Now what you hear is not a test/I'm Rapping to the beat And me, the groove and my friends are gonna try to move your feet You see I Am Wonder-Mike/And I'd like to say hello To the black, to the white, the red and the brown The purple and yellow/But first I gotta Bang Bang/A boogie to the boogie/Say up jump the boogie To the bang bang boogie/Let's rock/You don't stop Rock the rhythm that'll make your body hot. From "Rapper's Delight" -- lyrics copyright 1980, Sugarhill Records Ltd.
THE RAP IS fast, loose talk. Set to music. Words that race the notes to the last bar. The minute waltz in triple time, with some funky lyrics syncopated in just to keep the heads bobbing, the discos pumping, the deejays working -- and the rap records selling.
The rap is hot.
It is the newest craze among the 14-to-21-year-olds, the record-buying majority who are putting rap records on the national charts and making money for the nightclub disc-jockeys capitalizing on a bit of New York City party culture. Rap records are big among young adults too, those in the 21-35 age range who bop into the disco on Friday night ready for good music and fast talk.
Rapping started in New York clubs about five years ago when deejays began trying to outdo each other -- while spinning the most popular instrumental tracks -- by talking over them, always in outlandish rhymes that slid off the lips in syllabic precision, always in perfect time to the beat. Now the competition is in the recording studios, where deejays are putting their raps on tape for play on radios and in discos across the country.
Kurtis Blow, a 20-year-old New York nightclub deejay who floats from club to club, is the best rapper around, according to recent sales. "The Breaks," his seven-minute humorous lament about life's ups and downs, is the second 12-inch extended-play disc to be certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. (The first was the Donna Summer/Barbra Streisand teamup on "Enough Is Enough.")
"The Breaks" rose fast through the black-oriented single charts, hitting No. 1 in Billboard two weeks ago and currently at the top spot in Record World. And more: "The Breaks," on Polygram's Mercury label, is also No. 4 on Billboard's Disco Top 60. It's even bubbling under the Hot 100 at 101. "It's premature to say it's a crossover," Polygram/Mercury Records president Bob Sherwood says, "although it has in Miami and, of all places, San Diego."
Locally, Waxie Maxie reports that in a single week one of its outlets moved about 35 copies of "The Breaks" after its April release. That's the kind of popularity that got Blow booked into the Capital Centre last night, along with another rap group, the Sugarhill Gang.
Not bad -- considering that, according to his publicist at Mercury Reocrds, Blow "is not doing much that any other deejay in the clubs isn't doing." "He's just got that flair," the publicist says of the Harlem native who is also majoring in communications and speech at Brooklyn college. Now raise your hands in the air And shake 'em like you just don't care 'Cause I'm Kurtis Blow And I want you to know that These . . . are the . . . breaks! From "The Breaks" -- copyright 1980, Neutral Gray Music/Funkgroove Music
Guy O'Brien of the Sugarhill Gang outlines the essential elements of a good rap: In addition to a distinct speaking voice, a good beat and some slick verbal gymnastics, O'Brien says, you need: one or more characters; a good, short story line; and lyrics that make the listener sing along and follow the rapper's instructions. "Rapper's Delight," the initial rap single by the three-man Sugarhill Gang, has it all.
Each rapper introduces himself, not forgetting the qualifications that makes him the "baddest brother." Then, once the listener feels like he and the rapper are old friends, the rapper can make the listener do anything: Now you're feelin' the highs and you're feelin' the lows The beat starts getting into your toes. You start popping your fingers and stamping your feet And moving your body while you're sitting in your seat And then JAM -- You start doing the freak I said JAM/Right outa your seat And then you throw your hands high in the air You're rocking to the rhythm Shake your derriere You're rocking to the beat without a care With the sure-shot MCs for the affair. From "Rapper's Delight" -- lyric copyright 1980, Sugarhill Records Ltd.
