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A Bad Rap

Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University

Introduction - Comparison

This exercise asks you to compare two sets of resources. First, The African American Sheet Music collection at the Library of Congress's American Memory site. Second, the rap lyrics, memorabilia and other material collected on the web by rap fans.

Here are some comparisons of the 1890s with the 1990s you might begin with.

The music of both eras emphasized dialect and slang. Minstrel show lyrics inevitably use odd abbreviations, truncated spellings, and apostrophes to try to convey a sense of "authentic" African American speech. Both styles of music used the word "nigger" frequently. Minstrel show performers prospered in direct relation to how "real" they seemed; "real" in the 1890s meant conforming to stereotypes of laziness and violence. "Real" in the 1990s also meant conforming to stereotypes of thuggish and criminality. In both eras, "real" meant "outside of respectable society."

Sean "Puffy" Coombs, the most successful rap artist and producer of the 1990s, effects a pose of urban thuggishness and "real" authenticity. But Coombs attended private schools in suburban New York, and in high school and college played on the football team and showed a strong interest in entrepreneurship.

Sean Puffy Combs promo image

In other words, though he goes to great lengths to depict himself as a dangerous character on the edges of respectable society, and writes lyrics about crime, sudden wealth, magical attractiveness to women, and threats of violence, his upbringing and career also conforms to middle class notions of success and self making.

Similarly, Will Marion Cook was one of the most successful African American composers and musical entrepreneurs of the late 19th century. Classically trained, with aspirations towards respectability, he made most of his money writing minstrel show tunes like Darktown is Out Tonight, which included lyrics about "tough coons who want to fight" and ended with "bring out your blazahs/fetch out your razahs/Darktown is out tonight!." Like Coombs, Cook was both an extremely talented musician and an extremely successful producer. Like Coombs, he traded in depictions of African Americans as violence prone, money obsessed, and thuggish.

These themes formed a staple in minstrel show depictions of African Americans, as the example below suggests. White people delighted in seeing African Americans as razor and gun-toting criminals who loved to drink and spend money in showy ways.

Fools Puffy in action

The lyrics to this song describe the figure on the left as he "drawed a razor from down his back; I aimed that gun an he gin' to squawk. Another example, from I Don't Allow No Coon to Hurt My Feelings:

I'm going to knock that coon's teeth out and stop him from his talk;
i'll shoot him in the feet and I guess that'll hold his walk
I've cleaned my revolver, honed my razor for the fight
I intend to give some nearbye undertaker work tonight

"Gangsta Rap" lyrics constantly make threats, especially to other African American, as in this example, from Real Niggas by Puff Daddy

Now how you gon' act wit my nigga?
Just remember there's a gun to your dome
And I will lick shots and run through your home
Or better yet I put your son to the chrome
Turn the music up and unplug the phone
I will kill him, read my lips
You too, motherfucker if I don't see no bricks.
(http://www.ohhla.com/anonymous/puff_dad/forever/niggas.dad.txt)

The two forms of music are clearly not the same—there are many significant differences. However, there are also many similarities worth considering.

No two eras are exactly the same, and there are many differences between "gangsta" rap and the minstrel show of the 1890s. And of course, rap music itself is a highly varied musical form, complex and subtle, with many different varieties and strains.

But both "gangsta" rap and the minstrel show share a fixation with money, and a sense of African Americans as money obsessed. This song, Money, was published in 1908

What is it that talks but doesn't make a sound? Money, Money
You may be crazy, you may be lazy, but then you'd like to know
What is the reason, keeps you from freezin, out in the hail and snow....
Money money money all the time...
money money money hear the people cry
you hear it when you're born and till you die

While one of the biggest hits of the late 1990s was Sean Coombs's It's all About the Benjamin

It's all about the Benjamins, what?
I get a fifty pound bag of ooh for the mutts
Five carats on my hands wit the cuts
And swim in European figures
Fuck bein a broke nigga

Minstrel show tunes generally depicted African Americans as lacking money, while modern gangsta rap lyrics often involve the rapper boasting to his rivals about his wealth. In each case, African American music tends to express values outside the mainstream middle class. For both black and white Americans, middle class values include hard work, honesty, dependability, thriftiness and self discipline. Both rap music and the minstrel show depicted the opposite--easy money, criminality, flashiness, undisciplined anger.

The assignment will require looking closely at material from the 1890s. An example follows

Updated | April 2004