(Created by Joann Wood, History 135, April 2004)

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DJ Grandmaster; source is www.b-boys.com/images/promo/grandmaster.jpg
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How has rap music influenced elements of pop culture such as fashion, art, language and the literary world since its emergence as a distinct musical genre in the 1980s?


Rap and hip-hop music as we know it today actually began thousands of years ago in Africa with the “griots”, who were village story tellers who played a simple handmade instrument while they told stories of family and village events. The griot was, and still is, a major form of communication in parts of Africa. This “talking” while music is playing is rap music in its most rudimentary form.

In addition to the griot tradition, rap is rooted in the pain of Black-American experience which began with slavery. While slaves were working in the fields, they would often sing. Part of the songs they sang were "call and answer" selections. One leader would call out part of the song and the rest of the slaves would answer with the next line.

When the slaves would attend religious services, this call and response trend continued and prevailed in churches even after slavery ended. Often, the minister would make the "call" and the congregation was responsible for the "response." This call and answer trend can be found in early rap music all the way up to current rap music. The DJ would call out "Can I get a Woo Woo?" and the response would of course come back as "Woo Woo" from the people listening.

Then in 1978, a year in which the American musical did not seem to be evolving in any direction, in New York City, two deejays, DJ Hollywood and DJ Kool Herc, had had enough with the aging disco scene. They began pulling records from their parents house and started spinning short sections of them on turntables at local parties. Soon, they began using two turntables at the same time. Historians have come to coin them as the “founding fathers of rap.” In the summer of 1979, rap broke out with “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang. This was a fourteen minute rapping frenzy with “Good Times” sampled in the background. It marked the beginning of the rap music trend.

Another huge force in the early rap movement was Afrika Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation. Afrika was a deejay who would spin records at parks and parties. He incorporated an element of cultural awareness in his spinning that was new to the scene. Afrika was a former gang member who saw music as a way to bring ghetto youth together.

In 1982, Grandmaster Flash recorded “The Message,” which was the first rap song to paint a realistic, dismal and graphic picture of life in the slums of America. Up until now, most rap music contained upbeat, perky and fun messages. This was a landmark recording which paved the way for social and political commentary in rap music which still continues on today.

Rap music received another major boost in 1986 with the music video “Walk this Way” which brought Run DMC and the rock band Aerosmith together in a major musical crossover event. MTV was in it’s heyday and rap music was just getting started with more artists tapping into the video market. Rock music fans saw this video and started opening themselves up to rap music which tapped into a whole new market. MTV continued to help rap music’s recognition in 1988 with the new MTV show “Yo! MTV Raps!” This show received the highest ratings in the history of MTV and started it’s own spin off weekly show with Dr. Dre and Ed Lover. As rap music received more and more exposure through music videos, it’s popularity continued to skyrocket.

Through the years, the faces and messages of rap music continued to evolve. Gangsta rap was born out of the east coast, west coast rivalry, which also led to tragedy. Sampling was a trend used by many rappers in the nineties which also spurred some copyright controversy. Since it’s inception, rap music remains a highly influential, popular and sometimes controversial form of music entertainment.

When rap music first surfaced, a new art form known as "grafitti art" surfaced along with it. The New York subway trains were covered in this new spray can art form. New DJ's would paint their names or a symbol in order to get recognized. In the early eighties, an independent museum in New York actually had a grafitti art exhibit to honor this new trend. Rap music also played a part in what is now known as "Slamming." A poetry slam is the reading of original poetry that is read aloud with drums or a bass line playing in the background. The poetry often contains a political or sociological message and the style in which it is read actually closely resembles the style of the African griots. Rap music also uses it's own terminology to describe and refer to things. A perfect example of this is the current trend started by Snoop Dogg to add an "izzle" to the end of words. This trend has caught on in popular culture to the point where radio stations and media personality are trying to incorporate it into their language! Lastly, who can forget the fervor the Run DMC Adidas sneakers started? In the eighties after their videos hit the big time, it seemed as though everyone had to had Adidas sneakers with no laces. This was just the begining of the influences rap music has had on the fashion world. Many rap artists such as Puff Daddy, Russell Simmons and the Wu Tang Clan have actually started their own successful clothing lines. The more popular a rap artist is, the more likely their sense of style will be emulated by many.

