Memories   Rap

My Romance with Rap                 Back Next

Letha Deck
Disco was the craze when I was fresh out of college.  If you've heard the classic Gloria Gaynor tune, "I Will Survive" you get a sense of disco.  Donna Summer, Blondie, The Trampps, and the The OJays are other musicians popular in that era. On the weekends, my friends and I would go out to venues that were frequently multiracial, and 'cut-the-rug'-- spinning and turning in the style John Travolta made famous in the movie "Saturday Night Fever".  The mellifluous melodies and heart-beat rhythms transformed our bodies into floating dynamic powerhouses. 

As disco turned to house music, you could easily dance a seamless full hour to the adrenalin-boosting bass, if you could stand the deglamorizing effects of sweat.  In the dance clubs you could see that the flowing syncopations of disco were being replaced by the halting violence that house music was becoming. Starting as a way for DJ's to keep people on the floor, and thereby avoid the awkward 'uh ya wanna dance' phase of partying, house music soon became an expression of the DJ. Mixing is the bringing together of several different songs to create a new song.  Multiple turntables or dubbing tape equipment is needed. The proficiency with which the DJ accomplishes 'mixing' determines his success.  Before long, mixing was an art, and the artists wished to be known, so DJ's performed or were accompanied by rapping.  The Bump, The Ronald Reagan, The Hustle, The African Queen, and The Cabbage Patch dances faded with disco, as the moves of the breakdancers were appropriated from their cardboard-box stages on the streets and into the dance halls themselves. The aggressive energy of breakdancing is the perfect accompaniment to the violence of the DJ's art.  From this: breakdancing, DJ'ing, and rap, hip hop was born.

As far as I can tell,The DJ, the boombox, the rapper, and the dancers form the hip hop team.  The DJ collects the beats from a variety of sources and that collection forms his oeuvre.  The boombox, serves one or two functions, he or she can be the human-made sound of instruments or machines, kind of like when Ella Fitzgerald scats in jazz, and/or he or she can be the one who encourages the crowd to participate, kind of like what Spliff does with Busta Rhymes.  The dancers are the two or more performers that 'do the moves' that relocate from the street.  The dancers also represent the audience, and the historical idea of community participation in black art.

By the time rap first broke big with Grand Master Flash, the Sugar Hill Gang, Run DMC and others, I was too old and set in my twenties to really get into it. I appreciated the fact that Run DMJ gave new life to the group that wrote "Walk This Way" and revitalized rock while performing rap.  I appreciated the fact that hip hop was a burgeoning new art form that was going to change the face of music.  I even anticipated the fact that, Vanilla Ice, notwithstanding, rap would become "Elvis Presley'd"-- appropriated by and a source of wealth for whites.  I further expect that the embrace by popular culture will lead to rejection of the form by authentic creators and to new forms that are fomenting in the subcultures as we speak. I appreciated very much the fact that rap is poetry, but its class orientation for the most part was wrong for me.  I was a business woman running my own computer programming and analysis business in Chicago's Loop.  I was a doctor's wife living in a high rise condo with the wealthy white retirees and young professionals. Sure, I lived during desegregation and through white supremacy, so I had lived in my share of ghettoes, but I wasn't trying to go back.

Back then I thought that while rap wasn't exactly beneath me, I just couldn't find a point of connection beyond the literary, and I was none too motivated to explore that in my busy life. I still attended things like Baraka and Morrison readings, or Chicago Cultural Center's Black History Month offerings by notables like Leon Forrest and Cyrus Colter, so I wasn't looking for new material.  The fact remained, however, that I am black, hip hop is black music and dance, therefore, it is my mine. I was just having a hard time relating to most of the stories that rappers were telling.  Much like the black middle-class and religious community's objections to blues in the thirties and forties, rap just didn't seem to be about uplift.  Uplift, the Du Boisian theory of the "talented tenth" leading and mentoring the 'lower classes' into mainstream America was more my aim.  Rap made me respect the fact that although blackness is not monolithic,  my black consciousness demands that I listen and try to find my place within the blackness unfolding before us.

