If you love lyrics, or like the author derived much of your education from
vinyl rather than folio, then hip hop, acknowledged by Time magazine as
the ‘single most important cultural phenomenon of the past quarter-
century’, presents a uniquely stimulating and fertile forum. There are
more words than a conventional rock lyric, for a start. The Sugarhill Gang’
s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ saw those brothers who rock so viciously do so,
rather meekly, in the event, for nearly 3,000 words and 17 minutes. But
while I would advise no-one to spend a significant portion of their life
analysing the nuances of this needs-must effort, it did establish hip hop
as the perfect platform for the contemporary wordsmith. Despite all
evidence to the contrary, rap is still criticised as a reductive, degenerative
musical form, readily dismissed by reference to some admittedly
regrettable lyrics (a selection of which are included in this book). But
dismissing an art form based on its more infantile manifestations is folly
on a par with branding country music ‘redneck’.
It’s worth pointing out immediately that this book is meant to complement
the records it discusses, rather than replace them. No bare-page
transcription will ever convey the ping-pong theatricals of Run-D.M.C.’s
call and response interplay, the way the Bomb Squad emboss Chuck D’s
savage rhetoric on Public Enemy’s records or the rhyme patterns, delivery
or cadences that make individual MCs unique.
Hip hop’s brief history, in keeping with the cut and paste aesthetic of the
music, rarely offers a smooth continuum. The ultimate post-modern
genre, it deconstructs the familiar, hunting down useful snatches of
sound from unlikely sources in order to reassemble what it finds in new
and unpredictable ways, a benevolent parasite leaping from one host
culture to the next. So while many of the lyrics in this book reference each
other, the chronology is obscured by shifts back and forward through time,
in and out of different musical genres and styles.
After ‘Rapper’s Delight’, Kurtis Blow’s ‘The Breaks’ confirmed that there
was mileage in what many assumed was a novelty craze, while
Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’ argued that the subject matter need
not be one-dimensional. But it was with the arrival of Run-D.M.C. that hip
hop was reborn as rap, the dynamic eschewing acoustic niceties in
favour of rugged, fist-hard battle rhymes. They even dispensed with the
bass line. A music that had formerly embraced the fantastic, the futuristic
and the escapist, now professed to ‘keeping it real’.
Along with Run-D.M.C., the mid-80s were dominated by Def Jam’s
touchstone acts, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. LL was
rap’s first b-boy superstar, who told it like it was round his way with
enough surplus natural charisma to win over pop audiences after
conquering the hip hop market. The Beasties were white interlopers
whose open hostility to mainstream values saw them embraced by
resentful suburban teenagers the world over. Public Enemy, rap’s most
important soothsayers, seethed and scowled and used words as
projectiles to be launched against the status quo. In Chuck D they had a
lyricist whose ability to articulate resentment and indignation surpassed
any who had preceded him. The black Johnny Rotten? And then some.
Others such as Eric B and Rakim, Gang Starr and Boogie Down
Productions played pivotal roles in expanding hip hop’s musical and
linguistic frontiers. But away from hip hop’s traditional birthing grounds in
New York, something ugly was brewing on the west coast of America. N.
W.A.’s indiscriminate hate-speak was succinctly expressed in their full
billing Niggers With Attitude. Their tales of arbitrary gangland violence
saw them become pin-ups in every teenage white suburban bedroom
whilst incensing everyone from the liberal intelligentsia to the FBI.
Gangsta rap had one hand in the cash register and the other around the
throat of mainstream American culture. But for all the escalating
misanthropy of the phenomenon, there were also great records. The best
ones invariably had former N.W.A. member Dr Dre’s prints on them
somewhere, while the pre-eminent rappers included Snoop Doggy Dogg
and Tupac Shakur. The latter began to roll with Death Row just as the
most infamous label in the music business started to live up to its name.
This book concludes with some of rap’s latest crop - southern-ballers
OutKast, the multi-talented Missy Elliott, pop-gangsta Puff Daddy and
Eminem. The first star MC of the 21st century, Eminem has tied many of
hip hop’s disparate threads together. A virtuoso lyricist, his skills are
honed on a rigid belief in the importance of ‘freestyling’ – a throwback to
the combative party duels that kick-started the original hip hop
Any such survey of an art form can only be representative, at best. But
there is some attempt to trace the chronological development of the rap
lyric, whilst making the occasional detour to acknowledge particularly
noteworthy developments or efforts of particular historical significance.