WHAT IS RAP MUSIC?

Second from left: Marc Edmonds, aka, Walter J. Negro  We called him Ebbets.

Is it just bad poetry?

Is it just foul-mouthed ravings over samplings of 70’s funk?

We’ll never know what something is unless we know why it exists—its rationale.

Rap exists to sublimate aggression.

Rap is a means for males to fight with rhymes instead of fists.

Rap is Alexander Pope, making rhymes to amuse, to sermonize, and to insult.

By the 1960s, a tremendous amount of urban ‘free energy’ was let loose in the American inner city, especially in ethnic urban settings, as young people experienced both new opportunities on one hand, and the shame of still being mired in unemployment/under-employment on the other; the post-war era jumped and swirled as traditions and families loosened and love, sex, violence, and creativity blossomed.

To grow up with blacks and whites in 1960s New York City where rap was born.  Playful insult to relieve tense situations was common among us.  One of our friends, Marc, part black, part Cherokee, would grow up to be one of the first rappers, a.k.a., Walter J. Negro and invent the words you now see on t-shirts: Zoo York.  Marc was extremely shy as a 9 year old; he was small for his age; he wouldn’t participate in gym.  He was watching, though, and gradually he came out of his shell, and by the time he was 13, he was flamboyant in manner, growing an afro and developing ‘a mouth.’  He laughed at Bob Dylan: he “sounded like some guy singing in the shower.”  Maybe his opinion changed, later; he was only 12, at the time, but he was always very opinionated.  His favorite word was “cackle.”  He’d tease Tommy, a black kid in our group, who had a silent laugh, by saying “I’m going to make you cackle!”  Mark had many voices and expressions: whispery, shouting, rhyming, singing, apologetic, thoughtful, lispy, tongue-tipped, tongue-tied, head-scratching,  hesitant, chuckling. Marc was stumbling out of his long shyness. Our group’s bully was a white guy; the pecking order was whites on top, blacks on bottom, even though we were a friendly, racially mixed group. We were not a “gang,” just a group of school chums.  P.S.145.  105th street and Amsterdam Ave, near Broadway, on the West Side.  Some of us lived on Riverside Drive, the nice neighborhood, near Riverside park, and the river.  Actually, there was a fat white kid at the bottom of the pecking order.  Marc was in the middle.  He called Tommy, a black kid, Larry’s younger brother, ‘egghead,’ and did somthing strange to the clean-shaven black kids who he wasn’t afraid of: he’d grab their heads and took an exaggerated pleasure in doing so.  He called it ‘grab-a-head.’  Marc had an afro and he loved to grab the heads of little conservative black kids with fuzz on their heads.  If there was a haircut and a brand new bald head presented itself, Marc would pretend to be in heaven.  Of course, we all knew Marc was just kidding, but what did it all mean?  Tommy and his brothers couldn’t stop laughing, though, when some bigger black kids called Marc “cunt” over and over again, beating on his shoulder pads with a stick, in the park, on the way home from a football game.  He must have been 14.  A year later, I moved away.  When I knew him, Marc liked Sly and the Family Stone, the Fifth Dimension, and most all, Muhammad Ali.  Marc used to rhyme like Ali; Marc would sing aloud in the street, and he’d also rap, extended rhyming jams, half-way between talking and singing.  He had a lot of energy, he loved music, he was extroverted, he was insecure, he was shy, he wanted to be liked, he wanted to dominate, he wanted stardom.  I remember the day of Marc’s transformation from the shy kid who was afraid of gym—Riverside park.  He still hated sports at that point but I remember he had shoulder pads on for some reason and he ran across the field and made a tackle and our band of sandlot athletes all went wow, and that was it, a new Marc Edmonds, a new Ebbets, and he was so proud and happy.  A stupid tackle in the park.  He was always shy.  When we played Strat-O-Matic baseball as kids, he took the St. Louis Cardinals.  Why the St. Louis Cardinals?  Because all the home teams were taken, and I had the Giants, and Willie Mays.  He was jealous, but he grew into Curt Flood and Bob Gibson. He was a follower in our little gang, not the leader.  He was inventive; he could make anything he had seem wonderful.  We all doodled and made comics with our own super heroes.  Larry had Steel Storm (a copy of Iron Man). Later, I heard about the grafitti accident when he and Lenny (Futura 2000) were undeground uptown and paint cans exploded on a rail they thought was dead and Marc got nasty burns.

