“Rap is so stupid def, it’s bum-rushin’ the mainstream. It’s housin’ ’em all – word, homes. Translation: Rap is so incredibly fine, it’s breaking down the doors of mainstream society. It’s bringing down the house – and that’s the truth, friend.
The enduring and expanding popularity of rap music – rhythmic, rhymed chanting to a driving beat -has set off an increasingly broad-based cultural trend. Like early rock-and-roll and the pervasive youth culture it spawned, the influence of rap is now evident in the nation’s language, music, fashion and advertising.
Hip-hop, as the culture of rap is called, originated among young blacks in the Bronx in the 1970’s. Instead of fading like many previous fads, rap’s energy has become increasingly irresistible to an international audience of teen-agers and pre-teen-agers. As in other subcultural trends that have matured into mass phenomena, rap language and style are entering older, more racially diverse, middle-class and suburban communities.
‘Rap has really begun to get around the mainstream culture,’ said Robert Farris Thompson, a professor of African and Afro-American art history at Yale University.
Rappers themselves are surprised by their broadening popularity. ‘Our audiences are 50 percent white in some locations, and that would’ve been impossible a while ago,’ said the Fresh Prince. The 19-year-old rap star and his partner, D. J. Jazzy Jeff, have sold 1.3 million copies of their album ‘He’s the D.J., I’m the Rapper,’ in less than two months.
The Fresh Prince, who grew up in Philadelphia, believes an important reason for this crossover success is his witty ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’ rap video appearing on MTV, the cable music channel.
‘You don’t have to be from a certain background or age or color or place to understand my music,’ he said.
The song’s narrative is set in the suburbia of shopping centers and fast-food outlets and not an urban ghetto. Its conflict between hip teenagers and square parents is timeless.
The Power of Words
Hip-hop words from what was once an underclass subculture are now common parlance among America’s youth. ‘Rappers are persons of words, and those words are getting into the language,’ said Professor Thompson.
Already entrenched in the teen-age vocabulary are superlatives like ‘def’ (the best). Words like ‘stupid’ (terrific) and ‘wack’ (awful) are now established in both the urban and suburban teen-age lexicon irrespective of class or color.
Hip-hop music and fashion are also becoming international. ‘Hip-hop, the words, the look, the attitude, it’s going strong in Japan, France, Germany, Belgium and England,’ said Afrika Bambaataa, who recently returned to New York from Italy. ‘It’s spreading around, becoming a worldwide culture.’
Mr. Bambaataa is a rapper, a disk jockey and record producer, and many consider him to be one of the musical progenitors of hip-hop.
Rap’s influence on music is growing; gospel is now being sung to the hip-hop beat. Instead of waning in energy as mass acceptance increases, rap has continued to be enlivened by innovations and infusions of new talent.
$50 Million for Concerts
According to industry estimates, in the last four years stores have sold $240 million worth of rap records and tapes and fans have spent $50 million to see rap groups in concert.
The hip-hop look is taken for granted among urban youths – and increasingly, among suburban teen-agers as well. Necessary to the uniform are untied Reebok, Adidas, Nike or Avia sneakers; baseball caps worn at a jaunty angle; shirts and jackets with large logos; unisex Spandex, denim or bold-patterned pants; gold chains and jewelry spelling out the wearer’s name; rings that span several fingers and knuckles, and headphone radios. The ultimate status symbol is a Jeep with a roll bar for passengers to grasp while rap songs blast from a def sound system.
Some mainstream companies, like Adidas, have simply made formal relationships with performers who were already wearing their products. Adidas USA’s A-15 warmup suit was for years the unofficial tuxedo of the hip-hop rapocracy. Run-D.M.C. — which in 1984 became the first rap group to earn a gold record — had a best-selling record called ‘My Adidas’ before the group formally signed a $2 million contract with the manufacturer in 1987.
Hip-hop’s influence on advertising is unmistakable. A print ad in Reebok’s new $35 million campaign shows 20-, 30- and 40-year-old whites dancing on a graffiti-bedaubed, hip-hoppy city street.
A New Way of Writing
It and other Reebok ads, adopting the orthography of rap hits like M. C. Lyte’s ‘I Cram 2 Understand U (Sam),’ proclaim: ‘Reeboks Let U.B.U.’ Another Reebok ad quotes Theodore Roosevelt as having said: ‘Do What U Can, With What U Have, Where U R.’
Not only is rap music appearing in mainstream movies like ‘Colors’ with Sean Penn and ”Die Hard” with Bruce Willis, but NBC plans to bring rap orthography to Saturday morning television next fall in ‘2 HIP 4 TV,’ a comedy-variety series that is to begin on Sept. 10.
Like early rock-and-roll, rap’s tough sound and aggressive esthetic can be abrasive and anti-authoritarian, raising concern among some parents and critics about hip-hop’s sexual explicitness, macho swaggering and association with violence. These fears centered on incidents surrounding the release of the 1985 Run-D.M.C. movie ‘Krush Groove,’ when violence broke out at several theaters.
‘The cultural police are always threatened by new movements, and greet them unfailingly with hysteria,’ Professor Thompson said, mentioning the atmosphere surrounding the early careers of performers as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. ‘If people weren’t denouncing rap, I’d be worried, because it would mean that rap had no energy.’
The African Roots
Mr. Bambaataa said he thought rap was simply ‘the latest flowering of something that has been passed down from generation to generation -ritual chanting and storytelling in Africa.’
Indeed, academics like Professor Thompson are studying rap ‘as a formalized literary context like haiku and the sonnet,’ and are looking at rap song cycles that he said are not unlike ‘the Norse sagas or ‘Beowulf.”
‘The mainstream always hoped it would be a fad that would die,’ Mr. Bambaataa said. But instead, he maintained, the distinctive hip-hop vocabulary, clothes and culture has been important in empowering and giving status to an impoverished and isolated generation of urban young people that society found threatening.
So far, successful groups of white rappers like the Beastie Boys are not resented in the inner city because they have not replaced the inner-city performers. But since jazz, blues and rock-and-roll were all embraced, imitated and exploited by the mainstream culture, there is speculation about a similar fate for rap.
Here Comes the Mainstream
‘Much of the history of pop music has been ‘black innovation, white imitation,” said Bill Adler of Rush Artist Management, which represents Run-D.M.C, L. L. Cool J., and Public Enemy.
He sees a difference, however, between rap and previous musical idioms devoured by the mainstream. ‘Our artists don’t cross over and start performing at Harrah’s,’ Mr. Adler said. ‘Instead, the mainsteam has been coming to us. It’s as if they’ve got to get to this music and culture, since it’s the most vital infusion of energy in pop music in the last 15 years. And rap only seems to work when it stays true to its roots.’
The Fresh Prince believes that white and middle-class audiences are being drawn to the raw energy of authentic rap. ‘They see that we’re into something they don’t understand, they’ve got to know what it is, and that’s why we’ve sold a million records,’ he said.
Professor Thompson maintains that rap will remain a moving target. ‘Once America thinks it has got it right, rap will have moved on,’ he said. He added, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if rap is going into the 21st century.'”
-Excerpt courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “Rap Music, Brash And Swaggering, Enters Mainstream,” by Glenn Collins, August 29, 1988. (top) “Darryl McDaniels, left, and Joseph Simmons of Run-D.M.C. in a promotional concert. They signed a $2 million contract with Adidas in 1987.” Image courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “Rap Music, Brash And Swaggering, Enters Mainstream,” by Glenn Collins, August 29, 1988