In the early 1970’s, the ghetto of the South Bronx, New York City gave birth to a new and mysterious musical genre. Today, rap music is considered one of the most influential forms of art in American history. It has grown to become an art of great diversity. People of all ethnic backgrounds have embraced the genre of rap music. Originally a form of music only known to the black community of New York, rap later began to surpass racial barriers with the help from artists like the Beastie Boys and Eminem. The white community did not instantly support this music. The amount of police misconduct within the ghetto’s of the inner cities help to prove the whites’ dislike for the black culture. After the introduction of rap music to the white communities, the white consumers proceeded to financially and socially change the rap game forever.
There is a constant debate in the music industry about who should be considered the founding fathers of rap music. Most rap scholars conclude that Kool DJ Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash are the three main names involved in the initiation of rap music. “These three are the founding fathers of hip-hop music–the progenitors of the world’s most dominant youth culture.” (George 44) In the early 1970’s, New York City was taken over by the break-dancing and graffiti trends of young teens throughout the city. Teenagers were constantly looking for new creative ways to express themselves in the ghettos of the inner cities. The three founding fathers of rap music discussed the founding of hip-hop and its connection to breaking and graffiti in an interview with Nelson George. Bambaataa said, “Most people today, they can’t even define in words, hip-hop. They don’t know the whole culture behind it.” (Bambaattaa) In reality, the hip-hop culture is too complex to put into words. Los Angeles Times music critic Ann Powers agrees with this. She says, “Trying to define hip hop is a little like asking what air is.” Rap music is just one subdivision of hip-hop. Bambaattaa also says, “See before the whole word hip-hop, graffiti was there before that. But really when the Zulu Nation pulled the whole thing together and we laid down the whole picture. You know, the graffiti and the breakdancers.”(Bambaataa) The Zulu Nation was a popular gang in New York City in the 1970’s. Collectively, they are credited with bringing together the hip-hop culture as a whole. Graffiti and Breaking are two more major elements of hip-hop. The four main elements of hip-hop are graffiti, breaking, DJaying, and rap. Although they do not each have an immediate effect on the other, they all contribute to the discovery of rap music. As Bambaatta said, graffiti and breaking were brought together. Grandmaster Flash describes it, “It was basically a way of expressing how the music sounds.” (Flash) It wasn’t until that point when people started experimenting with DJaying. Backyard and street parties turned into night clubs. Dj’s were taking over the music scene in New York City. Clubs turned from disco to DJaying. DJaying slowly gained popularity throughout every borough of New York. Soon, Grandmaster Flash started the beat box which later lead to the start of rapping. Flash said “the first people I heard talk on the microphone and do it extremely well and entertain the crowd and wasn’t just talking to the beat of the music was Herc’s people. Coke La Rock. He would just talk while Herc was cutting.”(Flash) This “talking” lead to rhyming and ultimately lead to the rap music we know and embrace today. (Crayone)
Rap music was originally seen as something only popular in the black communities of New York City. This changed when the popularity of rap spread throughout the country. People from New York to Los Angeles were putting on rap performances on a daily basis. White politicians nationwide did not like the violence and damage that came with hip-hop in the beginning. There was even a common trend of police misconduct within the inner cities. Many rappers speak of this issue in their songs. Artists like Jay-Z, 2Pac, and N.W.A. walk listeners through the brutality of police violence against the black community. Their hate for racial profiling by the police is evident in their popular songs.
Rap music was competitive. This is partly due to the competition within gangs involved in rap music. It is easy to see this trend still in hip-hop today. The police did not stop the white youth from picking up on the hip-hop culture. This is evident when looking at the influence the white community has on rap music today.
