The first person I ever heard “rap” was a man born in 1913 – my father, Henry Louis Gates Sr. Daddy’s generation didn’t call the rhetorical games they played “rapping”; they “signified”, they “played the Dozens”. But this was rapping just the same, rapping by another name. Signifying is the grandparent of rap, and rap is signifying in a postmodern way. The narratives that my father recited in rhyme told the tale of defiant heroes named Shine or Stagolee, or, my favourite, the Signifying Monkey. They were linguistically intricate, they were funny and spirited, and they were astonishingly profane.
Soon the stories became familiar to me and I started memorising parts of them, especially striking couplets and sometimes an entire resonant stanza. But every time my dad recited a version of one of these tales, he somehow made it new again, reminding me of all that a virtuosic performance possessed: an excellent memory, a mastery of pace and timing, the capacity to inflect and gesture, the ability to summon the identities of characters simply through the nuances of their voices.
While my father and his friends called their raps “signifying” or “playing the Dozens”, a younger generation named them Toasts, and an even younger generation called it “rapping”. Regardless of the name, much about the genre remained the same, but since anthropologists tend to call them “Toasts” we will employ that term here.
Toasts are long, oral poems that had emerged by the first world war – shortly after the sinking of the Titanic, judging by the fact that one of the earliest surviving examples of the genre was called “Shine and the Titanic”. And the fact that the French words for “monkey” and “sign” are a bit of a visual pun (singe and signe, respectively) also points to a first world war origin of the genre, as it would have been revised by returning black veterans from the European theatre of war. (My father recalls meeting southern black soldiers at Camp Lee, Virginia at the beginning of the second world war who were barely literate but who could recite “acres of verses” of “The Signifying Monkey”, underscoring the role of the military and war as a cross-pollinating mechanism for black cultural practices.)
Signifying is the defining rhetorical principle of all African-American discourse, the language game of black language games, both sacred and secular, from the preacher’s call-and-response to the irony and indirection of playing the Dozens. These oral poets practised their arts in ritual settings such as the street corner or the barber shop, sometimes engaging in verbal duels with rival contenders. These recitations were a form of artistic practice and honing, but they were also the source of great entertainment displayed before an audience with a most sophisticated ear. And though certain poems, such as “Shine and the Titanic” and “The Signifying Monkey”, had a familiar, repeated narrative content, poets improvised through and around this received content, with stanzas and lyrics that might address a range of concerns, from social and political issues to love, loneliness, heartbreak and even death.
The Dozens and the Toasts were first and foremost forms of art. Rapping was a performance, rappers were to be judged, and the judges were the people on the corner or in the shop. Everyone, it seemed to me as I watched these performances unfolding, even as a child, was literate in the fine arts of signification. As I listened to my father delighting us in the late 1950s with tales of the Monkey and old Shine, I knew at once that there was something sublime, something marvellous and forbidden and dangerous about them.
It was easy to recognise variations on rapping emerging in rhythm and blues and soul music in the 1960s. I am thinking of James Brown’s nine-minute rendition of “Lost Someone” on his Live at the Apollo album in 1963, or Isaac Hayes’s paradigm-shifting version of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” from his Hot Buttered Soul album of 1969. And H. Rap Brown’s emergence as one of the leaders of the younger militants of the Black Power movement brought the word “rap” and the lyrics of the Dozens to a generation of black students, because he included his most original raps, as a point of pride in his own artistry, in his autobiography, Die Nigger Die! (Unfortunately, Mr Brown did not write as well as he rapped!)
A few years later, I would hear echoes of all of these formal antecedents in the early rap songs hitting the airwaves in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Melle Mel’s verse on “The Message”:
A child is born with no state of mind
Blind to the ways of mankind
God is smiling on you but he’s frowning too
Because only God knows what you’ll go through
echoes across the decades back to these lines from the Toast “Life’s a Funny Old Proposition”:
A man comes to birth on this funny old earth
With not a chance in a million to win
To find that he’s through and his funeral is due
Before he can even begin
Despite their differences, these two verses are bound together by both sound and sense. They each insist upon an unflinching confrontation with reality, while somehow staving off despair. Great art often does this, offering expiation and transcendence all at once. As an art form, rap is defined, like the Toasts before it, by a set of formal qualities, an iconoclastic spirit, and a virtuosic sense of wordplay. It extends the practice in the African-American oral tradition of language games. Simply put, rap is a contemporary form of signifying.
By the time I began my first job teaching at Yale, while still a graduate student in the 1970s, I was hearing about a new music coming out of the Bronx. It was called rap – an old word for those familiar with black slang, but a new form that combined rhythm and rhyme in a style all its own. Like all art – vernacular or high art – it took the familiar and made it unfamiliar again. Rap’s signature characteristic is the parody and pastiche of its lyrics, including “sampling” (another word for intertextuality). Rap is the art form par excellence of synthesis and recombination. No one could say that Afrika Bambaataa or Grandmaster Flash were not creating something new, but each would acknowledge his debt to other artists, especially to old-school musicians from the past.
