I'm an unusual breed of media addict. The majority of people are content in absorbing what they hear or see in passing. If a show is on, they'll watch it. If the radio is on, they just roll with what the playlist has in store for them. They are passive in their relationship with media. Then there are others who are selective in what they choose to accept but have no interest in the inner workings of those ideas. Perhaps my background as an artist informs this, but I equally enjoy the process and the result of any given art form. I devour episodes of VH1's Classic Albums like a sous chef might be stoked on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. I want the back story.
So nothing interests me more than how genres developed, the connections between songs and how they inspire our response to them. After reading Last Night A DJ Saved My Life by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, I was surprised to hear how accidental genre creation seemed to be. According to their recollection, techno and house were synthesized in Detroit and Chicago as a replacement for the disco records that stopped coming out in the early '80s.
This music was an attempt at recreating the music they were DJing out of necessity, regardless of their technical ineptitude or lack of funding. "If you need something to dance to, make it yourself," was the message. Similarly, rap is a direct response to disco culture, as early rappers would get on the mic and rhythmically implore people to dance, eventually realizing that what they were doing was actually a new musical component itself.
My mother (who is not a music historian but is hipper than your average mom) once told me that Douglas "Jocko" Henderson invented rapping. After doing some research, she's actually not far off. He predates Jamaican toasting and hosted a Soul Train precursor called Jocko's Rocket Ship. Jocko's prime document is a song fittingly called "Rhythm Talk." Based around an instrumental of McFadden and Whitehead's disco jam "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" and released just after "Rapper's Delight", Jocko kicks slick talk in a style that has seemingly influenced thousands of musicians.
His lyrics are a pastiche of pimp talk, scatting, personal catch phrases, radio preamble and general nonsense ("Gotta rock around the clocka mama jam pop and locka / Bang the boom poontang real good"). He often sounds like an old person making fun of rap but he's completely serious. All that considered, the song is still amazing, prescient and most importantly, fascinating.
Why is it the way it is? This song came out in 1979. Jocko was a radio DJ for 29 years before he released "Rhythm Talk." He'd heard hundreds of songs before. Nothing made him think, "This song could use a chorus" or "Maybe I should edit out some of my frantic panting and mumbo jumbo so this song isn't over seven minutes long"? Early rap eschews traditional song structure, even though it is readily available in the source material. When KRS-One references the lyrics to "Hey Jude" at the beginning of Boogie Down Productions' "Criminal Minded", why isn't there the same interest in composing a song as detailed and widescreen as something McCartney or Lennon would come up with?
"I imagine that it just did not occur to the people of that era that what they were doing was songwriting," says Andrew Noz of esteemed hip-hop blog Cocaine Blunts (cbrap.com). "There wasn't a precedent for spoken-song. Even when you get into the early live hip-hop tapes when they started implementing recurring routines and singing, they were still doing so without any real song structure. The routines would just happen and then end.
"When I think about it, that's part of what makes early to mid hip hop so interesting to me," Noz continues. "The artists were rebuilding the act of songwriting from scratch. Like how do we fold all these words into a song? Or do we even bother? Can we just rap for 15 minutes and call it a song?"
The post-modernity of rap is frequently overlooked but the rejection of existing song formats and the inherent nature of the music (often recontextualizing previous works) are huge signifiers. How ironic that today's popular form of the music is perceived as being artless when the forefathers unconsciously built it on such a futuristic platform? This is what I love about looking into the back story. You never know how much of the present is predicated by the past until you look into it. V