Bill Bois’ Music Theory For Non-Musicians™
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.
S3:E13 – What Makes Hip Hop, Hip Hop? – Part 1
I said back in our article about reggae:
”In his late teens, Kool Herc built his own sound system and held a party to raise money for his younger sister to buy clothes for the new school year.
It was a success and he held more parties. His sound system and toasting put him at ground zero of hip hop’s creation.
We’ll talk about him and the Bronx in this series when we get to hip hop.”
And here we are.
Most genres have only vague starting points. As musicians experiment with new sounds and techniques, genres slowly evolve into being. It could be years before a genre is recognized as something different from whatever came before.
Sometimes these experiments don’t work, but there’s no such thing as failure. As in science, an experiment that doesn’t turn out the way you hope still teaches you something. You learn what doesn’t work and you try something else.
But hip hop is different from other genres in that we know its birthday and its birthplace.
Hip hop was born on August 11, 1973.
DJ Kool Herc learned about Jamaican sound systems from his father before they moved to the US, and he wired one together for his sister’s party using his father’s PA system. He had a mixing board and two turntables and a lot of funk records. That allowed him to create a DJ-ing technique that he called the merry go round.
It was common at that time for DJs to use two variable speed turntables, a mixing board, and headphones to get two different songs playing at the same tempo and on the same beat, and then fade from one to the other. There were no breaks between songs. This happened all the time in discos, and it’s part of what kept their dance floors packed for hours.
What DJ Kool Herc did differently was to not necessarily play entire songs, but to concentrate on only the instrumental breaks.
He noticed that this is where people reacted most enthusiastically.
It could be a drum intro or the instrumental section where there was no vocals. But those sections always got the most people dancing.
He called those choice danceable sections, “the yolk of the egg.”
So he’d play only those sections, quickly fading from one turntable to the other. Sometimes he’d pick up the needle on the silent turntable and put it down back at the beginning of that section, and fade it in again.
Compiling and extending the most danceable sections of songs is what he called “the merry-go-round.”
When he did it for the first time in public in the community room of an 18-story apartment building:
Hip hop was born:
… and Herc’s sister Cindy got the clothes she wanted before going back to school.
Word got around that this DJ was doing something new. More people showed up at the next party, and the party after that.
Soon they outgrew the community room and moved to street parties and block parties.
Other DJs learned the technique and held their own parties. People invented new dances, including break dancing.
As invigorating as these extending merry go round mixes were, they needed a little something interesting on top. This is where improvising rhymed verses became known as rapping.
Making up rhymes on the spot is a part of many ethnic oral traditions.
It was a popular pastime in 19th Century England. There’s a number of “talkin’ blues” songs.
News was passed from one community to the next through verse in Africa, and later in the American South.
There were some artists that used a sort of proto-rapping well before Herc’s parties. Chuck Berry sang the verses of Too Much Monkey Business on a single note, and its catchiness is all based on its rhythm. Both New York, New York by The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised are basically spoken word pieces over chilled out jazz beats.
Rapping is sort of midway between talking and singing. It’s rhythmic, yet there’s not much melody. It totally works, though, in the context of an improvised genre.
So with nothing more than a microphone and a beat coming from the turntables, rappers could tell their stories to the entire neighborhood.
And, not long after: to the entire world.
Initially, DJs and rappers would record songs and sell cassettes in the neighborhood. It’s a DIY solution that makes this old punk proud. But at some point songs were released on vinyl. And it was popular.
I remember walking past a Strawberries Records store in Boston and seeing a handwritten note taped to the front door:
It said, “We are out of ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ More coming on Thursday.” I’ve never seen a similar sign about any other song.
While Rapper’s Delight was not the first hip hop song released on vinyl — that honor might go to King Tim III (Personality Jock) by The Fatback Band — it was the first one to go international. Though it only went to #36 on Billboard’s Hot 100, it went top ten in a dozen countries.
Its beat is taken from Good Times by Chic, which hit #1 early that year. However, Rapper’s Delight doesn’t sample Good Times. It “interpolates” it.
Interpolation in music is rearranging, re-recording, or otherwise reinterpreting an existing piece of music.
The familiar Good Times drums, bass, guitar, and other sounds were re-recorded for Rapper’s Delight.
The recording happened in a pretty non-organic way. Sylvia Robinson had a hit with Love Is Strange in 1957 as part of the duo Mickey & Sylvia. She had a solo hit in 1973 with Pillow Talk. Following that success, she became a producer. The rap scene interested her and she wanted to release rap records, but DJs and MCs weren’t interested. Rap, they thought, is an improvised, live-only, genre, and it should stay that way.
