Rapping (also known as emceeing, MCing, spitting (bars), or rhyming) refers to "spoken or chanted rhyming lyrics". The art form can be broken down into different components, as in the book How to Rap where it is separated into “content”, “flow” (rhythm and rhyme), and “delivery”. Rapping is distinct from spoken word poetry in that it is performed in time to a beat.
Rapping is often associated with and a primary ingredient of hip hop music and reggae, but the phenomenon predates hip hop culture by centuries. It can also be found in alternative rock such as that of Cake and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Rapping is also used in Kwaito music, a genre that originated in Johannesburg, South Africa and is composed of hip hop elements. Rapping can be delivered over a beat or without accompaniment. Stylistically, rap occupies a gray area among speech, prose, poetry, and song. The use of the word (meaning originally "to hit") to describe quick speech or repartee, long predates the musical form. The word had been used in British English since the 16th century, and specifically meaning "to say" since the 18th. It was part of the African American dialect of English in the 1960s meaning "to converse", and very soon after that in its present usage as a term denoting the musical style. Today, the terms "rap" and "rapping" are so closely associated with hip hop music that many use the terms interchangeably.
The roots of rapping
A Southern work song performed by Judge "Bootmouth" Tucker and Alexander "Neighborhood" Williams in 1939.
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Over many centuries, the meaning of the English verb rap was gradually extended from 'hit, strike, especially repetitively and rapidly' to 'parley', and finally, 'speak lyrics to a beat measure (whether or not the beat itself is physically present)'.
By the late 1960s, when Hubert G. Brown changed his name to H. Rap Brown, rap was a slang term referring to an oration or speech, such as was common among the 'hip' crowd in the protest movements, but it did not come to be associated with a musical style for another decade.
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Rapping can be traced back to its African roots. Centuries before hip hop music existed, the griots of West Africa were delivering stories rhythmically, over drums and sparse instrumentation. Such connections have been acknowledged by many modern artists, modern day "griots", spoken word artists, mainstream news sources, and academics.
Blues music, rooted in the work songs and spirituals of slavery and influenced greatly by West African musical traditions, was first played by blacks, and later by some whites, in the Mississippi Delta region of the United States around the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. Grammy-winning blues musician/historian Elijah Wald and others have argued that the blues were being rapped as early as the 1920s. Wald went so far as to call hip hop "the living blues." Jazz, which developed from the blues and other African-American and European musical traditions and originated around the beginning of the 20th century, has also influenced hip hop and has been cited as a precursor of hip hop. Not just jazz music and lyrics but also Jazz poetry. According to John Sobol, the jazz musician and poet who wrote Digitopia Blues, rap "bears a striking resemblance to the evolution of jazz both stylistically and formally." One of the main influences on Hip Hop artists was James Brown. James Brown is credited for inventing funk music in the middle '60s. The characteristic funk drum beat is the most common rhythm used for rap music. Two of the earliest recordings which have a funk beat and lyrics which are rhymed in rhythm over this type of beat were released by comedian Pigmeat Markham, "Here Come the Judge" which was released in 1968 by the Chess label and in 1969 another song about running numbers called "Who Got The Number?". "Here Comes the Judge" peaked at number 19 on the Billboard charts. While it was primarily a comical song about a Judge and his courtroom it is also notable for the political lyrics "I'm goin' to Paris to stop this war" and "I had a chat with Ho Chi Minh" both social commentary references about wanting to go to the Paris Peace Accord negotiations to stop the war in Vietnam.
The spoken word jazz poetry of the United States was also a predecessor for beat poetry, as well as the rapping in hip hop music. Gil Scott-Heron, a jazz poet/musician who wrote and released such seminal songs as "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", "H2OGate Blues Part 2: We Beg Your Pardon America," and "Johannesberg," has been cited as an influence on many rappers. His collaborations with musician Brian Jackson (Pieces of a Man, Winter in America) have been cited as major influences on hip hop, in terms of sound and lyrical style. Similar in style, the Last Poets who formed in 1969 recited political poetry over drum beats and other instrumentation, and were another predecessor for rap music. They released their debut album in 1970 reaching the top ten on the Billboard charts.
