Thursday, February 17, 2011

NY Times, 1981: 'Rapping is probably familiar to most New Yorkers as an intrusive noise on the subway or in the park'

Another early article about rap music, this time from the New York Times. It's dated March 13, 1981. A lot has changed in 30 years.


By Robert Palmer

RAPPING, a kind of rhythmic versifying with skeletal instrumental or unrecorded accompaniment, began in Harlem, the South Bronx and other black communities in the New York area. A white rock group, Blondie, has carried the rapping style into the national Top 10 with the hit single, ''Rapture,'' but the champion rappers are the Sugar Hill Gang, Grand Master Flash and the Fabulous Five, and other groups that have sold large quantities of records but seldom perform for white audiences.
Rapping moved downtown for a night on Wednesday when the Ritz presented a cavalcade of rappers. The Sugar Hill Gang, whose ''Rapper's Delight'' was one of the first rap hits, headlined the show. The three men who do most of the group's rapping took turns declaiming rhymed couplets and chimed in as a unison chorus on key phrases while a tight band laid down funk rhythms that were heavily accented on the first beat of each measure. The band also accompanied Sequence, three women in glittering costumes whose raps were as fast and funny as those of the men.

Grand Master Flash and an assistant accompanied the Fabulous Five with a virtuoso performance on two turntables; Flash constructed bass and drum parts by repeatedly playing the first few bars of records by Queen & Chic; he created extravagent special effects by stopping records with his hand while they were playing, while they were spinning, a technique that resulted in a regular, percussive skidding sound. ''What you've just beared witness to is seven men and two turntables,'' one of the group's rappers told the predominantly white, enthusiastic crowd. ''Think about it.''

The Funky 4 Plus 1 provided even more food for thought. The group's five rappers chanted in crisp unison and traded phrases in a kind of whiplash call and response. They were able to inject some personality, and some new rhymes and couplets, into what has already become a fairly standardized idiom, and they were as disciplined as a crack drill team. Their lone disk jockey provided minimal accompanyment by repeating bass figures and drum parts from various funk and disco records. Basically, the Funky 4 Plus 1 provide a kind of rhythmic noise. Melody and harmony have no place in their music, which rides on an irrestible dance beat and various cross rhythms.
The evening featured several surprise guests, including Andy Hernandez from Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, who rapped over the instrumental track of his latest recording, the delightful ''Me No Pop I.'' The Coconuts, who are Mr. Hernandez's associates in the group Kid Creole and the Coconuts, also performed a short set of their own and demonstrated conclusively that they are not spectacular dancers.

Rapping is probably familiar to most New Yorkers as an intrusive noise on the subway or in the park - the noise that comes out of blaring cassette players and portable radios. But as the Ritz show demonstrated, rapping has a much broader appeal than one might have anticipated. It's an intriguing test of the performer's verbal ingenuity and rhythmic exactitude, and its fine.