Theoretically Speaking S3 | E13: What Makes Hip Hop, Hip Hop ? – Part 1

396 views

Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians


…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.

REDDITOR R/COMPRIMENS


S3:E13 – What Makes Hip Hop, Hip Hop? – Part 1

I said back in our article about reggae:

”In his late teens, Kool Herc built his own sound system and held a party to raise money for his younger sister to buy clothes for the new school year.

It was a success and he held more parties. His sound system and toasting put him at ground zero of hip hop’s creation.
We’ll talk about him and the Bronx in this series when we get to hip hop.”

And here we are.

Most genres have only vague starting points. As musicians experiment with new sounds and techniques, genres slowly evolve into being. It could be years before a genre is recognized as something different from whatever came before.

Sometimes these experiments don’t work, but there’s no such thing as failure. As in science, an experiment that doesn’t turn out the way you hope still teaches you something. You learn what doesn’t work and you try something else.

But hip hop is different from other genres in that we know its birthday and its birthplace.

Hip hop was born on August 11, 1973.

DJ Kool Herc learned about Jamaican sound systems from his father before they moved to the US, and he wired one together for his sister’s party using his father’s PA system. He had a mixing board and two turntables and a lot of funk records. That allowed him to create a DJ-ing technique that he called the merry go round.

It was common at that time for DJs to use two variable speed turntables, a mixing board, and headphones to get two different songs playing at the same tempo and on the same beat, and then fade from one to the other. There were no breaks between songs. This happened all the time in discos, and it’s part of what kept their dance floors packed for hours.

What DJ Kool Herc did differently was to not necessarily play entire songs, but to concentrate on only the instrumental breaks.

He noticed that this is where people reacted most enthusiastically.

It could be a drum intro or the instrumental section where there was no vocals. But those sections always got the most people dancing.

He called those choice danceable sections, “the yolk of the egg.”

So he’d play only those sections, quickly fading from one turntable to the other. Sometimes he’d pick up the needle on the silent turntable and put it down back at the beginning of that section, and fade it in again.

Compiling and extending the most danceable sections of songs is what he called “the merry-go-round.”

When he did it for the first time in public in the community room of an 18-story apartment building:

Hip hop was born:

… and Herc’s sister Cindy got the clothes she wanted before going back to school.

Word got around that this DJ was doing something new. More people showed up at the next party, and the party after that.

Soon they outgrew the community room and moved to street parties and block parties. 

Other DJs learned the technique and held their own parties. People invented new dances, including break dancing.

As invigorating as these extending merry go round mixes were, they needed a little something interesting on top. This is where improvising rhymed verses became known as rapping.

Making up rhymes on the spot is a part of many ethnic oral traditions.

It was a popular pastime in 19th Century England. There’s a number of “talkin’ blues” songs.

News was passed from one community to the next through verse in Africa, and later in the American South.

And toasting, as DJ Kool Herc’s father would have known, was a big part of Jamaican ska and reggae.

There were some artists that used a sort of proto-rapping well before Herc’s parties. Chuck Berry sang the verses of Too Much Monkey Business on a single note, and its catchiness is all based on its rhythm. Both New York, New York by The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised are basically spoken word pieces over chilled out jazz beats.

Rapping is sort of midway between talking and singing. It’s rhythmic, yet there’s not much melody. It totally works, though, in the context of an improvised genre.

So with nothing more than a microphone and a beat coming from the turntables, rappers could tell their stories to the entire neighborhood.

And, not long after: to the entire world.

Initially, DJs and rappers would record songs and sell cassettes in the neighborhood. It’s a DIY solution that makes this old punk proud. But at some point songs were released on vinyl. And it was popular.

I remember walking past a Strawberries Records store in Boston and seeing a handwritten note taped to the front door:

It said, “We are out of ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ More coming on Thursday.” I’ve never seen a similar sign about any other song.

While Rapper’s Delight was not the first hip hop song released on vinyl — that honor might go to King Tim III (Personality Jock) by The Fatback Band — it was the first one to go international. Though it only went to #36 on Billboard’s Hot 100, it went top ten in a dozen countries.

Its beat is taken from Good Times by Chic, which hit #1 early that year. However, Rapper’s Delight doesn’t sample Good Times. It “interpolates” it.

Interpolation in music is rearranging, re-recording, or otherwise reinterpreting an existing piece of music.

The familiar Good Times drums, bass, guitar, and other sounds were re-recorded for Rapper’s Delight.