Precursors also exist in non-African/African-American traditions, especially in vaudeville and musical theater. One such tradition is the patter song exemplified by Gilbert and Sullivan but that has origins in earlier Italian opera. "Rock Island" from Meridith Wilson's The Music Man is wholly spoken by an ensemble of travelling salesmen, as are most of the numbers for British actor Rex Harrison in the 1964 Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady. Glenn Miller's "The Lady's in Love with You" and "The Little Man Who Wasn't There" (both 1939), each contain distinctly rap-like sequences set to a driving beat. In musical theater, the term "vamp" is identical to its meaning in Jazz, gospel, and funk, and it fulfills the same function. Semi-spoken music has long been especially popular in British entertainment, and such examples as David Croft's theme to the 1970s' sitcom Are You Being Served?, the 1979 song Mickey as performed by Toni Basil in 1982, and the 1984 title song, "One Night in Bangkok" for the musical Chess have elements indistinguishable from modern rap. In the realm of classical music, semi-spoken music was popular stylized by composer Arnold Schoenberg as Sprechstimme, and famously used in Ernst Toch's 1924 Geographical Fugue for spoken chorus and the final scene in Darius Milhaud's 1915 ballet Les Choéphores. Although these probably did not have a direct influence on rap's development in the African American cultural sphere, they paved the way for acceptance of spoken word music in the media market.
More directly related to the African American community were items like schoolyard chants and taunts, clapping games, jump-rope rhymes, some with unwritten folk histories going back hundreds of years across many nationalities. Sometimes these items contain racially offensive lyrics. A related area that is not strictly folklore is rhythmical cheering and cheerleading for military and sports.
During the mid-20th century, the musical culture of the Caribbean was constantly influenced by the concurrent changes in American music. As early as 1956, deejays were toasting (an African tradition of "rapped out" tales of heroism) over dubbed Jamaican beats. It was called "rap", expanding the word's earlier meaning in the African-American community—"to discuss or debate informally."
One of the first rappers in the beginning of the hip hop period, in the end of '70s, was also hip hop's first DJ, Kool Herc. Herc, a Jamaican immigrant, started delivering simple raps at his parties, inspired by the Jamaican tradition of toasting. By the end of the 1970s, artists such as Kurtis Blow and The Sugarhill Gang were just starting to receive radio airplay and make an impact far outside of the New York area, on a national scale.
Old school rap
Old school rap (1979–1984) was "easily identified by its relatively simple raps" according to Allmusic, "the emphasis was not on lyrical technique, but simply on good times", one notable exception being Melle Mel, who set the way for future rappers through his socio-political content and creative wordplay.
The golden age
Golden age hip hop (cited as either just the late '80s or the late 80s to early 90s) was the time period where hip-hop lyricism went through its most drastic transformation – writer William Jelani Cobb says "in these golden years, a critical mass of mic prodigies were literally creating themselves and their art form at the same time" and Allmusic writes, "rhymers like PE's Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, and Rakim basically invented the complex wordplay and lyrical kung-fu of later hip-hop”. The golden age is considered to have ended around '93–'94, marking the end of rap lyricism's most innovative period.
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"Flow" is defined as "the rhythms and rhymes" of a hip-hop song's lyrics and how they interact – the book How to Rap breaks flow down into rhyme, rhyme schemes, and rhythm (also known as cadence). 'Flow' is also sometimes used to refer to elements of the delivery (pitch, timbre, volume) as well, though often a distinction is made between the flow and the delivery.
Staying on the beat is central to rap's flow – many MCs note the importance of staying on-beat in How to Rap including Sean Price, Mighty Casey, Zion I, Vinnie Paz, Fredro Starr, Del The Funky Homosapien, Tech N9ne, People Under The Stairs, Twista, B-Real, Mr Lif, 2Mex, and Cage.
MCs stay on-beat by stressing syllables in time to the four beats of the musical backdrop. Poetry scholar Derek Attridge describes how this works in his book Poetic Rhythm – "rap lyrics are written to be performed to an accompaniment that emphasizes the metrical structure of the verse". He says rap lyrics are made up of, "lines with four stressed beats, separated by other syllables that may vary in number and may include other stressed syllables. The strong beat of the accompaniment coincides with the stressed beats of the verse, and the rapper organizes the rhythms of the intervening syllables to provide variety and surprise".
The same technique is also noted in the book How to Rap, where diagrams are used to show how the lyrics line up with the beat – "stressing a syllable on each of the four beats gives the lyrics the same underlying rhythmic pulse as the music and keeps them in rhythm... other syllables in the song may still be stressed, but the ones that fall in time with the four beats of a bar are the only ones that need to be emphasized in order to keep the lyrics in time with the music".
