Music is language: it can speak to you. Music is art: it can alter your perception. Music is expression: it can provoke you to action. Music has the power to connect people who would be otherwise un-connectable. Anywhere you go, if there are people, there is music. My first time in Spain, seventeen years old, senior year, with three friends and six kids I kinda liked, I spent a semester in Segovia. On a weekend trip to Granada, John and I snuck out after curfew. After we started and finished a bottle of Jaeger at one bar, we went to the next, and the next, and eventually found ourselves on a dimly lit, cobblestone corner. On the opposite corner there were three plaid-clad, rainbow-haired girls and a blond, dreaded, surfer-looking fellow. They were rolling spliffs in their hands, beet boxing, and freestyling together in what is known as a cypher.
We introduced ourselves, and in Jaeger induced Spanglish John attempted a freestyle. Words over a beat – that is how Hip Hop was born, and it is how it lives on today. All you need for a cypher is a group of friends who can rhyme and keep time. That is how Hip Hop has gained and maintained popularity. John’s freestyle was understandably, short lived and so we began talking – about music. We all took out our phones and swapped songs. The girls showed us their favorite artists – American and Spanish – all rap. And not only was it rap, but most of the American songs were underground rap – rap that I listen to, rap that they could not have heard on the radio or on TV, rap that most Americans have never heard. Yet, they found these songs on Hip Hop blogs; they liked the beats so they looked up the lyrics, translated them, memorized them, and understood them. How is it that people so geographically, linguistically, and culturally distinct can relate to the same music?
Music is universal; it transcends age, social status, income, ethnicity, lifestyle and nationality. Music is written, produced and performed for people, by people – so each genre has its place in society. Rap’s place is a controversial one. Hip Hop culture in general, and rap in particular is infused with images of violence, misogyny, drug use, extravagance, and sex; yet, Rap artists and their music have become accepted in mainstream culture. What I want to know is how and why. Has Hip Hop been accepted because of this contentious image, or despite it?
This is not a new question. Many scholars have asked it, studied it, and written about it. But, unlike them, I will expose the answer on a personal level. I was born to upper class, European parents, raised in New Hampshire. And in fifth grade, too young to need a bra, my favorite artist was Eminem. I saved up my lunch money for weeks until I could buy, “The Eminem Show.” I had to go with my friend’s mom so I could get the explicit version. Hip Hop has not only been accepted by mainstream society, Hip Hop has transformed mainstream society – and it transformed me. So, I plan to take a personalized look at a few of my most favorite, and least favorite songs, and with a little scholarly aid, discuss how these lyrics speak to, for, and about a culture.
Rap was born in the Boogie Down Bronx, at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. In 1963 construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway was completed, dividing the burrow in half (White). Thousands of people were displaced, homes were lost, businesses destroyed, and the already poor neighborhood began to deteriorate rapidly (). Imagine a highway going through your home – the community was devastated. The people needed a form of expression; they needed to come together as a group. The people needed music. And in 1970, Clive Campbell gave it to them [ White]. When he came from Jamaica, Campbell brought with him a new style of Deejaying, extending the breaks of contemporary funk songs (White). Under the pseudonym, DJ Kool Herc, he, Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa began deejaying at local parties. Rap emerged as people began isolating the percussion breaks of funk, soul and disco tracks (). As its popularity grew, people started rhyming over the beat. And so the rap emcee, and Hip Hop culture were born.
There is widespread confusion regarding Hip Hop, starting with the use of term Hip Hop. It is not a genre of music, “Hip Hop is something that you are. Rap is something that you do” (Griff). Hip Hop is the culture; Rap is the music. Professor Griff, one of the original members of Public Enemy, believes that music has a healing power to it. He says that real rap is about “raising the conscious level of the human family,” which is how Hip Hop got its name; it is an acronym: Higher Infinite Power Healing Our People (Griff). Rap is the “bridge that gets us [poor, inner city kids] over troubled waters” (Griff). Rap gave a voice to the voiceless. With the first cypher came the first forum for open expression in inner city communities. No paint, no pencils, no paper, no instruments, no clay – no cost. For the first time, if kids wanted to be heard, all they had to do was speak.