Nothing could compare with being a youth in NYC in the 60s. Everything felt new, but everything also felt rough n’ tumble. “Psych your mind!” was a childhood taunt, or just “psyyych!!” for short, when you made someone look foolish, verbally, or physically, but usually verbally.

Rap grew out of those verbal turf wars, the male comraderie of insult, the ubiquitous rhyming of 60s pop music (and the boxer Ali’s rhymes before battle); the energy and culture then was the same as it is now—now it’s more dispersed in the media.  Today feels no different than the 60s—no progress has really been made at all.

Rap, like any other art form, is a human response, one could almost say a fearful, childish response, to aggression.  We don’t think of rap music as geeky, but I was there at the beginning, when it was.

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15 Comments

  1. David said,

    January 18, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Tom,

    This is a funny and fascinating look at the geeky(!) origins of rap. You should try to get it published somewhere. Seriously. I liked it a lot.

    David

  2. FUTURADOSMIL said,

    January 18, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    the world is an incredible shrinking planet. the internet is the GORILLA in the room. wonderful discovery; I think and speak of MARC very often.

    thank you very much.

    LEONARD HILTON MCGURR

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 18, 2012 at 7:23 pm

      Lenny. (joyful chortle) Good to see you.

      You made a great impression on me growing up.

      You borrowed my Strat-O-Matic Brooklyn Dodgers. Pee Wee Reese. Roy Campanella. And that relief pitcher—you loved the sound of his name: Clem Labine.

      You must remember that building on Riverside Drive: Phil on the 9th floor, the McVeys on the 5th, and I was on the 10th. The McClellans were on the next block.

      Ringalario!

      hugs,

      Tom Graves

  3. FUTURADOSMIL said,

    January 18, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    TOM.

    the AUTHOR revealed.
    this is all giving me a headache; hahaha. but you’ve got a brother? and his name is or isn’t . .

    (the first name in my head is ANDY?)

    then it’s all some cosmic coincidence either way. still scratching my head. wow. the McVEYS and the McCLELLANS sounds like a hillbilly moment; not ours. how amazing. the GRAVES’ . . . oc I remember you guys.

    wow. what stories could be told.
    however your memory is extraordinary.

    out of left field?
    the STRAT-O-MATIC era; forever created the foundation.
    check this link for my visit to MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.

    http://www.flickriver.com/photos/futuradosmil/tags/canonfisheye/

    thank you TOM

    LEONARD

    • thomasbrady said,

      January 19, 2012 at 3:03 am

      Yes, Andy! a sister, Sarah, & Ed, the youngest. We all have kids.

      Dropped in on Rose Yanowitch (Phil’s mom) a few years ago. Same apartment overlooking Hudson river & Riverside Park. I said, “Rose, the apartment looks exactly the same!” Rose: (new york jewish accent) “Why should it change?”

      Those ball parks—what wonderful photos. Hopeful, optimistic. You are entering the ball park. Everything is still to come. The game is hours away, the players yet to emerge. Just the perfection of the field and its unique surroundings. Who cares who wins or loses? The structure is beautiful. I see you in those photos. That’s the way you look at the world, isn’t it? The beauty of order. It’s art, of course. Stadiums as flowers. You are seeing something, more important, somehow, than every other aspect of baseball—somehow you captured the essence, beyond all the platitudes of “the game,” with its awards and winners and losers.

      I’d love to have a replica wiffle ball stadium in my back yard. That’s my dream. Wiffle ball! That’s the game, man.

      I teach English Comp to a lot art & photo majors, as it turns out. A lot of them are under the impression that they cannot be a ‘word’ person because they are ‘visual,’ but I tell them that’s not true, that you should never tell yourself that…

      Do you travel? If you’re in the Boston area, look me up…

  4. FUTURADOSMIL said,

    January 19, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    TOM.

    do I travel? that is indeed an understatement.

    the GLOBAL SOLUTION

    VIETNAM

    I’m thinking we haven’t spoken in over (30) years, hahaha.
    how crazy is that?

    did I ever see you after my military service? if not; and I’m sure I’ve got
    a few years on you . . . then maybe “we haven’t seen us” in almost (40)
    years. holy cow.