History of flow
Old School flows were relatively basic and used only few syllables per bar, simple rhythmic patterns, and basic rhyming techniques and rhyme schemes. Melle Mel is cited as an Old School MC who epitomizes the Old School flow – Kool Moe Dee says, “from 1970 to 1978 we rhymed one way [then] Melle Mel, in 1978, gave us the new cadence we would use from 1978 to 1986... he’s the first emcee to explode in a new rhyme cadence, and change the way every emcee rhymed forever. Rakim, Biggie, and Eminem have flipped the flow, but Melle Mel’s downbeat on the two, four, kick to snare cadence is still the rhyme foundation all emcees are building on".
Artists and critics often credit Rakim with creating the overall shift from the more simplistic Old School flows to more complex flows near the beginning of Hip Hop’s new school – Kool Moe Dee says, “any emcee that came after 1986 had to study Rakim just to know what to be able to do... Rakim, in 1986, gave us flow and that was the rhyme style from 1986 to 1994... from that point on, anybody emceeing was forced to focus on their flow”. Kool Moe Dee explains that before Rakim, the term ‘flow’ wasn’t widely used – “Rakim is basically the inventor of flow. We were not even using the word flow until Rakim came along. It was called rhyming, it was called cadence, but it wasn’t called flow. Rakim created flow!” He adds that while Rakim upgraded and popularized the focus on flow, “he didn’t invent the word”.
Kool Moe Dee states that Biggie introduced a newer flow which “dominated from 1994 to 2002”, and also says that Method Man was “one of the emcees from the early to mid-’90s that ushered in the era of flow... Rakim invented it, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, and Kool G Rap expanded it, but Biggie and Method Man made flow the single most important aspect of an emcee’s game”. He also cites Craig Mack as an artist who contributed to developing flow in the ‘90s.
Music scholar Adam Krims says, “the flow of MCs is one of the profoundest changes that separates out new-sounding from older-sounding music... it is widely recognized and remarked that rhythmic styles of many commercially successful MCs since roughly the beginning of the 1990s have progressively become faster and more ‘complex’”. He cites “members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Nas, AZ, Big Pun, and Ras Kass, just to name a few” as artists who exemplify this progression.
- “The Chant”, which he says is used by Lil Jon and Project Pat
- “The Syncopated Bounce”, used by Twista and Bone Thugs N Harmony
- “Straight Forward”, used by Scarface, 2Pac, Melle Mel, KRS-One circa Boogie Down Productions era, Too Short, Jay-Z, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg
- “The Rubik’s Cube”, used by Nas, Black Thought of The Roots, Common, Kurupt, and Lauryn Hill
- “2-5-Flow”, a pun of Kenya's calling code "+254", used by Camp Mulla
Alternatively, music scholar Adam Krims uses the following terms –
- “sung rhythmic style”, used by Too Short, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, and the Beastie Boys
- “percussion-effusive style”, used by B-Real of Cypress Hill
- “speech-effusive style”, used by Big Pun
MCs use many different rhyming techniques, including complex rhyme schemes, as Adam Krims points out – “the complexity... involves multiple rhymes in the same rhyme complex (i.e. section with consistently rhyming words), internal rhymes, [and] offbeat rhymes”. There is also widespread use of multisyllabic rhymes, by artists such as Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, and Eminem.
It has been noted that rap’s use of rhyme is some of the most advanced in all forms of poetry – music scholar Adam Bradley notes, “rap rhymes so much and with such variety that it is now the largest and richest contemporary archive of rhymed words. It has done more than any other art form in recent history to expand rhyme’s formal range and expressive possibilities”.
In the book How to Rap, Masta Ace explains how Rakim and Big Daddy Kane caused a shift in the way MCs rhymed: “Up until Rakim, everybody who you heard rhyme, the last word in the sentence was the rhyming [word], the connection word. Then Rakim showed us that you could put rhymes within a rhyme... now here comes Big Daddy Kane — instead of going three words, he’s going multiple”. How to Rap explains that "rhyme is often thought to be the most important factor in rap writing... rhyme is what gives rap lyrics their musicality.
