Effects Of Rap Music


Effects Of Rap Music Essay, Research Paper

Roughly fifteen years ago, the initial rumblings of rap music were eminating from the streets of New York City. Rap music is very much a product of its urbanized, literacy-based environment, as can be seen in the advanced technology necessary to produce the music. Although the connection between rap music and its modern roots is impossible to ignore, rap’s dependence upon high technology is often over-emphasized, eclipsing any opportunity to connect rap culture to a time before the world of turntables and written lyrics. Hip-hop music maintains distinct oral influences, carrying traces of an oral tradition preceding the advanced, literacy-based era from which the music emerged. The world of literate technology that gave birth to rap music represents a threat to the maintenance of these traces, making them increasingly difficult to discern.

The use of rhythm and repetition are highly characteristic of the semiotic, sound-based exchanges within a purely oral culture. Tricia Rose writes of the importance of rhythm in modern black tradition:

Rap’s primary force is sonic, and the distinctive,

systematic use of rhythm and sound, especially the

use of repetition and musical breaks, are part of a

rich history of New World black traditions and

practices. (Rose 64)

Rap’s distinct sound has been repeatedly likened to tribal African music, linking rap’s use of heavy percussion, bass, repeated loops, and short, staccato vocals to the instruments and chanting used in the pre-literate tribes. But this common comparison almost always refers strictly to musical composition, not the presence of orality. Rap artists, when producing lyrics to be recorded and mass-produced, almost always work from a prepared text. This reliance on text has often been grounds for the quick dismissal of possible connections between modern rap and ancient orality. However, by examining studies of purely oral tradition, interesting similarities between the two ages come to the surface, illuminating elements of pre-literate tradition in the modern genre of hip-hop.

Tricia Rose, author of Black Noise, discusses the various constituents that go into the creation of the rap sound in her work. She examines the cultural implications and potential of rap music within American society, illustrating the ways in which the art form represents its creators as a voice for their marginalized position within society. Rose discusses rap’s legitimacy as a musical form, the significance of rap’s starting in urban centers, and the ways in which the music utilizes technology and industry. By addressing the larger scope of issues associated with rap music, Rose tends to sidestep a deeper analysis into rap’s cultural influences, taking the art form at face value in order to apply her analysis of the various causal relationships between rap and its environment.

Rose uses lingustic theorist Walter Ong’s term “postliterate” to describe the arena in which rap music was created. “Postliterate orality describes the way oral traditions are revised and presented in a technologically sophisticated context.” (Rose 86) Rose places considerable emphasis on rap music as an emblem of the age of mechanical reproduction. She goes into great detail regarding the commodification of rap, the advent of sampling technology, and the consciousness of authorship in modern rap acts. Rose views any intimation of rap’s having roots in African American oral tradition as an undermining of rap music as a form of cultural expression. To link modern rap back to traditions such as jump- rope songs or the dozens is to take the art form out of its cultural context; her analysis cements rap music into its cultural milieu, excluding any exploration into historical, transcultural connections between rap and past oral traditions .

If we avoid looking at rap culture as a means to an end, or as an outgrowth of cultural and political circumstance, we can focus on the music itself, and make such connective jumps more easily. Hip-hop’s link to technology is overly apparent, but its essentialized link to literate communication and thought may not be as significant as some would believe: “Rap lyrics are oral performances that display written (literate) forms of thought and communication.” (Rose 88) Rose’s assertion is true, for the most part; but to what extent rap music depends upon literacy for the creation of its sound and culture is debatable. The fact that rap artists write lyrics and subsequently orally perform the texts is not sufficient grounds to sever the link between rap and non-textual orality completely. Rose deems rap “a far cry” (Rose 88) from oral epic poetry; by breaking down dismissive assertions such as this one, we can expose an element of hip-hop culture that possibly transcends literate technology and the age of mechanical reproduction.

In her book, Rose overlooks the “cipher” culture within the larger rap m usic community. The term cipher essentially means a group of people freestyling rap lyrics one after another, in a kind of competition–freestyling rap lyrics involves stringing verses together improvisationally. The rappers try to maintain the lyrical flow by rhyming the consecutive verses as best they can, striving for the tightest “off the top of the head” rhyme. Freestyle sessions on urban street corners were essential to the beginnings of rap music, and the freestyle element plays a major role in today’s hip-hop culture, as verified by Virginia rapper Mad Skillz’ 1996 lyrics:

Fuck the bullshit–in the cipher shit is true

The rhymes get spit and the 40’s get tapped

Some niggas don’t have jack–some niggas

Got contracts

Representation keepin brothas tighter

Peace to MC’s who did time in the cipher

Rap music freestyle provides an interesting point of reference to orality, in that its production involves techniques similar to those used by epic poets from pre-textual oral cultures.

