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Popular West Coast rapper Snoop Dogg performing for the US Navy. Popular West Coast rapper Snoop Dogg performing for the US Navy.

Rapping, the rhythmic delivery of rhymes, is one of the central elements of hip hop culture and music. It can be delivered over a beat or a cappella — without accompaniment. Stylistically, rap occupies a gray area between speech, poetry, prose, and song.

Derived from African, Jamaican, and American roots, rap has developed both inside and outside of hip hop since the early 1970s. Modern rappers deliver stylized, rhythmic raps with complex rhymes and wordplay. To showcase their skills rappers often compete in freestyle battles in which they ridicule their opponents with improvised rhymes. Although rap has become an international phenomenon through hip hop culture and music, issues concerning racial, class, and sexual identity remain among rappers and their listeners.



The definition of rap in the hip hop sense originates from its earlier meaning— "to discuss or debate informally"—a usage well established among African-Americans by the 1960s.The first people to rap in the hip hop style were the DJs of the 1970s, such as Hollywood and Kool Herc, who rapped shout-outs to their friends as they DJ'd behind the turntables. Although rapping in hip hop began with the DJs, most rappers today don't DJ; Coke La Rock, a member of Kool Herc's Herculoids, is often cited as the first example of such a rapper.

With the popularization of hip hop, words like rap and chill took on new meanings outside of the African-American community.[1] With the popularization of hip hop slang, several words have lost their original meanings in their usage outside of hip hop. For example, a fact often unrecognized outside of hip hop culture is that not all rappers are MCs. While the former includes anyone who raps, the latter requires that one performs for crowds.[2][3]


Audio samples of the roots of rapping

Rapping in hip hop music can be traced back in many ways to its African roots. Centuries before the United States existed, the griots (folk poets) of West Africa were rhythmically delivering stories over drums and sparse instrumentation. Because of the time that has passed since the griots of old, the connections between rap and the African griots are widely recognized, but not clear–cut. However, such connections have been acknowledged by rappers, modern day "griots", spoken-word artists, mainstream news sources, and academics.[4][5][6][7]

Blues music, rooted in the work songs and spirituals of slavery, was created by Blacks (and some Whites) in the Mississippi Delta region of the United States around the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. According to several musical historians, the blues were being rapped as early as the 1920s.[8][9] In fact, Grammy-winning blues musician/historian Elijah Wald has referred to hip hop as "the living blues."[8] Music critics and historians have observed similarities between the delivery and lyrical content of blues and modern rap lyrics.

The Memphis Jug Band, whose lyrical content and delivery was comparable to rapping. The Memphis Jug Band, whose lyrical content and delivery was comparable to rapping.

Jazz, largely developed from the blues, originated around the beginning of the 20th century. Improvised jazz singing, called vocalese, is often compared by musicians and music critics to the freestyling of rappers within hip hop. Freestyling has also been said to derive from the art of improvising songs that often distinguishes jazz. Jazz has influenced hip hop greatly throughout its entire history; the scat singing of jazz could be heard in the seminal 1979 old school hip hop song "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang. To this day, jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock collaborate with rappers, creating a sound that blurs genre lines.

During the mid-20th century, the musical culture of Jamaica was constantly influenced by the concurrent changes in American music. In the 1950s, the descendants of Jamaican slaves were mixing their traditional folk music styles of calypso, mento, and soca with the jazz, soul, and rock of America. This fusion led to the creation of ska and eventually reggae. As early as 1969, Deejays were toasting (an African tradition of "rapped out" tales of heroism) over dubbed Jamaican beats.

