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’.

Yikes: Amy Winehouse raps about being Jewish

You guys, I love Amy Winehouse, I love Judaism, and I love rap…but this makes me cry a little inside.

Tablet‘s description:

More saliently, it includes the following flow from Ms. Winehouse: “Oh, snap, I never knew, I never knew that, well, I’m a Jew/Well a Jew makin’/Anyway, if you can smoke bacon/Then I reckon that, um…”—at which point she changes the subject to the drumming prowess of her friend Zalon. If we’re following the logic correctly, what should fill in the lacuna at the end of that line is that, if you can smoke bacon, you can smoke crack. And if you’re a Jew who smokes bacon—really, what can’t you smoke?

On the upside, the guy playing drums and singing (Zalon?) is actually pretty good.

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.

Is hip-hop masculinity being redefined?

Jonah Weiner makes a provocative case on Slate today that homophobia in hip hop is decreasing and being redefined–primarily, paradoxically, through the use of the phrase “no homo.”  The crux of Weiner’s argument is as follows:

As society becomes increasingly gay-tolerant, hip-hop is reassessing its relationship to homosexuality and, albeit in a hedged and roundabout way, it’s possible that no homo is helping to make hip-hop a gayer place.

Weiner isn’t entirely wrong.  It’s certainly true that American mainstream culture is trending toward acceptance of gays and lesbians (though we still have a long way to go).  And it’s certainly true that hip hop, given how integrated it is into American life, affects and is affected by general cultural trends.  But ending homophobia in hip hop has less to do with perceptions of homosexuality than it does with notions of masculinity.

Scholars from music to African American studies have discussed in detail how hip hop reflects, and helps construct, ideas about how to be properly masculine for both artists and audiences.  From the meteoric rise of gangsta rap in the late 80s-early 90s to more-recent video ho controversies, a very specific type of masculinity is being worked out in corporate hip hop: tough, heterosexual, potentially violent, financially successful, proud, fashionable, potentially misogynist (running the gamut from physical violence towards women to verbal disrespect towards women–see: Chris Brown and Rihanna for an extreme example).  There are certainly exceptions within mainstream hip hop to all these characteristics (some of which are positive and some of which are negative), but on the whole, many artists attempt to put forth this type of image in the name of authenticity and credibility (even if they are not necessarily like this in their own lives).

Heterosexuality is a key part of this image.  Just as it is important to continually reinforce one’s financial success, fashion sense, and other aspects of this persona, it’s important within the genre to reinforce one’s heterosexuality.  One way of doing this is with respect to women, of course: an artist can boast about his sex life, rhyme about his lady, etc.  (Detractors would argue that this method includes misogyny as a method of reinforcing heterosexuality.)  Another way of doing this is by denying any homosexual impulse or affinity.

Hip-hop homophobia isn’t, for the most part, about hating gays and lesbians as such.  It’s about reinforcing a specific notion of masculinity, one that dictates that men have power over those around them in a variety of ways: whether by having one’s own posse, being able to buy whatever one wants, and by having the upper hand in a romantic or sexual encounter.  Being gay negates this latter possibility: one man will be in power, and the other will have been disempowered (within the context of this idea about being masculine, that is).

So I agree in a way–that

no homo tweaks this [homophobic] dynamic because it allows, implicitly, that rap is a place where gayness can in fact be expressed by the guy on the mic, not just scorned in others….When these rappers say “no homo,” it can seem a bit like a gentleman’s agreement, nodding to the status quo while smuggling in a fuller, less hamstrung notion of masculinity.  This is still a concession to homophobia, but one that enables a less rigid definition of the hip-hop self than we’ve seen before.  It’s far from a coup, but, in a way, it’s progress.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for the day when “fuller, less hamstrung” notions of masculinity don’t need to be smuggled into mainstream hip hop (with the important caveat that certain artists are already unapologetic about trying to redefine hip hop masculinity).  But it’ll be a good day when it arrives.

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