Hip-hop vs. rap. Though the iTunes store mashes the two terms into one convenient label for all of your urban listening needs (“hip-hop/rap”), there’s a difference.
Though the name itself is credited to the late Keith Cowboy of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, it was Afrika Bambaataa who is credited with using “hip-hop” to describe the culture that emceeing belonged within. One common understanding is that hip-hop is a culture and rapping is one of four elements contained therein—the others being breakdancing, DJing and graffiti. Today, with the other elements not appearing as prominently as they once did, it’s been easy to conflate the two.
But many have opinions about what separates the genres. In July, Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav and Chuck D spoke with Gigwise to discuss the state of hip-hop, a topic often posed to the genre’s legends, and Flav had an interesting opinion about the difference between rap and hip-hop:
“I think the element of hip-hop left when rap music started being created on a slow tempo…It’s just stayed there for years. Right now, a lot of rap music today is being created at very low tempos. There’s no more of that ‘wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care’ – you know, something that makes you wanna get out there and breakdance…Rap music has lost that element right now, mainly over in America. There’s not too many great hip-hop records out there, but there are some great rap records.”
Flavor Flav seems to regard rap as a less recognizable version of hip-hop, but, with all due respect to Public Enemy, one of the greatest rap groups of all time and the gold standard for politically conscious musicians, this can’t be the difference. Had rap music never evolved beyond the “throw your hands in the air” formula that Flav and other old-school fans miss so dearly, hip-hop may have never left New York and been an inspiration for so many worldwide to make their voices heard through art and what was considered to be a phase back in the day would have probably been nothing more than that.
Flav’s limitation of hip-hop to a certain tempo is a dated view reminiscent of a time before MCs from the south and west coast were widely respected as part of the culture. West coast gangsta rappers were some of the first to infuse funk music into rap, creating a sound that was unique in both sound and content. But to say now that N.W.A. or Ice T weren’t instrumental in hip-hop’s growth would be absurd. Flav’s comments imply that hip-hop should live within a certain box that it’s too big at this point to fit into. As the culture of hip-hop and rap music itself expanded into areas outside of New York, it was important for a genre that relied so heavily on slang and fashion to adapt to the lifestyles of the various individuals making and listening to the music, wherever they might be.
If there’s any distinction to be made, it should be made along the lines of quality or purity. Some of the artists Flav mentioned make music that could arguably be considered more pop than rap, with the focus more on a catchy hook and mass appeal than MCing. With some rap records, if you omitted the actual rapping, you would be left with something that would be difficult to classify as hip-hop, which has more to do with the artist’s aim than the actual sound itself.
As rap sales have dwindled over the past decade or so, it only makes sense that labels would try to encourage their top-selling artists to make records that bleed over into R&B or pop territory, foreseeing a need to appeal to those outside of the hip-hop community to secure a future on the charts. Artists and songs are often categorized now simply based on who they are, failing to identify the records for what they are. For example, Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” (made infamous by Hot 97 host Peter Rosenberg’s 2012 onstage Summer Jam rant ridiculing the song and Minaj’s fans), despite a few instances where her cadence could be described as rapping, could easily be described as a pop or dance record, were it released by another artist. This is where I think the label of “hip-hop” only serves a purpose economically within the industry, allowing artists who, though they may have gotten their start within the hip-hop community, can make pop records and still be classified as “hip-hop/rap” in order to appear at the top of the heap in terms of sales.
In terms of a distinction in quality, there are MCs creating art and contributing to the culture and then there are rappers who are packaged products of record labels who are contributing to their own coffers with little regard for progress or contributing to the artform and its evolution. The turnover for rap records and records within any genre really has become much quicker than it has in the past, mainly because the general public’s attention span has shortened, causing its connection to music to wane over time. Thus, the incentive to create a timeless record isn’t there for the artist seeking commercial success, as the draw to sell a million ringtones while you’re still hot is greater than the draw to work harder and build a fan base over time by making something that sticks to the listener’s ribs a little more than the “hot” club song du jour. Formulaic output and the reluctance to take risks in the industry is just the harsh reality that is the result of hip-hop becoming such a lucrative subculture to bank on.
So the distinction doesn’t lie between hip-hop and rap, but between those who are MCing and those who just happen to rap. It lies between those interested in honoring the foundation that was laid beforehand by putting forth quality work and acknowledging the culture of hip-hop and those who are just rhyming words together and applying a formula to get rich quick. To put it plainly, in 1997’s Rhyme & Reason, MC and hip-hop philosopher KRS One describes the two terms with great efficacy, stating that rap is something that is done, while hip-hop is something that is lived. So while we absolutely need to have some people asking for more from hip-hop, we also need to make sure those people know the difference between the art being watered down for marketing purposes and seeing it evolve to remain relevant to the people who make and consume it.