“When they write the history of popular culture in the 20th century, they can sum it up in one sentence which is, ‘White kids wanting to be as cool as Black kids’” (Yousman) University of Hartford professor Bill Yousman supports this when saying, “this tendency has been most evident in the pleasure that White youth experience through the consumption of rap music and the adoption of primarily African American linguistic and nonverbal communication customs associated with hip-hop.”(Yousman) Simply put, the youth in the white community have grown to embrace hip-hop culture. This is seen when looking at the majority of rap music listeners. “White youth have embraced rap music and hip-hop culture in such overwhelming numbers that by some estimates Whites are now the biggest consumers of recording by rap artists. Dunlevy cited in 2000 figures from the hip-hop magazine The Source that suggest that more than 70% of rap music buyers are White.”(Yousman) This is the most recent survey found. It is believed that the number of white consumers may have increased over the years. This fact in turn shows the substantial impact that the white community has on the rap industry. In 2011, there were 28.25 album sales for the rap genre as a whole. Without the support of the white listeners, rap would not be the billion dollar industry it is today. Album sales are just one element to how rap music makes such a great profit. Thousands of rap concerts are put on every year within the rap industry. With ticket prices averaging around $50, concert tours earn rap artists majority of their money. “White teenagers and college students move beyond the music and exhibit their fascination with African American culture through the clothing and accessories that they wear as well as the language and styles that they adopt and the nonverbal expressive codes that they affect.”(Yousman) New style and language can all be found within rap music. USC School of Cinematic Arts professor Todd Boyd says, “The beauty of hip hop lies in its ability to transform language.” (Boyd) This is what draws white teenagers to hip-hop. This theory is referred to as the “Afro-Americanization of White youth.” The rap industry has grown to learn this theory and as a result, produce the type of music these white listeners want to hear. In an article from Brown University, writer Beth Schwartzapfel writes of the knowledge of Tricia Rose. Tricia Rose was a Brown professor of Black Studies and has a very deep knowledge of the hip-hop culture. “What the record industry is selling, Rose argues, is not music, or fashion, or television shows like Pimp My Ride or Flavor of Love, its blackness…It’s a sort of modern-day minstrelsy: commercial hip-hop artists, with help from record companies, package themselves into what they think white people want to hear, and sell it to them.” (Rose) Whether or not the white listeners know this is irrelevant. The white community will continue to financially support rap music. The rap industry is not selling the hip-hop culture directly, however, the white listeners are buying the culture when investing money in the rap industry. Rappers know what the white community wants to hear and they give it to them. This in turn puts money in their pocket and keeps the rap industry flourishing. Rose says, “In 2004, when rap music and its accompanying cultural accessories—sneakers, jewelry, Pimp Juice—generated more than $10 billion dollars, Forbes reported that the industry “has moved beyond its musical roots, transforming into a dominant and increasingly lucrative lifestyle.””(Rose) Rap music is not just selling the music, but the entire hip-hop lifestyle. The USC article and Brown University article with Tricia Rose is posted below.
There are many other clues to how this trend of white teenagers support for rap music evolved. Many scholars, including Tricia Rose, believe that the white youth became interested in rap music due to rebellious impulses. White teenagers felt great pleasure in invading black culture. The easiest way to do this was through hip-hop. “As more and more White youth embrace rap music, the trend takes on momentum of its own and provides a common sort of cultural vocabulary for youths from all cultural backgrounds. It thus becomes a cultural imperative for many White youth to embrace rap music in order to fit in with their peer group.” (Kitwana) This is one of the most well supported theories as to why the white youth have learned to embrace rap music.
“Black culture can be seen in religion, language, family structure, food ,music, dance, literature, art and so much more.” (Black is, Black ain’t) This includes rap and the hip-hop culture. The white communities interest in black culture ultimately lead them to rap music. The true leaders of this white movement into hip-hop came from within the rap game. White rap artists such as Vanilla Ice, the Beastie Boys and Eminem opened the door for white listeners. It is not uncommon for white artists to introduce black culture to the white population. One of the most influential artists of all time, Elvis Presley, claimed to build his music off of other black artists of his time. His rhythm and dancing has been idolized for years within the music industry. Presley took black style and introduced it to white people across the globe. American Musician Little Richard said, “Elvis was an integrator, a blessing. They wouldn’t let Black music through. Elvis opened the door for Black music.” (Richard) This YouTube video shows the influence Black music had on Elvis.
This can also be said for white rappers. Vanilla Ice and The Beastie Boys slowly proved that white artists had a place in the rap game. Still, the white world waited for a day when a white artist would truly break the racial barrier. This day came when Detroit rapper, Eminem, was introduced to the world.
