Things Rap Music Wouldn't Be The Same Without

Of all the musical genres that have ever existed, there may be none with influences so numerous and diverse as rap. The South Bronx in the 1970s was to culture as the primordial soup was to early life — it was going to turn into something. That something just happened to be the dominant musical form of the last 30 years or so, and there are some specific things without which we might have something totally different — hardcore jugglers, maybe — instead of badass rappers.

The Dozens

The act of orally trading insults with an opponent has roots in black culture that go back way further than rap. Anybody who has ever told a "yo momma" joke, meaning virtually everyone reading this, has taken part in a tradition that's probably centuries old — and if you grew up in a traditionally black neighborhood, there's a good chance that you yourself have been challenged to a round of The Dozens.

Since this tradition is strictly oral, nobody is quite sure how long it's existed, where it might have originated, or even why it's called what it is. But the idea is simple: opponents use wit and wordplay to diss the hell out of each other, with the victor usually decided by spectators. It's like a freestyle battle, but often missing meter, rhyme, and Eminem and often involving such familiar and vital subject matter as the opponents' lack of masculinity/femininity or what one person did to the other person's partner last night.

The influence of The Dozens on black music can be traced back at least to 1929, with the awesomely named blues artist Speckled Red's recording of "The Dirty Dozen" — a tune which holds the distinct honor of being the first recorded instance of "yo momma" jokes. So if you've ever killed with "Yo momma's so stupid, she jumped out a window and that ho went up," thank a 1920s bluesman.

'Say Man' by Bo Diddley

Legendary bluesman Bo Diddley was a towering influence on rock music, so it may surprise you to learn that he only had one Top 40 hit. It may surprise you further to know that this tune — "Say Man," released in 1959 — has been identified by some historians as the first proto-rap record, an assessment that Bo agreed with. To be fair, Bo had a bit of an ego and probably would have agreed that he invented sliced bread, but in a 2005 interview with Uncut a few years before his death, he clarified: "It wasn't called rap; it was called 'signifyin'.' But the new kids today on the block call it rap and I guess you could say rap is a good name for it since you can't understand a damn thing they're sayin'."

The song featured Bo trading Dozens-style insults with guitarist Jerome Green, and it's just great. (Bo: "I was walking down the street with your girl, the wind blew her hair into my face ... the wind blew her hair ... into the street!" Jerome: "[Your girl] so ugly she had to sneak up on a glass to get a drink of water.") Thirty years after "The Dirty Dozen," the essence of battle rap was still lurking underneath the surface of black music, but the sonic backbone of rap itself wouldn't begin to take shape until a few years later.

'Here Comes the Judge' by Pigmeat Markham

When it comes to the first recorded instance of what could actually be identified as rapping, historians agree almost as well as battle rappers on whose face is more stupid. "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang is often cited, even though it was just barely beaten to record stores by the Fatback Band's "King Tim III," featuring a rap by radio DJ Tim Washington. But as crazy as it sounds, the MCs that developed the style throughout the '70s may very well have been strongly influenced by an ex-vaudeville entertainer and TV personality known as "Pigmeat" Markham. The proof is on his 1968 novelty single "Here Come the Judge."

The tune is adapted from Markham's signature comedy skit, and if his vocal style isn't rapping then "Pigmeat" isn't a hilarious name. His Judge character's stern boasts undeniably foreshadow those of old-school rap: "Hear ye, hear ye, the court of swing / Is just about ready to do that thing / This judge is hip, and that ain't all / He'll give ya time either big or small."

One of old-school rap's early stars, Kool Moe Dee, even used a near-perfect recreation of the tune's opening percussion as a drum track on one of his later solo albums. It might be seldom acknowledged, but the Sugarhill Gang and Fatback band were both late — an old-timey comedian (this can't be stressed enough) called "Pigmeat" had them beat by about 11 years.

Spoken word performers

You've probably heard the phrase "the revolution will not be televised" or some mutation thereof if you've ever set foot near a college campus — even if you aren't familiar with the work of Gil-Scott Heron, a pioneering spoken word artist whose 1970s records and performances took it to the man by skewering mass media, consumerism, and social ignorance. He performed over a musical backdrop mashed up from jazz and blues with a vocal style that came suspiciously close to what we think of as rapping. Artists from Public Enemy to Kanye West have acknowledged the significance of Heron's work in hip-hop culture, but a different and even cooler type of wordsmith influenced a specific subgenre pretty directly.

This would be Iceberg Slim, a stone-cold pimp (seriously, he was a literal pimp) whose 1967 memoir is pretty much responsible for the entirety of gangsta rap. Its time-honored theories of pimpin' and hustlin' would inspire an MC named Tracy Marrow to abandon his party rhymes to write about the cold realities of the street, taking the name Ice-T in homage to Slim. The song that immediately resulted from this switch, the genre-defining "6 in the Mornin'," kicked the door open with guns blazing for the avalanche of gangsta rappers that followed, while Ice went on to enjoy a latter-day career of ironically playing cops in movies and television.

Jamaican 'toasting'

Jamaican dancehall music had a sizable audience in New York during rap's development, and in the '60s and '70s, one of the most popular vocal styles in dancehall was called toasting, which has nothing to do with weddings or delicious sub sandwiches. Simply put, dancehall DJs would chant rhythmically over the beat, and the similarity to rapping has been noted by hip-hop historians ever since hip-hop historians have existed. 

Some dancehall jocks employed dedicated toasters, and these proto-DJ-and-MC combinations employed sound systems and techniques that were very similar to those that would soon be employed by Bronx youths. One technique known as "dubbing" involved the DJ cutting between instrumental and vocal versions of a song, adding punch to the toaster's routine, which typically consisted of exhortations for the dancers to dance harder, which is the theme of every club track today. But for definitive evidence of the influence of dancehall culture on the birth of rap, one must look no further than the man widely considered to be the godfather of hip-hop — a big Jamaican kid named Clive.

DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock

Clive Campbell, also known as Kool Herc, was 16 when he casually made music history by putting all the elements of hip-hop together for the first time. Like all great inventions, it was mostly an accident. Herc had developed a method of extending a song's "break" — a solo drum beat — indefinitely, by switching between two copies of the same record on two turntables. This would keep the dancers — "break dancers," which answers that question, you're welcome — going at fever pitch for as long as he wanted, at least theoretically. For his neighborhood "Back to School Jam" on August 11, 1973, he decided to offer the dancers further encouragement by reaching back to his toasty Jamaican roots. In the tradition of his irie homeland, he gave his friend a mic so he could say rhymes to pump the dancers up, and Coke La Rock, the first MC, was born.

The whole scene was so mind-blowingly cool that people, of course, began imitating it. In just a couple years, there was a thriving network of MCs and break dancers concentrated into an insanely small area — but not so many DJs. Stereo equipment was expensive, and the neighborhoods where this was all taking place weren't exactly brimming with wealth.

The 1977 blackout

For 25 hours in July 1977, the Big Apple went dark. A series of freak lightning strikes rendered most of the city powerless, and New Yorkers were already on edge due to a sweltering heatwave and a marauding psycho killer (David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam). By the time the lights came back on, 1,000 fires had been set and 1,600 stores had been looted. It wasn't a pretty sight, but according to pioneering rapper Grandmaster Caz, rap may very well have died on the vine if it hadn't happened.

Speaking on the 99% Invisible podcast, Caz remembered: "I went right to the place where I bought my first set of DJ equipment, and I went and got me a mixer out of there. ... After the blackout, (there was) all this new wealth ... [and] opportunity sprang from that. And you could see the differences before the blackout and after." Even by this time, most of its practitioners were thinking of rap more as an activity and not an actual musical genre. But with practically every block now having its own resident DJ, the form began to spread and the competition bred innovation. 

Grandmaster Flash

Early DJs had to be both skilled and lucky to keep the breaks going, as they had no way to monitor the turntables — finding the right spot on the record was pure guesswork. But one guy from the South Bronx put an end to that quickly and efficiently. The limitations of the method simply wouldn't do for electronics student Joseph Saddler, an aspiring DJ who went by the name of Flash. He invented a switch that could fade between turntables or allow them both to be played at the same time. His invention also let the user monitor the turntables in a pair of headphones. He used his apparatus to develop his "Quick Mix Theory" of precise cutting between break beats, and you may recognize it as an accurate description of every DJ mixer you've ever seen.

Flash, who could've just stopped there and still earned his Grandmaster title, wasn't through innovating. He didn't invent scratching — that would be 13-year-old Grand Wizard Theodore — but he perfected it in its early form and was the first to record scratching in the studio. He also didn't make the first rap record, but he and his group the Furious Five were among the first to have the idea, and were also the first rap group to use a drum machine, mysteriously dubbed "The Beat Box" on advertising fliers. Crowds would wonder where the heck the beat was coming from as Flash let his new piece of tech rip, bringing his turntables in and out of the steady beat like some kind of sorcerer.


Whether today's rappers would like to admit it or not (most likely not), disco served as a kind of glue in rap's formative years, cohering all its weird elements enough to make it a recordable form. Disco often incorporated shades of funk, its standard tempo made it easy to mix, and its very purpose was to make people get up and boogie, all of which made disco breaks extremely popular among hip-hop DJs. That's why most early rap records used house bands to create straight-up ripoffs of disco tunes. (For example, "Rapper's Delight" sounds a lot like Chic's "Good Times" with a bunch of dudes rapping over it.)

But disco ironically served another purpose for the burgeoning hip-hop scene as well by galvanizing it in opposition. Bronx partygoers didn't have the easiest time getting into the uptown disco clubs, and an interesting hip-hop party was probably going on right in the neighborhood park, with the DJ's equipment wired to the base of a streetlight and no hulking bouncers telling you what to go do with yourself. Hip-hop fans were often polarized as to whether or not disco sucked, even as its influence permeated every early rap record. Drum machines and samplers enabled early '80s rap artists to move towards a more stripped-down, hardcore sound, and in 1984 the last remnants of disco's sonic influence on rap were dragged into the street and set on fire by Run-D.M.C. 

James Brown

Queens producer Marley Marl may have a goofy name, but he's widely credited with being rap's first super-producer. The stable of artists on his Cold Chillin' label were involved in the first beefs — the legendary Roxanne Wars and Bridge Wars — and he was the first to figure out how to use samplers to construct his own drum loops out of recorded sounds, giving his productions a fuller and more organic sound than drum machines, which at the time sounded about as authentic as video games looked. One of his first recorded experiments in this technique, the landmark 1986 track "Eric B. is President" by Eric B. and Rakim, took its thumping drum track from the James Brown song "Funky President" — and changed rap's sonic landscape permanently.

The song's startlingly original sound inspired other producers to dig into their fond childhood memories of James Brown tunes. In the era before samples had to be cleared, the Godfather of Soul's aggressive vocalizations and funky drums became the entire foundation upon which the golden age of rap was built. The track "Funky Drummer," with a drum performance by the late Clyde Stubblefield, has been sampled over 1,400 times alone. Samples of Brown's work have become so deeply embedded in modern rap and pop music that it's a near-certainty that you've been exposed to a great deal of his discography without even realizing it. And it's probably all because Marley Marl's parents loved them some James Brown.