As the music gained popularity it became part of a culture. In 1974, Afrika Bambaataa designated the four elements of Hip Hop: Deejaying, emceeing, breakdancing, and graffiti (White). However, though Hip Hop was gaining recognition as a culture and rap was gaining popularity as a genre, it was not in the public eye. No one believed that rap could find a place in mainstream music. No little boys dreamed of being rappers – until 1980 (Hurt). Managed by Russell Simmons (then an up and coming Hip Hop promoter, now a multimillion dollar mogul), Kurtis Blow became the first rapper to sign with a major record label and become commercially successful (White). His hit single, “The Breaks,” changed the game. It was the first rap song to be played on the radio, the first gold record in rap, the first time rap song on the Billboard Top 100, and the first time inner city kids saw someone they could relate to reach fame (Hurt). Kurtis Blow gave hope to all the unknown emcees; he inspired a new genre of artists.
Though it was the first rap song to reach mainstream media, the lyrics do not fit the image rap has today. The rhymes are simplistic and playful: “To the girl in brown, stop messing around – To the guy in blue, watcha gonna do? – To the girl in green, don’t be so mean – And the guy in red, say what I said – Break down!” (AZ Lyrics). These innocent lyrics are characteristic of Old School Rap, which was quickly overtaken. The New School approach featured hardcore, aggressive rhymes about street life. RUN DMC championed this progression in 1983, with the release of their first single, “Sucker MCs/It’s Like That,” (Williams). The lyrics focus on the harsh reality of inner city poverty: “Unemployment at a record high – People coming, people going, people born to die – Don’t ask me because I don’t know why – But it’s like that and that’s the way it is” (AZ Lyrics). This song revolutionized the rap game. It spoke to the kids struggling on the streets and addressed the issues they were facing.
RUN DMC exploded on the music scene. In 1983, with the release of their eponymous debut album, they became the first rap group to have consistent airtime on MTV and Top 40 Rock Radio (Williams). Their style, heavily influenced by rock, created a connection between the two genres, which gave rap a place on the musical stage. The relationship between rap and hard rock was furthered in 1985 with their second album, “King of Rock” (). Like their first album, it was a hit; however, it was their third album, “Raising Hell,” that rock and rap became linked forever. In 1986, Aerosmith and RUN DMC collaborated to cover the Aerosmith classic, “Walk This Way” (White). It was a musical milestone. The collaboration became one of the biggest hits of the 80s; it reached number four on the Hot 100, cemented RUN DMC’s status as a crossover group, and secured rap as a player in the musical game (Williams). Their song, “My Adidas,” another track on “Raising Hell,” allowed for an important aspect of Hip Hop to develop: endorsements. RUN DMC became the first group to enter an endorsement deal with a clothing brand; in 1987 the group signed a contract with Adidas for $1.6 million. This deal marked the beginning of a long and lucrative relationship between the Hip Hop and fashion industries that continues today. RUN DMC’s mainstream popularity made Hip Hop available to a wider audience, but the Beastie Boys made it appealing to a wider audience.
In 1986, shortly after “Raising Hell” topped the charts, the Beastie Boys, the first White rap group, released their debut album, “License to Ill” off of Simmons’ newly formed label, Def Jam Records (Williams). It went on to become the best-selling rap album of the decade (White). The Beastie Boys changed the face of rap. They created a bridge between black and White audiences, allowing the genre to gain mass appeal and opening the doors for different kinds of rappers, like women. Later that year, Salt N Pepa, the first female rap group, released their debut album, “Hot, Cool & Vicious” (Williams). And in 1987, Public Enemy, the group widely accepted as the originators of conscious rap, signed with Def Jam Records (). Conscious rap is characterized by politically charged lyrics that deliver a message aimed at empowering the people.
Public Enemy’s hit single, “Fight the Power” is the epitome of conscious rap. Performed in an almost militant fashion, the song speaks to poor, inner city kids that feel helpless in their situation, challenging them to fight it. Public Enemy used their songs to spread awareness, and give hope to the kids growing up like them: “Elvis was a hero to most – But he never meant shit to me… Power to the people no delay – To make everybody see – In order to fight the powers that be” (AZ Lyrics). The lyrics address the fact that most inner city kids did not have role models; there were no emcees sending them a positive message. Conscious rap changed that. It gave hope to hopeless. It challenged kids to fight the forces holding them down and rise up, and out. This is the essence of Hip Hop. To make it out of government housing projects and into a Maybach using only your voice is one of the most extreme examples of the American Dream.