  • 1974 – 1980 Jamaican Reggae starts “talking” while music is playing trend
  • 1978 Rap music hits the Bronx with two DJ’s spinning turntables at parties
  • 1979 First rap recordings released: “Rappers Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang and “Superrappin” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
  • 1980 First known photos of breakdancing come from a group arrest at Washington heights Subway
  • 1982 Flash records releases “The Message” which was one of the first statement driven raps
  • 1983 Herbie Hancock and Grandmaster J release video for “Rockit” which became the first rap video to experience success on MTV. Run DMC release “Sucka MC’s” which marked the unofficial end of old school rap – but the beginning of rap and rock crossover
  • 1984 “Freshfest” starring Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, Whodini, Newcleus and the Fatboys becomes the first rap money making concert tour.
  • 1985 Salt N Pepa make their first major appearance to become the original female rap stars
  • 1986 Sampling is born – the art of taking previously recorded material and “sampling” it in new music “Walk this Way” becomes huge pop chart hit, marks new era for MTV videos and the way mass media views rap music
  • 1988 NWA releases “Straight Outta Compton” which marked the beginning of the gangsta rap era. The FBI sends letters to police nationwide about the song “F the Police” for anti law agitation
  • 1989 Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” gives the sound track for Spike Lee’s movie “Do the Right Thing”. Both the song and the film skyrocket the popularity of both artists. A daily version of “Yo MTV Raps!” is aired due to its increased popularity.
  • 1990 Controversy raised over the lyrics to 2 Live Crew’s “Nasty as they Wanna Be”. Jamaican dance hall music infuses hip hop and Caribbean
  • 1991 Rodney King beatings stir awareness of racism. Many rappers take up the cause – Chuck D, Ice T, Ice Cube. Soundscan – monitors point of sale numbers – state that rap artists are now out selling rock
  • 1992 Controversy rises again with Ice T’s “Cop Killer” and the song ends up being withdrawn from the album
  • 1993 Dr. Dre releases “The Chronic” which becomes a multi platinum gangsta rap hit
  • 1996 Tupac Shakur murdered in Las Vegas
  • 1997 Notorious B.I.G. murdered in Los Angeles – much speculation abounds about the West Coast/East Coast rivalry
  • 1998 Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs hits it big with his lighter, sample driven style of rap music
  • 1999 Eminem releases “The Slim Shady” musical experience and shakes up the world of rap music as one of the first prominent white rappers from Dr. Dre’s schooling
  • 2000-Present The faces and styles of rap music continue to evolve with no concrete style taking the forefront as in the gangsta rap era. New talents are coming from all over the country as opposed to just the West and East coast.

WWW sites

There are a variety of internet resources and articles that provide information about Rap music, it’s history and it’s societal impact.  The Hip Hop Game contains commentary from a legendary rap artist about the world of rap music today.  Hip Hop Roots, Hip Hop History and Rap History give detailed information about the history of rap music.   Rap and Youth and Teen Influence address the influences that rap music has had on youth, as do Positive Impact and Youth Influence.   Hip Hop Politics, Gangsta Rap and Gangster Rap offer reflections on a specific generation of rap music and its political impact.  Refer to Old School and Evolution of Rap to see more about how rap has evolved through the years.

Several sites that deal directly with how rap music is perceived in society today are Perception, Culture, and Mainstream Hip Hop.

The best sites for the cultural influences of rap music are Rap Video, Hip Hop Generation (which details at length the effects rap has had on an entire generation), Language Influence (which deals with rap’s influence on language and the spoken word), and the hip-hop world’s influences on Fashion.

Lastly is a Rap Dictionary which decodes the language created by the rap world.

Other sites:


Recommended Books

Several authors have examined rap music through the years.  Excellent historical references may be found in Hip Hop America (1998) by Nelson Georgep; Say It Loud- the Story of Rap Music (1994) by K. Maurice Jones; and The Hip Hop Years: A History of Rap (2001) by Alex Ogg.

To further examine the cultural effects of rap music, suggested readings include:  The New Beats – Exploring the Music, Culture and Attitudes of Hip-Hop (1994) by S.H. Fernando Jr.; Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994) by Tricia Rose; Rap Music (2001) by Jennifer Keeley; Rap on Rap: Straight up Talk on Hip Hop Culture (1995) by Adam Sexton; The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, Hip-Hop, and the Poetry of a New Generation (2003) edited by Mark Eleveld and Marc Kelley Smith.

Lastly, an electronic book available through the World Wide Web dealing with rap’s influences on art and the exploration of a rap subculture is Painting Without Permission: Hip Hop Graffiti Subculture (2003) by Janice Rahn.

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This page is copyright © 2004, C.T. Evans and J. Wood.
For information contact cevans@nvcc.edu