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Musical cocktail

Sound system, dub, and toast in the origins of hip-hop

To talk about how the elements that will musically define hip-hop, in general, and rap took shape, it is necessary to mention the continuous cultural exchanges and migratory processes. Rap could be a specific full stop of a chain of diverse elements that are created and mixed, thus generating new phenomena in constant relation. Here we propose to outline the elements of such chain and put them into contact to understand where and where rap in United States arises from, the cradle from where it will fly to every corner of the world. To do so, we will talk about blockparties, sound system, break, dub, toast to finally land on rap.

¿What are blockparties?

Blockparties initiated in the early 1970s in the Bronx ghetto. This referred to the parties, most of which were illegal, held on public streets such as parks, sports fields or on the street. Most of them were organised by young migrants coming from Jamaica and Caribbean countries. These parties revolved around the figure of DJs, who deejayed music (mainly soul and funk) from record players and with powerful amplification equipment connected to public electricity supply or illegally to a lamppost.

This phenomenon supposed the music departure of music from clubs to street, offering the public place as a meeting and interaction point both for young people from the ghetto and gangs that were distributed in the different territories and streets of the Bronx. The rivalry and struggle for the territory were present, although physical violence could be replaced by symbolic confrontations such as the so called “style wars”, where DJs deejayed music too close to each other and battled to attract the largest audience through the quality of sound and the music deejayed.

The nuclear artefact in these types of gatherings were the sound systems, which allowed music to be played at high volume whilst providing opportunities for techniques and games with the music on offer, providing a hallmark that will mark the development of hip-hop in its most musical dimension.

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¿What are sound systems?

Sound system dates back to the decade of 1950s in Kingston (Jamaica). These systems were equipment and speakers structures with a high sound power. The staging in Jamaica was deployed in a truck, which was equipped with record players, generators, and titanic speakers to move them easily and enable the organisation of parties on street. It was an important social scene, one of the crucial elements in the development of Jamaican modern music, directly influencing the gestation of styles such as reggae, dub, rocksteady, and ska.

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Jamaican immigrants that migrated to United States took these systems with themselves and developed them in the ghetto they lived, mainly in the Bronx or Harlem. We can highlight the figure of Kool Herc (DJ of Jamaican origin) because of his importance in blockparties.

Through these sound systems, genres such as funk, soul and Rhythm and Blues were mainly reproduced in blockparties with the vital function of encourage the audience to dance. Funk songs used to include a fragment presenting an instrumental track mainly focused on rhythm section. This instrumental track was the favourite for b-boy (breakdance dancers) as it emphasised the rhythm of the song. Because of this, DJs created technics to spread its duration. Here is where an important point for the musical basis of hip-hop and what will later become the instrumental on which rap develop comes in: break.

¿What is break?

Break is the section of a funk or jazz song where the music “breaks”, letting the rhythm section play without any other accompaniment. This is the moment of climax of the song, and DJs’ attention focused on playing and experimenting with it, shaping little by little hip-hop, as it marked the rhythm basis on which different artists such as the b-boys or later the MC (Masters of Ceremonies) would develop.

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Different technics were originated and developed to play with the break:

Kool Herc, for instance, reproduced the same CD in two record players, making the selected break sound repeatedly alternating between both vinyls: letting the first vinyl sound while he made the second come back to the starting point of the break. He employed the term breakbeat to reference that link and prolongation of the moment break as the main aim was to make that rhythmic part last longer, letting the dances last longer too.

Grandmaster Flash perfected the technic: he marked the beginning positions of the breaks with a wax crayon putting his hands on the vinyls. This way he could repeat them with no noticeable change, and without touching the arms of the record player. His staging was a true spectacle, going to dance clubs in order to know and learn from other DJs, coming to incorporate in his shows eccentricities such as “deejaying” with the feet or even the back.

Afrikaa Bambaataa and Grand Wizard Theodore also explored and brought innovations to this field.

The importance of break is fundamental in the history of hip-hop, since it defines one of its essential characteristics: appropriateness, as recycling, of prerecorded pieces in a new and original creation. Here dub is created, direct precursor of the musical basis of which we will later know as rap instrumentals.

¿What is dub?

The actions of the record player of the sound systems, at the end of the 1960s, turned into the gestation of this new art form. The main characters of the development of this genre were two Jamaican people: King Tubby, and the productor Lee “scratch” Perry.

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Dub consists of the manipulation of ska and reggae CDs on the part of DJs or spinner, creating and recording instrumental remixes (new mixes) of existing pieces, to which echoes, reverbs were aggregated, the frequency of the bass and the drums was accentuated, and most of the vocal part was extracted. These versions were achieved through the deep manipulation and reprocessing of the original shot.

It was the genre that pioneered the use of sound boards as another instrument, in addition to establishing pre-recorded pieces as an art form.

It is provided from here the musical basis on which toast will be developed.

¿What is toast?

We could mention as the pioneer of this genre the Jamaican DJ Winston Count Matchuki.

The almost total suppression of the vocal lines in dub remixes had the aim of giving rise to toasting: the addition of spoken rhymes and sentences to the music. Initially, its most notable function was to encourage the audience to dance. Thousands of styles and characters were printed in toast: from political and social rhymes to funny comments, screams, rhythmic canticles or sung rhymes. The lyrics could be improvised or previously written.

At first, those in charge of holding the micro and making toast were the DJs themselves. It was in the wake of Grandmaster Flash’s own technic when “deejaying” that made impossible for him to have a free hand to hold the micro and cheer the audience, so he hired somebody to do it for him. The figure of MC emerged there. The first MC may have been Cowboy, hired by Flash, who later created a band together with other members, baptised Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

This kind of spoken and rhythmically toned rhymes in toasting is considered the influence of the rise of rapping, the typical mode of signing in hip-hop in the areas of United States. This is what we will know as rap.

¿What is rap?

Colloquially, “to rap” would mean to chat or to babble, “utter words in gone go”. Later, with hip-hop it acquired the new meaning of speaking rhythmically with a musical accompaniment, known as instrumental.

Among the most notable influences we could talk about toast, which together with rap, is aligned in a tradition dating back to West African griots, characterised by being poets that spread oral tradition, their cultural values, and habits on an itinerant basis.

On the other hand, we could mention the direct influence of jazz poetry, in which different artists recited their poems on percussion and jazz music basis. In this area The Last Poets, The Watts Prophets or Gil Scott-Heron are remarkable.

However, what differences rap from these influences and gives it a distinctive feel is what is known as flow, the rhythmic cadence, the flow of MC’S words over instrumental music.

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