The dubbed dancehall toasts of Jamaica, as well as the disco-rapping and jazz-based spoken word beat poetry of the United States set the template for the rapping in hip hop music. One of the first rappers in hip hop was also hip hop's first DJ— Kool Herc. Herc, a Jamaican immigrant, started delivering simple raps at his parties in the early 1970s. As Herc would explain in a 1989 interview, "[t]he whole chemistry came from Jamaica. I was listening to American music in Jamaica, and my favorite artist was James Brown. When I came over here I just had to put it in the American style." [10]

By the end of the 1970s, hip hop had spread throughout New York, and was getting some radio play. Rappers were increasingly writing songs that fit pop music structures and featured continuous rhymes. Melle Mel (of The Furious Five) stands out as one of the earliest rap innovators. From the 1970s to the early 1980s, Melle Mel set the way for future rappers through his sociopolitical content as well as his creative wordplay.

Hip hop lyricism saw its biggest change with the popularity of Run-DMC's Raising Hell in the mid-1980s. This album helped set the tone of toughness and lyrical prowess in hip hop; Run-DMC were almost yelling their aggressive lyrics. Run-DMC exerted an enormous influence on the greatly experimental golden age of hip hop, which would last until 1993. In golden age rap, internal rhyme schemes and varying cadences were commonplace. Rhyme styles continue to develop throughout the world to this day.


Audio samples of rapping
  • Planet Rock
    • Hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa mixed electro with old school rapping and beats in what is sometimes called "electro hop." Bambaata, the DJ, is also the rapper in this song— after all, the first rapping in hip hop was done from behind the turntables.
  • The Message
    • Written and rapped in 1982 by Melle Mel of the Furious Five, this song, more than any other to date, established rap as a vehicle for sociopolitical commentary. Note, however, the simple cadence and flow that were characteristic of the old school era.
  • Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos
    • This golden age hip hop song by the blatantly political Public Enemy features the distinct, enunciating vocal presence of Chuck D.
  • Follow the Leader
    • Rakim has a jazzy lyrical flow, which is delivered in an intricate, yet relaxed, cadence.
  • Niggas Bleed
    • Notorious BIG's tells vivid stories about his everyday life as a criminal in Brooklyn. Note the constant changing up of the lyrical flow and cadence characteristic of new school hip hop.
  • Mathematics
    • Mos Def fills his rhymes with metaphors, allusions, and wordplay as he tells about the corruption, decadence, and hopelessness of the inner-city.
  • Spottieottiedopaliscious
    • Outkast portrayed their life in Atlanta with their funky, often abstract rhymes.

Rhyme styles

Aside from a rhythmic delivery, the only other central element of rapping is rhyme. In classical poetry, rhymes that span many syllables are often considered whimsical, but in hip hop the ability to construct raps with large sets of rhyming syllables is valued. Rap can contain any and all forms of rhyme found in classical poetry such as consonance, assonance, half rhyme, or internal rhyme. Rappers are known for their style of rhyming. Juelz Santana often avoids full rhymes in favor of assonance, consonance, half rhymes, and internal rhymes. Eminem, on the other hand, often focuses on complex and lengthy rhyme schemes.

Literary devices

Rappers use double entendres, alliteration, and all other forms of wordplay that are also found in classical poetry. Similes and metaphors are used extensively in rap lyrics; rappers such as Paul Wall have written entire songs wherein every line contains a simile or metaphor.

Hip hop lyrics often make passing references to popular culture and other topics. Such allusions serve to illustrate or exaggerate a song's message. Some of these reference are overtly political, while others simply acknowledge, credit, or show dismay about towards aspect of the rapper's culture and life.

Use of "metaphor" to refer to all imagery is widespread among rappers. Common acknowledges this on "1-9-9-9", rapping:

Hold the mic like a memory
Niggas say I'm nice with metaphors but these are similes

Word choice and slang

Many hip hop listeners believe that a rapper's lyrics are enhanced by a complex vocabulary. Kool Moe Dee claims that he appealed to older audiences by using a complex vocabulary in his raps.[2] Rap is famous, however, for having its own vocabulary— from international hip hop slang to local/regional slang. Some artists, like the Wu-Tang Clan, develop an entire lexicon among their clique. African American Vernacular English has always had a significant effect on hip hop slang, and vice-versa. Certain regions have introduced their unique regional slang to hip hop culture, such as the Bay Area (Mac Dre, E-40), Atlanta (OutKast, Lil Jon), and Kentucky (Nappy Roots). The Nation of Gods and Earths, a religious/spiritual group spun off from the Nation of Islam, has influenced mainstream hip hop slang with the introduction of phrases such as "word is bond" that have since lost much of their original spiritual meaning.

