As freshmen in high school, my friends and I would go to the convenience store downtown after the ring of the dismissal bell. We’d get snacks and 99-cent Arizona teas before heading to the after-school break dancing program. Once we decided that we were good enough to form our first crew, our mentors—who, in hip-hop tradition, had the duty of naming us—gave us our crew name, “Phat Boyz,” because we were always eating.
Growing up as a B-Boy in Lowell, Massachusetts, I have been engrossed in what members of the “original hip-hop” community call “real hip-hop.” These teachings are based on the universally accepted facts that there are four original elements of hip-hop.
The first element is B-boying or B-girling. Next, there are the graffiti artists, also known as the graphic artists of the culture. Then, there is the MC or Master of Ceremonies, a title which eventually transformed into “rapper,” who is considered the vocal element of the culture. Finally, there is the DJ or disk jockey, who is regarded as the musician of the hip-hop universe. Each of these four original hip-hop elements promote community, creativity, and communication while steering away from violence and adversity.
Today, we see a lot of people claiming the “hip-hop artist” title, with an abundance of spins and variations on the discipline. Included in these variations is a group of performers who actively yell or mumble incomprehensible sounds over hype dance and hip-hop tracks. One standout artist dubbed a “mumble rapper” is Desiigner, who performs tracks like “Timmy Turner,” “Overnight,” and “Panda”.
The storytelling aspect of hip-hop culture has always stood out to me as the key to success in the genre. Hip-hop artists, myself included, are responsible for the messages we relay to our community about the current state of social and political affairs. This is why our language and the words we choose are so important.
Art is typically thought of as subjective. However, genres are defined by specific criteria. Challenging artistic norms is a necessary aspect of creating a healthy, progressive art form. But the difference between creating a new genre and innovating within an established one is staying true to that genre’s core elements—and in this case, lyrics define rap in the hip-hop community. For this reason, I don’t consider mumble rap real hip-hop, because it strays from the four original elements.
Since the foundation of hip-hop, which took place roughly in August of 1973, MCs have been the poets of hip-hop culture. The established criteria of what makes a good MC includes lyrical prowess, flow, rhythm, originality, and buildups into punch lines and catchy hooks.
“I said a hip hop/The hippie, the hippie/To the hip, hip hop, and you don’t stop, a rock it/To the bang bang boogie, say, up jump the boogie/To the rhythm of the boogie, the beat,” is the admittedly silly opening to “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, one of the earliest pioneers of hip-hop. What set this genre apart was the cleverness with which these artists manipulated the English language. The precision of their word selection, improvisation, and unique vocal intonations was a recipe for mainstream attention.
While the words to this opening are seemingly juvenile, they have become a staple in rap culture due to The Sugarhill Gang’s repetition of the “P” and “B” sounds, along with an upbeat disco and funk-inspired background track sampled from “Good Times” by Chic. The point is to portray the singer as joyful and stylish through a lyrical style heavily inspired by the jazz technique of scatting.
Throughout the last four decades, rap has seen many phases. Each era has brought something new and useful to the genre we bump to today. The common thread between the socio-cultural topics of the Golden Age, the aggressiveness of gangster rap, and today’s trap music has been the quality of the lyrics.
I enjoy a lot of the tracks that mumble rappers have dropped over the last three years and I appreciate their ability to hype people up. However, to rank these current day “turn up” rappers among poets telling stories through rap is an insult to the true art form.