    I’m still in NEW YORK . . . approaching the (57th) year; living in BROOKLYN since (80) with two fantastic kids? in TIMOTHY (27) and TABATHA (21) who are without question; my most significant works.

    hahaha.

    LEONARD

  5. Zachary Bos said,

    January 31, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    A great ongoing account of the origins of hip-hop (the lyrical accomplishments of rap itself aside) in graphic novel format, at http://boingboing.net/2012/01/31/brain-rot-hip-hop-family-tree-4.html.

  6. Rotay 122 said,

    January 14, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    I new Marc from teen aged till I left the city in 89. I like what you said he could make any thing seem wonderful. Thats the way I know him and yes what became hip-hop culture was there in Marc all along.

  7. Jeremy Spear said,

    July 30, 2014 at 5:09 am

    Yeah, I grew up in that hood too…I loved the drawing books that Marc carried around. Most of his inventive caricatures and parodies were lifted directly from the neighborhood folk. Remember Matthew Bowen and his radio carrying brother Bart? Also our street handball (Ace King Queen) games, Nick Danger super-8 films with Kiely Jenkins as director? For many years I had a leather football that Dennis Reidy, Lenny (Futura) 2000 and Marc (Ali) had tagged. Everyone had mad crushes on the McVeigh sisters: Robby-Anne, Johnna-Lynn and Susie. Those were good times when street energy co-mingled with unpretentious artistry. It influenced many of my later life choices. I’m sad that many of those creative kids from the hood are no longer on this earth.

    Respectfully,

    Jeremy Spear

  8. thomasbrady said,

    July 30, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks.

    There was a kid named David Spear who loved playing Canasta. He lived in Michael Keating’s building. Are you his brother?

    My cousins, the Pattons, lived on 103rd St, and that’s where I know the name Keily Jenkins.

    I don’t remember Matthew Bowen and his brother.

    I do remember Dennis Reidy pretty well; he was kind of a big kid, a little older than me, and yes, I associate him with ‘off the wall,’ using the Spaulding rubber ball. Dennis knew Lenny well and used to tease him all the time.

    The McClellan brothers— and Michael Aaron, who still sees Lenny sometimes… I knew the kids better who went to P.S. 145. There was another public school close by, but I forget the name…

    The McVeigh sisters lived in my building (5th floor). I think their mom was a nudist, or something. She walked around the apartment naked? Maybe that was only a rumor? I do remember the brother

    Phil Yanowitch, who had two sisters, Nina and Lee, lived on the 9th floor of that building. My brother Andy and my sister Sarah played with them.

    We lived on the 10th floor, overlooking the Hudson River and NJ. “Spry for Baking.” was a huge sign we could see across the river.

    Yea, Marc did keep drawing books, that’s right! He was a hydra-headed talent….

    Tom

  9. Drew said,

    July 30, 2014 at 10:12 pm

    ” And if your car breaks down in New York in the rain –
    take the train…”

  10. Mike Aaron said,

    July 21, 2015 at 12:41 am

    I have great memories of growing up in NYC and the upper west side in particular. I had to move to Chicago just before turning twelve and have been homesick ever since. I grew up knowing Tom, Lenny (Futura), Dennis Reidy, Marc Edmonds and others who were mentioned in the previous comments. I graduated from PS 145 in June 1968 and then moved with my mother to Chicago. This was obviously pre internet so there was no communication at all and lost touch with everyone but I am happy to say that I have been able to reconnect with Tom via email and Lenny and in fact have been able to see Lenny a couple of times in Chicago over the last few years on his travels. I hope to get to NYC sometime soon and just walk around my old neighborhood that I have missed for so long!

    Mike A
    Chicago

    • thomasbrady said,

      July 21, 2015 at 1:50 am

      Hi Mike,

      I was just visiting family in VT/NH and caught Lyme disease for the second time in three years!

      When you visit, we’ll hang out in the city.

      The country is too dangerous.

      Tom

      • Mike Aaron said,

        July 22, 2015 at 1:47 pm

        Hi Tom,
        Hope you’re OK and your folks as well. Going to see my mother in Michigan today. I know I’ve talked a lot about getting to NYC but I have to make it happen!

        Mike A

        • thomasbrady said,

          July 22, 2015 at 9:39 pm

          Say hi to your mom! My parents are both doing great. Yes, your visit should have all the sweet poignancy of a Simon and Garfunkle concert…


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