Within any craft, there are three types of people; pioneers, innovators, and thieves. And sometimes the lines that divide each of them can become blurred.
This same concept certainly applies to this craft we love and know as “rapping”. But at times it can be difficult to pinpoint where you personally fit into all of this.
Are you a pioneer, an innovator or just a thief that’s bitting off of other rappers hard work? Well, after reading this you might have a slightly different perspective on all of this.
Let’s first take a look at each of these roles.
Pioneers: “a person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others.”
I like to metaphorically think of pioneers as someone who goes into the woods and cuts down trees and bush to create a path for him or her self which others can also use who come after them.
Hip-Hop Pioneers Of Rapping
Let’s look at one of the Hip-Hop pioneers of rapping. You can trace it all the way back to 1973 in the Bronx, New York when a guy named Coke La Rock was asked by his friend DJ Kool Herc to help MC one of his parties.
History Of The MC
MC means “Master of Ceremonies” which is basically the person who speaks on the microphone during an event to introduce acts, make announcements etc.. Their job is to keep the event moving along smoothly.
The role of the MC can be traced way back before Hip-Hop to the 5th century where the Catholic Church dedicated this role to someone to ensure smooth conduct during elaborate rituals.
Back To La Rock
Now fast forwarding back to Coke La Rock in 1973. While MC’ing one of these parties he did something very unusual. While Kool Herc was doing his thing on the turntables, Coke La Rock grabbed the mic and recited the following “There’s not a man that can’t be thrown, not a horse that can’t be rode, a bull that can’t be stopped, there’s not a disco that I, Coke La Rock can’t rock”
What was so unusual about this was he was reciting a form of poetry but he wasn’t singing. It was more like he was reciting poetry over the music but to a musical cadence. This unusual style of musical performance became known as R.A.P. (rhythm and poetry).
Coke La Rock is what you would call a pioneer in Rap. Also, DJ Kool Herc was a pioneer for DJ’s as well as Producers because he created something new called the “Merry Go Round” which you know today as looping or beat juggling. To learn more about the origins of Hip Hop check out this article.
Innovators: “to introduce something new; make changes in anything established.”
Playing off my previous analogy about Pioneers, I like to think of Innovators as the people who come behind the Pioneers and try to improve upon the path they created. Perhaps they build bridges over rivers, create rest stops with shelter, or create new paths off of the initial path.
Two In One
You could also look at Coke La Rock as an innovator of poetry as well as the role of the MC. Because rhyming comes from poetry and poetry has been around for as long as we can remember!
The earliest surviving form of great poetry dates all the way back to 2100 BC in ancient Mesopotamia with a poem called “The Epic of Gilgamesh”.
You see, what Coke La Rock did wasn’t entirely original. He wasn’t the first poet or MC, and he certainly wasn’t the first person to perform poetry over music.
The Last Poets
In fact, three years before in June of 1970 a socially and politically charged group comprised of poets and musicians known as “The Last Poets” released their debut album “The Last Poets” which went on to reach US Top 10 chart success.
Their album was so bold and jarring that president Richard Nixon used the FBI to include them on the watch list for a secret program called “COINTELPRO” which were a series of covert and at times illegal projects used to infiltrate and discredit domestic political organizations.
Kind of reminds you of NWA’s album “Straight Out of Compton” doesn’t it?
The Last Poets bold revolutionary lyrics coupled with their blending of poetry and music is believed to have been one of the single handed greatest influences on what we know today as Hip-Hop music. Or was it?
Let’s take it back two years before then in 1968 when an American Soul and Comedy singer by the name of Pigmeat Markham released his top charting single “Here Comes the Judge”.
Pigmeat was born April 18th, 1904 in Durham Noth Carolina and in the late 1920’s moved to The Bronx New York as a professional dancer and comedian.
Pigmeat is rapping all through this song over live soul music! This is the earliest recording I’ve been able to find to date that sounds like Hip-Hop music. But here’s the thing, this was 5 years before DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock formed their alliance which together pioneered Hip-Hop music. Hmmm.
Let’s take it back even further. On Sept 1st, 1936 a Minstrel Show Performer and recording artist named Emmett Miller released a song called “The Gypsy” which featured rapping as we know it throughout a large majority of the song. This is the earliest recording I’ve been able to find that has rapping in it.
Emmett Miller was born Feb 2, 1900, in Macon Georgia and is credited for being a major influence for many country music singers such as Hank Williams and Merle Haggard.
