Rap in American Culture

The origins of rap music are deeply rooted in the history of African American community. Rap branched out from hip-hop and became a new genre, developing the same traditions while bringing new elements to the culture.

Early Rap Artists

The rap was born of the African oral culture. Free-form poetry was a big part of the Black tradition in the US, and the rap is based on it (Gates 10). After the emergence of the hip-hop culture in 1970s rapping became a big part of it (Chang 76). That movement was organizing the Black youth and standing for the rights of the segregated communities. In many ways, Hip-Hop was a form of nonviolent resistance. It was an attempt to make the voices of the ignored heard. Soon rappers started to create new subcultures of their own. Many new subgenres were created, but the spirit of defiance was present in all of them. In the 1980s, the gangsta rap emerged. It featured more aggressive lyrics and bass-heavy music. N.W.A is possibly the most famous band to create gangsta rap. Many critics recognize them as some of the most influential artists of the second part of the 20th century.

Their landmark song “Straight Outta Compton” featured these lyrics: “You too boy if you f**k with me / The police are gonna have to come and get me” (N.W.A.). Despite explicit lyrics and the overwhelming aggression, the song still shows the pride of the band as the members of the Black community and hatred for the police. Another incredibly influential rap artist of the 1980s-1990s is Tupac Shakur. His work is recognized by some of the most influential critics in the world, and he is a true legend for the rap fans. His lyrics were about ghetto life and street crime. “You know they got me trapped in this prison of seclusion / Happiness, living on tha streets is a delusion” Tupac raps in his song “Trapped.” While he seemingly glorified the street crime and “thug life,” in this lyrics he speaks of the awful conditions the ghetto puts you in. He rapped about the things his audience would understand while expressing the plight of the poor communities to the world. The music of the early rappers was aggressive and explicit they served as the voice of the African American community protesting segregation and injustice (Kelley 189). They also inherited a rich poetic tradition from their African predecessors. These early bands and artists have set the foundation for the further development of the genre. But the commercialization had a destructive effect on rap music.

Modern Rap

However, these days the rap and hip-hop have devolved. While musically it may be superior, the commercial hip-hop has lost the connection to its cultural roots. Most modern artists glorify the violent life in the streets pandering to the young white audiences who are the most active rap music consumers. The lyrics have been reduced to describing “gangstas,” “pimps,” and “hoes.” The rap music covering more complex themes was forced into the underground. Even established artists, like Tech N9ne, struggle to maintain an audience.

“Strange days, when your favorite rapper’s poppin’ / But “Is he on top?” is something you can’t gauge / Especially when he’s toppin’ the charts / And you see me, K. Lamar, and Macklemore sharing the same stage / I’m the nigga all these artists look up to / Yet for Tech, it’s been the hardest to bust through” (Tech N9ne)

These are the words from his recent song “Strangeulation.” Many of the truly talented artists are critiquing the industry for forgetting the origins of rap and letting the money completely overshadow the societal discourse the rap was originally about.


The rap music is about the protest. Most of the famous rappers earned their names for the defiant attitudes and social critique. Even if rap has changed greatly, there are still voices following the tradition and standing against the commercialization and dumbing down of the genre.

Works Cited

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. 67-85. Print.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Anthology of Rap. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. Print.

Kelley, Robin. Race Rebels. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994. 183-227.

N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton. Ruthless, 1988. CD.

Tupac Shakur. Trapped. Jive Records, 1991. CD.

Tech N9ne. Strangeulation. Strange Music, 2014. CD.

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