Rap and Hiphop – A semi-essay (By Andrew Octopus)
Due to the historical fact of racism and the unjustly disproportionate percentage of the prison population which has been African-American throughout modern American history, there have been significant degrees of overlap between mainstream African-American culture and the underground prison culture of all races. An example of something beginning in prison culture and moving into mainstream urban fashion would be laceless shoes, or the wearing of baggy pants without a belt-both of these measures began among prisoners on suicide watch, to prevent them from strangling or hanging themselves. They later surfaced as fashion statements among hip-hop groups such as Run-DMC. Of all these interactions amongst two groups of oppressed people, generally circulated by persons who had membership in both cultures (i.e., African-American prisoners), one of the most complex and relevant to today’s popular culture is the subcutlural linguistic and dialectic evolution, and how a set of words and modifications originally used in a different context by subcultural outcastes now form a language in which most young Americans converse.
The origin of the Black dialect (referred to in Linguistic circles as African-American Vernacular English) arose from the peculiar and harsh reality of slavery. Slaveowners attempted to separate people from the same regions of Africa, in hopes of preventing them from communicating in a native language which the master wouldn’t understand. This was intended to prevent organization for potential uprising or escape. These relocated Africans, however, fought to maintain important parts of their African identity, resisting assimilation through syncretism (the fusing of similar elements of two cultures). In the area of religion, many first-generation enslaved persons refused conversion to Christianity, and continued to practice their native faiths. Those who did sincerely convert to Christianity, however, filtered it through their spiritual experiences in Africa. For example, those who belonged to water-cults in Africa were attracted to the Baptist religion, with its water-based spiritual practices. Symbols such as altars and crosses (the same symbol occurs in many African religions but is interpreted as a crossroads or decision point) provided a transition point from native religions to the Africans’ autonomous practice of Christianity.
The same process was at work with many linguistic elements, as the enslaved persons sought to find a shared language where none existed. To this end, many forms of codes, including double entendre and syllabic distortion, were used to disguise the enslaved persons’ meanings from any overhearers. For example, “chicken” was used to mean the master’s son or daughter, and a slave could tell his or her owner that he or she wasn’t hungry because they had had chicken last night. The white person would think nothing of this, but all of the initiated assembled would understand the sexual braggodocio of that statement. Another common technique was the infixing of syllables into words, for example putting “iz” in the middle of certain words-which still occurs in hip-hop vernacular, as in “H to the Izzo”.
To one who doesn’t know to listen for the infix, the result is extremely difficult to understand. Fast-forward to the early-to-mid twentieth century, when previously ubiquitous chemical substances such as cocaine, opiates, and cannabis (which Abraham Lincoln wrote in his diaries of smoking) began to be illegalized as a means of persecuting minorities. Many African-Americans who were imprisoned brought their unique dialect and expressive slang with them, where they continued to employ it to obfuscate their speech in the presence of the warden and guards. As prisons became more integrated (at least in numbers if not in practice), the African-American prisoners’ dialect began to intermingle with the prison slang that white prisoners used. One example is the verb “bogart”, meaning to take over, appropriate, or steal. This appears to have been of origin among caucasian prisoners, as a reference to tough-guy film star Humphrey Bogart. It survives today both in prison lexicon and hip-hop vocabulary, and is an example of the interracial linguistic commerce which is so rich in prison. Another example is “rap”. A rap originally was anything said. “To rap” meant “to speak”. (It also referred to a prison sentence or a beating.) It may have begun as a reference to African-American prisoners communicating by rapping their knuckles on the walls, in the same rhythmic statements that the talking drums had used throughout slavery. Raps didn’t have to rhyme; in fact, they rarely did. They were, however, usually memorized. They were used on the outside by drug dealers, the homeless, confidence men, etc. (Additionally, An ex tempore example would be “Hey, how ya doin’? Listen, I’ve got this problem; my brother was supposed to meet me here…” used over and over again by a homeless person as a means of collecting sympathy and contributions from passerby. That person would be said to be a “rapper”, as he made his living by “rapping”. The modern term of “rap”, referring to a series of rhymed brags, stories, outlandish metaphors, etc. was originally referred to as a “toast” (as it still is in Jamaica) and was practiced by both white and black prisoners. Examples include “Shine” and “The Signifying Monkey”.
The potential synthesis of the term “hip-hop” is most interesting. “Hip”, it is widely acknowledged, was a slang term used by jazzbos and beatniks to refer to someone that was cool or “alright”. Its origin is unknown. “Hop”, it is believed, was a slang term for hashish, in much the same way that Blow is a slang term for cocaine today. Both were used by the Beat movement of the 1950s. In San Francisco, along Haight-Ashbury Street, the Mecca of Hippiedom in the late1960s, many a hash dealer could be heard using this rap to attract potential customers “Hip? Hop. Hippy, Hippy, Hip. Hop. Don’t Stop.” The meaning of which is essentially “Are you cool? Do you understand what’s going on? I got hash. Come here if you want some.” The same rap was used by drug dealers of various substances in Jamaica throughout the mid-to-late 60s, and an almost identical combination of syllabes would kick off “Rapper’s Delight” in the late 70s. It’s very likely that some drug dealer-cum-DJ (the term in Jamaican parlance is equivalent to MC) used this rap, and it became commonplace among the Jamaican sound system DJs. This is probably how the new cultural styles of rapping/toasting, mixing, writing graffiti (tagging, originally used by hobos to communicate to other hobos where generous people and places to stay were, and signed to indicate the veracity of the statement), and breakdancing (to looped segments from German bands like Kraftwerk, Can, Neu!, funk artists such as James Brown, and rock bands like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin) came to be referred to as “hip-hop”.
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