Ashley Young ’22

From the Ground UpFrom the Ground Up: A Newcomer’s Look at Rap is many things, but most importantly, it is an artist exploration of the rich history of rap and hip hop. It is not meant to document the entire history of hip hop culture, but a brief look into the ways that rap has changed through time.

In a series of silkscreen prints I depict the origins (the “root”) and the transformation (the “route”) of rap through time. In each print and its accompanying label, I have attempted to communicate what I have learned about that particular moment in time.

The 12 major prints that compose this book are what have emerged to me as important moments in the history of rap. Imagine that between each print there are an infinite number of prints, each documenting an important figure in hip hop and rap culture, for hip hop has an ever changing, incredibly complex history.

Made possible by the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Creative Arts 2020.

Series

An Introduction

This is an exploration. This is an introduction. This is a journey.

From the Ground Up: A Newcomer’s Look at Hip Hop is many things, but most importantly, it is an artist exploration of the rich history of rap and hip hop. It is not meant to document the entire history of hip hop culture, but a brief look into the ways that rap has changed through time. Inspired by the Leonard Bernstein Festival of the Arts theme, Roots and Routes, I have decided to depict in a series of silkscreen prints the origins (the “root”) and the transformation (the “route”) of rap through time. In each print and its accompanying label, I have attempted to communicate what I have learned about that particular moment in time.

The 12 major prints that compose this book are what have emerged to me as important moments in the history of rap. Imagine that between each print there are an infinite number of prints, each documenting an important figure in hip hop and rap culture, for hip hop has an ever changing, incredibly complex history. 

I must admit, I am not an avid rap-listener. I do not affiliate with hip hop culture. This is the very reason that I have embarked upon this journey: to educate myself about rap and hip hop culture. I have a genuine admiration for rap and hip hop culture that is rooted in my own music passions: since middle school, I have had a great passion for the spoken word and post hardcore genres. My favorite album of all time is a spoken word album by Levi the Poet entitled Correspondence and two of my long time favorite bands are La Dispute and Hotel Books. All three of these artists - La Dispute, Hotel Books, Levi the Poet - have characteristics that I consider very similar to rap: emphasis on clever word play with an alternative vocal delivery.

I very easily could have documented the “roots” and “routes” of the post hardcore genre, but this is a genre that I am intimately familiar with. I want to broaden my musical horizons, so to speak. I want to take on the responsibility of educating myself about a type of music that I have great admiration for but knew little about.

What follows is twofold: a brief documentation of the history of rap through album cover-style prints, and a brief documentation of my efforts to acquaint myself with rap.

Please enjoy.

The Griot

Painting of a person singing with a guitarThe Griot is a longstanding West African storyteller, historian, and musician that is responsible for passing down tribal information in the oral tradition. The roots of rap can be traced back to the practice of the Griot, who blends music and stories in the same way that modern rappers document their own experiences through music.

The Griot depicted is named Dinde Sare and the instrument he plays appears to be a jeli ngoni.

Muhammad Ali; 1960s - 1980s

Painting of Muhammad Ali punching a punching bagMuhammad Ali could not only box, but had a playful, poetic command over his speech that emerged most prominently when intimidating his opponents. His clever put downs and word play would go on to inspire generations of hip hop artists.

Ali spoke the words “I’m so mean I make medicine sick! … Imma show you how great I am!” in a 1974 speech to George Foreman, a wrestling opponent.

The Last Poets; 1968 - Present

The Last PoetsThe Last Poets were not rappers in the traditional sense but were self proclaimed poets who spoke about racial injustices. Their debut, self titled album consisted of politically charged poems over the beat of a drum, stripped back with emphasis placed on the content of the poems instead of delivery. The Last Poets would lay the groundwork for later politically conscious rappers to comment on the black experience in America.

