CULTURE SPRO / Episode I
Culture Spro is a new blog format where we talk about art and the impact it has on culture. So make a cup of your favorite spro (espresso) or drip coffee and enjoy the read.
Rhythm and Poetry: Voice of the Silenced
Despite all the changes that we as humans have been sentenced to endure, there is one thing that seems to have remained constant and kept sacred throughout our history: stories. We love stories. They give us life and meaning. How else could we experience the world through the lens of someone we’ve never met? It's truly marvelous how stories allow us to meet strangers who could potentially help us reach a sense of closure to the ever-changing circumstances and people that form the bulk of our lives. So, I have taken it upon myself to briefly tell about an art form that is very good at telling stories. These stories have had an unforeseen contribution to modern pop culture in the U.S and beyond; are filled with suffering and loss as well as great triumph and achievement. Of course, the art I’m talking about is rap and hip-hop.
I’m sure by now you might be wondering what any of this has to do with coffee? The honest answer is absolutely nothing. However, we are Coffee For The Arts and we would be doing our name a disservice if we didn’t talk about the various art forms that inner-city kids get involved in to find a sense of peace and comfort in their lives. Maybe you, reader, will learn something new and gain some insightful perspective. What better way to start than with art started for and by inner-city kids? Welcome to Culture Spro, a new series where we talk about art and culture. Grab a cup of your favorite coffee and let's get into it!
Brief History of Rap: Inception to Now
Rap has its birthplace at the block parties and discos of the housing projects in 1970’s New York City. Funk, soul, jazz, and disco music were among the most popular genres being played during this time, especially in larger social gatherings. Eventually, DJs wanted to add some flare to songs that were constantly being played and began playing around with the music. It’s hard to trace exactly who started this trend, but perhaps the most notable pioneer of the genre is DJ Kool Herc. He would take samples of the most danceable parts of a song, a process called sampling, and create loops out of them where he would talk in rhyme while the loop was playing. Interestingly this style always kept crowds excited and paved the way for other DJs in the area to do the same. DJ Kool Herc’s and several others not mentioned here unintentionally birthed an entirely new culture on the streets of New York.
Throughout the 1970s, the only way you could listen to hip-hop was by going to a small block party in New York where DJs and early rappers were performing. It wasn’t until 1980 that hip-hop started spreading its influence outside of New York City with the emergence of a group called The Sugarhill Gang from New Jersey. The group released their self-titled debut album containing the song “Rapper’s Delight,” which became the first hip-hop song to reach Billboard’s Top 40. “Rapper’s Delight” was such an influential song, it even does everyone the favor of giving this new genre a catchy name.
I said-a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie To the hip hip hop-a you don't stop the rock...
- The Sugarhill Gang, Rapper's Delight
The Sugarhill Gang was like a catalyst for other late 80’s rap icons like the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, and Run DMC to enter the stage as rap legends. This time period also saw the emergence of Gangsta Rap as an important subgenre, which was started by Philadelphia artist Schoolly D and the release of his song “PSK. ‘What Does It Mean.” Gangsta rap typically depicts a specific set of realities that people from low-income areas often cannot avoid, some of which are condemned in our American society. The tones of these songs are usually packed with frustration, anger, and even outrage at the circumstances or experiences of the artist, which Schoolly D encapsulated and likewise paved the way for others to follow. The themes discussed in Gangsta Rap songs can often be uncomfortable for some audiences to listen to, which is why there was initially firm opposition to the release of songs. Ice-T's “Cop Killer” track, Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Million to Hold Us Back,” and NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” albums are iconic today for their outspoken nature about issues in the Black community such as police brutality and systemic racism. However, when they first came out, they were not well received by those being criticized. For example, as a response to NWA’s album, “Straight Outta Compton,” the FBI formally refused to protect the group while they were on tour, claiming their lyrics on tracks like “F*** the Police” were blatant signs of disrespect toward them. The album was even the subject of protest from many white suburban Americans who claimed the lyrics had bad messages for their children. However, despite the negative perception that some of these art mediums developed, they helped create new ways to not only spread awareness of certain issues but leave a permanent mark on the state of rap for years to come.
