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’.