But Robinson persisted and found random people who could rap.
Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien auditioned in her car. Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson auditioned in front of the pizza restaurant where he worked. I’m not sure where she found Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright.
But she put the band together and hired amateur musicians.
They played the Good Times riff for fifteen minutes in one take, while the rappers did their thing.
And she released it under the name “The Sugarhill Gang.“
Sugar Hill is a neighborhood in Harlem. All three members of the Sugarhill Gang were from Englewood, New Jersey. For a genre intent on keeping it real, it’s ironic that its first hit was as manufactured as any 90s boy band.
Following its massive success, Robinson pestered Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel to record their song called The Message.
Initially, neither wanted to do it: again because they thought rap was meant to be for live performances only.
Robinson’s persistence changed their minds and led to one of rap’s all time bangers.
These two songs are templates for much of what would follow. A lot of hip hop lyrics are braggadocious like Rapper’s Delight. And The Message was just that, a message from the inner city, a news report from the real world people were living through.
Remember, this was happening at roughly the same time that the punk scene was emerging just a few miles away.
The difference is that the punk bands had CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, the two clubs in New York that encouraged new, original music.
The new rap scene didn’t have nightclubs. So they held parties.
What punk and hip hop had in common was New York City.
We’ve seen multiple times in this series that financial and social desperation is a catalyst for creativity. Whether caused by trying to get by in a city rapidly going broke, or picking cotton in the South for starvation wages, or leaving the dust bowl when the land won’t sustain farming, or searching for work in northern England or the rust belt as the factories close, frustration and outrage are artistic fuels.
The difference between punk and hip hop, significantly, is that many in the downtown scene moved to the Bowery and other scummy areas intentionally. They did so because it was cheap so they could afford to work on their art. The people in the Bronx lived in a scummy area because the city had abandoned them. It became scummy around them while they lived there, in their lifetimes.
Government programs meant to help were cut. The Cross Bronx Expressway split neighborhoods in two. Landlords set fire to their own apartment buildings to collect the insurance money.
The powers that be washed their hands. And walked away.
Even the liberal senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan thought minorities had made sufficient advancement since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that they would try harder to sustain that advancement if they went through a period of “benign neglect.”
That’s what he advised President Nixon to do, and that’s what happened.
When legal jobs aren’t available, illegal ones are the only option.
At a time when the best way to earn a living was selling crack, the “war on drugs” had no plan to create jobs. It was more intent on jailing people.
Jailing specific people, that is.
The penalties for selling cocaine in its solid form, known as crack, were much stiffer than selling it in its powder form. These penalties were put in place after it was apparent that crack sold more in black communities and powder sold more in white neighborhoods.
Different format. Different penalties.
Blacks got long jail time.
Whites got probation.
It’s impossible to separate hip hop from American history, and vice versa.
It tells the story of minority life in America even as it made history by telling that story. Hip hop is storytelling and truth telling.
Chuck D of Public Enemy says that hip hop is more than just the music. It’s four things:: DJ-ing, rapping, graffiti, and break dancing. Or music, poetry, art, and dance. It’s new forms of classical arts.
And it’s innovating these art forms with very limited resources.
It’s making music with turntables rather than instruments, because that’s what they had.
It’s improvising poetry over these new improvised beats.
All you need for graffiti is spray paint and a wall or subway car.
And break dancing is better if you have a sheet of cardboard to spin on, but it’s not entirely necessary.
Some critics thought hip hop was primitive.
Given what these artists had to work with, of course it was primitive. They made new art out of next to nothing.
Besides, Grandma Moses was a primitive artist and critics were OK with her.
People may be suppressed but they can’t be silenced. They will find ways to express themselves, to tell their message to the world, to get the word out about their situation, to red flag what isn’t right, and to pull together with others in the same situation.
It would lead to major financial success for many. But it would also create havoc and unnecessary rivalries within its own scene.
For some, it would lead to global celebrity and unimaginable wealth.
For others, it would lead to early death.
More next week.
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Butterballs (Part 1)
New York, New York
The Last Poets
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Gil Scott Heron
King Tim III (Personality Jock)
The Fatback Band
We Rap More Mellow
The Younger Generation
Rapping And Rocking The House
The Funky Four Plus One More
To The Beat Y’All
Busy Bee’s Groove
Funk You Up
Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force
Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five