The recording happened in a pretty non-organic way. Sylvia Robinson had a hit with Love Is Strange in 1957 as part of the duo Mickey & Sylvia. She had a solo hit in 1973 with Pillow Talk. Following that success, she became a producer. The rap scene interested her and she wanted to release rap records, but DJs and MCs weren’t interested. Rap, they thought, is an improvised, live-only, genre, and it should stay that way.

But Robinson persisted and found random people who could rap.

Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien auditioned in her car. Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson auditioned in front of the pizza restaurant where he worked. I’m not sure where she found Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright.

But she put the band together and hired amateur musicians.

They played the Good Times riff for fifteen minutes in one take, while the rappers did their thing.

And she released it under the name “The Sugarhill Gang.

Sugar Hill is a neighborhood in Harlem. All three members of the Sugarhill Gang were from Englewood, New Jersey. For a genre intent on keeping it real, it’s ironic that its first hit was as manufactured as any 90s boy band.

Following its massive success, Robinson pestered Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel to record their song called The Message.

Initially, neither wanted to do it: again because they thought rap was meant to be for live performances only.

Robinson’s persistence changed their minds and led to one of rap’s all time bangers. 

These two songs are templates for much of what would follow. A lot of hip hop lyrics are braggadocious like Rapper’s Delight. And The Message was just that, a message from the inner city, a news report from the real world people were living through.

Remember, this was happening at roughly the same time that the punk scene was emerging just a few miles away.

The difference is that the punk bands had CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, the two clubs in New York that encouraged new, original music.

The new rap scene didn’t have nightclubs. So they held parties.

What punk and hip hop had in common was New York City.

We’ve seen multiple times in this series that financial and social desperation is a catalyst for creativity. Whether caused by trying to get by in a city rapidly going broke, or picking cotton in the South for starvation wages, or leaving the dust bowl when the land won’t sustain farming, or searching for work in northern England or the rust belt as the factories close, frustration and outrage are artistic fuels.

The difference between punk and hip hop, significantly, is that many in the downtown scene moved to the Bowery and other scummy areas intentionally. They did so because it was cheap so they could afford to work on their art. The people in the Bronx lived in a scummy area because the city had abandoned them. It became scummy around them while they lived there, in their lifetimes.

Government programs meant to help were cut. The Cross Bronx Expressway split neighborhoods in two. Landlords set fire to their own apartment buildings to collect the insurance money.

The powers that be washed their hands. And walked away.

Even the liberal senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan thought minorities had made sufficient advancement since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that they would try harder to sustain that advancement if they went through a period of “benign neglect.”

The Gang Of Two.

That’s what he advised President Nixon to do, and that’s what happened.

When legal jobs aren’t available, illegal ones are the only option.

At a time when the best way to earn a living was selling crack, the “war on drugs” had no plan to create jobs. It was more intent on jailing people.

Jailing specific people, that is.

The penalties for selling cocaine in its solid form, known as crack, were much stiffer than selling it in its powder form. These penalties were put in place after it was apparent that crack sold more in black communities and powder sold more in white neighborhoods.

Same drug.

Different format. Different penalties.

Blacks got long jail time.

Whites got probation.

It’s impossible to separate hip hop from American history, and vice versa.

It tells the story of minority life in America even as it made history by telling that story. Hip hop is storytelling and truth telling.

Chuck D of Public Enemy says that hip hop is more than just the music. It’s four things:: DJ-ing, rapping, graffiti, and break dancing. Or music, poetry, art, and dance. It’s new forms of classical arts.

And it’s innovating these art forms with very limited resources.

It’s making music with turntables rather than instruments, because that’s what they had.

It’s improvising poetry over these new improvised beats.

All you need for graffiti is spray paint and a wall or subway car.

And break dancing is better if you have a sheet of cardboard to spin on, but it’s not entirely necessary.

Some critics thought hip hop was primitive.

Given what these artists had to work with, of course it was primitive. They made new art out of next to nothing.

Besides, Grandma Moses was a primitive artist and critics were OK with her.

People may be suppressed but they can’t be silenced. They will find ways to express themselves, to tell their message to the world, to get the word out about their situation, to red flag what isn’t right, and to pull together with others in the same situation.

It would lead to major financial success for many. But it would also create havoc and unnecessary rivalries within its own scene.

For some, it would lead to global celebrity and unimaginable wealth.

For others, it would lead to early death. 

More next week.


Let the author know that you liked their article with a “heart” upvote!

