Hey Mom, Who Invented Rap?

A recent question from my son, and one that, strangely enough, I have the answer to.

The ‘rap game’ has a history that can be traced all the way back to the 14th Century Mali Empire in Africa, where each warrior king had their own professional poet/singer known as a griot. Griots functioned as wandering bards, ‘rapping’ to the people about the going-ons in the empire. A good griot had to be able to sing traditional songs, but more importantly, he had to be able to extemporize about current events, politics, love, and history. Soon every town had their own griot, and this was how information spread.

Rap stems from this griot tradition, but in modern music it’s considered a subgenre of the Hip Hop Culture that began in the Bronx, a by-product of racist urban planning. In the late 1950s, Robert Moses decided to build an expressway through the heart of the Bronx. Almost over night, the middle class Italian, German, Irish, and Jewish neighborhoods disappeared. Businesses and factories relocated and left. By 1969, most of the remaining middle-class had fled the Bronx and slumlords began taking over buildings renting to poor black and Hispanic families. Poverty became a way of life, and gangs began to rule the streets. Graffiti emerged from the gang culture, became a way of life with its own code of behavior, secret gathering places, slang, and esthetic standards.

By the late 1970s, some Graffiti ‘writers’ began to see their work as a form of self-expression, and started painting murals on subway cars. I remember seeing these as a kid when my mother taught in the Bronx, and even though they were deemed socially unacceptable, they were a stunningly beautiful site to behold. Some of these muralists formed a collective known as the Fab 5, and began selling canvases in Europe, from there they became part of the downtown art scene, led by Andy Warhol.

Meanwhile, there was a large Jamaican population in the Bronx and many of the Jamaican DJs would do something called ‘toasting’. This involved speaking words, such as “bring it” or “work it” over the music they were playing. It was all very rhythmic and percussive, and it spawned a new type of dance known as Break Dancing. Due to the physical difficulty in performing break dance moves, loose fitting, baggy clothes and sneakers became the preferred choice in fashion. As break dancing splintered into different styles such as ‘electric boogie’ and ‘free-style’, the music had to evolve to meet the needs of the dances, and thus Rap was born.

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