However, despite the uplifting origins of rap, it has evolved to encompass many different, and contrasting images. The shift in Hip Hop culture began with NWA (Niggas With Attitude). Their debut album, “Straight Outta Compton” combined the hardcore lyrics of Public Enemy with exceedingly crass, explicit rhymes about the dangers of South Central LA (Williams). This album opened the doors for gangsta rap and carved out a permanent space for West Coast rappers, spreading the genre from one coast to the other (White). Their hit single, sharing a title with the album, discusses the reality of life in Compton, Eazy-E’s verse is especially revealing: “… straight outta Compton – is a brotha that’ll smother yo mother – and make ya sista think I love her – Dangerous motherfucka raises hell – And if I ever get caught I make bail – See, I don’t give a fuck, that’s the problem – I see a motherfuckin cop I don’t dodge him” (AZ Lyrics). With these intimidating, violent lyrics elicit the trauma of living in South Central LA. NWA was hard, their rhymes were offensive and provocative, and as they rose to fame, yet again, the game was changed.
NWA pushed the envelope; they made people take notice. They cemented the image of a G; they gave Gangsta rap a face, a sound, and a style. Later in 1988, the explicit, anarchic lyrics of their song, “‘Fuck the Police,’ incited controversy and lead the FBI to issue a formal warning to the group” (Williams). NWA solidified the image of a gangsta: they had no fear. They planted the seeds of controversy that have grown into fully bloomed misconceptions. With the rise of NWA, rap music and Hip Hop culture were set up for the stream of controversial, offensive images it is now flooded with.
The evolution of rap started as a relatively straight line, but in the 90s, it exploded into an indistinguishable shape. This was the golden era of rap. Every year there were new techniques, styles, collaborations, artists, labels and deejays. This decade saw the debut of 2pac, Jay-Z, Biggie, Eminem, Nas, Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, Outkast, Papoose, Dead Prez, Wu Tang Clan, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, EPMD – I could go on forever (no source needed). All my favorite rappers got their break in the 90s. They were influenced by both the gangsta and conscious rap styles that came before them, and they used artfully crafted, explicit rhymes to engage their audience. These were the rappers the Spanish girls showed me on that street corner in Granada.
The aforementioned rappers, and others like them, used their music to express themselves. Their albums were like personal journals, each song a different entry. And it was their emotion that the Spaniards could relate to; they did not need speak English to understand the message, they could feel it. On Jay-Z’s debut album, “Reasonable Doubt,” one of the tracks is entitled, “Regrets.” The chorus is simple, but striking: “This is the number one rule for your set – In order to survive, gotta learn to live with regrets – on the rise to the top many drop, don’t forget – In order to survive, gotta learn to live with regrets” (site lyrics). Regrets are a reality of life on the street; there is no easy way out.
There are many faces of rap – some of them are less profound. Some of them are responsible for the negative misconceptions clouding Hip Hop’s image. In a way, the commercial success of artists like 50 cent, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, and Nelly made the Hip Hop industry what it is today. Rappers are household names, but at what cost? In the video for Nelly’s song, “Tipdrill,” he slides a credit card through a woman’s hindquarters as he chants, “It must be yo ass cuz it ain’t yo face – I need a tipdrill, tipdrill” (AZ Lyrics). That is not rap. Misogyny, exploitation and degradation should not be part of Hip Hop culture – but they are. This song is only one example of many. Other titles include: “Move Bitch,” “It Ain’t No Fun (if the homies can’t have some),” and “Nasty Girl.” The mainstream success of these performers allowed others to use the same distasteful, disrespectful terminology.
Hip Hop slang is representative of Hip Hop culture. Respected terms for a male in the rap game: gangsta, G, thug, pimp, playa, balla, mac, hustla, hard nigga. The insults are emasculating: punk, pussy, soft, bitch ass nigga, faggot. There are few respected terms for a female: sister, shawty, and dime. The insults are degrading: ho, bitch, slut, hood rat. For most rappers, money trumps all, and its importance can be seen in the vast array of synonyms it has in Hip Hop: scrilla, paper, cake, cream, green, dead presidents, scratch, bread, stacks, cheddar (or any type of cheese), dough, bacon, benjamins, cheese. Similarly, the synonyms for firearms are infinite: heat, toaster, gloc, sawed-off, whistle, canon, barrel, gat, lead, lil’ buddy, ruger, nine, mac, tech, chrome, k, piece, iron, cap, steel, biscuit, strap. And the drug euphemisms immeasurable: chronic, piff, haze, trees, candy, rocks, kush, herb, coco puffs, sniff, snow, blow, White, purple, green, wet, dry, rain, drought, X, blunt, spliff, crack, dutchie, H, onion, zip, slice, O, dope, smack. These are just a few of the most commonly used slang terms in Hip Hop music and culture. 