Emmett Miller was only 4 years older than Pigmeat Markum, they both were from the south and both did what we know as rapping in their recorded works.
Pigmeat later moved to The Bronx New York and in 1968 releases his top charting single “Here Comes The Judge” which he is rapping all throughout.
5 years later in 1973 DJ Kool Herc and Coke La Rock link up in The Bronx to birth a new genre of music we know as “Hip-Hop”.
Was this powerful duo doing something 100% original? Technically no but they were being innovative.
DJ’s were already around playing records at Discos but not like Kool Herc! He figured out a way to extend sections of songs called “Drum Breaks” by jumping between the same section of a song using two turntables.
At that time there were already recorded songs that had rapping in them, and being an MC wasn’t new but Coke La Rock did something different with both of them as well!
Instead of just making announcements he turned the role of an MC into a performance act where he would come up with improvised rhymes on the spot and he would rap them over DJ Kool Hercs turntablism to keep the party hype! La Rock was also playing with internal rhyme schemes which made his rhyme schemes more complex and busy which wasn’t common at the time.
You can look at DJ Kool Herc And Coke La Rock both as pioneers of Hip-Hop and innovators of DJ’ing and MC’ing. And you can also see how they were both influenced by what others were already doing which led to them building further upon it.
Thieves: “A person who steals. to take or appropriate without right and with intent to keep or make use of wrongfully”
In context with my previous metaphors, I like to think of a thief as someone who comes across that path forged by the pioneer and improved upon by the innovators and they claim it as their own.
They don’t contribute anything, they only take. They are leeches, moochers, and freeloaders. Their main goal is to benefit as much as possible from the hard work of others. Does that sound like someone you know?
But what are some examples of Thieves when it comes to rapping?
This is where things can get a bit blurry.
You see, Hip-Hop music has been heavily “sample” driven since it’s inception.
A “Sample” is when you take a portion of a song and use it in some way in a new musical work. This could be a melody, chorus, drum break, or even a short phrase from the original recording.
In the early years of Hip-Hop, this was a very gray area because while sampling had already been done before by none Hip-Hop artists such as James Tenney’s 1961 song “Collage #1” which used samples from Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes”.
Sampling hadn’t really become popular until DJ Kool Herc built upon this technique by inventing the “Merry Go Round” where he would play the same section of a song from two turntables and jump back in forth between them which allowed him to extend that particular section of the song as long as he wanted.
The Context Of Hip-Hop
What you also have to take into account is that Hip-Hop was birthed out of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington D.C., in March of 1963 and the very next year in 1964 the Civil Rights Act was put into effect which abolished racial segregation in the United States.
in 1973, Only 9 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, Hip-Hop’s first spark was created in The Bronx by the alliance of DJ Kool Herc And Coke La Rock. And this spark quickly grew into a fire that was sweeping the nation.
The next thing you knew, there were Rappers and DJ’s popping up all over the place! A large majority of these talents were young African American’s who come from poverty-stricken areas who were still being affected by the oppression and marginalization created by slavery which transitioned into segregation and at this point and time had just lead to desegregation.
Most of these young talented Rappers and DJ’s couldn’t afford to pay for session musicians to play live instruments in a professional recording studio.
And a lack of funds forces you to be creative and innovative!
The Emergence Of Sample-Based Music
So emerging albums from talented pioneers and innovators such as Grandmaster Flash in 1981 continued to build upon what DJ Kool Herc had done and started creating songs by sampling sections of other existing songs. In a way this allowed them to play the role of a record producer and pick their players based on sampling sections of previous recordings.
But wait! Isn’t that stealing? Technically… yes… but not entirely, at least not for long.
You see this new sampled based method of constructing songs was flying underneath the radar of the major record labels for a while because “Rap Music” was initially viewed as a fad and it hadn’t quite grown to be as popular as you know it today.
While Rap Music’s popularity continued to grow we started seeing this “Sampling” technique being used in popular 1987 UK dance music such as M|A|R|R|S hit single “Pump Up The Volume” which contains samples from 10 different songs. This lead to one of the first major court cases regarding sampling music which was settled out of court.
Side note, if you ever want to know if a song contains samples and if so which ones? whosampled.com is an amazing resource!
2 Live Crew
Fast forward to 1989. A rap group by the name of “2 Live Crew” who were known for their raunchy and sexually explicit lyrics released their album “As Clean As They Wanna Be”, which featured a song called “Pretty Women” which sampled guitar, bass, and drums from Roy Orbison’s song “Oh, Pretty Women”, which lead to lawsuit for copyright infringement.
