Rap and Racism
For the average middle-class listener, whether black or white, rap music is a landscape too alien for anything but discomfort. That rap is loud, aggressive, and often obscene is the least of it. Every New Yorker who reads the papers knows that the teenagers who allegedly raped and brutalized a woman jogger in Central Park last year entertained themselves after their arrest by collectively chanting the lyrics to “Wild Thing,” a popular record by the Los Angeles rapper Tone-Loc. Many well-informed Americans know, too, that a member of the rap group Public Enemy gave an interview to the Washington Times in which he delivered an anti-Semitic tirade of shocking virulence. And yet rap now fills the most popular daily program on MTV. It has been called by the composer Quincy Jones “the jazz of the 90′s.” And it has been described by Jon Pareles of the New York Times as “the most startlingly original and fastest-growing genre in popular music.”
Rap, also known as “hip-hop,” is typically performed by a three-man group. The “DJ” (which of course stands for disk jockey) operates a pair of turntables on which he plays bits and pieces of phonograph records, turning them by hand in short, sharply accented rhythmic patterns called scratches. A second man, variously known as the “producer” or “programmer,” operates a beat box, an electronic device that simulates the sound of a drum set, and a sampler, a synthesizer that holds various sounds in its computerized memory and reproduces them when triggered by the operator. Working together, these two people lay down a collage-like background of beats, scratches, and electronic sound effects over which the “rapper” recites lyrics (true rappers never sing) generally consisting of semi-improvised couplets in rough-and ready tetrameter.
About the Author
Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.