Language is indicative of lifestyle. The fact that so many words have been repurposed to represent murder, guns and drugs demonstrates the prevalence of violence and narcotics in Hip Hop culture. In the poor, inner city communities where rap originated, drugs are omnipresent and bloodshed is almost inevitable. If you are a member of this community, you have to be hard. You can never show weakness. During a recording session, rappers Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Busta Rhymes were interviewed by Byron Hurt for his documentary, “Hip Hop: More than Beats and Rhymes.”
The film shows the rappers as they pose for a photo shoot in the studio, and posing does not mean smiling. The rappers joke together as they put on their gangsta personas for the camera: “gotta look hard,” “lemme throw on my hardcore pose,” “oh yeah, we gangstas, we hustlas and all that,” they quip as they cross their arms, puff out their chests, raise their chins, flex their muscles, grab their belt buckles and mime holding guns. When Hurt asks them about the posturing that goes on in Hip Hop, Mos Def’s answer has the group nodding, “I was a bookworm, a nerd around the way, but you know, when shit got critical… you know, you can’t be no punk” (Hurt). If these men want to be respected they have to be thugs, they have to be hustlas, they have to be pimps – because if they are not hard, then they are soft. Minister Conrad Tillard says that “we [black men in poor, inner city communities] are playing a role from the time we’re seven years old walking down the street” (Hurt). Once men show weakness they loose the respect of their peers.
I know it seems like Hip Hop has become a one-dimensional world of chains, cars, women, and drugs. Nas, and rappers like him, claim that Hip Hop is dead. But it is alive, just hidden – hidden behind a bunch of thick fog and bright lights and crazy mirrors. But the essence of Hip Hop can never be distorted. Honesty and emotion cannot be corrupted with sex or money. I went to a Talib Kweli show at the Middle East a month ago, and he asked the crowd to do a call and response: “When I say ‘Hip Hop,’ you say ‘lives.’ And we chanted, “Hip Hop lives!” He went on to say that the people that think they have to act hard are the “same cats who listen to the radio… they just don’t know!” I am inclined to agree - they do not play real rap on the radio.
Talib Kweli, Common, Nas, Dead Prez – some of these artists have never made a billboard hit, have never even been played on the radio. But it does not matter. Their lyrics are conscious, and they reach real rap listeners across the world. Their music reached Granada. Those girls were listening to Dead Prez, a song called, “It’s Bigger than Hip Hop.” In this underground, conscious classic the rappers attack mainstream media rap sellouts: “Back the beats it don’t reflect – On how many records get sold – On sex, drugs and rock and roll – Whether your project’s put on hold – In the real world – These just people with ideas – They just like me and you – When the smoke and cameras disappear” (AZ Lyrics). The message is clear: we are all people, and instead of getting hung up on material wealth we should get back to the beats – get back to how Hip Hop started.
Rap has taken on many different forms since Clive Campbell began experimenting with the breaks of funk beats, and though its image has been tainted and transformed, its essence has never changed. That is why rap has withstood the test of time, and spread across cultures, countries and continents. Rap is beyond beats and rhymes, it is bigger than Hip Hop; it is the voice of the people.
1.AZ Lyrics 2013
2.Griff, Richard, perf. It's Bigger than Hip Hip. It's Beyond Beat and Rhymes. 2011. Film. 25 Mar 2013. .
3.Hurt, Byron, dir. Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes. 2006. Film. 25 Mar 2013.
4.White, Miles. From Jim Crow to Jay-Z. University of Illinois, 2011. Print.
5.Williams, Stereo. "Rap Hip-Hop Timeline 1979-1989." Hip Hop Blog. DigitalDreamDoor.com, 2005. Web. Web. 25 Mar. 2013. .
 This list took me forever to compile, I did not use any references, just wrote them down as they came to me while I listened to music.
© Copyright 2016 Veronica Dunlop. All rights reserved.