Using “The Anthology of Rap” as a guide, we will examine several rap artists and their lyrical poetry within four defining eras of hip hop culture that have spanned over four decades. Part 1: 1978-1984 is labeled, “The Old School”; Part 2: 1985-1992 is “The Golden Age”; Part 3: 1993-1999 is “Rap Goes Mainstream” and Part 4: 2000-2010 is “New Millennium Rap”.
Rap music and hip hop are not synonymous. In a new book, “The Anthology of Rap” edited by Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois, with a forward by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Gates remarks “either rap describes commercialized music and hip hop the sounds of the underground; or rap suggests a gritty style (as in gangsta rap) and hip hop a more politically and socially conscious approach (as in backpack hip hop)”. Rap artist KRS-One gives an explanation of the distinction in his song “Hip Hop Knowledge”, “Rap music is something we do, but hip hop is something we live.”
Lyrical poetry is a type of poetry with rhyming schemes that express personal and emotional feelings. This form of poetry does not have to rhyme and contemporarily is set to a musical beat. Gates continues, “raps are lyric poems organized into verses, the standard length of which is sixteen lines…Their most distinguishing poetic feature is rhyme, which rappers employ in full and slant, monosyllabic forms at the end of and in the midst of the line.”
Hip hop is a cultural phenomenon that emerged from the impoverished South Bronx in the mid-1970s. Hip hop is comprised of four core elements, emceeing, DJing, break dancing and graffiti art. Emcees, hip hop’s masters of ceremonies, are literary artists and poets. As Gates states, “Rap is the poetry of hip hop culture.”
Begin by having the students watch this PBS NewsHour clip and go through the background explanation of the difference between rap music and hip hop culture as well as lyrical poetry.
- Distribute the lyrics and bios for the each of the rap artists in the four eras of hip hop. Part 1 and 2 can be completed in one class period and 3 and 4 in another. See the PDF attachments for each era.
- Have the students carefully read the material individually or in small groups. After they have read the text, ask them to answer the following discussion questions.
- What are the central themes in the song?
- Examining the artists era in hip hop culture, what political, social or cultural events and circumstances could have contributed to the lyrics?
- Does the song help contribute to a more complete understanding of the artist’s poetic range and development?
- Discuss the answers in class.
1. Have students write and perform their own rap lyrics as individuals or groups.
2. Have students participate in a “freestyle” competition where they have 30 seconds to come up with original lyrics that don’t include profanity or vulgarity.