Theoretically Speaking

S3 | E14: What Makes Hip Hop, Hip Hop ? – Part 2

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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.

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S3:E14 – What Makes Hip Hop, Hip Hop? – Part 2

I’ve been using the terms “hip hop” and “rap” interchangeably, as a lot of folks do.

However, there’s a distinction.

Hip hop is an entire culture, made up of DJ-ing, rapping, break dancing, and graffiti.

Rap is only the music portion of hip hop. It’s what I’ll concentrate on here.

In Part 1, we went over how DJ Kool Herc invented the merry go round turntable technique and that people started rapping over it.

Rapping didn’t just happen out of the blue.

Improvised rhyming goes way back. We know it was done in the West African countries, to pass history and news to other communities and generations.

This work was done by entertainers known as griots.

They were usually the tribal elders, those with the longest memories.

They told the true stories of their people, without embellishment, through music and poetry.

The griot’s role was respected and necessary in cultures that didn’t have the written word. Though most read and write today, the griot’s importance in each tribe continues. Without them, centuries of tribal history and culture would have been lost.

In the West Indies, improvised rhyming in the form of insults became popular.

Known as picong or piquant, these good natured back-and-forths are the precursor to hip hop’s rap battles.

Picong duels were rarely recorded. But in 1957, an album was released in Trinidad and Tobago, capturing “Lord Melody” battling “The Mighty Sparrow.” The album it comes from, Calypso Kings and Pink Gin, is a classic in Caribbean music.

In the United States, African American kids would play “the dozens.” This is a game of two people humorously insulting each other in front of an audience.

This was an actual thing.
Another reason to love The Wayans Brothers.

Often done for fun in parks or on front stoops, the topics open for insult include the opponents’ appearance or physical characteristics, economic status, clothing choices, and family members. This is where “your mama” jokes come from.

“Your mama’s so skinny you could blindfold her with dental floss.”

Like puppies play fighting, the dozens teaches fast thinking, wordplay, verbal self-defense, and how to take insults in stride.

That is, when everyone plays nice.

It wasn’t long after hip hop’s inception that insults made their way into rap.

Remember, some early rap songs were braggadocious, with the rapper telling the world how great he was.

This is what happened at the Harlem World Christmas celebration in 1981.

In a rap contest, Busy Bee Starski rhymed about how the trophy was already his and no one else in the room could beat him.

For some reason, celebrity host Kool Moe Dee thought this crossed the line. So he entered himself in the contest and went on last.

Unlike the other rappers who each talked about their own greatness, he went after Busy Bee by name, accusing him of buying his rhymes from other rappers and calling him Busy Wannabe.

Maybe it was Kool Moe Dee who crossed the line. But once a line is crossed, it’s just a matter of time before the next one is crossed, too.

An entire subgenre of rap was born that night. Now known as the diss track, it’s a song based entirely on talking smack about someone else in the scene. We’ll get there momentarily.

Kool Moe Dee’s rap became the stuff of legend. In no time, the dozens were replaced by rap battles. The good natured party vibe of the dozens made way for more aggressive, grittier, nastier insults. Battles would happen on street corners, parks, anywhere that could hold a crowd.

People started organizing rap battles where competitors could win trophies, bragging rights, and cash.

HBO had a series called Blaze Battle, MTV had one called MC Battle, and BET had 106 and Park.

In 2002, an editor known as Smack White started a quarterly video magazine called Smack DVD. Each issue included freestyle performances and interviews with top tier rappers, but by far its most popular feature was footage of rap battles. White heard from subscribers that they would skip over everything to watch the battles first.

Eventually, he made rap battles into a professional sport.

No, really:

He started the Ultimate Rap League or URL. Competitors often participate in the sport, but don’t necessarily release music. Rap battles are now a separate entity from rap music.

Insulting rival MCs in songs, however, continues. Rappers disrespect someone else in song, which brings a response known as an answer song. Usually that’s the end of it, with just one diss song answering another.

But in 1984, a diss song brought at least 30, and possibly 100 depending on who’s counting, answer songs.

