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Every so often a new style of music emerges that takes America by storm and comes to represent the generation that grows up with it. In the 50's it was rock'n'roll, followed by the Mowtown sound of the 60's. The 1970's brought folk music and disco. But in the 80's it was rap. Perhaps no other form of music has crossed as many boundaries and become a bridge between America's many cultures as rap has.
Rap evolved from African people in general and black people born in the U.S. in particular. Its origins can be traced to West Africa where tribesmen held "men of words" in high regard. Later when slaves were brought to the New World, the captives mixed American music with the beats they remembered from Africa. Another origin of rap is a form of Jamaican folk stories called "toasts." These are narrative poems that tell stories in rhyme.
Over a hundred years later, rapping was a street art. Just as doo-wop in the 1950's, rap began in inner-city schoolyards and street corners in the 1970's. Early raps were boastful tales, and put-downs directed at other rappers. This music style was slowly growing in popularity among black teens in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. As early as 1974 neighborhood block parties in New York featured early forms of rapping.
But it wasn't until the commercial success of "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang in 1979 that major record labels took notice of this explosive new sound. Rap's audience started to grow tremendously and gain notoriety with acts like Public Enemy, N.W.A., and Ice-T. More than 20 years have now passed and rap still has a huge following among people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds.
But the musical style is not without its critics. In the 80's many raps were commentaries on the hardships of ghetto life, warnings about drugs and about teenage love or lust. Those topics led some parents to fear that rap encouraged youths to turn to violence, and illegal substance use. Organizations such as the Parents' Music Resource Center had fits over lyrics in rap and hip-hop which contained explicit references to sex, drugs and racism. The performers don't deny that rap music speaks openly about harsh topics. But they argue that audiences should be able to distinguish between fantasy and reality, right and wrong.
Presently, rap and its close relative hip-hop are enjoying its largest popularity ever as a result of its mainstream acceptance. And thanks to artists like Kid Rock and Eminem, African-Americans are not the only ones listening anymore. Also, the female audience has grown steadily with the emergence of ladies behind the microphone like Salt-n-Pepa, Queen Latifah, and Li'l Kim.