Tracing the Rap/Hip-Hop Dichotomy in Popular and Underground Music
Rap music has experienced a radical increase in popularity in the last five years. In the year 2000, rap became the second-best-selling genre in music, capturing 12.9 percent of the year's $14.3 billion in total record sales ("Rap/Hip Hop" Sc 1). Though rap is no stranger to criticism, that criticism has increased in both quantity and vociferousness at about the same rate as the number of rap albums climbing the charts. And the growing evidence that, apparently, in order to achieve commercial success, each rap album must be more negative and offensive than the last does not help to address these criticisms.
Unfortunately, the critics miss most of the rarely-seen other side of the genre: Hip-hop, rap music that is true the art form's roots of black empowerment and social progress. But black empowerment and social progress don't sell nearly as many records as the themes of mistreating women, abusing substances, and accumulating vast piles of wealth, so these are the messages that rap/hip-hop has come to embody in popular perception. However, as an introductory piece on a web site called The Hip Hop Headrush clearly states: "Hip-hop is not violence, misogyny, and narcotic substances—if you believe that, then the media and commercial mainstream music buyers have you sadly confused" ("Mindless Music" Sc 1). I will attempt to flush out this rap/hip-hop dichotomy by indulging a brief history of the musical form, examining criticisms and defenses of the branch of the form I'll define as "rap," and investigating a few hip-hop groups that present thoughtful, positive worldviews rather than the sex/drugs/money/violence messages of their rap counterparts.
Hip-hop music (from which rap later branches off) originated in New York City in the 1970's, and the name comes from the first real hip-hop single, The Sugarhill Gang's 1979 "Rapper's Delight," which featured the phrase "hip-hop" in its lyrics. The genre's performers and audience were predominantly black in its early phases, though there was a significant Latino minority (Smitherman Sc 1), and it originated as the response of these marginalized groups to the commercial music of the period. Afrika Bambaataa, one of hip-hop's founders and leader of the Zulu Nation (a hip-hop clique), once said, "The Bronx wasn't into radio music no more....Hip-hop was against the disco that was being played on the radio" (Stern 412).
The hip-hop community also developed responses to other aspects of disco culture: Athletic gear in place of leisure suits and breakdancing in place of disco dancing. Graffiti art also became intertwined with hip-hop early on, and the music became a celebration of the three art forms that comprise hip-hop culture—graffiti, break dancing, and the music itself (Smitherman Sc 1, Costello 22).
The mid-1980's saw the rise to marginal mainstream popularity of rap...