Hip-Hop Did Not Start the Way You Think It Did

Categories: Commentary

To hear most people tell it, the history of rap goes like this: MCs were originally rapping primarily to showcase their DJs. That is, until Sugar Hill Gang put out "Rapper's Delight" in 1979. It was the second rap record of all time and an enormous hit, proving there was a market for rapping on wax.

From there, Kool Moe Dee battled Busy Bee and changed how rappers could rap, Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel put out "The Message" -- changing what rappers could rap about -- and Run-DMC released "Sucker MCs (Krush Groove 1)," which changed how rap could sound.

By Chaz Kangas

At the start of it all, of course, was DJ Kool Herc's 1973 block party in the Bronx, which effectively birthed hip-hop as we know it.

Those are the bullet points, but they don't answer the question: How did rapping get started in the first place?

And, what gave birth to the music at block parties like Kool Herc's?

There are plenty of awful college music professors who, attempting to shock their students, float the idea that Bob Dylan "invented rap" or was in any way an influence on hip-hop. With all due respect to Jakob Dylan's father, this is not the case at all.

Others primarily credit the Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron. But those theories are flawed too. To get a fuller picture, let's take a few steps back.

There were many examples of proto-rapping on '60s and '70s records. While the influence of James Brown on early b-boys and MCs has been well documented, there were other influences as well. Take the tradition of "toasting," a rhyming speech given at urban parties, most popular in Harlem in the late '60s and early '70s.

"The toast would be a series of rhymes, and you would say it so it sounded real cool," says Curtis Sherrod, of Harlem's Hip-Hop Culture Center. "It's like a boastful speech to set the party off." He cites a famous toast given by former WBLS DJ Frankie Crocker, who would end his shows by saying:

May you live as long as you want But not want as long as you live May you live to be 100 and I live to be 100 minus a day So I never knew good people like you passed away

Hip-hop was also greatly influenced by party records. Take Blowfly, the comedian and musician whose 1965 track "Rapp Dirty" is considered by some to be the first rap song.

Then there's Rudy Ray Moore, better known as Dolemite, whose dirty rhyme routines over music not only predated Andrew Dice Clay by several decades, but continued the long tradition of rhyming in African culture.

Some stories told in rhyme go back for centuries. Moore's "A Signifying Monkey," for example, is his take on the enduring tale of a trash-talking primate. Another famous rendition was by Oscar Brown Jr., a pre-rap poet and singer who was among the first to take traditional African rhyme routines and poems and set them to music.

Sherrod suggests that this rhyming tradition can be traced back to griots, who maintain thousands of years of history through oral tradition in West Africa.

There's also the use of rhyme in the black churches of mid-20th century New York, and the influence of the insult game "The Dozens." Add it all up, and the genesis story of rap begins to take shape.

Continue to page two.

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Phyllis Hutchinson E
Phyllis Hutchinson E

Bob Dylan rapped a lot of his lyrics!! License to kill.. Desolation Row.. Tangled up in Blue and Hurricane!! Just a start

Jeffrey Mohler
Jeffrey Mohler

Saw Blowfly in Cleveland last year, playing the front bar at a Man or Astroman show. He's still got it.

Matt Carroll
Matt Carroll

The Jamaican sound systems that started in the 50s and gained popularity in the 60s and 70s in Kingston are probably the most direct precursors to hip-hop, where DJs toasted over the music they played on turntables. Obviously, hip-hop is a composite of a lot of influences you mentioned, but the sound systems are probably the biggest and most direct influences on the creation of hip-hop and I think that's pretty well agreed upon by most hip-hop historians.

Oakland L. Childers
Oakland L. Childers

I think there's also quite a bit of convergent evolution involved, too. Funk and Go-go came from different parts of the country but it's pretty clear both played huge roles in what eventually became rap music.


There's no Jamaican cultural component to hip-hop it's a distinctly American creation. Hip-hop started in America sound systems aren't exclusive to Jamaica and turntablism in hip-hop came from the disco era where DJs replaced live bands as the main attraction in clubs. The genre was known as "disco rap" before the term "hip-hop" was coined. Educate yourself.


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