Liner Notes: The Song That Changed The World

This week’s edition of Liner Notes is inspired by the recent Late Night with Jimmy Fallon clip that is a current online sensation. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you really should check it out .

To sum it up, Jimmy Fallon and guest star Justin Timberlake take their audience through the history of hip hop in less than three minutes. Importantly, they are accompanied by one of the genre’s greatest musical acts ever, The Roots. I must have watched the video over ten times this weekend and was twittering and emailing it out to all my friends. It really is that incredible. If you haven’t seen it yet, make sure to watch it.

The medley starts off with one very important beat. It has become a musical loop recognized by just about anyone in the modern, western world over the age of twelve. The now eponymous phrase was the beginning of a song so important, that not only a brand new genre was soon named after its opening lyric, but an entire culture—one that is now studied independently of all other cultures in university classrooms across the United States and the UK.

That rhythmic cowbell, bongo drum, and left-hand piano downbeat riff are as recognizable as the opening chords to The Beatles’ “Let It Be” or the opening drum solo of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” Before any words come into the speakers, we get an electric base line along to some simple hand clapping that has as much familiarity today as Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious.” And then it starts: the phrase that would change music forever: “I said a hip, hop, the hippie and the hippie, to the hip-hip-hop, you don’t stop the rock it to the bang, bang boogie say up jumped the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat.”

I haven’t been able to entirely narrow down the history of the term “hip hop” with complete academic confidence. But one story goes (and please note, I have only verified this through various websites and have done no true scholarly research that can support this urban legend) that Keith Cowboy, a rapper with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, used the term in a freestyle rap session to tease a friend who had just signed up with the U.S. Army. Pretty soon thereafter, other rappers, including most famously now, The Sugarhill Gang, adopted the phraseology into their own rap songs. In 1979 when The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” became a massive hit in the United States, and around the rest of the world for that matter, music critics and African American culturists and writers had a new independent and empowering term for what had been known as “disco rap” up until that point.

This is a very subtle, but very important moment in the history of the culture, and in the history of western society. Calling the music “disco rap” showed a reliability or comparison to other forms of western “white” music. “Disco,” for the most part, was a mainstream, white person’s style of dance. Disco clubs in New York, L.A., and Miami were celebrated in opulence. It was the eighties—times of large spending, economic exuberance, and social divide. At the turn of the decade any fan of mainstream American popular music really only had one of three roads to travel down: 1) Punk; 2) Disco; and 3) Soft seventies rural-rock. Each one of these is a white (and with the exception of Disco), male oriented form of expression.

Black and Puerto Rican DJs and musicians in New York were finding new ways to celebrate their cultural distinction, social class barriers, and ethnic histories through music. By calling what was happening in the Bronx “disco rap,” African American artists were being subjected and pigeonholed into an associative genre that was miles apart in style. There was nothing “disco” about what DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Grand Wizzard Theodore were doing. What they were doing was inventing a new style of composition, one that was worthy of its own name leading to its own identity.

So when universal Zulu Nation founder Afrika Bambaataa credited the term “hip hop” to describe the emerging culture from the Bronx, the African American and Puerto Rican artists who were responsible for it were finally able to step out of the shadow of a gentrified musical class and industry and give birth to a culture that, thirty-odd years later, has changed the dynamics of societies all over the world. Just try and name one culture that does not have its own form of hip hop—from the fashion to the music, and not forgetting the all-important attitude?

I could write an entire book on where it goes from there. In fact, entire books have been written on such a subject. But a much more fun and entertaining way to take in the history of the hip hop can be found in the link mentioned at the beginning of this article. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake go from “Rapper’s Delight” to “Empire State of Mind” in one furious breath, one jumped up, bang-boogied, beat.

Think of the set scene here: two white, mainstream American pop celebrities (JT obviously a lot more than JF) performing the history of hip hop for a predominantly white audience (shown in the clip) with The Roots supplying the music. It isn’t so much about racial distinction, as it is about the blurring of lines. One has to wonder how much hip hop as a musical genre had to play in that evolution. What was once considered a bunch of lower class, degenerate youths from the slums of Manhattan came to give us an identity that saw a presidential candidate draw obvious reference to a rap song during one of his campaign speeches (President Barack Obama references Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulders” when he “brushes his shoulder off ” in a speech one day after being attacked by Hilary Clinton and George Stephanopoulos during the 2008 Democratic Leadership race

I think it is safe to say that hip hop has modernized the American identity, and it all began with a song.

But who am I to tell you about it. Watch the clip. After all, in the most paradoxical and sincerely hypocritical way imaginable, I believe music should be watched and listened to rather then written and read about.

Link to this article:

– Kory French


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