In Walter J. Ong’s book Orality and Literacy, Ong details a study done b y linguistic scholar Milman Parry, and later extended by Lord, of the memorization and recitation of Homeric epics before the poems were committed to text. The question these studies attempted to answer was ‘how could these long epics be memorzied without a text?’. Ong explains one of the answers found in the study: “With [the epic poet's] hexameterized vocabulary, he could fabricate correct met rical lines without end, so long as he was dealing with traditional materials.” (Ong 58) Epic oral poets had massive stores of ready-made, metered lines, and e qually massive banks of cliches and adjectives used to extoll the virtues of the ir epic heroes. Since rap freestyles are improvisations, memorization and meter -fitting have little or no impact on the composition of the lyrics. What concer ns freestyle artists most is rhyming the last syllables of the verses. To maintain lyrica l rhythm and rhymed verse, rap artists have an infinite store of urban slang and cliches that can be used to fit their rhyme schemes. Use of this array of voca bulary applies to freestyle and written verse. while tryi ng not to break from their largely self-established rhythms Resembling the methods of oral p oets, rap music culture has established a vocabulary of slang and cultural refer ence that is specific to the rap community, and is utilized freely by those with in it for artistic expression, as well as everyday communication. Rapper Punisher, in a freestyle done at a fast pace, exhibits the use of this type of extended communal language:

I’ll make it last with the dough I got

If not I’ll blow your spot

If not–Joey Crack please load the glock

Let these niggas learn the hard way

The word to God way

The motherfuckin murder mob way

In addition to this extensive, community-specific vocabulary, rap acts such as Biz Markie and Das EFX bend words and shatter established syllabics in order to f it their lyrical objectives. By using the extended language provided by rap culture, striving to fit lyrical or rhyming needs becomes a less formidable roadblo ck in the composition of written or freestyle rap lyrics.

Boasting or “flyting” by epic heroes is characteristic of oral epic poet ry from many oral cultures. This reciprocated verbal bragging is usually manifested in a competition between the hero and his adversary, battling to see who ca n boast the most effectively. These poetic exchanges serve the purpose of enfor cing the hero’s olympian stature, and of illustrating his skill in confrontation through the verbal battles. Walter Ong likens flyting to the Caribbean/African American verbal game called the “dozens”–an exchange in which two men ping-pon g insults of each other’s mother back and forth.

The thematic evolution of rap lyrics has led to rap artists often boasting of their own prowess in their rhymes. Kool G Rap paints a glamorous self-por trait in his first solo album:

And once again it’s big G

Runnin the number rackets

Wearin Pelle jackets

Fast loot tactics

I’m well up in the millionaire bracket . . .

Jacuzis and saunas

And eatin steak at Benihana’s

Bentley’s limousine

A front yard stream

That’s full of pirahnas

Rappers extoll their capabilites while laying their competitors to rest–boasting about anything and everything, including lyrical skills, material wealth, what weapons they claim to carry, their sexual activity, their ability to sell drugs or commit crime without going to prison, and the list goes on. With rap themes so often alluding to survival and individual prominence in urban life, rappers have, in a sense, become their own epic heroes. This theme applies so widely that the prolific rap artist often comes through as a prolific man in his lyrics. In Black Noise, when Rose refers to specific rap lyrics, it is done most often to stress the importance of textuality, authorship, and technology in the music. “Rap lyrics are a critical part of a rapper’s identity, strongly suggesting the importance of authorship and individuality in rap music.” (Rose 95) Rose illustrates her point by using a dated L. L. Cool J song as her reference. In the lyrical excerpt the rapper’s identity is repeated several times, with boas ting strung throughout the rhyme. The lyrics complement what Rose has to say about authorship and individuality in rap songs; but in today’s hip-hop world, such extreme egocentricity and identity propulsion in lyrics has become increasingly looked down upon and disregarded. Artists have a stronger sense of working wi thin a community today, I believe, than they did three or four years ago. Indeed, rap artists often work to establish an identity through their lyrics, but te xtual authorship may not be as significant a motivation for this tendency as Ros e assumes.

A characteristic of oral cultures and oral memory noted by Ong is the te ndency of these cultures to slough off obsolete or dated components of tradition , in order to “make room” for changing trends and information. As hip-hop cultu re moved from the 80’s into the 90’s, certain elements of the culture were pushe d aside and forgotten, while others were remembered and maintained. In rap’s pa st ten years we’ve seen Afrocentrism come and go, gangster rap reach its apex, R un D. M. C.’s Adidas make way for Smif n Wessun’s Timberlands, and KRS One’s 198 5 “9mm” updated by the Beatnuts 1993 “Reign of the Tec.” But little from the pa st ever completely eludes the memory of rap culture. Rap has a strong sense of tradition for an art form created less than twenty years ago. Rose alludes to t he ability of sampling technology to assist in maintaining the past in rap music ’s present. Rap acts of today sample lyrics by Rakim that were released ten yea rs ago; although Rakim hasn’t made an album in four years, hearing his sampled v oice today is not seen as a “revival” of a hip-hop image, but is taken for grant ed as a continual interspersion of past and present.

