By Gilbert Klein •The Music In Me: Rap of History Backwards The
The last two songs in this article might offend some people, so keep that in mind if you’re playing it in a public space— Gilbert.
Look, I know I know too little about this subject to say I’m an expert, so I’m not. I’m not going to opine on the form or its practitioners, proponents, prophets or phans. (Sorry, I just had to do that. You get it, with the phat thing, right?) I know there must be rap artists who are soulful more than angry, and I know some people are making beautiful music that’s called rap or hip-hop, and I’m sorry but I must conflate the two. I don’t know about it or the scene, and I don’t have to, because I only want to tell you about the first rap song that I heard, and do a little history. I like a little history. I’ll bet there isn’t a rock fan out there who doesn’t know who Chuck Berry is and his music, but I’d bet there aren’t many rap fans who know who Gil Scott-Heron is. But first, the history, and I’ll ask you to keep in mind that in the entertainment industry, innovation is quickly replicated and exploited.
Oh, I am so not the right guy to expound on the history of rap. But I heard a few lines from a song I hadn’t heard in years, see, and it made me think about it. And I have this column, see? I’m telling you now I’m no expert. I’m just a guy. Okay, a guy with a column. Like a lot of old people, I don’t get rap music. I didn’t get it when it started and I’m probably too old now; I ignore it now because when it first broke big, I just didn’t like it. There was too much violence, too many gats, glocks and putting a cap in someone’s ass. It all seemed to be swagger about n--gers, bitches, blunts and bling. I understood anti-social sentiment, honest- I’ve enjoyed a bit of it myself in my youth, but where was the music? Suddenly everyone was clever for
stealingusing bits from other people’s music. That didn’t used to be cool in the 60’s, man. I appreciated the innovation, but I just didn’t find the music in there. Okay, if melody was going to be subverted by cleverness, I gave it a listen, but what I was hearing just seemed… angry. I understood the anger coming out of urban, less privileged areas like Brooklyn, the Bronx and lower Manhattan. I got that. I got why it was coming from places like Compton. But I missed melody, you know?
So rap sells a lot of music and is one of our most popular music forms. But nothing comes from out of a vacuum, so where did it come from? First, let’s look at the word “rap.” Yeah, it’s a bad thing if it refers to a criminal charge, but that wasn’t what it meant when we used it back in the mid-Sixties. It came from “rapport” and it usually meant that you were under the influence of the demon drug, marijuana. It just meant someone went on a talking jag. Logorrhea, as it were. Could have been about someone on meth, but it came out of the pot community. People got stoned and went off on verbal tangents, sometimes seemingly endlessly. It was kind of a joke, you know, when a guy looked around him and realized he’d been talking nonstop and had no idea what he’d been talking about. That was rapping. Or, you could be with someone else, or even a group, and having an earnest discussion. Pot wasn’t necessarily a component in this instance. That was rapping, too. I used to cringe when they called it a “rap session,” but that’s what we called them back then where I was, and I was in a lot of places. It was just silly talk or a serious discussion; either way, we rapped. And now it means something else, but that’s where it came from, and this is about how it got to here, so we’re going backwards.
Let’s start with all the rap music that’s out in the world right now, and go back from there. Let’s include Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Biggie and Tupac, and N.W.A. and Ice-T and Snoop Dogg and Eminem and Nicki Minaj and Kesha and everyone you know in that field, and there’s a lot of them. Let’s call all of them current artists, and yes, I know who’s dead. Let’s say that these are the folks you know, and for those of you that know more than I do about the recent history of rap, please excuse my glossing over most of the details to get to the first of it. Let’s go backwards to January, 1981. You’ll like this.
The first mainstream rap hit song was “Rapture,” by Blondie. Rap song? Blondie? The New Wave hit machine? Well, it had a rap, no doubt, and up ‘til then, rap had always been tough black guys, mostly gangsta, you feel me? Well, Debbie Harry was as opposite all that as you could devise, but it was rap—okay, maybe rap-ish—but Blondie was a powerhouse group and the song did have rap. It was also the beginning of the Age of Video, and MTV played the bejeesus out of the song. It was November, 1980 when that song came out and became the first major pop hit with rap in it. It was dipping your toes in rap, but it was huge. What preceded it?
