B.

And while we're not stopping the presses with this one, it's worth noting that hip-hop culture is not just what's booming out of iPods and car stereos. It's the Reebok G6 sneaker from 50 Cent, it's the "crunk" energy drink from Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz, it's Jay-Z's Roca Wear and Nelly's Vokal line. It's Ice Cube and Eminem on the big screen and terms like "bling-bling" in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Rap's long road to mainstream respectability has been a vibrant and turbulent one that has changed not only black culture but world culture. Rap music has spoken for community and given back to the community. It's offered style and fun and hope and protest and countless good things. It's also kept the police, the FBI, the moral watchdogs, the president and even the Rev. Al Sharpton awake at night.

The rap culture then and now has nurtured its share of well-meaning artists, "freeing," as rap legend KRS-One once said, "the minds of inner-city people."

But what is troubling to some is that for every Talib Kweli, there are 10 like Ludacris (not that the dude isn't a riot). In 2004, the party gangstas and thugs rule the school, drawing the wrath of both veteran artists and social activists concerned about their effect on young people.

Bakari Kitwana, a lifelong hip-hop fan and author of "Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture," says that what was once a subculture in hip-hop has worked its way to center stage.

"At some point, what's being said is debilitating and dehumanizing. I don't ever accept that the n-word has been divorced from its historical roots, no matter how many times people use it. People who believe [it's OK] are deceiving themselves. They want to say that 'pimping' is a style of clothes. I don't believe that. When I hear young kids on the playground refer to young girls as bitches and know that they got it from listening to this music, that's inexcusable to me."

Rich Schultz, Associated Press
Mike Diamond and the Beastie Boys take their time between recordings. Their next CD is rumored to be coming our way in May.
Click photo for larger image.

Two years ago, Sharpton wrote that when he asked rappers why they used so much profanity and misogyny in their lyrics, they said they were like "a mirror to society." The reverend responded, "Well, I don't know about you, but I use a mirror to correct what's wrong with me."

Last year, Chuck D, of Public Enemy, denounced the gangsta scene in a speech to students at UCLA, saying, "At the end of the 'hood is jail and death. And we're gonna put it to the music? That's vile."

Nelson George, veteran journalist and author of "Hip Hop America" and "Post-Soul Nation," thinks we've already settled that argument. Asked if he was concerned about content, he said, "Why would I be? It's too late to be. I was troubled by the content of N.W.A. and Snoop back in 1993. It's a little late for me to be worried about it now. These guys aren't saying anything new. That's the problem, that they're not saying anything new. Lyrically, 50 Cent's album could have been made in '93. There's nothing really new about the guy."

George believes that while the business of rap is growing, artistically, it's hit a plateau, at least in America. "It's all become dance music. Nothing wrong with that. It just means that a lot of the artists who are having the biggest hit records have the least amount to say. MC skills are less and less important. I think that's a huge difference. It was a goal to be a great MC then. Now, being a great MC is OK, but having hit records is more important."

And the turnover for hitmakers in rap is ruthless -- ask anyone from Chuck D to MC Hammer to Ja Rule. There are no Springsteens, Stones or U2s in the rap game. There's no vehicle for the elders to guide the way. Those who continue to create are relegated back to the underground (Public Enemy, KRS-One) or, like, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah and LL Cool J find a second life on the screen.


The pioneers: Where are they now?


Even current chart-toppers are watching their backs. Jay-Z and DMX shocked fans late last year by announcing they would retire after less than seven- or eight-year reigns, declaring they would rather go out on top.

Why is the career span of the rapper so fleeting? Is the hunger for the next big thing even stronger than in rock? Is it a lack of loyalty in a culture where touring is less common and singles reign over albums? Is it the lack of radio stations cranking out classic rap?

Or, is it just that rap, as Chuck D said, is the "CNN of black culture," making yesterday's rap song yesterday's news.

"Hip-hop is a very 'now' art form," Kitwana says. "There was just an interview with Ice Cube in The New York Times where they were asking about the N.W.A. period, and he didn't apologize for anything. He said it was a time capsule of where he was. It's a brilliant way of phrasing it. Hip-hop is a series of time capsules. Most times artists are products of their time, and they can't escape it."

"In rap," says Sway Calloway of MTV News and the long-running syndicated radio program "The Wake Up Show," "the turnover is so fast, you have to still appeal to the younger part of the demographic to sustain some longevity. Once you lose it -- be it that you made a few albums, you have nothing else to talk about, your social, economic status changes so you don't have the same hunger, the same passion -- you kind of fade away."

Mark Lennihan, Associated Press
Run-DMC attends the MTV Video Music Awaards in 2002.
Click photo for larger image.

For nearly three decades, the world has watched a parade of artists black, white, violent, peaceful, sexy, funny, dope, whack, political, criminal, beautiful, beastly, too phat, too short, good-cred, no-cred, villainous and revolutionary. The history shows that there's always a fresh face to take your place, which might be one of the reasons that it hasn't gotten stale for new generations.