To make the long story short, 2 Live Crew won the case based upon two key reasons in the Constitution regarding copyright.
1. “[In] truth, in literature, in science and in art, there are, and can be, few, if any, things, which in an abstract sense, are strictly new and original throughout. Every book in literature, science, and art, borrows, and must necessarily borrow, and use much which was well known and used before.” Emerson v. Davies, 8 F.Cas. 615, 619 (No. 4,436) (CCD Mass. 1845)
2. “look to the nature and objects of the selections made, the quantity and value of the materials used, and the degree in which the use may prejudice the sale, or diminish the profits, or supersede the objects, of the original work.” Folsom v. Marsh, 9 F.Cas. 342, 348 (No. 4,901) (CCD Mass. 1841)
In the early 1990’s sample-based music continued to grow and so do did the lawsuits.
In 1990 MC Hammer released his hit single “U Can’t Touch This” which sampled Rick James 1981 song “Super Freak”. Rick James sued MC Hammer and they settled out of court and MC Hammer agreed to credit Rick James as co-composer of the song.
At first Vanilla Ice denied he had used the sample but after Queen & Bowie put him under a little more “Pressure”, Vanilla Ice came to his senses and decided to settle with the two and give them songwriting credit for the sample.
In 1992 a major turning point occurred in regards to sampling when Biz Markie’s album “I Need A Haircut” featured a song called “Alone Again” which landed him in court for using a sample from Gilbert O’Sullivan’s song “Alone Again”.
This time the court ruled this as “Willful Infringement”. Meaning Biz Markie sampled Gilbert’s song with the intent to pay him as well as give him credit for the sample.
The Offical Beginning Of Sample Clearance
This case had a major impact on the record industry because it allowed artists to license samples of their songs to other artists as long as those artists disclose the samples they are using, pay them whatever their “fee” is to use the sample, and in many cases give them a portion of the songwriting royalties.
This is what we know today as “Sample Clearance”.
From Theft To Innovation
So in the end, this musical theft called “Sampling” actually turned out to be another form of innovation. It allowed artists to build upon the great works of others and often times revive older songs people had forgotten about which also created additional income for the original artists.
BACK TO YOU
Dissolving The Ego
Which brings us back to you. Where do you fit in all of this?
Well if you’re a rapper you need to understand something. This might hurt your ego but I think it’s important for you to understand for your own personal growth as an artist.
You’re not as original as you think you are.
The music that you aspire to make right now is a direct result of all the music that you’ve already been influenced by.
Even you’re DNA isn’t 100% original because it was passed down from your parents and your parents DNA is made up of hundreds of thousands of years of ancestors.
Let that sink in for just a moment.
Innovations And You
Just think about all of the years of innovation that had to happen in order for you to have the technology to read this article right now!
The electricity, microprocessors, motherboards, batteries, servers, the internet, monitor, even the keyboard I’m using to type right now all had to be invented.
There’s Nothing New Under The Sun
Just know that anything that you do is building upon what others have already done in some shape, form or fashion.
“[In] truth, in literature, in science and in art, there are, and can be, few, if any, things, which in an abstract sense, are strictly new and original throughout. Every book in literature, science, and art, borrows, and must necessarily borrow, and use much which was well known and used before.”
So stop letting your fear of “bitting” other rappers keep you from learning from them. All musicians are influenced by each other. Noone is 100% original.
Even whole genres of music influence other genres of music.
Without funk, soul and disco there would be no Hip-Hop. Without African American Gospel, Rhythm And Blues, and Jazz there would be no Soul music.
Any words that you rhyme together have likely already been rhymed tens of thousands of times. No matter what cadences you come up with they’ve likely already been used in many songs in many different ways.
Broaden Your Horizons
So don’t isolate yourself from the music you think is awesome in your attempt to preserve your originality! Because the origins of the music you aspire to make did not begin with you and it certainly won’t end with you.
Study all the songs that you think are dope and figure out what about them you enjoy so much. Start using those techniques you learn in your own songs. And don’t limit yourself to just studying one song, artist or even one genre.
Broaden your horizons, spread your wings, and explore many of the great musical works from musicians and artists that have gone before you. They are your musical ancestors and their musical contributions are your inheritance.
So with that being said, which of the following do you think you are now? A pioneer, an innovator or a thief?