Subject matter

See also: Concept rap

Hip hop music originated in New York City in the 1970s, and continues to focus largely on metropolitan centers in the East and West coasts of America. Many rappers use urbanity as the backdrop for their raps, focusing on the hardships of inner-city life. One element that has always existed in rapped rhymes, dating back to hip hop's inception, is "the struggle". This struggle was originally financial or personal in nature; getting a girlfriend, or paying the rent. With "The Message," a concept rap written by Melle Mel and performed by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the idea of "the struggle" was put in another context: the shared hardships of the ghetto.

The roots of these sociopolitical raps are in the beat poetry of The Last Poets and Gil Scott Heron. "The Message" pioneered the inclusion of political content in hip hop rhymes, expanding beyond basic personal issues and party raps. In the golden age of hip hop, Public Enemy emerged, with a focus on political and social issues. Modern East Coast hip hop artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Nas, and Dead Prez are known for their sociopolitical subject matter.

Other rappers take a less critical approach to urbanity, sometimes even embracing such aspects as crime. Schoolly D was the first notable MC to rap about crime.[11]. Several years later, he would go on to influence Ice T, who had more overtly "gangsta" lyrics. Gangsta rap, made popular largely because of N.W.A. and "proto-gangsta rapper" KRS-ONE, celebrates crime and a hedonistic "gangsta" lifestyle. With the death of his DJ, Scott la Rock, KRS–ONE went on to speak out against violence in hip hop. Several gangsta rappers also laud the use of drugs such as marijuana, which occupies an significant place in the subject matter of modern hip hop. West-coast rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill, for instance, helped popularize drug-related songs in the early 1990s.

In contrast to the hedonistic approach of the gangsta rappers, some rappers have a spiritual or religious focus. Christian rap is currently the most commercially successful form of religious rap. Aside from Christianity, the Five Percent Nation , a gnostic religious/spiritual group, has been represented more than any religious group in popular hip hop. Hip-hop artists such as Rakim, the members of the Wu-Tang Clan, Brand Nubian, X Clan, Busta Rhymes, and Nas, have had success in spreading the theology of the Five Percenters.

"Party rhymes," meant to pump up the crowd at a party, were nearly the exclusive focus of old school hip hop (with the exception of The Furious Five). Party raps remain a staple of hip hop music to this day. In addition to Party raps, rappers also tend to make references to love and sex. Love raps were first popularized by Spoonie Gee of the Treacherous Three, and later, in the golden age of hip hop, Big Daddy Kane, Heavy D, and LL Cool J would continue this tradition. 2 Live Crew, a Miami bass group, were among the first hip hop act to be temporarily banned in the United States for the overtly sexual and profane content of their raps.



Rap delivery, or flow, is defined by prosody, cadence, and speed. Cadence deals with the dynamics and patterns of the rhythm. In addition to rubato (changes in tempo for the purpose of expression), cadence can also serve to reinforce song structure through ritardando (the gradual slowing down of tempo). Old school rappers generally maintained a simple cadence, without much deviation,[12] while golden age rappers such as Rakim experimented extensively with cadence.[2] Present day popular rapper Snoop Dogg is considered to have a versatile cadence because of his ability to rap over disparate beats equally well.[2]

A rap's prosody, which exists in classical poetry, is its meter and foot. The hardcore rapping style pioneered by Run-DMC and KRS-ONE is an inverse of iambic pentameter, in other words, trochaic pentameter. Iambic pentameter, which was Shakespeare's meter of choice, is known for its resemblance to natural, conversational speech. For this reason, rapping often sounds like talking "turned upside down."