Suggested Listening:

Full YouTube Playlist

Butterballs (Part 1)
Butterball
1967

New York, New York
The Last Poets
1970

King Tim III (Personality Jock)
The Fatback Band
1979

Rapper’s Delight
Sugarhill Gang
1979

We Rap More Mellow
The Younger Generation
1979

Rapping And Rocking The House
The Funky Four Plus One More
1979

Busy Bee’s Groove
Busy Bee
1979

Funk You Up
The Sequence
1979

Rap-O-Clap-O
Joe Bataan

1979

The Breaks
Kurtis Blow
1980

Love Rap
Spoonie Gee

1980

Planet Rock
Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force
1981

The Message
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five

1982

9
3

Thank You For Your Vote!

Sorry You have Already Voted!

Bill Bois

Bill Bois - bassist, pie fan, aging gentleman punk, keeper of the TNOCS spreadsheet:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/138BvuV84ZH7ugcwR1HVtH6HmOHiZIDAGMIegPPAXc-I/edit#gid=0

Subscribe
Notify of
25 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
thegue
Member
Famed Member
thegue
Offline
February 24, 2023 6:57 am

If I can steal a theme from Vails, your line of the day:

For a genre intent on keeping it real, it’s ironic that its first hit was as manufactured as any 90s boy band.

That hits hard.

I was late to discover Gil Scott Heron (after all, I was 5), but he was a genius.

Critics didn’t see it, but suburban white kids like myself fell in love with rap in middle school – it was definitely going to hit worldwide, it just needed an outlet.

Can’t wait to read the next installment.

JJ Live At Leeds
Member
Famed Member
February 24, 2023 11:12 am
Reply to  thegue

My encounter with Gil Scott Heron. 1996 I was doing work experience at a music and listings magazine called Paint It Red attached to the Riverside venue in Newcastle. Gil was playing there that night. The venue manager came into the office in the morning asking for someone to locate a dentist and make sure Gil got there and back safely as his drug use had taken its toll on his teeth and they were in desperate need of attention.

I was a callow youth with no idea about securing dental assistance for and babysitting musical legends so was mightily relieved when the manager picked on the guy next to me to perform the task. He was away several hours with Gil and came back to report that he wasn’t in a good way.

I’m glad that after a long period as a cautionary tale Gil was able to at least sign off with a great album, I’m New Here in 2010.

mt58
Admin
Famed Member
mt58
Offline
February 24, 2023 11:16 am

OK, everybody. A new writing prompt is born:

“My Unlikely Brush With Fame”

Gary is working on his as we speak. And I’m a little bit afraid.

LinkCrawford
Member
Famed Member
LinkCrawford
Online Now
February 24, 2023 12:30 pm
Reply to  mt58

Gary would obviously write about mt58.

mt58
Admin
Famed Member
mt58
Offline
February 24, 2023 12:39 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Oh, I have stories, all right.

Don’t get me started.

g2.png
Pauly Steyreen
Member
Famed Member
February 24, 2023 9:30 pm
Reply to  mt58

That is a great prompt!

Unfortunately I got nothing at all.

Once I ate at a restaurant in Athens, Georgia, and Michael Stipe was also there, a couple of tables away. My friend kept staring at him and wanting to say something. I was like, Geez, leave the guy alone. He doesn’t need another fanboy moment ruining his nice dinner.

Last edited 1 year ago by Pauly Steyreen
cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
February 24, 2023 11:12 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

But it’s Michael Stipe.

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
February 24, 2023 8:58 pm

I dropped my phone.

Phylum of Alexandria
Member
Famed Member
February 24, 2023 8:27 am

Nice! Great write-up of a fantastic musical era.

I feel like these days the first wave of hip hop doesn’t get enough love. It was for the most part really silly party music in the early days (“The Message” and Kurtis Blow’s “Hard Times” being the first signs of a shift), but what better way to lift up the spirits of poor young teens and bring them together?

Perhaps there was more gatekeeping in the early hip hop scene than there was in the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, but there was far less in those early days than there would later come to be. Hip hop was a brand new style at the time, so it makes sense to me that it would resemble a form of novelty music.

I appreciate that a big part of the desire to “keep it real” among rappers was rooted–perhaps inchoately at first, but articulated outright later on–in a distaste for any resemblance to the historical characterization of black musicians as the clownish entertainers of white people. I get that such a historical resonance would be really hard to shake, but at least on its own, novelty music is great in its own right, nothing to be ashamed about.

I see Sylvia Robinson as a much cooler version of what Malcom McClaren did with the Sex Pistols. Some of it was manufactured, for sure, but some of it was just applying a good sense of marketing to help promote the scene in a way that could get attention and make money. Having done one of the greatest guitar pop tracks of all time, she embraced the idea of innovation through novelty music, but she used that knowhow to make things happen for hip hop…not least getting Melle Mel and Grandmaster Flash to get political for “The Message.”