Taking influence from the greats of the 80s who formulated hip-hop into a staple in New York City, the 90’s are considered by many to be the golden age of hip-hop. This is an age when the spotlight was taken away from the east coast and brought regional styles of rap onto national and global stages. Don’t get me wrong, New York City still had plenty of talent to offer. The decade saw the emergence of rappers like Nas, Jay-Z, Method Man, Big L, Lil’ Kim, the Notorious B.I.G, and so many others. However, unlike in previous eras, they now had major competition from other areas of the U.S. Rappers from the Midwest like Common and Twista had flows that made them big-time names in the rap game and the public eye alike. Eminem, a globally recognized rapper, started his battle raps on 8 Mile in Detroit during this era. In the South, rappers and producers developed a unique way of telling their stories. Houstonian producer and rapper DJ Screw invented the chopping and screwing method, a rap staple from the area that involves a dramatic slowdown of the music. Houston also saw the emergence of rappers like Scarface and Z-Ro gain widespread popularity within the rap community. The duo from Georgia, Outkast, released “Southernplayalisticadillac” in 1994 and entered conversations as one of the best in the rap game due to their ability to rap to unconventional beats. On the west coast, musical talent was in no short supply. Oakland rapper Too $hort started out making mixtapes for his neighborhood and ended up being an influence on some of America’s greatest west coast rappers. America’s favorite psychedelic expert, Snoop Dogg, found his start in LA with the release of his first album “Doggystyle,” which was in collaboration with NWA member, Dr. Dre, who at the time of Snoop’s debut, had just released a monumental album of his own called “The Chronic.” Others who were hanging around with Dr. Dre during that time who have since gained widespread popularity include Xhibit and of course, the great Tupac Shakur. Many artists from across the country left their marks through their art and left a legacy for future rappers to look up to.
The golden age of rap inevitably influenced the culture going into the 2000s and 2010s. There were still some old rappers from the 90s, such as Eminem and Snoop Dogg, finding success in the new millennia as well as a few new faces. Some noteworthy ones whose music was consistently played at clubs, large adult functions, and even high school basketball games were Chingy, Lil Wayne, Jeezy, and Kanye West. Rap was becoming mainstream and ever more popular among the younger generations. Heading into the 2010s, Atlanta rapper, T.I, pioneers the rise of trap music. Trap is typically a concoction consisting of a melody from a synthesizer, deep 808 basslines, and quick, rhythmic snares or high hats that give the song its bounce. The work of T.I is today’s hot music; J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Megan Thee Stallion are some of today’s hot artists that use some variation of the trap format. This seemingly digital and more synthetic-sounding tune has made its way into the modern-day and has pervasive influences on today’s pop culture and music.
Nowadays we see the tremendous impact that rap has had on the world. Recently in the U.S, hip-hop overcame rock music as the nation’s most popular genre. It has now become harder not to listen to a rap song on the radio than it was before. Hip-hop has even influenced the modern English language as a large majority of American slang terms come from rap music. Younger generations simply cannot get enough of hip-hop because of the vast diversity within the genre as well as its danceability.
Currently, rap is so popular that it has touched every part of the globe. It has even influenced other genres that at first glance, have nothing in common with it. Some examples include K-pop and even Mexican Banda music having rappers or rap beats in their songs.
Messages and Themes
Like most other forms of Black-American music, hip-hop is a genre that since its inception, speaks to the experiences of individuals who were not intended to make it in American society. There are many who say that music is a universal experience, but hip-hop shows us that this notion is not necessarily true. Can everyone really relate to seeing a younger sibling die in their arms from an attempted robbery in a bad neighborhood as told in “Tearz” by the Wu-Tang Clan? Can everyone really relate to the tragic effects on a family member as a result of mass incarceration as told in “4 Your Eyez Only” by J. Cole? Hip-hop is a special method of storytelling that has the capacity to vividly paint a grotesque picture of the society we live in through the lived experiences of those who historically have not had a voice to represent them and their circumstances. As a result, the people who can relate to the hard-hitting topics discussed in hip-hop songs have the opportunity to feel a sense of ease knowing that they are not alone in their suffering.
Some of you might be asking “how could hip-hop be this impactful if all I hear when it’s played is drugs, sex, and alcohol?” This is true and it justifiably turns off a lot of people to the genre. However it is important to remember that hip-hop has never been about depicting what you want to be depicted, it's about “being real” and accepting the present reality of your situation, which is something not everyone will understand. The unfortunate reality of many low-income areas is that bad things happen frequently and for various reasons. But within that unfortunate truth is the real beauty of hip-hop. It is true that hip-hop can tell us that we are not alone in our suffering. But perhaps more importantly, it can also tell us that we don’t need to accept our struggle as cannon; we can be empowered to overcome our struggle and realize a better life for ourselves. Tupac’s “Unconditional Love” reminisces on the rapper’s rough childhood and questionable decisions made in his youth, but comes to the realization that none of the realities of living in a low-income area are as dire as they seem if only you can “remember that tomorrow comes after the dark.” It’s a message of hope and the non-permanence of struggle. Countless other rap songs share similar messages. Hip-hop is one of the few genres of music that can have you thinking about your own realities while bouncing your head to the beat or even standing up to get hype. This is what this culture is all about and it is what makes hip-hop a crucial medium that fundamentally functions to be the voice of those who are silenced.