Rap is a genre that has steadily grown in popularity over the past few decades, and, as we know it today, is a staple of modern music. But how did this iconic genre come to be, and who can we credit with its existence? A closer inspection of rap’s history lends the genre to be a key form of expression in the experience of Black Americans, expression which has disseminated across many cultures and circles, and has greatly influenced pop culture as it stands today.
The most basic roots of rap can be traced back to West African griots; villagers who would tell stories concerning their community or families while accompanied by music. When slavery was introduced in America, this same style of storytelling over music was present to help cope with the struggles and hardships of slaves, gradually evolving into its own unique style.
Towards the end of the 19th century, jazz and blues emerged as another form of musical expression within the African American community. Many musicians either experimented with instrumentals, or sang about their own unique experiences. Eventually, musical styles originating from these genres hit the mainstream, and with popularization from musicians including Elvis Presley, became widely enjoyed by the American audience, despite the continued discrimination of the African American community.
The technique of looping/sampling, now commonplace in many rap songs, was created from the block parties of African American New Yorkers. DJ Kool Herc is credited with the creation of this technique. Using the song “Clap Your Hands” by rhythm and blues artist James Brown, DJ Kool Herc used two turntables to repeat one section of the song for as long as needed.
After DJ Kool Herc began experimenting with looping, emceeing was introduced to help keep parties “alive.” In this specific scenario, DJ Kool Herc’s friend Coke La Rock would speak over the music, engaging and entertaining the audience, and eventually using rhyme as a method of engagement. This led to the first rap lyric ever spoken: “There’s not a man that can’t be thrown, not a horse that can’t be rode, a bull that can’t be stopped, there’s not a disco that I Coke La Rock can’t rock.”
From this point on, DJing and rapping became commonplace at block parties, giving way to the first mainstream rap song, “Rapper’s Delight” by New Jersey group Sugarhill Gang. Despite being a whopping 14 minutes long, this historical song made it onto the Billboard Top 40 in 1980.
Rap music continues to evolve as musicians find new ways to express themselves. Techniques are constantly changing, and new trends in the genre are constantly emerging. Rap is an inescapable force of the music industry, with a past just as interesting as its present.