by Loren Kajikawa
Editor's note: Loren Kajikawa's lecture “Before Rap: DJs, MCs, and Pre-1979 Hip Hop Performances” was delivered on 25 September, 2013 as part of the AMS / Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Lecture Series. Video recordings of previous AMS / RRHOFM lectures are available here.
“Rapper’s Delight,” the multi-platinum single that propelled The Sugarhill Gang into the national spotlight late in 1979, effectively launched a new genre called “rap music.” For those at the center of New York’s hip hop scene, however, the sudden rise of The Sugarhill Gang—a group that had never performed together live until after they had a hit record—came as a shock. The group’s many critics have emphasized their lack of credibility as live performers, their stealing of other MCs’ rhymes, and the way their hit song emphasized the MC at the expense of the DJ. Yet this focus on the inauthenticity of “Rapper’s Delight” has shielded from view a profound shift in form that accompanied hip hop’s translation from live performance to recorded rap. Fortunately, the world of hip-hop music before “Rapper’s Delight” is not completely lost to us. In addition to oral histories and autobiographies describing the era, a trove of pre-1979 bootleg recordings provides us with valuable documentation of this bygone era.
My lecture focuses on two of the best preserved of these tapes, featuring Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees DJ Grandmaster Flash and The 4 MCs (before they added Rahiem and became the Furious Five). I rely on close listening and an original approach to transcription that highlights the expressive practices and artistic priorities of hip hop’s first DJs and MCs. Although we hear something that resembles later music—namely MCs rapping over beats—these recordings feature a sense of musical spontaneity that distinguishes them from later studio-produced music. By paying closer attention to pre-1979 hip hop on its own terms, I seek a greater understanding and appreciation for the work of pioneering DJs and MCs, and I hope to demonstrate how formal analysis and questions related to historical performance practice can serve to generate new knowledge in popular music research.
Loren Kajikawa is an Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance. He is currently working on a book entitled Sounding Race in Rap Songs, which explores the relationship between rap music’s backing tracks and racial representation.