Speed is sometimes regarded as an important sign of skill. In certain hip hop subgenres such as chopped and screwed, slow-paced rapping is often considered optimal. The current record for fastest rapper is held by MC Ricky Brown, who rapped 723 syllables in 51.27 seconds (14.1 syllables per second) on his track "No Clue" at B&G Studios on January 15, 2005.[13]

To successfully deliver a nicely flowing rap, a rapper must also develop vocal presence, enunciation, and breath control. Vocal presence is the distinctiveness of a rapper's voice on record. Enunciation is essential to a flowing rap; some rappers choose also to exaggerate it for comic and artistic effect. Breath control, taking in air without interrupting one's delivery, is an important skill for a rapper to master, and a must for any MC. An MC with poor breath control can't deliver difficult verses without making unintentional pauses.

Raps are sometimes delivered with melody. West-coast rapper Egyptian Lover was the first notable MC to deliver "sing-raps."[11] Popular rappers such as 50 Cent add a slight melody to their otherwise purely percussive raps. Some rappers, such as Cee-Lo, are able to harmonize their raps with the beat.

Synchronization is common among rap groups. Synchronization refers to the organization of several rappers into one song either by overlapping or through call and response. Grandmaster Flash's MCs, the Furious Five, were the first to make five rappers sound as one through synchronization. Some rappers take the role of two different characters that are talking to each other in the song. Examples include "Warning" by Notorious BIG and "Stan" by Eminem.

Freestyle rapping

See also: Freestyle rap

Freestyle rapping, typically referred to as freestyling or spitting, is the improvisation of rapped lyrics. When freestyling, some rappers inadvertently reuse old lines, or even "cheat" by preparing segments or entire verses in advance. Therefore, freestyles with proven spontaneity are valued above generic, always usable lines. Rappers will often reference places, objects in their immediate setting, or specific (usually demeaning) characteristics of opponents, to prove their authenticity and originality.

Battle rapping

Battle rapping, which can be freestyled, is the competition between two or more rappers in front of an audience. The tradition of insulting one's friends or acquaintances in rhyme goes back to the dozens, and was portrayed famously by Mohammed Ali in his boxing matches. The winner of a battle is decided by the crowd and/or preselected judges. According to Kool Moe Dee, a successful battle rap focuses on an opponents weaknesses, rather than one's own strengths.[2] Television shows such as BET's 106 and Park and MTV's DFX host weekly freestyle battles live on the air. Battle rapping gained widespread public recognition outside of the African-American community with Eminem's movie, 8 Mile. Eminem, like many other rappers, also releases "diss tracks" on his albums, meant to insult his enemies.


Pop-rapper Vanilla Ice unsuccessfully tried to gain street credibility by lying about his past, claiming that he lived a violent gangsta lifestyle. Pop-rapper Vanilla Ice unsuccessfully tried to gain street credibility by lying about his past, claiming that he lived a violent gangsta lifestyle.

By the United States 2000 Census, three-fourths of the United States' population is white, while one-eighth is black. According to musicologist Arthur Kempton, 70 percent of hip hop listeners are white. Mainstream artists such as Eminem sometimes have a larger percentage of black concert-goers than their underground counterparts. According to political rapper Zion of Zion I, it's because " many Black people don't want to hear it. They want that thug shit." In addition to Zion, several other underground rappers, such as Boots Riley of The Coup, report nearly all-white audiences.[14]

Despite so many hip hop fans being white, most popular rappers are not. Many believe this is a good thing; popular rapper Kanye West has said: "I hate music where white people are trying to sound black. The white music I like [sounds] white." [15] Unlike Kanye West, who came from a middle-class background[16], the majority of popular American rappers to date have come from a poor, often inner-city life. Vanilla Ice, a white pop rapper, went so far as to lie about his place of origin, claiming that he came from a poorer area than he did. According to Vanilla Ice, he was encouraged to lie by his record company, to increase their profits. [17] The Beastie Boys, an exception to all of these patterns, are notable for being a white, Jewish, middle-class rap group that was able to gain street credibility despite the race and class stigma involved.