It's a tough way to go but, as Will Smith once said, "It's all good."

The old school
According to SoundScan, 70 percent of the paying (and downloading) audience of hip-hop is white kids from the suburbs. That's a long way from the South Bronx, circa 1973.

Although it may have seemed like it, rap didn't come out of nowhere. Its seeds could be heard in African griots, Chicago blues, bebop scat, Jamaican toasts, the beat poetry of Gil Scott-Heron and even the verses of Muhammad Ali, but the credit for hip-hop -- the culture that encompasses rap, graffiti art, DJing and break dancing -- usually goes to Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc.

Around '73, a time when black Americans had made civil rights gains but were still suffering from high crime and unemployment rates, the Jamaican-born DJ threw block parties in rec centers and basketball courts, where he would experiment with what he called "breakbeats" on classic funk records.

"Kool Herc started playing music at Cedar Park in the Bronx," says legendary rapper KRS-One. "It was a community thing. Like, 'I'm doing this for the love of doing it. I'm doing this because I have to do it.' "

Grandmaster Flash, with his sequined suits and wizardry with electronics, joined the party to perfect the art of turntable scratching and introduce the MC or rapper, who would battle one another to create the best rhyme and eventually steal the spotlight from the DJs.

Afrika Bambaataa, a DJ and gang leader who had grown tired of the violence, traded in the Black Spades for Zulu Nation, a youth organization that started nurturing young MCs. He combined his positive Afrocentric hip-hop with far-out techno beats, eventually on the hit "Planet Rock."

Public Enemy's Flavor Flav and Chuck D have been busy touring and recording.
Click photo for larger image.

Although rappers and DJs were rhyming, battling and cutting tapes for years, an overnight sensation from New Jersey, the Sugarhill Gang, beat them to the punch. In the dying days of disco, a former R&B singer named Sylvia Robinson assembled the Sugarhill Gang, who borrowed the beat from Chic's "Good Times" and rapped out the playful "Rapper's Delight" in October 1979. When it went to No. 4 on the R&B charts, rap was suddenly out of the hood.

"When 'Rapper's Delight' sold 2 million records in 1979," said KRS-One, "all the attention was placed on rap music as a selling tool, not on hip-hop as a consciousness-raising tool, as a maturing of the community. When hip-hop culture got discarded for the money to be made into rap product, we went wrong right there."

Kurtis Blow, a former break dancer and block-party veteran, followed the Sugarhill Gang to the charts a few months later with "Christmas Rappin'" and topped it with the smash rap-rock crossover "The Breaks" in 1980, giving him the early line on King of Rap. Kool Moe Dee, another pioneer from the old school, mastered the MC boast with his crew, the Treacherous Three.

Although fans of The Clash did not react well to Grandmaster Flash as tour openers, rockers couldn't ignore rap for long after Talking Heads spin-off the Tom Tom Club ("Genius of Love"), Blondie ("Rapture") and The Clash ("The Magnificent Seven") all cut irresistibly catchy rap-infected singles in late 1980/early 1981.

Aptly, it was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, under the Sugarhill wing, who created the blueprint for rap as a medium capable of addressing social issues. In 1982, Flash and lead MC Melle Mel delivered "The Message," with a chorus that became the hip-hop mantra: "It's like a jungle sometimes/it makes me wonder/how I keep from going under."

"That was the point at which hip-hop demonstrated that it could be used as a means of social and political critique," says Todd Boyd, an associate professor at the University of Southern California and author of "The New H.N.I.C: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop." "Early '80s, Reagan era, you have a point about living in the inner-city at that time and the conditions for poor and working class people. It indicated that hip-hop could be more than boasting and bragging and rhyming to be funny, which is all cool and part of hip-hop, but 'The Message' indicated hip-hop could be serious as well. Grandmaster Flash took the game to the next level."

Into the Golden Age
The Furious Five set the stage for a hardcore rap outfit that would drive the music further into the heart of America. In 1983, Run-DMC, a trio from Queens, started dropping singles, beginning with "It's Like That" and "Sucker MCs (Krush-Groove 1)," that would take rap to the house.

Though middle-class, Run-DMC looked street in their black hats and thick chains and hit it like rockers with harder beats, metallic guitar samples and overlapping deliveries. Under the banner of Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin's Def Jam, they brought the whole package: They were the first rappers embraced by MTV, the pioneers of the rap "album." Even their shoes -- Adidas, of course -- were for sale. Their media was multi -- from their appearance in the cult classic and Def Jam bio "Krush Groove" to their explosive pairing with Aerosmith for a "Walk This Way" remix in 1986.

"In New York," George says, "people saw hip-hop as a Harlem-Bronx thing. Queens, at that point in time, was like coming from Kansas. These guys from the suburbs, like Run, LL Cool J, Public Enemy, they extended the style and the lyrical content of the music. Maybe because they had more distance from the chaos of the inner city, they brought an artistic sophistication to the music that wasn't there before."

