Iambic Tetrameter in poetry is the simplest form of rhyme scheme. It's also the mainstay of rap; you may have noticed the similarity of rap lines to the poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in which the second and fourth line rhyme in each stanza. That is what rap has become in the last two decades: an urban competition for power and glory where four or five overdressed baggy-pants gangsters with toques skip as they come out on stage and take turns bending down to a camera making identical hand moves and spitting into their microphones to a drum machine. Anyone who’s been under stage lights will attest to the fact that the heat is unbearable under your clothes, made worse by the strain of playing. A lot of rock musicians like Robert Plant and Keith Richards wear an open vest. The second drummer for April Wine went shirtless with suspenders. Any clothing on the upper body becomes soaked with sweat, but rappers’ clothes are part of the pose. So is the angry lower lip and dangerous-looking scowl. You won’t see them with beaming smiles like Ray Charles or James Brown. Rap is convenient as a way to cultivate a tough-guy image that it may never go away. Most pop music styles fade out after the crowds find fresh new concepts, but the rap phenomenon goes on because of the infinite number of young people who see this as a way to escape the surroundings of poverty without going through the unpleasant necessities of work or education. In the current form we see rap’s followers take a step backward; a violent obscene attempt to bring back racial hatred as the young people define themselves as being on the other side of the social fence that the previous four generations worked so hard to knock down. The majority of black people are satisfied that they have integration, civil rights, and a chance to be private citizens who have a chance to focus on something other than skin color. No one should forget the crimes of the past, but pushing on to a better future is the path to take - parents know this better than anyone; their efforts to reach the middle class were too painful to see it all erased by overfed youngsters trying to act as avengers using society as a scapegoat for perceived injustices without even knowing how rap started.
The beginnings of dirges, work songs, the Blues, and Black American Folk music appeared when slaves in the cotton fields would establish a call-and-answer rhythm to ease their anguish over the backbreaking work forced on them twelve hours a day, seven days a week in the heat of the Deep South. After the emancipation, a sharecropping system allowed for more privacy and availability to instruments like guitars, squeezeboxes, and banjos. In addition, many were enthusiastic and talented singers with amazing vocal range and quality. People in the following generation started to have the freedom to play for money like their counterparts in the North who came to the forefront in Big Band and Jazz music during Prohibition. The music was exciting enough to be featured in movies and on the radio, but segregation still cast a pall over the atmosphere of freedom that is the essence of music.
The system's racial unfairness that we despise today caused its victims to develop greater creativity in the cause of financial survival, and some legendary musicians became well-known and loved by audiences. No one could listen to Duke Ellington's band or watch Cab Calloway on the big screen without experiencing a quickening heartbeat and a rush of excitement. These people were beacons of genius, but still unwelcome in white hotels. Music and dance milieus were enriched a thousand fold by scores of naturally gifted performers. That's not to say hard work wasn't necessary to get them to the top. They honed their skills into performances that would never be reproduced. They were big-city musicians and they had to have total command of the mechanics and interpretation of all the elements that form music.
The earliest recordings that had talking sections within the song were those of Leadbelly. Although the recording company wanted him to concentrate on Blues, he was primarily a folksinger. Leadbelly was the son of sharecroppers and only semi-literate, but his imposing form stood as a landmark in North American music. The king of the twelve-string guitar was my earliest influence, possibly because my guitar was a twelve-string also, and because at the age of thirteen I could sing as high as Leadbelly. After my voice changed at puberty I was forced to look to other singers to emulate, especially those who played a blend of Folk and Blues that is known today as Roots Rock Music, a mixed progressive sound with lyrics that tell a story or express a message to sway the audience by meaning as well as volume and playing skill.
Telling a story in the middle of a song engaged the audience and was a good change of pace to amuse the listeners. His rapping during the song was not done using rhymes; he was commenting on points relating to the theme of the lyric. He would then return to the refrain and sing another verse or two. Other folksingers couldn't manage this trick, and so they told stories in between songs. To talk and play at the same time is an enviable skill that's beyond anything that I can do. When Bob Dylan turned the Folk scene on its head with the release of Highway 61 Revisited, the opening tune, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" set the stage for modern rap to find its energy. It wasn't a Blues song; it could best be described as upbeat Rock 'n Roll machine-gunning words everywhere. The verses had only two notes and consisted of four rhyming lines followed by another four rhyming lines. Then the chorus resolved back into a melody. The time signature Dylan used is known as "cut time" where the half-note gets one beat instead of two. It would be difficult to hip-hop to it, as the body can't go up and down at that frantic pace. It would very easy to slow it down into the form of today's Rap if you took out the melody of the chorus and changed the time signature to rap’s standard – 4/4 time with the accent on the second beat in each bar, with a maximum of one note from the major scale and the same note repeated one octave up. Ask a rapper to define a scale, an octave, a bar, a time signature, a sixteenth note, a treble clef, or a rest, and you’ll get a blank stare as if you were from another planet.
The first time I heard of Rap was in 1974 in Boston when I teamed up with a black harmonica player from New Orleans. We were street performers and worked in and alcove around Harvard Square. One day we took a rest break and he took several steps out to the sidewalk and began talking to people walking by, ad libbing comments about things he observed about people going by. He had a big smile showing two gold stars placed into his front teeth by a dentist back in more profitable times. He was lightly humorous as he talked to them about their aloofness, their inability to smile or make eye contact, and their terse mannerisms. He wasn't moving around or posing; he wasn't obscene or acting like he was a tough guy…he just thought up things as he talked, and the words didn't rhyme. It was more like off-the-cuff communication attempting to inject some soul into these stiff people with their cold mannerisms. He might gesture in greeting to each pedestrian, but nothing was rehearsed. Spontaneity was the key to this curious performance I was watching.
I asked him what he was doing of course and he told me, "Why, this is rapping. Everybody playing on the street in New Orleans is into it". He went at it some more; a woman came down the sidewalk. "Here's this nice lady, all in a hurry…she's wondering why we're smilin' and hanging out but she can't smile back 'cause it'd be too much trouble to set down a dime for young Jody here who's tryin' to get some attention…but she won't talk to the poor guys here 'cause she's too good to be true and she's got a rich boyfriend to see and a place to go and eat and sleep," and on he went happily with each new face that went by. He was totally unaffected, relaxed, funny, and clever. Both of us had to get by on our wits, during those hungry homeless days. I felt bad for having the advantage of having white skin, and I could feel the distaste of people when they saw us performing together. The racial bias eventually began to destroy him and he started taking speed pills and he stopped caring. He lost weight and started to hate himself. Society took a heavy soul and turned him into a self-destructive shell of his former self. We were both poor, so I had no way to help him and we drifted our separate ways when the cold weather approached. I had no idea that the improvised teasing of the audience would turn into the pompous violent bastardization of that art form with the grade-three rhyme scheme that we see and hear today. It's now seen as a way to become rich and famous while avoiding the annoyances of music lessons, practice, and learning an instrument. Anyone with a drum machine and a microphone can now declare himself a "musician" despite the lack of an ear for music. Getting an act together doesn’t require copping an attitude.
About the Author
Pat Boardman is a musician influenced by Folk, Blues, and Protest. In his travels he met some of the characters he admired as a teenager. The much-loved Piedmont Blues harmonica player Blind Sonny Terry became a good friend, as did John Hammond Jr., Phil Ochs, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. His music and novel The Golden Blues are available online and his Cold River album is featured on CD Baby.