Rap, the postmodern version of an African-American vernacular tradition, connects through its percussive sensibility, its riffs, and its penchant for rhyme, with a range of forms including scat singing, radio DJ patter, and Black Arts movement poets. Its sense of musicality, both in voice and beat, owes a great deal to performers such as Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets, as well as to funk and soul artists James Brown, Isaac Hayes, George Clinton and Sly Stone. Rap is, in other words, a multifarious, multifaceted tradition embedded within an African-American oral culture that shares in the rich history of human expression.
At its best, rap, though a serious genre, doesn’t take itself too self-consciously, or try to overburden its lines with rehearsed wisdom, or the cant of ideology. It complicates or even rejects literal interpretation. It demands fluency in the recondite codes of African-American speech. Just like the Dozens before it, rap draws strength by shattering taboos, sending up stereotype, and relishing risqué language and subject matter.
I learned this last lesson first-hand two decades ago. In the spring of 1990, I was called to testify as an expert witness before a Florida court in the obscenity trial of the 2 Live Crew, after I had published an editorial on the case in The New York Times. The group’s 1989 album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, with its provocative single “Me So Horny”, had inspired such heated response from civic leaders that copies were burned in the streets. At stake was not simply the future of one group of young black men, but freedom of expression. In my testimony, I stated that in the very lyrics that some found simply crass and pornographic, “what you hear is great humour, great joy, and great boisterousness. It’s a joke. It’s a parody, and parody is one of the most venerated forms of art.”
Rap has always been animated by this complexity of meaning and intention. This is by no means to absolve artists of the ethics of form, particularly in the artist’s capacity as a role model for young people, but rather to point out that there’s an underlying value worth fighting for in defending rap against those who would silence its voice. One of the hallmarks of a democratic society should be space for all citizens to express themselves in art, whether we like what they have to say or not. After all, censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.
Given rap’s close connection to the African-American oral tradition, it should come as no surprise that it also carries with it much of the same baggage. Misogyny and homophobia, which we must critique, often mar the effectiveness of the music. But as with practices like the Toasts and the Dozens, these influences are by no means absolute. A look at the genre as a whole complicates our assumptions about what rap is and what rap does; who makes it and who consumes it. Yo-Yo goes head to head against Ice Cube in a battle of the sexes; female MCs such as Eve and Jean Grae call attention to issues like domestic violence and abortion, which are often left out of hip-hop discourse, and artists often associated with gangsta personas or “conscious” perspectives reveal the full range and complexity of their subjectivity.
Thus one finds sexism and homophobia, but also resistance to them. One finds words seemingly intended to offend, but also, sometimes, the deeper meanings of, and motives for, this sort of conscious provocation. Rap’s tradition is as broad and as deep as any other form of poetry, but like any other literary tradition, it contains its shallows, its whirlpools and its muddy waters. Our task is to navigate through the tributaries of rap’s canon, both for the pleasure that comes from the journey, and for the wisdom born of travelling to any uncharted destinations of the mind.
Henry Louis Gates Jr is a literary critic and Harvard University professor specialising in African American studies. He wrote the foreword to ‘The Anthology of Rap’ (Yale University Press), £19.99
Chuck D: The founder of Public Enemy on what sets the best rappers apart
My own history in hip-hop goes back decades. I started out in 1979 as a mobile DJ/MC under a crew called Spectrum City in Long Island, New York. The content of my rhymes was heady because of what I knew. I’d been influenced by big voices like Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I studied the rhymes and rhythms that worked and tried to incorporate my voice and subject matter in a similar manner. I had to be distinct in my identity to propel me beyond the pack.
Lyricism is vital to rap, and because rap fuels hip-hop, this means that lyricism is vital to hip-hop culture as a whole. A rapper who really wants to be heard must realise that a good vocabulary is necessary. Something should separate a professional rapper from a sixth-grader; lyricism does that. Even when a middle-school kid learns a word and its meaning, social comprehension and context take time to master. Even when a term or a line is mastered, the challenge should be how many more peaks a rapper can scale to become a good lyricist. We should all know that the power of a word has both incited and prevented war itself.
Good lyrics, of course, existed before rap. They’re the lifeblood of song: they direct the music, and the music defines the culture. This is true for rap even though some mistake the music as being all about the beat. People sometimes overrate the beat, separating it from the song itself. I ask folks, would they rather just listen to instrumentals? The general response is no. Listeners want to have vocals driving the beat, but – importantly – not stopping it or slowing it down. It takes a master to ride any wild beat or groove and to tame it.