To successfully deliver a rap, a rapper must also develop vocal presence, enunciation, and breath control. Vocal presence is the distinctiveness of a rapper's voice on record. Enunciation is essential to a flowing rap; some rappers choose also to exaggerate it for comic and artistic effect. Breath control, taking in air without interrupting one's delivery, is an important skill for a rapper to master, and a must for any MC. An MC with poor breath control cannot deliver difficult verses without making unintentional pauses.
Raps are sometimes delivered with melody. West Coast rapper Egyptian Lover was the first notable MC to deliver "sing-raps." Popular rappers such as 50 Cent and Ja Rule add a slight melody to their otherwise purely percussive raps whereas some rappers such as Cee-Lo Green are able to harmonize their raps with the beat. The Midwestern group Bone Thugs-n-Harmony was one of the first groups to achieve nationwide recognition for using the fast-paced, melodic and harmonic raps that are also practiced by Do or Die, another Midwestern group. Another rapper that harmonized his rhymes was Nate Dogg, a rapper part of the group 213. Rakim experimented not only with following the beat, but also with complementing the song's melody with his own voice, making his flow sound like that of an instrument (a saxophone in particular).
The ability to rap quickly and clearly is sometimes regarded as an important sign of skill. In certain hip hop subgenres such as chopped and screwed, slow-paced rapping is often considered optimal. The current record for fastest rapper is held by Spanish rapper Domingo Edjang Moreno, known by his alias Chojin, who rapped 921 syllables in one minute on December 23, 2008.
"Party rhymes", meant to pump up the crowd at a party, were nearly the exclusive focus of old school hip hop, and they remain a staple of hip hop music to this day. In addition to party raps, rappers also tend to make references to love and sex. Love raps were first popularized by Spoonie Gee of the Treacherous Three, and later, in the golden age of hip hop, Big Daddy Kane, Heavy D, and LL Cool J would continue this tradition. Hip hop artists such as KRS-One, Hopsin, Public Enemy, Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., and dead prez are known for their sociopolitical subject matter. Their West Coast counterparts include Emcee Lynx, The Coup, Paris, and Michael Franti. Tupac Shakur was also known for rapping about social issues such as police brutality, teenage pregnancy, and racism.
Other rappers take a less critical approach to urbanity, sometimes even embracing such aspects as crime. Schoolly D was the first notable MC to rap about crime. Early on KRS-One was accused of celebrating crime and a hedonistic lifestyle, but after the death of his DJ, Scott La Rock, KRS-One went on to speak out against violence in hip hop and has spent the majority of his career condemning violence and writing on issues of race and class. Ice-T was one of the first rappers to call himself a "playa" and discuss guns on record, but his theme tune to the 1987 film Colors contained warnings against joining gangs. Gangsta rap, made popular largely because of N.W.A, brought rapping about crime and the gangster lifestyle into the musical mainstream.
Materialism has also been a popular topic in hip-hop since at least the early 1990s, with rappers boasting about their own wealth and possessions, and name-dropping specific brands: liquor brands Cristal and Rémy Martin, car manufacturers Bentley and Mercedes-Benz and clothing brands Gucci and Versace have all been popular subjects for rappers.
Various politicians, journalists, and religious leaders have accused rappers of fostering a culture of violence and hedonism among hip hop listeners through their lyrics. However, there are also rappers whose messages may not be in conflict with these views, for example Christian hip hop. Others have praised the "political critique, innuendo and sarcasm" of hip hop music.
In contrast to the more hedonistic approach of gangsta rappers, some rappers have a spiritual or religious focus. Christian rap is currently the most commercially successful form of religious rap. Aside from Christianity, the Five Percent Nation, an Islamic esotericist religious/spiritual group, has been represented more than any religious group in popular hip hop. Artists such as Rakim, the members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Brand Nubian, X-Clan, Busta Rhymes, and Nas, have had success in spreading the theology of the Five Percenters.
Rappers use the literary techniques of double entendres, alliteration, and other forms of wordplay that are also found in classical poetry. Similes and metaphors are used extensively in rap lyrics; rappers such as Fabolous and Lloyd Banks have written entire songs in which every line contains similes, whereas MCs like Rakim, GZA, and Jay-Z are known for the metaphorical content of their raps. Rappers such as Lupe Fiasco are known for the complexity of their songs that contain metaphors within extended metaphors.