A group called U.T.F.O. released a song called Roxanne, Roxanne and it became pretty popular. It’s about an imaginary woman named, of course, Roxanne who turns down all the rappers’ advances. 

U.T.F.O. backed out of a promotion deal with Marley Marl, a producer and manager.

He talked about his disappointment with a friend on a sidewalk and was overheard by Lolita Shanté Gooden, a precocious and talented 14-year-old with big ambitions.

She approached Marly and suggested she record a reply to Roxanne, Roxanne to get a little revenge on U.T.F.O.

They took the instrumental version of Roxanne, Roxanne and, as legend has it, Gooden improvised a rap over it in one take. She used the name Roxanne Shanté and they called the song Roxanne’s Revenge. In a flash, it was all over New York City.

U.T.F.O. recognized how clever Shanté was to pretend their song was about her. They responded with an answer song they wrote in which they claimed someone else was the real Roxanne.

The song was called, naturally, The Real Roxanne.

They hired a rapper named Elease Jack to pretend to be Roxanne and the song was a hit all over the country, not just in New York.

By doing so, U.T.F.O. managed to pull the narrative back into their control, and gain some popularity in the process. However, they didn’t credit Elease on the track and she soon had a falling out with them. U.T.F.O. replaced her with Adelaida Martinez who took on the Roxanne persona for years, despite having nothing to do with the making of The Real Roxanne.

By that point, everyone wanted in on the action.

By the end of 1985, there were at least 25 songs taking one side or the other in the Roxanne wars.

Some people claimed to be Roxanne’s parents, siblings, and friends. One claimed to be her doctor. Both U.T.F.O. and Shanté released more songs that perpetuated the beef.

A beef, in rap terminology, is a grudge, argument, or disagreement between two people. It can be in the form of diss tracks, or it can be far more serious than a simple rap battle.

Some famous rap beefs were between Dr. Dre and Uncle Luke, Ice Cube and Common, 50 Cent and Kanye West or 50 Cent and Ja Rule, and Jay-Z and Nas.

But the most famous beef was between Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., also known as Biggie Smalls.

By 1993, Tupac was one of the biggest rappers in the world. Biggie was still working his way up, but Tupac liked and respected him and his material. They became close friends.

They recorded tracks together, and Biggie asked Tupac to manage him.

Biggie was already managed by Sean “Puffy” Combs, and Tupac told him he’d be better off staying with Puffy, and that Puffy would make him a star.

On November 30, 1994, Tupac was on his way to meet Biggie, Puffy, and a rapper they were going to work with called Little Shawn. In the lobby of the building, three men mugged him and tried to take his gold chains. He fought back and one of the men shot him five times. 

He survived, but came to believe that Biggie and Puffy set him up. While recovering, he was sentenced to four years in prison on a sexual abuse charge. Shortly after he went to prison, Biggie released a song called Who Shot Ya. He said it was about a beef between drug dealers and had, in fact, recorded it before Tupac’s shooting.

However, it can very easily be read as dissing Tupac, which is what most people assumed, including Tupac himself.

While in prison, Tupac agreed to sign with Suge Knight’s Death Row Records, at least in part because Knight said he would pay Tupac’s bail. It was $1.4 million. 

Granted, some in the rap community were small-time criminals, but Knight was more like a mafia don. He had money and could make things happen.

Tupac left prison eight months into his four year sentence.

People noticed a change in Tupac after signing with Death Row. He portrayed himself as tougher than anyone else, and released the diss track Hit Em Up in which he tells Biggie and Puffy to watch their backs. He calls them out by name. He even said he had slept with Biggie’s wife, singer Faith Evans.

With the attention Who Shot Ya and Hit Em Up brought to each other, it was no longer just a feud amongst Tupac and Biggie.

Everyone involved — Knight, Puffy, and their crews — and people who weren’t involved at all took sides.

Publicly.

It’s possible they did so following the lead of the Roxanne wars, to get publicity for themselves.

It went from a beef between two rappers to a beef between the East Coast and the West Coast.

Biggie chose to not respond to Hit Em Up. He still considered Tupac to be a friend even though they were having a beef. He thought it best to let things cool down so they could work it out later.

