What was really groundbreaking about “Rapper’s Delight”?

Matthew Guerrieri of the Boston Globe argues that the truly original thing about the 1979 hit rap single “Rapper’s Delight” is the fact that it doesn’t have a chorus, that staple of the pop-song form since, he says, the 1840′s, when the blackface group Christy’s Minstrels popularized the chorus.

I’m not buying it.

First, what music scholars call “strophic form“–varied verses alternating with the same refrain, or chorus–goes way back, to medieval European folk songs and perhaps even earlier, or in other places (we have no way of knowing precisely because they weren’t usually written down, or written about).  Since then, plenty of musical forms, from hymns to yes, pop songs to jams to lots of kinds of folk music to the twelve-bar blues have relied on this form.

Christy’s Minstrels may have popularized the use of vocal harmony on the chorus alternating with solo verses in the contemporary United States, but that’s nothing new in the grand scheme of things–this practice was commonplace in many musical traditions, from West African music to responsorial chant in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church.

The really original thing about “Rapper’s Delight” was that Sylvia Robinson and the Sugar Hill Gang found a way to get the new musical style of rap to the mainstream.  While rap had already been around for a while at this point, people were mostly performing for fun and for parties and other events–it wasn’t considered a business opportunity.  Robinson capitalized, not without contention from other folks in the rap scene, on the infectiousness and grassroots popularity of the style and made a hit song, paving the way for people like Russell Simmons, Rick Rubin, Diddy, Jay-Z and many other hip-hop entrepreneurs.

“Rapper’s Delight” is a good song, but it’s not that original per se in terms of its form or other aesthetic parameters.  It was truly groundbreaking because of what it represented and foreshadowed: hip hop’s potential as a very lucrative sector of the music business.

Here’s a short clip of “Rapper’s Delight” (it’s really closer to 15′):

Also, I think with a little stretching of the standard rules of formal structure, you could consider “I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop and you don’t stop, the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie, to the rhythm of the boogie the beat” a chorus of sorts.  Just sayin’.

Best search terms used to find this blog

I checked out my blog stats just now and was really amused by how some people get here via Google.  A few recent highlights include:

  • “is it true lady gaga got 2 body parts”: Why, yes, I’m sure she has several.  A cursory glance at paparazzi photos show two arms (complete with hands), two legs (ditto feet), a torso (with however many subdivisions you’d like to make with that), a head with everything in its normal place, and generally a bunch of weave.
  • “joan holloway extraordinarily competent”: After saving the British exec’s life post-run in with the lawnmower, I would say yes (assuming this is a question).
  • “what is a pig’s life cycle”: Listen to this and you’ll find out.
  • “the masculinity of the taqwacores”: Sounds like a good title for an early-20th century British novel.
  • “creepy whitye supremacists” and “talk radio xenophobia”: Seem to go together pretty well.
  • “coulter dominatrix”: I assume this refers to Ann.  How terrifying.
  • “jay z needs to be a role model”: You should probably tell him this, not me.

This could be a good recurring feature.

Quick hit: Jay-Z teaches Oprah how to rap

Click through to see this amusing interaction on Jezebel.

I find Oprah’s awkwardness extremely interesting–here is a woman who has the self-confidence to appear on national TV almost daily and is the face of a multibillion-dollar media empire; who speaks publicly about weight and health issues; and in general seems pretty okay with herself.  But here she is, quietly freaking out about rapping.

It’s fairly well-established within hip hop studies that many baby boomer middle-class or wealthy African Americans tend to have negative opinions of hip hop, viewing it as trashy and aesthetically unappealing in comparison to R&B, jazz, Motown, etc.

So, I can’t help but wonder if Oprah, who is probably America’s most famous member of that demographic group, was so uncomfortable because of some age/class baggage vis-à-vis hip hop going on.

Rush vs. Jay-Z: Is talk radio gangsta rap for angry white men?

David Segal has an interesting breakdown in yesterday’s New York Times comparing right-wing talk show hosts to rappers, especially gangsta rappers.  He admits that both groups would probably not be happy to be compared to the other, and I agree, but I still think he has a point.

Segal argues that four key things are necessary for success in both fields: an enormous ego that you’re not shy about discussing; haters; feuds with others in your field; and verbal skills, especially an ability for improvisation and free-association.  This is true, but not the most profound analysis–yet.

Segal then describes how rap can be among the most politically conservative of genres: that it “exalts capitalism and entrepreneurship with a brio that is typically considered Republican.”  And so do Rush, Glenn Beck, et al.

Rap loves the Second Amendment; right-wing talk radio fans are probably the kind of people who made gun sales spike right after the 2008 elections.

Both rap and talk radio regularly assert that criminals cannot be reformed–but “gangsta rappers often identify themselves as the criminals, and are proud of their unreformability.”

And

Finally, rappers and conservative talkers both speak for a demographic that believes its interests and problems have been slighted and both offer stories that have allegedly been ignored.

Obviously, there are limits to all these parallels, but there is one more worth noting: rap has inspired its share of fear and now, liberals and moderates are asking the same question about conservative talk radio that conservatives have long asked about rap: How dangerous is it?