Diction and dialect
Many hip hop listeners believe that a rapper's lyrics are enhanced by a complex vocabulary. Kool Moe Dee claims that he appealed to older audiences by using a complex vocabulary in his raps. Rap is famous, however, for having its own vocabulary—from international hip hop slang to regional slang. Some artists, like the Wu-Tang Clan, develop an entire lexicon among their clique. African American Vernacular English has always had a significant effect on hip hop slang and vice versa. Certain regions have introduced their unique regional slang to hip hop culture, such as the Bay Area (Mac Dre, E-40), Houston (Chamillionaire, Paul Wall), Atlanta (Ludacris, Lil Jon, T.I.), and Kentucky (Nappy Roots). The Nation of Gods and Earths, aka The Five Percenters, has influenced mainstream hip hop slang with the introduction of phrases such as "word is bond" that have since lost much of their original spiritual meaning. Preference toward one or the other has much to do with the individual; GZA, for example, prides himself on being very visual and metaphorical but also succinct, whereas underground rapper MF DOOM is known for heaping similes upon similes. In still another variation, 2Pac was known for saying exactly what he meant, literally and clearly.
Freestyle and battle
There are two kinds of freestyle rap: one is scripted (recitation), but having no particular overriding subject matter, the second typically referred to as "freestyling" or "spitting", is the improvisation of rapped lyrics. When freestyling, some rappers inadvertently reuse old lines, or even "cheat" by preparing segments or entire verses in advance. Therefore, freestyles with proven spontaneity are valued above generic, always usable lines. Rappers will often reference places or objects in their immediate setting, or specific (usually demeaning) characteristics of opponents, to prove their authenticity and originality.
Battle rapping, which can be freestyled, is the competition between two or more rappers in front of an audience. The tradition of insulting one's friends or acquaintances in rhyme goes back to the dozens, and was portrayed famously by Muhammad Ali in his boxing matches. The winner of a battle is decided by the crowd and/or preselected judges. According to Kool Moe Dee, a successful battle rap focuses on an opponent's weaknesses, rather than one's own strengths. Television shows such as MTV's DFX and BET's 106 and Park host weekly freestyle battles live on the air. Battle rapping gained widespread public recognition outside of the African-American community with rapper Eminem's movie, 8 Mile.
The strongest battle rappers will generally perform their rap fully freestyled. This is the most effective form in a battle as the rapper can comment on the other person, whether it be what they look like, or how they talk, or what they wear. It also allows the rapper to reverse a line used to "diss" him or her if they are the second rapper to battle. This is known as a 'flip'. Jin the Emcee was considered 'World Champion' battle rapper in the mid-2000s.
Derivatives and influence
Throughout hip hop's history, new musical styles and genres have developed that contain rapping. Entire genres, such as rap rock and its derivatives rapcore and rap metal (rock/metal/punk with rapped vocals), or hip house have resulted from the fusion of rap and other styles. Many popular music genres with a focus on percussion have contained rapping at some point; be it disco (DJ Hollywood), jazz (Gang Starr), new wave (Blondie), funk (Fatback Band), contemporary R&B (Mary J. Blige), reggaeton (Daddy Yankee), or even Japanese dance music (Soul'd Out). UK garage music has begun to focus increasingly on rappers in a new subgenre called grime, pioneered and popularized by the MC Dizzee Rascal. Increased popularity with the music has shown more UK rappers going to America as well as tour there, such as Sway DaSafo possibly signing with Akon's label Konvict. Hyphy is the latest of these spin-offs. It is typified by slowed-down atonal vocals with instrumentals that borrow heavily from the hip hop scene and lyrics centered on illegal street racing and car culture. Another Oakland, California group, Beltaine's Fire, has recently gained attention for their Celtic fusion sound which blends hip hop beats with Celtic melodies. Unlike the majority of hip hop artists, all their music is performed live without samples, synths, or drum machines, drawing comparisons to The Roots and Rage Against the Machine.
Bhangra, a widely popular style of music from Punjab, India has been mixed numerous times with reggae and hip hop music. The most popular song in this genre in the United States was "Mundian to Bach Ke" or "Beware the Boys" by Panjabi MC and Jay-Z. Although "Mundian To Bach Ke" had been released previously, the mixing with Jay-Z popularized the genre further.
Though the majority of rappers are male, there have been a number of female rap stars, including Lauryn Hill, MC Lyte, Lil' Kim, Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah, Da Brat, Eve, Trina, Nicki Minaj, Khia, M.I.A., Foxy Brown, and Lisa Lopes from TLC. As these all are hearing rap artists, there is also deaf rap artist Signmark.
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