Almost all popular rappers identify themselves as heterosexual. Homophobia is both prevalent and blatant throughout hip hop culture, although a small number of MCs have explored GLBT issues. There is an underground culture of gay hip hop, which was profiled in the 2005 documentary film Pick Up the Mic, although to date only Queen Pen, an openly bisexual female MC, and Caushun, an openly gay male rapper, have had significant mainstream success.

Derivatives and influence

Throughout hip hop's history, new musical styles and genres have developed that contain rapping. Entire genres, such as rapcore (rock/metal/punk with rapped vocals) and hip house have resulted from the fusion of rap and other styles. All popular music genres with a focus on percussion have contained rapping at some point— be it disco (DJ Hollywood), jazz (Gangstarr), new wave (Blondie), funk (Fatback Band), contemporary R&B (Mary J. Blige), reggaeton (Daddy Yankee), or even Japanese dance music. UK garage music has begun to focus increasingly on rappers in a new subgenre called grime, pioneered and popularized by the MC, Dizzee Rascal.

See also

Similar lyrical traditions

Griots in West Africa
Pansori in Korea
Mor lam in Laos
Chastushka in Russia
Rhapsody in Ancient Greece
Kuai ban in China
Limerick in Ireland
Sprechstimme in Germany

Notes and references

  1. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition.
  2. ^ a b c d e Kool Moe Dee; Chuck D. (November 2003). There's a God on the Mic, Ernie Paniccioli (Photographer), 224, Thunder's Mouth Press. ISBN 1560255331.
  3. ^ A search on Google News results in 9,860 hits for "rapper" and only 4,920 hits for "master+of+ceremonies" "MC" or "master of ceremonies". URL's accessed on 11 May 2006.
  4. ^ BBC NEWS: Africa. URL accessed on December 21, 2005.
  5. ^ Rap. URL accessed on December 21, 2005.
  6. ^ PBS lesson plan on the blues. URL accessed on December 21, 2005.
  7. ^ Yale University Teachers Association. URL accessed on December 21, 2005.
  8. ^ a b Hip Hop and Blues. URL accessed on December 21, 2005.  
  9. ^ The Roots of Rap. URL accessed on December 21, 2005.
  10. ^ Davey D's Hip-Hop Corner. URL accessed on December 20, 2005.
  11. ^ a b Blow, Kurtis. Kurtis Blow Presents: The History of Rap, Vol. 1: The Genesis (liner notes). Kurtis Blow Presents: The History Of Rap, Vol. 1: The Genesis. URL accessed on May 14, 2006.
  12. ^ allmusic. URL accessed on December 22, 2005.
  13. ^ Guinness World Records. URL accessed on December 17, 2005.
  14. ^ Kitwana, Bakari (June 24, 2005). The Cotton Club. The Village Voice. URL accessed on February 2, 2006.
  15. ^ Kanye West: 'White People Should Make White Music'. Soundbuzz/Yahoo! Music: (27). URL accessed on May 12, 2006.
  16. ^ Tyrangiel, Josh. Why You Can't Ignore Kanye. Time Magazine. URL accessed on May 21, 2006.
  17. ^ Austen, Jake. Vanilla Ice: The Ice Is Right. Rocktober Roctober #24, 1999. URL accessed on May 21, 2006.

Further reading

  • Alan Light; et al. (October 1999). The Vibe History of Hip Hop, 432, Three Rivers Press. ISBN 0609805037.
  • Sacha Jenkins; et al. (December 1999). Ego Trip's Book of Rap Lists, 352, St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0312242980.

External links

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