History of rap music: The roots of rap and hip-hop - Roots of Rap

History of rap music: The roots of rap and hip-hop

Are you interested in the history of rap music? Then you probably know that the song that made rap music acceptable on mainstream radio is Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delight that was released in 1979. But there were many, many predecessors of rap.

History of rap
Rappers Delight Raindrop: Source image: Philip Kromer via Flickr
"I said a hip hop the hippie the hippie
to the hip hip hop, a you don't stop
the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie
to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat"

History of Rap Music

The birth of rap began not as a genre and the history of rap music cannot be pinpointed to one single day or event. It is a melting pot of different musical cultures and it evolved from a tradition of storytelling and includes many musical and cultural ingredients, like the African griots tradition, gospel spirituals, delta blues, jazz vocalese, Jamaican toasting and the many variations of these music genres that were sung on the streets of New York City.

Griot tradition from Africa

Thh history of rap music started in Africa where it began thousands of years ago in their traditional music of griots: village storytellers and  musicians whose job was to memorize poems, stories, and songs. The griot tradition follows the African people wherever they go. It continued as slave traders forcibly removed Africans from their homeland and sent them to foreign shores to begin a life of servitude.

Griots were storytellers and were skilled orators who told rhythmic stories of the past to their villages over the simple beat of a drum. They were genealogists and political devices, trained to memorize and recite large amounts of information concerning family trees and historical events. This was acknowlegded as an oral art and the starting point for the history op rap.

Griot tradition from Africa
Griot from Sudan (circa 1905): Image by Eugène Mage - New York Public Library via Wikipedia


The griot tradition got carried over when colonizers began taking Africans against their will and transporting them to America as part of the large slave industry. One way the enslaved Africans coped with the oppression, subjugation, and injustices would be to sing. Singing while working, has always been a part of the African tradition. While they spent most of their time working in the fields and plantations, they often spontaneously performed a call-and-response song. These songs were always sung a cappella, because in the British colonies in the year 1739, drums were prohibited by law and characterized as weapons. These songs put rhythm in the slaves' work and was their only relief during the grueling workdays. These songs died out after breaking the plantation system, but have persisted in southern penitentiaries until the 60's.
Hoe Emma Hoe is an example of a call-and-response song.

The griot tradition from Africa combined with the act of inviting a crowd to participate -call-and-respons- that evolved in work songs on plantations, is one of the ingredients of rap music as we know it today.

Gospel spirituals and Delta blues

Gospel spirituals and Delta blues played a major role in shaping rap music. Those spirituals and  blues came, at least partly, out of the songs slaves sung: the worksongs. This music was influenced greatly by West African musical griot traditions. It was first played by blacks and later by some whites, in the Mississippi Delta region. This music gave a voice to their common experiences and frustration and was away of communication among slaves. It was the voice of the people. Early blues tracks like Whitewash Station Blues by the Memphis Jug Band, It's a Good Thing by the the Beale Street Sheiks and If I Had My Way I'd Tear The Building Down by Blind Willie Johnson (video below) come reasonably close to rap music as we know today.

Dueling Rhymes: The Dozens

Long before rap music appeared, there was an art form of verbal combat called The Dozens. It was a game of spoken words between two contestants, common in Afro American communities. The Dozens where participants insult each other until one gives up. It was played in front of an audience of bystanders, who urge the participants to reply with increasingly egregious insults to heighten the tension and so, make the contest more interesting to watch. The mother is usually was the target of the insults. When more sexual themes where incorporated in the game, it was referred to as the Dirty Dozens.
Oh you dirty motherfucker
You old cocksucker
You dirty son of a bitch
You bastard
You're everything
And yo' mammy don't wear no drawers
from the The Dirty Dozen by Jerry Roll Morton (1939)


One of the antecedents of rap is scatting: the rhythmic singing and vocal improvisation with  nonsense syllables by jazz singers keeping pace with their backing band. The rap music of today is all connected to scatting. Without scat, a lot of rappers would not have learned to rap and nowadays rappers use scat singing to come up with the rhythms of their rap.

Gene Greene was of one of the first scat singers. Listen to his jazzy scat singing in his 1911 song King of the Bungaloos.

Louis Armstrong was the first major artist to popularize scat singing in a 1926 recording of Heebie Jeebies. Cab Calloway incorporated it into many songs in his act, including one of his most famous songs, Minnie the Moocher from 1930. Later, artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, and vocalist Mel Tormé  took scatting to high art form in the more mature years of jazz's development, from the late 1940s movement to the 1970s.

Talking Blues

Talking Blues is a form of American folk music with spoken or nearly spoken vocals. It was popularized by Woody Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, and others. Talking Blues features rhyming talking with dry humor, social commentary ironic asides to the audience.

The genre originates and takes its name from Chris Bouchillon's 1927 single Talking Blues. It was a regional hit for Bouchillon and later became a staple of the American folk revival.

Black Comedy

Long before rap music appeared, there was black comedy. Black humorist used jive talk in their acts: an early form of rap. Talking jive was made popular by Pigmeat Markham, Jackie 'Moms Mabley', Redd Foxx and Rudy Ray Moore, and of course, Richard Pryor. The didn’t know the foundations they were laying, but their jive humor has many elements of rap music as we know it today.

Rap pioneers DJ Hollywood and Kool Moe Dee mentioned Pigmeat Markham's Here comes the Judge from 1968, as one of their main influences in hip-hop, and more specifically, to rhythmic rapping:
Pigmeat Markham introduced me to the flow of it, and the humor.