As you suggest, the common space of NYC just provided some fortuitous meetings sometimes. Fab Five Freddy would around doing graffiti art with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and both eventually met up with Blondie. Freddy wrote the raps for their hit “The Rapture,” and Basquiat is featured in the video.

One of my favorite early rap tunes is Fab 5 Freddy’s single “Change the Beat,” especially the French version. Beyond being the source of a million scratches to come, it’s just a brilliant novelty tune. I’m pretty sure the Japanese peppered throughout is just nonsense pantomime, but the verses are great practice for me these days. To interpolate: “This stuff is realllly…French.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3WY72ytxPU

JJ Live At Leeds
Member
Famed Member
February 24, 2023 10:54 am

Fab 5 Freddy in French is fantastic. That’s a lot of alliteration. I’m better at reading French than the spoken word so I have no idea what she’s saying other than agreeing with your interpolation

thegue
Member
Famed Member
thegue
Offline
February 24, 2023 11:06 am
JJ Live At Leeds
Member
Famed Member
February 24, 2023 11:21 am
Reply to  thegue

I think that just about covers everything I need for next time I’m in Paris 😁

Eric-J
Member
Noble Member
Eric-J
Online Now
February 25, 2023 2:53 pm

The fact that there’s one year between “Rapper’s Delight” and “The Breaks” and only 3 years until “The Message” is amazing. It’s like if Bob Dylan recorded “Bringing it All Back Home” in 1958.

LinkCrawford
Member
Famed Member
LinkCrawford
Online Now
February 24, 2023 8:28 am

It’s interesting that you mention a couple of times the resistance to record hip-hop, because it was thought of as “live” entertainment. We take recorded music for granted, but early in the recording industry, there were crazy popular performers that resisted recording their songs/skits, because they just thought that was dumb. John Phillip Sousa who was a “best seller” of early recordings (in the 1890s) actually hated the recordings and the recording process. He called it “canned music”, sometimes refusing to conduct his own band, because he had such a distaste for the process.

Phylum of Alexandria
Member
Famed Member
February 24, 2023 10:42 am
Reply to  Virgindog

In fairness to ol’ John Philip, even with today’s improved recording tech, I still have yet to hear a recording of a piece for orchestra that does justice to the work as composed.

The recorded music sounds markedly different from a live performance in a music hall; so many instruments end up masked by others depending on the dominant frequencies in the mix.

And in Sousa’s time, the recording tech was so much worse. Like a beautifully colored and textured oil painting getting the Xerox treatment. I’d be pretty grouchy too!

mt58
Admin
Famed Member
mt58
Offline
February 24, 2023 10:56 am

My usual grovelling:

Bill’s article is stellar. Can someone please post a link to social media, and perhaps SG as well? It deserves to be seen as much as possible.

mt58
Admin
Famed Member
mt58
Offline
February 24, 2023 2:50 pm

Nile Rogers tells a great story about a night at Danceteria in New York City in 1979.

He hears the familiar bass line to his record, Good Times, when suddenly…

“I said-a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop-a you don’t stop…”

That would have freaked me out. He seems like he was a decent sport about it, (the later writing credits sure didn’t hurt.)

And I love the fact that he came around to embrace the whole crazy thing. Somebody scream

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wtVhIQ4e9fo

blu_cheez
Member
Famed Member
blu_cheez
Offline
February 24, 2023 5:25 pm

Well, this was awesome. Nice work!!

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
February 24, 2023 9:17 pm

My mom totally wasted her money on summer school. It felt more like day care than class. It was Lord of the Flies. We hardly noticed the teacher was there. She allowed the two alpha males to play music. Every day, the same two songs: “The Robots” and “It’s Nasty”. I didn’t have cable, so it was unclear as to what was nasty.

Zeusaphone
Member
Famed Member
Zeusaphone
Offline
February 26, 2023 9:30 pm

As I’m sure you all know, Big Bank Hank was “discovered” rapping Cold Crush Brothers rhymes and his entire “Rapper’s Delight” performance was taken from the notebook of Grandmaster Caz. This should be on the recommended listening list:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLCPkz4X958

dutchg8r
Member
Famed Member
dutchg8r
Offline
February 27, 2023 3:31 pm

Fascinating, every word. Hip-hop has such a distinct origin story that always makes for a riveting lesson. Growing up basically in time with the evolution of hip hop and rap meant I didn’t appreciate the seismic shift this genre represented; it just existed and grew up with me. Thank you for a most excellent entry once again VDog, looking forward to the next entry!

25
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x