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If you ask anyone who is not black, not under 20, and not a resident of Harlem or the South Bronx who started the rapping deejay style, they will undoubtedly cite the Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight." To anyone who follows popular music by studying the trade publications and their top 100's, that would seem a logical answer, since the Sugar Hill disc was the first and only rap record to cross over at that time. Slightly more insightful music fans might suggest that the veteran funk/r&b group the Fatback Band had something to do with it, since their single "Kill Tim the III" first appeared on Billboard's soul chart at about the same time "Rapper's Delight" made its debut.
Well, so much for what charts in major publications can tell you about what is really happening musically in America. Because in either case you would be very, very wrong.
A much more accurate idea of where rapping deejays began can be found any Saturday night at a South Bronx disco called Club 371. There, if you're lucky, a local legend named DJ Hollywood will be orchestrating a merger of black street wit, the latest dance hits, and turntable technology to drive a crowd of tough-to-please New York dancers into total ecstasy. The crowd is composed of young adults and teens, college students and low-on-the-ladder office workers, blacks and hispanics, who smoke their herb, search for some companionship, and in general get loose. Dreams of upward mobility may spin in their heads, but the reality is that more of them end up in Attica than in that suburban house with its regulation two cars and 2.3 kids.
A terrible school system, an addictive welfare system, and agovernment that lets drugs pour into the community have, along with twin turntables, somehow conspired to make these young people come up with their own distinctive brand of entertainment. All in all, the situation doesn't differ greatly from the one that sparked England's punk rock movement. Lower-class kids have always wanted and created their own insular thing. London youths of the mid-'70s plugged in their guitars, just as the generation before had, but said something different this time. Meanwhile in Harlem the plastic disco of Studio 54 was ignored, and the music was transformed into a uniquely black and streetwise form closer to home.
The deejay raps over the instrumental sections or breaks of popular dance records reminiscent of Jamaican deejays talk over the heavy dub instrumentation of reggae. Most of the youngsters who do this in America are ignorant of the Jamaican precedent, yet the raps serve the same purpose in both these African-derived cultures. Whether it's heard in a park in Brooklyn or a junkyard in Kingston, it is rhythmic music and the spoken voice unconsciously creating a potent echo of Africa.
Unfortunately the rapping deejays are looked down upon by older and more middle-class blacks, who see them not as a continuation of tradition, but as perpetrators of old stereotypes. One black writer with access to a major music publication told me he'd never write about them "because they don't deserve the ink."
His condescending attitude is hardly isolated and to my mind reflects a wish by some to coat black culture with a superficial "high-mindedness" and "art," European concepts that seem to take any form of expression out of its context, mount it, and drain away its relevance to everyday life. The rappers make no claims that they are artistic or are presenting "positive images" to black America. They talk about what they feel and know, simple as that.
Like their antecedents, the jive-talking air personalities of r&b radio such as Dr. Jive and Jocko, the rappers are crowd-pleasers whose rapport with their audience is remarkable. The rapping deejay cited by his contemporaries as developing the current rapping approach is Hollywood, a hefty 24-year-old with gold chains around his neck and a short, razor cut hair style. When he was at the peak of his popularity a few years ago he could command and guide a crowd with the dexterity of a James Brown. My first encounter with Hollywood came in 1977, at a concert held at the City College of New York's Harlem campus. I knew of his reputation and of Club 371. Tapes of his performances were becoming valued items among young Harlemites and his style was already being copied by mobile deejays around town, but I wasn't prepared for what would happen live. Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Evelyn King, and Brainstorm were on the bill. Hollywood was to provide between-the-acts entertainment. Instead, the headliners were only interludes between his performances. Two thousand black and hispanic youths were totally under his control.
With MFSB's "Sexy" grooving underneath him, Hollywood scat-rapped a la Eddie Jefferson. "Hip, hop de hip be de hop, de hip hop, hip de hop. On and on and on and on. Like hot butter on what . . . ?" Hollywood then cut the music, leaving the crowd room to shout "Popcorn" right on time. The huge college gym had become a gigantic disco, and people were dancing everywhere.
Performances like this inspired a whole slew of deejays to follow his lead. DJ Starski, Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, and Eddie Cheeba (blow is a slang term for cocaine; cheeba for marijuana) are the best among the many deejays who followed Hollywood's lead before establishing their own rapping personas. All of them are from either Harlem or the South Bronx and all are very proud of their inner-city roots.
Their raps deal on a street level like many a classic blues lyric; the rapping deejays celebrate the ribald and raunchy, always with a sense of humor. The bravado of the blues style also runs through the raps of almost every deejay.