Before that could happen, Tupac was murdered in a drive by shooting outside the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Faith Evans said Biggie cried when he heard the news. He had really wanted to patch things up, but rumors quickly spread that he was behind the hit.

In one of his last interviews, Biggie said that with Tupac gone, it was up to him to end the East Coast vs. West Coast beef.

He said the disagreement was between the two of them and it should never have blown up to involve entire sections of the country.

Within six months of Tupac’s death, Biggie Smalls was killed in a similar shooting in Los Angeles.

No one has ever been arrested but police believe Knight hired a gang member named Poochie to kill Biggie. Poochie was killed by another gang member before police could question him.

In 1997, Puffy, then going by the name Puff Daddy, released a tribute song called I’ll Be Missing You. It features Faith Evans, Biggie’s widow, and interpolates The Police’s Every Breath You Take.

It went to #1 in many countries, and seemed to help chill the east coast vs. west coast rivalry.

In 2018, Knight pleaded guilty to a 2015 fatal hit and run and is serving a 28 year sentence. Due to prior convictions, he won’t be eligible for parole until 2034.

This is a simplified version of a very complicated story that includes other relationships, other songs, and other murders that I didn’t go into here. Rappers, body guards, and gang members lost their lives in the East Coast vs. West Coast beef.

None of these people, with the possible exception of Biggie, learned one of the basic lessons of the dozens: how to take insults in stride.

Diss tracks are nothing new:

The Damned wrote Idiot Box after Television refused to play a show with them.

When James Brown sent Joe Tex a telegram saying he could have his ex-wife back, Tex wrote a song called You Keep Her

Yankee Doodle was sung by British troops mocking the colonist army’s poor appearance.

Pot, meet kettle.

How it went from the good humored banter of picong to gangland style murders is complicated, pointless, and nearly incomprehensible.

While some rapped about the killing of minorities by police, here were rappers killing each other. 

Rapper on rapper violence watered down hip hop’s demands for justice. It gave systemic racism all the cover it needed to continue.

Yet rap continued to grow both artistically and commercially. It influenced other genres and evolved into several distinct and interesting subgenres.

And while the east coast and west coast were feuding, the south and midwest developed their own scenes.

More soon.

Suggested ListeningFull YouTube Playlist

Picong (Duel With Insults At Six Inches)
The Mighty Sparrow vs. The Lord Melody
1957

Roxanne, Roxanne
U.T.F.O.

1984

Roxanne’s Revenge
Roxanne Shanté 

1984

The Real Roxanne
The Real Roxanne
1985

Who Shot Ya?
The Notorious B.I.G.

1994

Hit Em Up
Tupac Shakur

1996

Takeover
Jay-Z
2001

Ether
Nas

2001


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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

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Zeusaphone
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March 3, 2023 7:42 am

The “Roxanne Wars” were glorious, with all manner of side skirmishes and diversions. That was a fun rap beef, with nobody getting shot and most folks not taking it that seriously.

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 3, 2023 8:13 am

I would love to read an ethnographic history of the African American oral tradition. I want to know how the Dozens intersected with the old toast poems (which clearly show their griot heritage), and how American toasts related to, say, Jamaican toasting. It’s fascinating stuff.

Also, toasting was popular among prison inmates, and that’s how a lot of the popular toast poems took on heightened imagery of sex and violence. I always thought there was a bit of gangsta rap in Nick Cave’s take on Stagger Lee, but he was almost certainly just listening to this prison toast from the 1960s:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9nGxcnCIxg

I had recently mentioned the experience of some of my Japanese friends in Philly, and one thing they absolutely could not comprehend is insult humor–and “your mom” jokes got a few people outright angry. Humor sure is relative.

I once took a rap enthusiast friend around Philly and NYC, and we happened to chance on a rap battle that was being held in a record shop at the Gallery. It was very hard to translate to him what they were saying and why, especially in the moment. It was ultra cool to see, but there was a clear tension to it, and when some of the insults got personal, you could feel the tension rise. Or, at least I could. My friend was asking “what are they saying?” To which I said, “Maybe we should head out…”

I like rap battles, but beefs cross the line into toxic territory. Even diss tracks, they tend to be no fun…at best. Such songs showcased Lennon and McCartney at their pettiest. And yes, at their worst, they’re a prelude to tragedy.

