Teach Me How to Rap
Only two months ago, a new phenomenon began to sweep through the grand theaters of Broadway. And, odds are, it’s not what you would expect. That is unless, of course, you expected men in colonial garb rapping about the life of Alexander Hamilton. If so, you hit the nail on the head.
“Hamilton,” which premiered off-Broadway this February and made it’s way to the big stage in August, is garnering increased exposure for hip-hop music by reaching new demographics through an unorthodox medium.
Co-founder of campus freestyle rap group D-Style Alec Tarantino ’16 cited “Hamilton” as a prime example of the newfound acceptance and appreciation that rap music has seen in today’s mainstream society.
Tarantino and Josh Koenig ’16 founded D-Style their freshman year, seeking to create a formal avenue in which rappers could display the talents, which until then had been confined largely to dorm pregames and the occasional a cappella group beatboxer. They performed a trial show, and after receiving positive feedback from the audience, the group was formed.
Just like any performance art, freestyle — and more generally, rapping — requires a combination of innate talent and learned skill.
“At its core, rap is a very rhythmic art. You need to have that kind of music ability and rhythmic sense built in,” Tarantino said. “But lots and lots can be learned just by listening to it and studying the greats.”
Victor Muchatuta ’16, also a member of D-Style, added that a person’s natural cadence is something that just cannot be taught.
“The acronym R.A.P., it’s supposed to be rhythm and poetry. The poetry can be taught, the rhythm cannot,” Muchatuta said.
Rap music today has undeniably found its own place in the greater scheme of mainstream music — it would be almost impossible to spend a night in a fraternity basement or even Novack Cafe without hearing Fetty Wap blaring from the speaker system.
Tarantino said that while rap used to be limited to certain demographics, the mere fact that the members of D-Style are rapping speaks to the evolution of the genre.
Rap is very much alive at the College, as evidenced by last year’s epic rap battle between Marcus Reid ’17 , perhaps better known by his performance moniker “Ill Fayze,” and Carter Bastian ‘17 a.k.a. “Breezy B.” The conflict started in response to Ill Fayze’s famous — or infamous — track “McLaughlin Anthem” (2014). Bastian initiated the beef with his “McLaughlin Anthem Response Rap” (2014), which saw him take shots at Reid and at one point declare himself “The Ivy League Slim Shady.” Reid, not to be bested, dropped his “IDFWU Freestyle (Breezy B Diss)” (2014), which saw him rap over Big Sean’s track for a full four minutes — while the track has several targeted, sexually explicit attacks, Fayze really hit his stride when he called Bastian “the Pluto of the planets.”
Muchatuta points to the box office success of “Straight Outta Compton” (2015) as evidence of how far hip-hop has come. Additionally, he said he believes that the internet has helped make it more accessible for those that seek to understand it.
“We’re doing more to find out about the music and what it’s about — sites like Wikipedia and Rap Genius — it’s definitely being perceived more positively,” Muchatuta said.
Reid emphasized rap music’s role as an avenue for expression for marginalized members of society.
“Rap gives a voice for those that feel like they’re not being heard,” Reid said.
Our culture, however, has still not entirely adopted rap music with the warm embrace offered to many other forms of expression. Whether it’s the rough sound or the often-troubling subject matter, the genre still gives some pause. Tarantino postulated that hip-hop is a raw form of expression, and some people aren’t ready to hear people cursing and saying whatever is on their mind.
“Just like any music trend, it is associated with a certain element of rebelliousness,” Tarantino said. “It’s like rock and roll — adults weren’t exactly thrilled about that, and I think it’s the same principle.”
Music professor William Cheng wrote in an email about the political atmosphere that has often surrounded the music genre. The idea of rap and its decades-long history, Cheng wrote, ideology and form of expression has been bound up in issues of expression, protest and “saying something.” He said that the question as to whether or not rap can be considered a form of art, but that one should question the political situations that might make that question arise in the first place.
Additionally, there seems to be a certain “other-ing” of rap music — both its performers and proponents. Americans are always quick to show support for a phenomenon they deem to be uniquely American, however they choose to define that term.
“When Bruce Springsteen writes a song, which is great, it’s ‘He’s so American, he’s so New Jersey’,” Muchatuta said. “With rap, there was a certain dismissal of that”.
The history of rap, then, is undoubtedly tied up in several conversations, many of which are entrenched in conversations of race. While it began as a genre that existed largely on the margins of the national music scene, the ability of rap music to permeate and a find a place in broader mainstream American culture may be due in part to subconsciously superficial reasons, like the rise of white artists like Eminem and, more recently, Macklemore or Iggy Azalea.
Muchatuta said a large reason for rap’s increased success and perceived accessibility is because white Americans can say, “‘This music is being produced by someone who looks like me.’”
Reid added that increased diversity in the industry has improved its outlook greatly, pointing to the monumental success of a female MC like Nicki Minaj, who has helped to bring a more mainstream audience to hip-hop, as well as comedic rap like that of Lil Dickey and Christian rap like the music of Lecrae.
It is works like “Hamilton” that are proving instrumental to completing the collapse of all barriers to entry for rap into the mainstream of American consciousness for all ages and demographics. Most, if not all, of the actors who portray the founding fathers in the musical are black or Latino, and strong parallels are drawn between the immigrant roots shared by early rap pioneers and the founding fathers.
“Rap is misunderstood in a lot of ways, but it has so much to offer,” Tarantino said.