Having close to three decades under its belt at this point, hip-hop has come a long way from its underground roots. But how did hip-hop take off from the streets and where is it headed from here?
As the 70s were coming to an end and the 80s were just getting started, Kurtis Blow and The Sugarhill Gang were doing something new. Kurtis Blow was yapping about “The Breaks,” and The Sugarhill Gang was introducing the world to “Rapper’s Delight.”
This was a time before rappers would write rhymes about their extravagant lifestyles; instead they rapped about more typical things. This commentary of everyday life is captured exquisitely in “The Breaks,” as well as in one verse of “Rapper’s Delight,” where the Gang raps about going to a friend’s house to eat where the food is less than good- who hasn’t been there before?
At almost 15 minutes in total length, “Rapper’s Delight” is an artifact in the history of rap that noticeably influenced the music of today. These days, the rapper Pitbull uses, “hotel motel holiday inn,” as the hook/chorus in one of his songs. For those who don’t know, this is a lyric from “Rapper’s Delight.”
In 1982, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message.” In his book “Scar Tissue,” Anthony Kiedis, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, said this song had a big influence on him, and it’s doubtful he was the only one affected by this classic tune.
With lyrics talking about broken glass and junkies with baseball bats as well as a warning not to, “push me cuz I’m close to the edge,” whatever Flash’s message in the song is, it’s not light of heart. “The Message” marks a point where hip-hop music started moving out of the clubs and into the streets, delivering messages of hardships laced with crime.
There were groups like Run-D.M.C. and N.W.A. along with a pack of others who carried rap from the 80s into the 90s. This time period is sometimes referred to as the “golden age” of rap. Fans of rap music thoroughly enjoy music from this era today.
Matt Willemyns, a 20-year-old junior integrative physiology major, said, “I like the old school stuff. You know like when it was in its purest form.” Specifically, Willemyns mentioned, “Dr. Dre, Tupac and stuff like that.”
Rap began to lose whatever element of lyrical innocence it had as rappers like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z and Nas embraced more explicit, violent and sexual subject matter. Innovation of the rap game brought about a cornucopia of news styles and sounds. The two most noteworthy artists, however, were The Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.
In 1994, The Notorious B.I.G. released “Juicy,” a song about making it from life on the street to rapping for sold-out crowds. The Notorious B.I.G., or Biggie Smalls, had a way of rapping with a comfortable and natural flow. Smalls intertwined consonant and vowel sounds in a colorful tapestry by means of carefully used syllable placement and timing. This was common in nearly all rap music at the time, but in the case of Biggie it was done in a way that sounded like he wasn’t even trying to do it.
This year was also the year when Tupac was shot during a robbery. Tupac would later accuse Smalls of being involved in the shooting. There was a feud boiling between the East Coast and West Coast rappers, and this incident didn’t help to calm it down.
Whereas Biggie had skills in flow, Tupac had a knack for content. His lyrics had meaning and the meaning was heard by a lot of people. Sometime the meaning was one of hope, but not always. In 1996 the song “Hit ‘Em Up,” started with Tupac saying, “That’s why I (expletive) your bitch you fat mother (expletive).” It’s commonly accepted that Biggie was be the “fat mother (expletive)” that Tupac was referring to, and Biggie fired back in songs of his own.
Lyrical battles like this only escalated the East Coast-West Coast feud. Later in 1996, Tupac was shot and killed and around six months later Biggie was also shot and killed. These two incidents were the crux of the battle and tensions calmed down significantly afterwards.
The late 90s and early 2000s brought rappers like Eminem to the forefront of the scene. Eminem, a white pharmaceutical-popping, glue-sniffing, weed-smoking, alcoholic rapper out of Detroit, generated considerable controversy with his intentionally-incendiary lyrics about drug use, murder and homophobia. Eminem’s race set him apart from other rappers, as did his unique style. A student of those who came before him, he had an uncanny ability to somehow make words rhyme when they shouldn’t (i.e., rhyming oranges with syringes).
Three Six Mafia introduced us all to “Sippin’ on Some Syrup.” The syrup being referenced is cough medicine, and that is only one of the intoxicants rapped about in this song. Three Six Mafia raps with gratuitous obscenities and countless references to sex and drugs. Where Biggie had flow and Tupac had content, Three Six has neither. Instead they have captivating beats and entertaining—for lack of a better word—lyrics.
Sex, drugs and hip-hop have always had a close relationship, but as rap evolved the social commentary faded and the messages became a lot less discrete. Dr. Dre, on the album “2001,” had songs with lyrics saying, “I just wanna (expletive) you.” To some, these lyrics are comical while others take them as badass and still others find them simply as offensive.
Haley Fesenmeyer, a sophomore English major said, “I like rap if it’s not too gangster. I just don’t like it when they start rapping about booties and ghetto things.”
As hip-hop lyrics became more and more outrageous, the ability to play entire albums on the radio, or even in a socially acceptable way in public, changed. Only a small portion of the music that was out there could be played to the masses. This meant people would have to be dedicated fans of the musicians in order to discover some of their better work.
Micah Nelson, a 20-year-old freshman molecular biology major, said, “It is very unfortunate that almost all quality rap music out there will never be listened to by most people.”
Some rappers from “the golden age” are still on the scene, like Jay-Z and Nas, but recently the world of rap has been dominated by rappers like Lil Wayne and Akon. Lil Wayne has a seemingly unstructured and unique way of rapping. His voice is as gritty as sandpaper, and his rhymes are raw.
Electric synthesizer-ridden beats, an electrically modified voice and highly melodic rapping are the calling card of Akon, to the point where many people consider his songs to be overproduced. There is so much going on with the beat and the voice effects, it feels like a flood in the ear canal.
Eric Doran, a 23-year-old senior communication major, said rap has, “gotten lost in club music and kind of the popular rap music of today, and I feel like it has somewhere else to go outside of that.”
This feeling that rap got lost, and is not as good as it used to be, is shared among many students here at CU. Only time will tell what new innovations will emerge and what direction this dynamic genre will take.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Seth Gitner at Seth.firstname.lastname@example.org.