Run-DMC fever was so high, it became dangerous. The group's 1986 Raisin' Hell tour was marred by melees that would lead to some cities -- including Pittsburgh -- to seek a ban on rap shows, a stigma that would go on for years.

Raising hell right along with Run-DMC were the Beastie Boys, three middle-class Jewish punk rockers who fought for the right to party -- and won. In '86, "Licensed to Ill," to the dismay of black rappers, became the first rap album to hit No. 1. The Beasties, also helmed by Rick Rubin, took some heat for their rap-rock dabbling, but no one denied them their cleverness and creativity, which haven't run out yet.

Hot on the heels of Run-DMC came two other hard-hitters that defined the so-called "Golden Age of Hip-Hop": Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions, both arriving in 1987.

Nothing -- before, after or probably ever -- sounded like Public Enemy. Bringing the noise, the chaos and the militant style and agenda, Public Enemy stormed the scene as the "the prophets of rage," the most political and important group in the history of hip-hop. Mind you, at the time, rock's biggest hit-makers were Bon Jovi, Huey Lewis and Starship. Led by the commanding Chuck D and comic foil Flavor Flav, Public Enemy considered rap "the CNN of black culture" and dropped bombshells on the status quo like "Bring the Noise," "Don't Believe the Hype" and "Fight the Power."

"Public Enemy, that was the voice of the culture, the voice of the streets," Calloway says. "And it was educated. It had direction. It wasn't a sellout. It was passionate, it was from the heart, it was angry, it was edgy and innovative. Chuck D to this day is my hero. People say, 'Who is your hero?' Hey man, Martin Luther King is definitely a hero, but Chuck D directly affected me."

Public Enemy's message didn't sit well with everyone. Chuck D caused controversy when he called Louis Farrakhan a "prophet," and Professor Griff was briefly dismissed from PE for associating Jews with "wickedness." Despite that, PE's commercial heyday lasted through "Fear of a Black Planet" and "Apocalypse 91."

BDP was KRS-One (Kris Parker) and beatmaster Scott LaRock, who incorporated Jamaican elements and attacked with a style that left you wondering if they were educators or gangstas on "Criminal Minded."

"I would say it was 50-50," KRS says. "Yeah, it was 50 percent glamorizing of thug life. And the other 50 percent was to bring light to thug life with some possible solutions. The reason I'm called contradictory and even arrogant is I walk this thin line between 'Criminal Minded' and 'Stop the Violence.' "

LaRock took a bullet in '87; KRS-One used that grief to become "The Teacher" and is still making consciousness-raising hip-hop.

Not all of the New York rappers were hell-bent on revolution. LL Cool J, another Def Jam star, made a career out of walking the line between tough and tender, street and sell-out. A former b-boy who started writing when he was 9, LL delivered the first rap ballad with "I Need Love," and when it seemed as if he was down, he met the challenge of the West Coast gangstas with "Mama Said Knock You Out" in 1990. The tally so far on LL Cool J is a half-dozen platinum albums, a sitcom and a Hollywood career that's even survived "Rollerball." He also helped set the stage for future battles between Biggie & Tupac, Nas & Jay-Z and 50 Cent & Ja Rule by sparring with Kool Moe Dee, who accused him of ripping off his style.

While LL was romantic, the roots of a sleazier booty rap could be found in 2 Live Crew, a Florida outfit so controversial, it spent as much time in court as on stage. In 1987 a record store clerk in Florida was charged with (and later acquitted of) a felony for selling a copy of "The 2 Live Crew Is What We Are" after it was ruled by court to be obscene. The group's follow-up, "Move Somethin,' " was the first rap album issued in a "clean" version.

The East Coast in the Golden Age isn't complete without mention of Eric B and Rakim, known for their eloquent flow and James Brown samples they were actually sued for; Big Daddy Kane, for his aggressive lover's rap; Doug E. Fresh, for being the first human beatbox; The Fat Boys, for 750 pounds of comic novelty; De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, for introducing an alternative style of bohemian jazz-rap; and Salt-N-Pepa, for being the first big female crew to break through the boys club.

"The thing that made that era so great is that nothing was contrived," Calloway says of the Golden Age. "Everything was still being discovered and everything was still innovative and new. That era followed the original code, the unspoken code, the groundwork laid in hip-hop culture that everyone followed and knew about. It wasn't like a constitution or something you could look up in the library. It was something you discovered, which was to not be a "biter," no matter what you do. If you were a DJ, a b-boy, having integrity, making music that counted, with an agenda, that's what was important.

"The financial? It wasn't about that. With that atmosphere, the music that came out was fresh and new."

Tomorrow: Gangsta rap of the '90s.

Scott Mervis can be reached at or 412-263-2576.

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