Rapping started as the next stage of toasting in the emerging hip-hop scene in the 1970s. DJs like Kool Herc needed help to keep up the talking that had become just as popular as the music they were playing. This became the job of the emcee (MC). Herc's first MCs were Coke La Rock and Clark Kent (they later formed The Herculoids), and they added their own commentaries to the songs. Coke La Rock made up rhythmic poems that gained in popularity and were the first raps. Others soon followed, and rap music was born. The genre has been written off many times as a fad by people who didn't understand it, but it has refused to die.
Rap often has a message -- such as sociopolitical commentary, Black Nationalism or self-esteem. Afrika Bambaataa, one of the first rappers [source: Rolling Stone], hoped to use hip-hop as a way to speak out against the negative gang culture that had developed among many poor inner-city black groups. Another 1980s rapper with a similar ethos was KRS One of Boogie Down Productions, who was a big voice against violence after his friend Scott La Rock (no relation to Coke) was gunned down while trying to stop a street fight.
But later rappers, like Schoolly D, Ice T, Easy E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dog, chose instead to develop gangsta rap, which glorifies the gangster lifestyle -- violence, drugs, sex, and of course, gangs. The genre predictably drew the ire of parents, authority figures and some listeners, but its popularity was undeniable. Artists argued in defense of gansta rap, saying that they were simply rapping about the conditions of life in their neighborhoods -- that they were describing the world they grew up in. Unfortunately street credibility kept up with many performers even in fame, and the mid-to-late 1990s was marred with violent deaths surrounding the genre -- most notably those of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. After that, many high-profile artists agreed it was time to tone down the violent feuds among rappers and keep the threats lyrical instead of literal.
Rapping started off with men and many of the best-known names in the hip-hop music scene are male, but it's not just a boys' club. Women started rapping in the 1980s. Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah and MC Lyte were among the first, and they gave hip-hop new voices and new messages. And we should remember that Sylvia Robinson was the cofounder and owner of Sugar Hill Records, which made the first hit rap record. More than 30 years later, any hip-hop lover worth his or her salt can spit back (or at least make up) a few lines of the Sugarhill Gang's quasi-disco classic "Rapper's Delight."
Today, rap has been around long enough that it is embedded in Western culture, and it has branched out by so many different artists that it does not get pigeon-holed anymore as strictly urban music, strictly black, or strictly gangsta. Like rock 'n roll, it's here to stay.
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