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What Is Rap Music? - Definition, History & Artists

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  • 0:00 Rap: A Few Basic Questions
  • 0:32 What Is The Difference…
  • 1:30 Where Does Rap Come From?
  • 2:52 Is Rap A Type Of…
  • 3:47 Why Is Rap Important?
  • 4:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will offer a definition of rap and explain its correlation to the larger culture of hip-hop. The origins of rap will be summarized and the significance of hip-hop music and culture will be considered.

What is The Difference Between Rap and Hip-Hop?

We have all heard rap before. Whether it is on a TV commercial, coming from a friend's car, or at a dance club, rap is one of the most popular and distinctive vocal techniques in the world today. Though rap is widely known, there are still several questions surrounding the genre. What's the difference between rap and hip-hop? Where does rap come from? Is rap a type of singing, or something else? Why is rap important? This lesson will try to answer these questions individually in order to place rap in its proper context.

Rap is a vocal technique, while hip-hop is a subculture. Rap only makes up one part of hip-hop, so the two terms are not interchangeable. Afrika Bambaataa was one of the most important figures in the early development of hip-hop and articulated the four elements that made up the subculture: DJing, b-boying (also known as breakdancing), graffiti writing, and MCing. Rapping is another word for MCing.

Rappers became the most visible and marketable proponents of hip-hop in the 1980s. For this reason, they came to represent the subculture as a whole in the minds of some people. Although many people familiar with hip-hop music in the 21st century may assume that rap is the most important pillar of hip-hop, in the early days of the subculture, the other pillars were perhaps even more critical.

Where Does Rap Come From?

Rap has two basic points of origin: Jamaica and New York City. Although many people associate Jamaica only with reggae, the island has been profoundly influential on numerous forms of popular music, including rap. In the 1960s, Jamaican DJs playing and mixing records at big outdoor parties started picking up the microphones and yelling at the crowd to dance. This practice came to be called toasting and was the precursor to rap.

Hip-hop culture, and rap more specifically, emerged in African-American and Latino neighborhoods in New York City during the early 1970s. The Bronx was the most important borough for the development of rap and hip-hop, but other boroughs like Queens were soon to follow.

DJ Kool Herc was born in Jamaica, but came to prominence in the Bronx. Familiar with the dance party culture, DJing, and toasting traditions of Jamaica, he transformed these styles into a vibrant form of youth culture that served as the basis for hip-hop. Other important figures in the Bronx during this early period included Afrika Bambaataa, Melle Mel, and Grandmaster Flash.

Rap and hip-hop came into being at a time when African-American communities in New York City and elsewhere were being neglected by municipal governments and falling into poverty. Rap music gave a voice and an empowering sense of identity to young people who felt like no one was listening to them.

Is Rap a Type of Singing or Something Else?

Rap is a vocal technique that falls somewhere between singing and chanting. The ability to rhyme different words is a vital component of rapping. Improvised rap is known as freestyling and is considered a highly prized skill, although most recorded rap is not improvised.

Rap is not as complex in its melody or harmony as traditional singing is, being very much focused on rhythm. The quality of a rapper's rhythmic pattern is sometimes referred to as flow. Everyone has different ideas about what makes a good flow or a bad flow, so hip-hop culture is filled with variance contingent upon individual preferences.

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