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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Hip Hop/Rap

In the 1970s and 1980s, the emergence of hip-hop in the African-American communities of cities like New York, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles, took longstanding African-American musical traditions in new directions. The style was generally known as "rap" in its early days, and this term is still interchangeable with "hip-hop" when discussing the genre broadly. Hip-hop artists like the Sugarhill Gang, Grandmaster Flash, NWA, Public Enemy and Run DMC drew on the legacy of old African-American musical forms like field hollers and the blues to create a distinctive art form grounded in social protest which used spoken word poetry, sampling, scratching and drumming as the main agents of change.

Hip - hop songs, or rap songs, have roots in much older traditions of African-American poetry and song. "Toasts," are poems, sometimes chanted, that frequently center on the life of an individual, but sometimes told of events as well. Toasts seem to have emerged in the late nineteenth century and, though largely replaced by newer forms, are still performed in some parts of the United States. "Shine and the Titanic," is an example of a well-known toast which exists in many versions, as is often the case in folk traditions. In this example, O.C. King recited "Shine and the Titanic" for folklorist Alan Lomax in 1942. Willis James recorded a chant about World War II performed by two groups in 1943. First, a group of African-American singers from the small community of New York, Georgia, perform "What a Time," chanting rhymed couplets that are characteristic of toasts. Gospel groups would not ordinarily perform toasts, but, no doubt, the subject matter of the ongoing war was important enough to make an exception. Also, the lead vocalist is a woman, which is unusual for a toast. The Golden Jubilee Quartet also sang their own version of "What A Time," using a different chorus, which they inserted into the text more frequently, so that the result is more musical. In their 2005 concert, the Birmingham Sunlights provided a comparison of toasts and hip-hop, using an old toast about Noah's Ark, with the first verse chanted in the style of old toast, or, as they call it, "old rap," and as a modern hip-hop song in the second verse. The chorus is sung in Gospel quartet style: "It's gonna rain," (go to the time code: 00:43:00).

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation built on these older forms and created works that mixed spoken word, and poetry with rhythm and blues, soul and jazz. In 1968, Africa-American comedian "Pigmeat"Markham had a major hit with a comedic rap about the Vietnam War called "Here Come The Judge." That same year in New York, a group eventually known as "The Last Poets" formed in Harlem, and went on to record several albums of topical rhyming poetry and free verse declaimed over jazz accompaniment. Later in the decade, artists such as the Sugar Hill Gang began rapping over repetitive portions of dance records, and scored the first hit record in this emerging style, "Rapper's Delight," in 1979. "Rapper's Delight" was a humorous record, but the style soon proved apt for more dramatic and topical material, such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," a tense description of ghetto life released in 1982. In 1980s and 1990s, hip-hop artists emerged from all over the country, and "gangsta rap," which reflected, and sometimes even glorified, urban violence, became a prominent facet of hip-hop, while groups such as De La Soul, The Fugees and Arrested Development drew on different musical sources such as jazz, soul, reggae and rock and dealt with both personal and social issues in their in their lyrics. hip-hop continues to be a vital area of popular music, and often serves as a vehicle for topical observation and commentary.