Spoken Word

One of the influences directly leading up to the birth of modern hip-hop and rap was spoken word. Spoken word can trace it legacy back to the oral traditions of the African griot. This tradition directly influenced the gospel spirituals, the Delta blues and the civil rights movement. Artists such as Sonia Sanchez, the Watts Poets, and Amiri Baraka spoke out in accordance with the era’s civil rights movement.

Two notable artists in this genre, that paved the way for modern rap and hip-hop were The Last Poets and influential poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron. The Last Poets were formed on Malcolm X's birthday, May 19, 1968 during a time of social and political unrest. They read poems, played drums and their a message was about unity and social justice. Gil Scott-Heron called himself a bluesologist: a scientist who is concerned with the origin of the blues. Scott-Heron is considered by many to be the first rapper/MC ever. His recording work received much critical acclaim, especially, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Whitey on the Moon.

Jazz Vocalese

Jazz Vocalese is the art of singing note for note the instrumental lines of jazz tunes. In a sense it is an early form of rapping. Unlike scat singing, which used wordless sounds, vocalese songs had lyrics.
The founder of vocalese style was Eddie Jefferson. His most famous vocalese song was Body and Soul: an adaption of Coleman Hawkins' Body and Soul.

The word 'vocalese' was invented a few years later by jazz critic Leonard Feather to describe the first Lambert, Hendricks, & Ross album, Sing a Song of Basie, that was released in 1958 and on which Count Basie’s big-band melodies were reworked into songs. Others practitioners and popularisers are King Pleasure and Babs Gonzales.

Jump Rope Rhymes

Before the advent of television, video games and social media, jump rope rhymes inspired rap music. Little black girls rhyming to their jump rope games on urban sidewalks across America. The game was invented by ancient rope makers in Egypt and China and Dutch settlers eventually brought it to the United States in the 1900s. Double dutch remained popular throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and in the 1970s, it became even more well known thanks to the efforts of David Walker. He took the game to the next level and turned it into a competitive team sport when he organized the first double dutch tournament in 1974 with nearly 600 participants. Later on, double dutch was strongly associated with New York hiphop and rap culture.


Toasting from Jamaica

Toasting is a predecessor to rap vocals. It that refers to a form of poetry, rhythmic storytelling, or lyrical chanting which involves a deejay speaking over a rhythm.

Origin of the term 'toasting'

Toast means "a call to a gathering of people to raise their glasses and drink together in honor of a person or thing". The expression "to raise a toast" means when one person makes a short speech to invite everybody in the room to drink together to honor someone or something.
he story goes that while they were mixing the music, DJs got in the habit of using the microphone to call out the names of friends as they arrived in the club, and to encourage the audience to drink by "raising toasts". Source: Musicfans.stackexchange

Toasting has been used in various African traditions, where griots were chanting over a drum beat. In the 1950s, the first Jamaican deejay, Count Machuki, started toasting. He added talkovers to the songs. He came up with the idea after listening to radio jockeys in the United States talking over a track they were playing. Count Machuki began to popularize the tradition. These toasters (also called chanters) would fill in between records so that the dancers would not wander away from the floor. Watch Count Machuki in action in the video below.

It wasn't until the 1960s and 1970s that toasting became popular in Jamaica. The toasters made use of a sound system: a traveling music showwith large speakers and lots of records. The sound systems were big business. The DJ's charged an admission fee and sold food and drinks, often drawing thousands of peopleToasting'may have influenced the development of singjaying which is the combination of singing and toasting.

Non African and non African-American Ingredients

Non African and non African-American Ingredients Did you know that history of rap music also is rooted in non-African and non African-American traditions, like classical music? Semi-spoken music was popular stylized by composer Arnold Schoenbergas Sprechgesang and Sprechstimme. These are expressionist vocal techniques between singing and speaking. Another example is The Geographical Fugue by Ernst Toch.

Rapping can also be traced back to vaudeville, big band and musical theater. Glenn Miller did a bit of rapping in 1939 helped along by his bandmate Tex Beneke on The Lady's in Love with You and The Little Man Who Wasn't There. Another ingredient of the history or rap is the patter song. This is a comic song that is performed at a relatively fast tempo. Modern examples include some Gilbert and Sullivan song. Other examples are Rock Island from Meridith Wilson' musical The Music Man. In the French chanson, singer-songwriters as Léo Ferré or Serge Gainsbourg made their own use of spoken word over rock or symphonic music from the very beginning of the 1970s. And David Croft's theme to the 1970s' sitcom Are You Being Served? was one of the examples of modern rap.
Ground floor: perfumery
Stationery and leather goods
Wigs and haberdashery
Kitchenware and food
Going up

History of rap

Most people would consider rap music as fairly recent. However, African griots used a similar style of music many hundreds of years before it became acceptable on mainstream radio with the track Rapper's Delight by The Sugarhill Gang. This blog, the roots of rap is a time machine that explores the history or rap and celebrates the different ingredients of this musical genre. And of course this blog is not complete. It only tries to show the diversity and richness of rap music. Please mail me any comment, suggestion or correction you may have.

history of rap
History of rap: from the griot tradition to turntablism.Image source: Piqsels
Source: Archive, Cambirdge Core, Elijah Wald, I am hip-hop, Live about, OUP blog,
Soul Music Songs, Wikipedia, William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, WTJU

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