Kool Moe Dee on the other hand, he was probably just trying to showcase his own skills. He was a phenomenal MC, and pushed the art of rapping into something more foreceful and sophisticated compared to the earliest party raps. He doesn’t get enough love these days.

Great chapter!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aP3p8GLko4

Last edited 1 year ago by Phylum of Alexandria
Zeusaphone
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March 3, 2023 8:50 am

AFAIK Jan Vansina’s Oral Tradition as History is still the definitive work on the matter. I read it in college because I had to. It’s on the dry, academic side. Might be less boring in the original French if you can read that.

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 3, 2023 8:17 am

Ah! My comment disappeared!  😭 

mt58
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March 3, 2023 8:30 am

We’ve got you covered. Stand by.

mt58
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March 3, 2023 8:36 am
Reply to  mt58

Your nice ” I would love to read an ethnographic history” comment is restored.

I’m sorry about that; the spam filter got weird for no reason.

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 3, 2023 8:54 am
Reply to  mt58

Thanks!

LinkCrawford
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March 4, 2023 12:19 pm

Hmm…it does seem like some more comments have disappeared. I, of course, am taking this as a personal attack from Gary.

mt58
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March 4, 2023 6:48 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

“Don’t look at me.”

“A certain someone needs to sign off on the new file server.”

6DEF3BD7-966A-4850-A755-BE14838087BF.png
dutchg8r
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March 3, 2023 10:10 am

I viewed alot of that late 80’s/early 90s rap beef as a WWF-like storyline. Soap Opera’s for men. But even I could see the escalation of Tupac and Biggie getting out of control, and I can’t say I was surprised at the violent outcomes for each man. Just a shame it got that far.

I loved finding out the roots of Yo Mamma diss jokes stemmed from the West Indies; that is quite fascinating. Thank you V-Dog for yet another tasty edition – Nom-nom-nom!!

mt58
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March 3, 2023 10:58 am
Reply to  dutchg8r

From Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus:

Act 4, Scene 2:

Chiron and Demetrius are insulting Aaron, who has slept with their mother.

Demetrius: “Villain, what hast thou done?”
Aaron: “That which thou canst not undo.”
Chiron: “Thou hast undone our mother.”

Aaron: “Villain, I have done thy mother.”

dutchg8r
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March 3, 2023 11:18 am
Reply to  mt58

Man, that Billy Shakespeare dude was on the cutting edge of EVERYTHING. 🙃

LinkCrawford
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March 3, 2023 11:20 am
Reply to  dutchg8r

 What he saith.

mt58
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March 3, 2023 10:29 am

” …pointless, and nearly incomprehensible”

What he said.

Since we are talking about mob-style murder, I have a question: were these artists that became criminals, or criminals that happened to also be artists?

It’s OJ-level crazy: a celebrity / athlete / performer that also happens to be a violent killer.

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 3, 2023 10:41 am
Reply to  mt58

Either/or.

In Tupac’s case, he initially tried to resist the pull of gang culture, and aspired first to be a dancer, then a figure of protest. But eventually the streets sucked him in, and it turned tragic.

For any fan of Wu Tang Clan, I recommend watching the documentary mini-series “Of Mics and Men.” It goes into their backstory, and sheds light on how life in Staten Island shaped who they came to be and what they put into their music. I’m sure there are other good docs on other acts, but I just happened to see this one, and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 3, 2023 10:49 am
Reply to  Virgindog

“Lennie Kills Everything Around Him”

(maybe if you’ve been avoiding the Wu that joke won’t land…)

Last edited 1 year ago by Phylum of Alexandria
Phylum of Alexandria
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Phylum of Alexandria
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March 3, 2023 10:56 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Yeah, even more so when factoring in the history of drug laws in America, and their explicitly racial lines of enforcement.

hungryghosts
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March 30, 2024 2:00 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Selling drugs isn’t as good a job as being part of the legal system that deals with those who sell drugs. Prosecutor, defense attorney, judge, they’re better than being a drug dealer. Especially in a country where drug dealers can’t get away with assassinating judges and lawyers. Tenured professor at Fordham U is also better than dealing drugs.