Interestingly (with respect to the first paragraph of the quote) rap was often referred to as “black TV” in its early days for its timeliness and opinionated, sometimes paranoid take on current events.  Anyway, I will admit that I am much more scared of Glenn Beck’s followers than those who listen to Ludacris (notwithstanding the fact that I’m in the latter category), but perhaps that’s just the socialist-health-care-loving left-winger in me talking.

Anyway, I think that overall Segal’s right on here.  I would have been interested in a little more gender analysis, though.  It is well-documented that gangsta rap is (at least partially) about working out a very specific kind of masculinity in the face of oppression or perceived oppression–a tough, heterosexual, homophobic, muscular, violent, self-sufficient masculinity.

This has not been as studied in the case of right-wing talk radio, but anecdotally, it seems to serve the same purpose for angry white men.  In fact, Rush Limbaugh is well-known for tasteless rape jokes, Glenn Beck has made misogynistic remarks about women’s looks and a host of other things, and Michael Savage has stated that “any heterosexual woman today over the age of 25 who grew up in America is basically a dominatrix.  You ask any heterosexual guy” as well as making some nasty transphobic comments.  (Note, I find it interesting that Ann Coulter, who doesn’t have a talk show but who is a public figure who says a lot of similar things, is often characterized as “mannish.”  Perhaps we are picking up on this gender work going on in right-wing media, albeit in a sexist way.)

And this doesn’t take into account the xenophobia, pro-gun and pro-war positions, and other macho and bigoted things that come out of these guys’ mouths.  They are constructing a notion of white American masculinity that is even more unappealing than gangsta rap’s portrait of black American masculinity.  Men can do better!

Should Jay-Z be a relationship role model for the black community?

Jozen Cummings over at The Root argues that, now that Jay-Z is tied with Barack for the coolest, most influential married African-American man, he should use that power to encourage young black men to put a ring on it.

I’m skeptical of the research Cummings cites, not in terms of methodology but in terms of agenda and what’s really driving the “marriage crisis” for black women.  I agree that it’s hugely problematic if someone can’t have the relationship status they want just because they belong to a certain demographic group or–heaven forbid!–are incredibly successful.  And I hope this doesn’t showcase how some women, unfortunately, still have to choose between personal success and familial success.

But read further.  According to the article, most people commit to others with similar levels of education.  One of the reasons that successful black women might not be finding black men to marry, then, is because fewer black men than women go on to higher education.  This is the real problem.

Jay-Z is hugely influential–Cummings mentions that

[Jay-Z] still has the ability to write the kind of rhymes young people follow as though they are gospel.  On his 2004 album The Black Album, Jay-Z rapped, “I don’t wear jerseys/I’m 30-plus/give me a crisp pair of jeans/[expletive] button up,” every guy ditched their throwback basketball jerseys in favor of button-up dress shirts.

Okay, fine.  But this doesn’t work so well:

When it comes to the marriage discussion, black men need to get involved. Black women are already on board. This week one of them will probably buy one of the two books written by Harvey or Hill or read another article in Essence about what they need to do to make a man happy. Meanwhile, by this time next week Jay-Z will probably have the No. 1 album in the country and a big reason will be because young black men everywhere listen to what he has to say and live vicariously through his lyrics.

The way Cummings paints unmarried successful black women as desperate is really unflattering, unfeminist and undignified.  The solution to the situation is not to make black men decide that marriage is cool and snap up desperate successful black women on a whim.  The solution is to encourage black men–perhaps using Jay-Z’s formidable powers of persuasion–to be similarly successful.

Just putting a ring on it won’t solve anything.  But if successful African-American women and men can find equals to date and marry–if they so choose, let’s not advocate marriage as a universal necessity here–because everyone in the community has access to education and is getting pop-culture messages encouraging success and working hard, then that would go a long way toward solving the problems Cummings laments.

Tuesday links

  • Finally, a music magazine that isn’t self-absorbed!  I love reading music magazines, but at least once per issue the entire enterprise gets on my nerves.  Here’s an article about a new publication, the Journal of Music, that appears to be trying to cut the fawning hyperbole and provide intelligent music news, analysis, and history that takes a more panoramic view than most publications.  I’ll let you know how it is after I check it out.
  • Jay-Z takes down Bill O’Reilly and O’Reilly flounders around for a comeback. Click through for an amusing clip at The Source.
  • Racialicious thinks about the transcendent power of Michael Jackson’s dancing abilities and ruminates on his approach to race.
  • Hooray, something having to do with Woodstock that isn’t mistily nostalgic and overblown!
  • The Walrus checks out Rip! A Remix Manifesto, a new documentary on copyright laws and why and how they’re a mess in the digital age.  It’s inspired by the work of Lawrence Lessig, Stanford law prof and intellectual property revolutionary extraordinaire (and a Penn alum whose book my year was assigned for our freshman reading project), and mashup artist Girl Talk.  Oh, and you can watch the film for free or cheap.  Click the first link in this paragraph for instructions.

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