24May/10116

The First White Rappers: A History Lesson


We all know rap is a universal art form, one that transcends all boundaries, whether ethnic, religious, cultural, etc.–simply put, hip-hop is its own culture. I cannot count the number of times I have said this over the years; I even mentioned it in the introduction to my Canadian hip-hop series. Yet, when you chart the history of the art form in its development through the three decades-span of its existence, from Kool Herc spinning records in the parks of Boogie Down to today's superficial Autotuned dumb fucks, it is obviously and undeniably an African-American innovation, like Jazz, Blues, Rock & Roll–hell, pretty much every genre of music in the 20th Century owes its roots to the black population of America. This is not news.

Which is why tracing the expansion of hip-hop music, from the esoteric Bronx parks to the mainstream–and dare I say, white-dominated–audiences of the early ’80s is important to understand. Like every other genre of American popular music innovated by blacks, hip-hop really became popular after white artists tried their hand at the art. That’s just the way it is, the way it always has been. Whether this was fair to the original African-American pioneers is, well, left to your discretion; there is, however, no question that hip-hop over time has gained a wider fan base (generally speaking) because of it, among the masses of white audiences around the world–not to disparage any of the achievements artists like Kurtis Blow or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five have had on bringing hip-hop hits to the mainstream, of course.

So who were the first “white rappers?” Before we had Eminem winning Grammies and making bullshit Rolling Stones’ Greatest… lists; before we had Blood of Abraham repping the star of David under the tutelage of Eazy-muthafuckin’-E, and 3rd Bass going gold with their Gas Faces; even before we had the hybrid punk-rap Beasties ripping it up on Def Jam; there were two rock bands in particular that deserve mention: Blondie and The Clash.

Blondie:




Blondie was a band from New York, instrumental in the development of the then-burgeoning Punk and New Wave genres of rock music. Fronted by the stunningly beautiful (and, you guessed it: blond) Deborah Harry, the band released six albums before an eventual seventeen-year hiatus–their first three, in my opinion, being their best and rawest assemblage of records. In 1981, the band released “Rapture” (get the pun?), a hybrid fusion of New Wave pop, jazz, funk, and the budding genre of rap at its most primitive form.

Although not the first popular single to feature rapping (that breakthrough belongs to the Sugar Hill Gang), “Rapture” should nonetheless be recognized as a landmark in American music as being the first #1 Hit Single in America to use rap as a medium.

Blondie- “Rapture”


The song itself is great, if not a little awkward. Clearly influenced by Chic’s “Good Times” and the Sugar Hill Gang, it delivers a confused but successful blend of vintage dance music. I can dig it. Debbie Harry even shouts out Grandmaster Flash and Fab Five Freddy when she raps; so forgive me for pointing out that she shows more credit and respect to the pioneers of Hip-Hop than a lot of rappers today can claim they have.

And since embedding is disabled on Youtube, here is the actual music video, which I think many of you will get a kick out of seeing. The video is laughably cheesy now, but in a cutesy, feel-good kind of way, sort of like watching a disco (and please, do not forget the role of disco in hip-hop’s early formation; a lot of people elect to neglect this). My favorite part of the video is when Debbie starts rapping at the 1:55 mark to the DJ, who just stands behind the turntable with his hands at his sides, probably because he doesn’t know how to scratch, looking uncomfortable as hell. That, or maybe the fly cactus in the white suit doing some sort of weird ass hip-hop jig…

Not everyone’s cup of tea and certainly far from the band’s best song (this coming from a fan); still, “Rapture” is an important footnote in American music. And whether or not hip-hop heads today will find this music in the least bit appealing, Blondie’s role in spreading hip-hop cannot be ignored.

The Clash:

The Clash was a highly influential Punk Rock band from London, England, known for their politically-charged lyrics of left-wing rebelliousness and activism, as well as their diverse musical experimentation, often incorporating reggae, funk, rhythm and blues, jazz, and folk with their rock roots. Led by front man Joe Strummer, one of the greatest songwriters of our time, The Clash defined Punk Rock in the late ’70s onward the same way Public Enemy defined Hip-Hop in the late ’80s.

In 1980, The Clash tried their hand at rap, recording “The Magnificent Seven” and releasing it the following year. Recorded six months prior to Blondie’s “Rapture,” “The Magnificent Seven” holds the achievement of being the first original rap song to be written and performed by a rock group, despite being released several months after Blondie’s single. Therefore, Joe Strummer can be considered the first white rapper in the history of music.

As told by Strummer to Antonino D’Ambrosio of Monthly Review: “When we came to the U.S., Mick stumbled upon a music shop in Brooklyn that carried the music of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, the Sugar Hill Gang…these groups were radically changing music and they changed everything for us.” Please, do yourself a favor and read the entire article; even hip-hop purists, no, especially hip-hop purists, will love The Clash.

The Clash- “The Magnificent Seven”


The Clash- “Lightning Strikes (Not Once, But Twice)”


"The Magnificent Seven" is nothing short of a landmark in modern music, and a personal favorite of mine. Joe Strummer kicks knowledge over an ass-shaking bassline combining funk and rock, rapping (remember, this is early rap) sardonically about everything from the monotonous existence of daily life and the perils of consumerism, to pop culture and historical leaders, and even going as far as placing these leaders in a modern context. It's brilliant. And I hate using that word. "The Magnificent Seven" is a dazzling display of lyrical cynicism coupled with a funky instrumental that also makes it one of the most danceable rock & roll songs ever.

On the same triple-album, Sandinista! (named after the left-wing Nicaraguan guerrilla organization), The Clash also recorded a second rap song, titled “Lighting Strikes (Not Once, But Twice).” It doesn’t carry the same weight in terms of seminal importance and popularity as “Seven,” but it is still a great song nonetheless, and certainly worth the five minutes of admission.

I have long held the notion that Hip-Hop and Punk Rock are brother and sister, borne out of the same set of circumstances. Both are urban art forms that gave, and still give to a lesser extent, a voice to disenfranchised youth; both offered an interesting counterculture to the monotony of mainstream society; and both have been commercialized, raped and pillaged by their own popularity at the hands of corporate America, to the point where they really aren’t countercultures any longer. The only fundamental difference culturally between the two is that one spawned earlier from a generation of angst among open-minded young whites, the other a generation of young blacks, through a mutual frustration at society and its politics.

From D’Ambrosio’s article:

“In another example that marked the Clash’s commitment to challenging social conventions, they enlisted several New York City rap groups to join their huge Clash on Broadway tour. At the time, this was extremely controversial since it was widely believed that combining the two disparate audiences and musical genres would result in racial mayhem.

Reflecting on the group’s influence, I suggested to Strummer that hip-hop has replaced punk rock as the dominant political pop cultural force in spirit, vitality, and creativity. He responded, ‘No doubt about it, particularly in respect to addressing the ills of capitalism and providing a smart class analysis, underground hip-hop, not the pop-culture stuff, picked up where punk left off and ran full steam ahead.'”

Fittingly, the first white rappers were also instrumental in the Punk Rock revolution that preceded Hip-Hop. Go figure.

RIP Joe Strummer,

—Teddy C.D.

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