cappiethedog
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March 3, 2023 1:12 pm
Reply to  mt58

A lot of it is cosplay. For instance, Rick Ross was a correctional officer, the antithesis of “gangsta”. But there are exceptions as Phylum of Alexandria states. I ignored rap for a long time. But then Killer Mike(not an actual killer) endorsed Bernie Sanders. I wanted to know who he was. I already liked Rage Against the Machine. I saw that Zach De La Rocha guest-starred on a Run the Jewels track. So I started there. I think Sanders missed a golden opportunity. “Close Your Eyes(And Count to ****) should have been his walk-on song for every campaign appearance.

JJ Live At Leeds
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March 3, 2023 11:05 am

I reckon the hat on that over privileged old English gent is rather fetching. What better way to draw attention to your status and stand out in the midst of battle than with such fine upstanding headgear? Ah, so maybe that’s why we lost 😁

Back to the matter in hand and this is all good stuff, filled in a lot of gaps for me. Biggie and Tupac was big news here too but the origins of diss tracks going back through time and then how they started in rap terms is all new to me. Fascinating how a line can be drawn back to the West Indies. I knew the basics around Roxanne but hadn’t realised it went quite so far.

Lastly, that’s the first time I’ve seen the difference between rap and hip hop explained. All makes sense now. I will endeavour to use the appropriate terms in future.

hungryghosts
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March 30, 2024 2:04 am

Sure, those crazy hats didn’t work in North America, but against a similarly crazy-hatted European foe, like the French, y’all did alright.

LinkCrawford
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March 3, 2023 11:27 am

I am a whimpy, anti-conflict guy. It’s funny that WWF and soap operas were both brought up as comparisons in the comments, because I really, really dislike both of them.

And yet, you did a good job of summarizing why the game “The dozens” doesn’t offend me, as long as it stays good natured.

I’d heard of a lot of these storylines and beefs before, but between you and Tom Breihan, I’m finally starting to piece them together. Nice work!

Do you plan on extending this theme to Soft Rock: The Beefs in the future? Remember when David Gates smacked Barry Manilow with his white glove? He also called him a ninny! Scandalous…

blu_cheez
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March 3, 2023 5:32 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

And she’ll cut a fool!

cappiethedog
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March 3, 2023 2:39 pm

How do you explain “Time Rag”?

blu_cheez
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March 3, 2023 5:27 pm

Damn – these are some great write-ups – EXCELLENT work, sir!

We all remember the “Yo Mama” joke in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, right?
https://youtu.be/rlKHmgc3POo

cappiethedog
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March 3, 2023 8:05 pm
Reply to  blu_cheez

This scene, in particular, I think, rankles George Lucas devotees the most. It’s an extended joke. Overall, the main complaint was that Rian Johnson didn’t take the mythology seriously enough. Just playing devil’s advocate. I guess Johnson comes close to Spaceballs territory here; it’s almost an anachronism because the audience is aware that Poe is satirizing the Verizon guy.

What made me laugh the loudest was Rey telling Luke: “I’ve seen your daily routine, you’re not busy.” Episodes I-III put me off so much, I skipped The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. Oh, how I wish I saw the latter with a live audience.

Championing a Star Wars film is weird. Like Taylor Swift, an event film doesn’t need the publicity. But it’s underrated, critically. (Like Swift’s “Speak Now”, which I think is her best song.) I was just so taken aback by how the characters resembled actual human beings. I hope Johnson returns to the fold. He’s in denial; he still thinks he is.

Zeusaphone
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March 7, 2023 7:08 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

It’s not appreciably different from a gag Lucas used in the original Star Wars

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

cappiethedog
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March 9, 2023 8:40 pm
Reply to  Zeusaphone

How come Chewbacca never ages?

hungryghosts
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March 30, 2024 2:08 am
Reply to  cappiethedog

Wookiees have a lifespan a few centuries long. And I have 16 different Chewbacca action figures in my closet, all mint on card, and all autographed by Peter Mayhew.

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