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.
At the start of it all, of course, was DJ Kool Herc’s 1973 block party in the Bronx, which effectively created hip-hop as we know it.
Those are the bullet points, but they don’t answer the questions of how rapping got started in the first place, or 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. 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 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 midcentury 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.
Things began to crystallize in 1970s New York. Isaac Hayes rhymed in his soulful voice, and tracks like Jimmy Castor’s “Hallucinations” (1974) feature an instantly identifiable early rap cadence. A favorite at this time was Lightnin’ Rod’s album-length tale Hustlers Convention, which was probably the closest relative to rap, before hip-hop officially began.
In traditional discussions of hip-hop forebears, the names that most often pop up are The Last Poets and Scott-Heron. But according to Priest Forever, a hip-hop historian and one half of rap duo The Gecko Brothers, the connection between The Last Poets and hip-hop wasn’t really made in the media until the rise of Public Enemy.
While there’s no denying The Last Poets and Scott-Heron helped popularize rhyming as a means of social communication, there’s debate as to how much influence they had on those early 1970s block parties, like the ones Kool Herc rocked. And the huge sonic differences between these supposed direct antecedents and that of early hip-hop can’t easily be overlooked.
At the end of the day, folks like Moore, Blowfly, and Lightning Rod surely had at least as much influence as their more politically correct contemporaries.
Even if that doesn’t sound as safe in a cultural studies thesis.