Well, that would be “Rapper’s Delight,” by The Sugar Hill Gang, which came out in September, 1979, and went to #36 on the Billboard Hot 100, #4 on the Soul chart, #1 in Canada and Europe. It’s thought of as the first song to introduce rap (or hip-hop) to U.S. audiences, was a great big hit, and you know about sampling, right? This would be when sampling came into prominence, and from that development two phenomena emerged: today’s rap music, and a whole boatload of very wealthy lawyers. And you know who they sampled for this big hit?
Well, that would be “Good Times,” by Chic, which came out in June of 1979, and went on to be sampled too many times to even estimate at this point (note: check out Who Sampled for a list of the 180 times this track has been sampled and many other delights - CC). But “Rapper’s Delight” was the first to almost go mainstream, and when it hit, Debbie brought legendary singer/songwriter/producer/ recent Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee Nile Rodgers of Chic, to a club where he heard his beats and bass lines being used in some other guys’ song. He asked the DJ what record it was, the DJ told him he just bought it that day in Harlem, and it was an early version of “Rapper’s Delight,” whereupon they sued over the use of their record, and he and his bass player are now listed as co-writers. So, was “Rapper’s Delight” with all the “Good Times’” samples the first rap record to get serious airplay? No, that would be “King Tim III (Personality Jock),” by The Fatback Band, in March of 1979. And think about that title for an indication of how rare this was. It was happening fast, wasn’t it? Where’d this come from?
The funk dance outfit The Fatback Band was looking for something new, something energetic to put out. Knowing about the parties (remember- we’re going backwards here), they hired Tim Washington, an almost unknown MC who used to throw out raps at parties, and they recorded the song. They were a funk band, but they’d wanted something innovative, something to drive the song, so they went to a rapper because that was still all but unknown on any music charts, but there were dance parties in the Bronx and now elsewhere that were increasing in popularity, and rap was still exciting and daring. They thought the dance parties were not their dance crowd, so they put it out as the B-side. They thought those parties out there were for someone else, but the song took off like a shot in clubs and parties, and they re-released it as the A-side. I’m guessing the folks over at Sugar Hill Records thought they were on to something as they prepared to release “Rapper’s Delight,” shortly thereafter, and they were right. So now we’re back in March of 1979, when “King Tim” came out. So where’d he come from? Glad I asked.
What had been going on until “King Tim” was parties with MCs, starting in 1973, when Coke La Rock and DJ Kool Herc teamed up for a dance party in the Bronx to celebrate his sister’s birthday. La Rock improvised lines over the beats, mostly calling out to friends in the crowd and making up short stories to the beat, puffing up him and his friends. He did their first few parties from behind the speakers so no one knew who was rapping. For the sixth party, he started calling himself La Rock, and stepped out in front and got bolder, incorporating more poetry into his lines. His antics were getting closer to rap, but it was closer to a combination of performance art and showing off. The idea caught on and other parties started featuring MCs, and I’m using the term in a general way or we’ll be here all day.
Their success made these two players influential as the other MCs started showing up at dance parties. Violence was always a part of the raps because they reflected the reality of life in the ghetto, but the lore must have included the night when DJ Kool Herc was stabbed at a party, and when La Rock went looking to settle the score, he found that friends of the perpetrator had sent the guy out of town. La Rock mostly retired from rapping after that, but his influence lived on with the current and then the next generation of rappers. Later rappers eschewed La Rock’s improvisations, writing out the lyrics out and rehearsing their rhymes with a crew, which allowed them to become more complex. These parties continued outside the notice of mainstream record labels and the songs appeared mostly on tape until The Fatback Band, and we’ve been there and done that, so what the hell could possibly have preceded Coke La Rock in 1973? I’ve got two names for you: Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets.