When rap artists perform for audiences, the link between the oral perfor mance and a memorized text becomes blurred. The DJ’s will have the instrumental s from the mass-produced albums, but rappers rarely recite lyrics from the recor ded songs verbatim. A rap artist might recite the hook, if the song has one, an d stick to a considerable portion of the “original” lyrics; but (like oral poets ) he will spontaneously toy with the lyrics–how much and in what ways depends l argely upon the performer’s mood and the audience on a given night. At a Tribe Called Quest show in 1994, rapper Phife was performing a popular track, but at a break in the track he substituted the album lyrics with something like “I’ll bu rn the house down like TLC.” This lyrical alteration was a reference to a then- recent incident in which a member of female pop band TLC set fire to the mansion of her ex-romantic interest and N.F.L. star Andre Rison. The reference was imm ediately recognized, and the audience responded accordingly. However, with rap acts often falling into the web of chart-minded labels and management, rappers a re less able to stray from their recorded product. When a rap act sees one of i ts records sky across the pop charts, their awareness of audience familiarity an d expectation reaches new heights as well. When the “text” of a song becomes im printed on the minds of millions of people, rap acts become reluctant to break t hat chain of familiarity and identification. Mass-production technology often m utates rap’s oral expression into the readable, marketable form of a standardize d text.

The notions of identity and authorship in rap are largely attributable t o the wide-scale image marketing that characterizes the modern music industry. Hip-hop music has become extremely marketable in the 90’s, making it more and mo re difficult to strip rap culture away from the technological, capitalist realm that has produced and engulfed it. The tricky and deleterious world of “A and R ’s” and units-sold is the only arena in which rap artists can make themselves he ard and make a living solely through their music. The over-emphasis of an essen tial reliance on text results from the inescapable linking of the art form to th e album production and sales necessitated by the world of capitalist reproductio n. Rap’s dependence upon the world of high technology and commerce makes it nea rly impossible for a clean break between the art and the age that propagated the art. Locating rap music as an art form independent of its era is like searchin g for smooth, brown rocks on a beach, trying to sift out the few stones from a b ucket-full of beer-bottle glass.

Rap music presents an intriguing link to past oral culture and its vario us themes, techniques, and thought processes, despite the art form’s being firml y rooted in the post-literate world. Hip-hop is flourishing in today’s music wo rld, with new rap acts seemingly emerging daily in the rapidly growing industry. The various acts and personalities that make up today’s hip-hop world may have their own identities and personae, but the lyrical themes recur. They may just be “stitched toghether or ‘rhapsodized’ differently,” as Ong writes of oral poe tic forms. (Ong 59) Unlike almost any other modern musical form, rap has a stro ng sense of community and of tradition. As countless people have said, hip-hop is a way of life, and the significance of names and faces and album covers falls to the background when observing the music within its tightly-woven community.

When listening to a freestyle, or a New York DJ’s mix tape, it becomes e vident that hip-hop is not about one artist sitting at a desk composing lyrics, or a couple of producers sitting in studio chairs putting a loop together. Rap is about the resonation of an overall sound–a sound that conveys the texture of the black, urban life that creates it. Hip-hop thrives in its tradition and cu lture through its sonic expression, and the creation of the sound is not necessa rily dependent upon the postliterate concept of the “word.” Rap has existed and will always exist in a postliterate world, but making connections outside of ra p’s technological realm allows us to reveal the music as more than just a by-pro duct of the environment from whence it came.

click here to see Tia Simoni’s paper on writing in dialect

click here to see an unofficial w eb page about rap group A Tribe Called Quest

click here to see lyrics by KRS-One and other rap artists

c lick here to read a review of Tricia Rose’s book Black Noise


1) Rose, Tricia. Black Noise; Wesleyan University Press; Hanover, NH; 1994 .

2) Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy; Methuen; New York; 1982.

The aim, however, is to examine how rap music sets itself up as a form of musical poetry that raps against the grain of a hegemonic national discourse. Through both its lyrical and musical foregrounding of ‘blackness’ and its aesthetic heterogeneity, rap confronts the unquestioned logic of a master narrative.

Rap is the latest installment in a process of seeking exorcism, liberation, and explanation through a musical language. It is part of a lengthy continuum within the African-American cultural tradition, with rappers as the latest step in a long descending line that extends from African griots to Chicago blues singers, Jamaican toasters and brassy bandleaders. In short, rap is one more example of what Paul Gilroy calls a ‘dissonant soundtrack of racial dissidence.’ Operating out of a ‘marginal’ or ‘minority’ space in contemporary US culture, rap music combines the rhyming of the spoken word with the ‘boom-bap’ of the Hip Hop beat to deliver an alternative narrative of ethnic ancestry. And in an age that has borne witness to the crumbling of institutions such as the archetypal middle-class nuclear family and the public school system, rap has emerged as a primary force of socialization. As Cornel West has noted, Sunday school has given way to Salt-N- Pepa (and, I would add, so has Hebrew school).

Combining what is written with what is performed, rap music challenges official histories and aims to gather both historical and current information as part of a larger process of ‘disseminating’ a new history of African-American peoples. In giving voice to those otherwise rendered silent, rap hopes to ‘fight the power’ with words and music that voice issues, experiences, and views that are silenced in mainstream mediums of expression, making it a vital participant in a Foucauldian ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges.’ Rap uses its status as subjugated knowledge to put itself on the frontline of combating US cultural amnesia and create a sound that, through its embrace and mastery of sonic technologies, moves swiftly and loudly into the future.

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