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Rap The Rhyme


As the West’s economic crisis has deepened, so new urban folk cultures have sprung up centred on music and dance. The shopping malls and street corners of slump-bound cities have been occupied by crews of body poppers and break dancers. In these dance forms the social powerlessness of the young unemployed is answered. Their sense of personal power grows as they dance, as their ability to control and manipulate their bodies is refined.

This dancing is significant because it cannot be packaged and sold. Though images of it are now being used to advertise a variety of products, attempts to bring break dancing into the cultural mainstream have so far failed.

The music which has inspired this dance explosion is Afro-american in origin. It is shaped by a desire to resist existing patterns of consumption and corporate culture. It is heard socially and collectively rather than by isolated individuals, often illegally taped from the radio or from someone else’s disc. If records are involved, they are not accepted as final, finished products but become vehicles for the creative imagination.

Record turntables have become musical instruments in their own right. By using two ‘decks’ and two copies of a disc or even the pause button on a tape recorder, a skilled DJ can take the musical anatomy of the original record and reassemble it. Several different pieces may also be mixed together. New meanings are created as snippets from various contrasting recordings are brought together and favoured phrases and instrumental passages are repeated. The political speeches of Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and Malcolm X have all been integrated into musical performances. Scratch sounds and percussive noises are created by moving the stylus back and forth in the grooves of a record.

Afro-America’s older traditions of oral communication provide the rapped rhymes which, like toasting in reggae culture, allow the DJs to interact constantly with the crowd. They comment on good and bad times, passing on news and information and creating an atmosphere of solidarity which transforms consumption from a passive into an active, dynamic process. The western distinction between art and life melts away along with the barrier between performer and audience.

New Internationalist issue 144 magazine cover This article is from the February 1985 issue of New Internationalist.
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