DJ Hollywood; Mid 1970s to Mid 1980s

Painting, close up of a person's hand spinning a recordDJ Hollywood was one of the first great hip hop performers, implementing record mixing and call and response in his performances. DJ Hollywood is also credited with inventing flow - long sequences of rhymes that fit in well with the underlying beat. DJ Hollywood innovated on previous lyrical achievements, creating a unified musical experience.

Golden Age Hip Hop; Mid 1980s - Early 1990s

Scenes from the Golden Age Hip HopThe mid 1980s saw a rapid explosion of rap and hip hop, with the genre rapidly evolving with each new single released. Rappers who flourished during the Golden Age were vastly different from each other, demonstrating the many ways in which rap can be utilized. Three of the rappers that emerged from the Golden Age were: Public Enemy, LL Cool J, and Big Daddy Kane.

Public Enemy was an innovation on the earlier The Last Poets, with decidedly politically charged messages about the experience of the disenfranchised.

LL Cool J developed what has been called “lover’s rap,” a mainstream, poppy sound that appealed to wide audiences.

Big Daddy Kane is considered a pioneer of fast, technically skilled rapping with immensely clever wordplay.

Salt-N-Pepa; 1985-2002; 2005-Present

Salt-N-Pepa, Push ItSalt-N-Pepa were one of the first female hip hop groups to reach mainstream success. They appealed to a wider audience, offering an alternative viewpoint to the sexism and misogyny of the male dominated rap.

The opposite image is a still from Salt-N-Pepa’s music video for “Push It,” which was their first song nominated for a Grammy Award in 1988.

Gangsta Rap; Mid 1980s - 1990s

Painting of city garage doorsRap took a decidedly hardcore turn with the invention of gangsta rap, in which rappers embraced the gangster lifestyle and openly affiliated with gangs as a representation of the struggles of inner city life. Ice-T is attributed with releasing the first gangsta rap song in 1986 with “6 ‘n the Mornin.’” Two years later, N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton, considered the first blockbuster gangsta rap album and subsequently established the West Coast scene as valid competition to the East Coast scene.

East Coast v West Coast; Mid to Late 1990s

Death Row vs. Bad BoyThe East Coast-West Coast rivalry was an ongoing feud between the hip hop artists, labels, and fans of the East Coast and West Coast scenes. The rivalry came to a front between Bad Boy Records on the East Coast with Tupac “2Pac” Shakur and Death Row Records on the West Coast with The Notorious B.I.G. As a result of this rivalry, both were murdered within months of each other in drive by shootings in 1998. At the time, their deaths were considered the “end of rap.”

MIssy Elliott; 1997 - Present

Missy Elliott; Flip it Reverse ItMissy Elliott was the first female rapper inducted into the songwriters hall of fame and is revered for her experimental music videos. Missy Elliott continues to push creative boundaries in both her songs and music videos.

Eminem; Late 1990s - Present

Eminem: May I have Your Attention Please?Eminem was one of the first white rappers who was able to successfully compete in the black-dominated rap scene. Although incredibly controversial, Eminem is one of the best selling artists of the early 21st century. The Marshall Mathers LP, from which the line “May I have your attention, please?” comes from, set the record for the fastest selling rap album in the United States

Kanye West; Mid 2000s - Present

Kanye WestKanye West was born into a privileged family and has achieved incredible mainstream success, challenging the narrative that hip hop emerges out of an underprivileged experience. West is also a practicing Christian, which informed his most recent release Jesus is King. Again, this album challenges the traditional conceptions of rap as music coming from the street.

The Age of the Internet; Present

Outlines of rappersThe proliferation of social media and music sharing apps in the past decade has allowed independent rappers to release music independent of a label. Young artists are able to explore new sounds in an experimental way without the risk of losing financial support from a label. Such experimentation has garnered an incredible number of fans, launching the careers of young artists. The popularity of the app SoundCloud has caused some to label these artists as “SoundCloud Rappers,” although now the most popular of these rappers have been signed to labels already.

The rappers depicted, from bottom to top, are: 6ix9ine, Kodie Shane, Rico Nasty, Juice WRLD, XXXTentacion, Lil Peep