“Most people are only familiar with the last 10 years….It was only in the late 1990’s when people started paying attention…when Eminem became famous.”(Boyd) Eminem, born Marshall Mathers, spent much of his underprivileged childhood years in the city of Detroit. As a white boy in a predominantly black neighborhood, hip-hop made a great impression on him. With his love for rap music, “he began formulating lyrics and songs at the tender age of 14.”(Hess) After signing with Dr. Dre and Interscope Records in 1997, Eminem was soon world renown. Eminem learned a lot from the successes and failures of both Vanilla Ice and the Beastie Boys. Eminem appealed to the masses because of the honesty in his lyrics.
“Rather than imitate a model of hip-hop blackness, Eminem emphasizes the autobiographical basis of his lyrics and his struggle to succeed as a rap artist; he presents a new model of white hip-hop authenticity in which being true to yourself and to your lived experiences can eclipse notions of hip-hop as explicitly black-owned.” (Hess)
This excerpt from Mickey Hayes perfectly describes Eminem’s style. Although he is white, Eminem uses his real life experiences to appeal to both the black and white listeners. As a result, Eminem earned the title as one of the best rappers of all time. Today, Eminem has won over 10 Grammy Awards and produced one of the best selling albums of all time. Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP sold more than 1.8 million copies in just it’s first week. This same album has sold about 11 million copies in the U.S. as of 2012, putting it on the list for one of the best selling albums in history.
All of Eminem’s successes changed the rap game forever. Eminem did not just fatten his pockets in his career. His major contribution to hip-hop is the inclusion of the white community of listeners. Eminem opened the door to both white rap music listeners and other white artists. His music proved to the world that there is a place for white artists and fans in hip-hop. Eminem discusses this in his 2002 song “White America.” In this song he raps about the controversy he created within the music business and his overall impact on American society. Eminem raps, “See the problem is, I speak to suburban kids, who otherwise would of never knew these words exist, whose mom’s probably would of never gave two squirts of piss, ’till I created so muchmotherfuckin’ turbulence.”(Eminem)
Eminem is saying that without him, suburban white kids would have never listened to rap music. He also criticizes the parents of white America. He says that the mothers of the white youth would have never accepted rap music in their homes until he caused such a racket. The white community had no choice but to accept hip-hop. Therefore, without Eminem, rap would still be an art form exclusively for the black community. Eminem officially gave white America a place in hip-hop. Eminem’s song “White America” is featured below.
After Eminem, many other white people continued to influence the rap game. The record labels that rappers are signed to are the true promoters of the music genre. The interesting theme within these record labels is that most of the CEO’s of these major companies are white. They are the ones who put this music out to the public. For example, Def Jam and Warner Brothers executive, Lyor Cohen, is considered by both Vibe Magazine and Billboard Magazine as one of the most influential men in hip-hop. He is a white man who is known for influencing the careers of some of the most well know rap artists. These artists include the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Jam master J, Run-DMC, and NAS. Another major white rap executive in hip-hop is Todd Moscowitz. Artists like Rick Ross and Wacka Flocka report to him. The majority of rappers today are black men, however, it is white men responsible for the distribution of their music.
Rap music was born in the black communities of America. With the help of artists like Eminem, hip-hop has now spread all over the world. 70% of rap music listeners are white. Without these white listeners, rap music would not be the Billion dollar industry it is today. In the beginning, whites wanted nothing to do with the hip-hop culture. They tried to stop all graffiti in the inner cities and police worked to put an end to the original backyard DJ parties. After breaking the racial barrier within the rap game, the white community learned to accept hip-hop as a form of expression. Whether it is white kids wanting to be as cool as black kids as many scholars believe, or the rebellious attitudes of white teens, rap music has made an impact on the white community as a whole. “Hip-hop has grown to become a thing of immense diversity and mass appeal. It’s now the meaning of life for millions of kids and young adults, influencing how they talk, walk and interact, regardless of their race or pedigree.”(Nelson) With the persistent support from the white community, rap continues to be one of the most dominant social forces in American history.
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