Summer, 1971. The “Sixties” are over, but racial tensions continue to erupt.
And this is where I came in. In the old days, the pre-Sixties, we only had AM radios and all we listened to was Top 40. When all that changed with the Underground Radio revolution, we all listened to our FM stations, and that was where this essay starts. The snippet of the song I heard that started me on this quest was in the opening music for the just-ended season of “Homeland,” on Showtime. I heard a phrase that I’d heard the first time in the song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” by Gil Scott-Heron. It would only ever be played on FM in the summer of 1971; it was too hot for AM, and I don’t mean “hot” in the good way. Over the years, the phrase popped up now and then, and I know there isn’t an ex-hipster out there who forgot it, and when I heard it on that show, I wanted to know more about it.
It was played on FM because it was daring, it was about “the revolution” that had evolved into the middle class when the hippies got married and had children; some were left some behind. AM wouldn’t touch it, and it didn’t ignite any flames that I know of, but I heard it, and so did those of us still listening. I wasn’t alarmed, but I did think that this was something new. Not just the message, but the medium. That was new, and I paid attention. It was in 1971, and it didn’t ignite any flames, but it was something different, and that’s what I heard. Different. It was jazzy and pop-ish, but it had a message, maybe a warning. In the early Sixties, Dylan wrote: “Yes, it is I who is knockin’ at your door if it is you inside who hears the noise,” and we heard him knocking when he sang,
“Oh the foes will rise with the sleep still in their eyes
And they’ll jerk from their beds and think they’re dreamin’
And they’ll pinch themselves and squeal and know that it’s for real
The hour when the ship comes in”
The message was received, the Sixties had come and gone, and there’d been some changes made. But not enough for a lot of the black community, who were still restless, waiting for all the freedoms that were promised so recently. Black Olympians had raised their fists in the Black Power salute, James Brown said “I’m black and I’m proud,” but where were the changes? The influence of the Black Panthers had come and gone by 1971, when Gil Scott-Heron released “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” He was speaking for a group that was virtually unheard in pop culture, and we heard the warning. We’d heard it from Dylan, and he’d been chillingly right…
I remember comparing the two in 1971. When I heard it recently, I asked myself if this wasn’t the origin of rap. It was certainly so in my mind, and then I saw that confirmed in my research, but I also found one more step backwards in the history of rap, and that would be to The Last Poets, a group founded in the wake of the late 1960’s Civil Rights Movement, and its Black Nationalist’s offshoot. Angry revolutionaries, they made no effort to couch their message in radio-ready language, and so it was months before Scott-Heron put out “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” that they released The Last Poets, which, out of concern for my host’s inbox I will call: this song and the other song, neither of which you may play in sensitive situations.
I never heard this group back then, and I can guess why. Maybe it was because of the language? I don’t know, maybe Station Managers or Program Directors or owners felt that playing Gil Scott-Heron was daring, but playing The Last Poets was a bridge too far. Even hippie stations had to sell ads and keep their licenses. Don’t know, don’t care; this is about the first rap music and I think this is it. Maybe you never heard of The Last Poets, either, but they were not unheard, and if you listen, you can hear their echoes today. Them and Gil Scott-Heron.
Were they angry? Definitely. Got a point? You decide. What I decided was that this was as far back as I can trace rap. Yes, there may be evidence of rap as far back as the early 18th Century in Congo Square, but 1970 is as far as I go.
Now rap is everywhere and has fragmented into styles and methods, as it should. It’s in clubs, on TV, on the web and stuck in people’s ears; if there are still boom boxes, then it’s there, too. It’s on the guy’s radio next to you at a red light, and at or near every 7-11 in at least in Southern California, and it’s in movies and TV soundtracks, and it’s in the news, and its biggest stars are the biggest stars, and it’s come a long way from The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron and Coke La Rock and The Fatback Band.
You may now go back to the present day. And good day to you.
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.1