Treach on Soul Train

My first real sense of connection came with the number "Ghetto Bastard" by Naughty by Nature.  Treach, the group's rapper, is handsome, so looking at his group on the MTV was a pleasure, but listening to the lyrics is what connected me. I had help with the lyrics from and the Lyricsearch on Ask Jeeves, but neither of these sources nor I, provide the authentic version, just what listeners transcribe.  You could call it "neoOral history in practice." Check them out:  Lyrics to "Ghetto Bastard" 

Written in the mid-1980's partly as an answer to the politicians and community leaders that were blaming rap for the ostensibly dramatic "moral degradation" of African American youth, then eighteen year old Treach's lyrics makes critics aware that the music is a reflection of the life, and the children are not creating the lives they want for themselves, rather, they are doing their best to survive a life in which the odds of just living are against them.  Elements of the "This Little Piggy" nursery rhyme in the phrase "some get a little, some get none", and the comforting words of the chorus that repeats "everything's gonna be alright"  accentuate the fact that Treach is an American, with knowledge of U.S. folklore, and that Treach is also a mere adolescent.   He is essentially powerless.  He is representative of the many, many others not born on the gravy side of the train.  In "Ghetto Bastard",  Naughty by Nature notifies listeners that ghetto youth reject the scapegoat's mantle society wishes to place on their shoulders.  They refuse to bear the guilt of blame in addition to all the ills that poverty and racism assure them in the future.

So how did this connect me?  Here's the irony--  it connected me by telling me that I don't have to be connected in any obvious way.  "Ghetto Bastard" tells me that unless I am coming to the plate with realistic plans for change, plans that empower the people, plans that improve the quality of life-- not my 'uplift' goals for the community, but the community's goals for itself-- unless I am coming with that-- I can take a tip from Mystikal and "Move. Get Out the Way!"

Have I 'copped out'?  I don't think so.  Let me tell you why.

To get right to the point, Naughty by Nature tells me that I am ignorant.  I don't know the reality, so my expectations of the people are functions of my imagination. The lyrics tell me that maybe if I listen and am able to hear, and maybe if I look and find that I can see, then maybe I can help.  They tell me that it would be arrogant of me to imagine that I could impose a solution when I don't even appreciate the scope and details of the problem. Microcosmically, it is as unconscionable as one nation invading another nation, imposing their will and deciding what is good for everyone.   Listening, I hear that outsiders who judge and cast blame cannot be trusted.  The presentation of the song makes me 'know' these things while denying me the sense of superiority that evoked pathos could bring because Treach ends with a warning that negates his self-pity and appoints himself as a guardian.  He raps: "If you ain't never been to the ghetto,/ Don't ever come to the ghetto,/ Because you wouldn't understand the ghetto./ So stay the fuck out of the ghetto!"   Well, I've been to the ghetto and lived in the ghetto, but not the ghetto that has become since I was a child, not the one that Treach means. My door is open. I'll be waiting at the threshold, and I can go either way.

Busta from the MTV site

I have to content myself with being black where I am. I've seen Busta Rhymes and the Flipmode Squad along with about seven other artists in Hartford.  I listen to Hot 93.7.  Missy Elliot is brilliant. I love Beyonce and Jay-Z, think that LL Cool Jay is making 40 look good with that buff build, and laugh aloud each time Cam'ron sings "Hey Ma." Yeah.  I like rap.  And it is always going to be more to me than just music and dance.  Like Motown, it is defining part of my present, so it will be of value when I historicize my past. But... I must admit that some days, this old lady just can't take the explicit sexuality and patriarchy of the lyrics. The valorization of being high on alcohol and drugs is another source of dismay.  But damn!  They sing about it with such bumpin' beats and impressive creativity that I resign myself to just endure the lyrics.



For more information about rap and hip hop music, check out:
 the Urban Thinktank website at,
also see the interview with and lyrics of a Cambodian American rapper, Prach Ly.





copyright OGSCL 2003