Chaz Kangas of LA Weekly wrote a solid article a few days ago shedding light on some of the oft ignored pioneers of modern day rap. He looked beyond the Sugar Hills, the Grandmaster Flashes and even the Gil Scott Herons and put center stage guys like Rudy Ray Moore, Oscar Brown Jr. and Blowfly – artists who were way ahead of their time and were rapping before the general public (themselves included) even knew what to call it.
The article had me scanning my own record collection wondering who else could be added to the short-list of trailblazers. Technically we could go as far as Africa back to the oral traditions of some indigenous tribe, which then could be extended to the states – old negro spirituals of the south and of course the church. But within rap’s evolution – from the scatting of a Louis Armstrong and jive talking of a young Bill Cosby to the battle rapping of a Supernatural – there are traces of DNA that bridge the gap from one generation to the next.
Iceberg Slim is a name that immediately jumps out. As an author he introduced the pimp game to the world, the sly cool if not downright slippery attitude that is at the heart of some of rap’s most eccentric personalities. Where do you think Ice Cube and Ice-T got the Ice from? Robert Beck as he’s known by was a poet at heart, a self taught savant who understood and mastered the art of prose.
On his album Reflections you can hear rap stirring in the womb – the scant production and loose riffing, a perfect place to let words fly. In the opening lines to “Durealla” Slim paints the scene better than most modern day lyricists: [LISTEN]
Another early pioneer was Melvin Van Peebles, the father of Blaxploitation (a term and genre he would eventually come to loathe). He was a playwright, author and musician who had the ability to turn nothing into something, which is basically the unofficial creed of hip-hop. When America didn’t want him he packed up and went to France, learned the language and began writing plays. On his album As Serious as a Heart Attack he spits game in this loose street talk, a style of rap that guys like Jay-Z and Mase made a killing off of. “Chippin” was an early blueprint for that laid back delivery: [LISTEN]
In addition to Van Peebles and Beck there were also comedians like Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx and even Richard Pryor who would incorporate rhyme schemes into their sets. Legendary radio host Petey Greene too who arguably brought the rapper’s mentality to the air waves before anybody else. All of them used their way with words to sway and seduce their audiences much like how rappers do today. They pontificated and rhymed, there was call and response. It was all part of the show.
Chaz’s article was a nice little wake up call for those truly interested in hip-hop culture. It was a reminder that the genre itself is still in its infancy and that its roots – here at least, in the United States – are still fresh and incredibly deep. By looking back a few decades it’s possible to build a timeline and discover how rap is an extension of jazz, blues, funk, soul. It breaks free of even music and extends to theater and literature (i.e. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo).
For rap fans now who bug out every time a new rapper with a not so new shtick hits the stage, it could help put things into perspective. And with a little perspective it makes it a helluva a lot easier to work together and do away with the type of rap that does nothing for the soul.