The first rap record sneaked into stores in September of 1979. Sylvia Robinson, president of Platinum Records, says she realized the commercial profitability of the rap after first hearing a typical New York nightclub "rap session." She recruited three deejays in their teens and early 20s -- Henry Jackson, O'Brien and Michael Wright -- and formed the Sugarhill Gang.
The group took the musical track from a top-10 hit by Chic called "Good Times" and "We threw down most violently on it," Jackson says, meaning that they rapped over the music. But the recording was not ad-libbed: It was carefully scripted, while maintaining the spontaneity of a line at a singles bar. "Rapper's Delight" went triple platinum in less than a year.
Meanwhile, Blow had been trying to convince Mercury Records' Sherwood to record a rap with a theme for the 1979 Christmas season.
"Sugarhill was almost a deterrent," Sherwood said. "I was a doubter, worried about a copycat situation." Bill Haywood, Mercury's vice president for special markets, convinced Sherwood to let Blow record "Christmas Rapping." The 12-inch disc sold 100,000 copies during December -- but sales continued well past the holiday season. It peaked in June with sales of 350,000. Sherwood became a believer.
And the rap is still adding new names to the pop charts. Besides Blow and the Sugarhill Gang, Sequence, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five are less successful but popular rap groups with their first releases on Platinum Record's Sugarhill Label. Blow Fly, Crash Crew, Zooloo Nation, the Treacherous Three, Fat Back Band and King Tim, III, and Star Child have recorded less well-known rap records on small, independent labels such as Enjoy and Weird World. Singing on and on and on and on The Beat don't stop until the break of dawn Singing on and on and on, on and on Like a hot Bibbydybop debop bob bibby diddy Bob debop bop You don't dare stop it Come alive y'all Give me what you got. From "Rapper's Delight" -- lyric copyright 1980 Sugarhill Records Ltd.
"There's a difference between the Sugarhill Gang and other rappers," says "Big Hank" Jackson, 23, of his group. "They are stuck in a trend where they can only be an opening act. But now we have a band and we can sing."
Jackson may have been referring to Blow. At the Capital Centre and at a concert set for Madison Square Garden on Sept. 19, Blow's act involves setting up a disc jockey on stage who plays records on a portable stereo connected to the house sound system. Blow then raps over the pre-recorded instrumental music, looking like the winner in a high school talent show. Studio musicians were used to record "The Breaks."
"It costs as much to break [introduce] a gimmick artist as it does to break a legitimate act," says Sherwood, who points out that Mercury Records is concerned with developing Blow as a "total artist." In the meantime Sherwood is worried that signing other rap artists to record on Mercury might "dilute" Blow's style. He compares it to having two Donna Summers on the same label.
Blow, whose voice is the rich and animated deejay type you hear on the radio (and can never quite imagine belongs to a real person), is widening his repertoire. His next album, to be released at the end of September, will contain a love ballad, a rock rap, a western rap, a typical funk rap and even an inspirational rap.
Sherwood thinks Blow can make it as a singer. "We're very leery of gimmicks," Sherwood says. "Who can tell? Rapping could last for 10 years. On the other hand, we're thinking about a total career situation."
Both Blow and the Sugarhill Gang acknowledge that the rap may be just another passing fad. But for now, there are the money and connections that can help them down other paths. Jackson wants to get advanced degrees in oceanography. O'Brien is interested in producing records. Blow wants to make movies.
"Rapping got us to where we are now, but that doesn't mean we're gonna stay here," Jackson says. The Sugarhill Gang is already trying an artistic detour with its recent release, the 12-inch "Hot, Hot Summer Days." "We sing and then rap for about 16 bars," Jackson says, "and then sing, and then rap some more."
Blow, who studied voice and dance at New York's High School for the Performing Arts, is reluctant to talk about his plans and fears that his ideas may be stolen. "Sugarhill was first and they capitalized on what we originated," Blow says, referring to "Rapper's Delight," which hit the stores three months ahead of his "Christmas Rapping." But, he adds charitably, "at least they opened up the door for me."
They certainly did. Blow's publicist, Ken Reynolds, says, "Do you know all the people out there who are great singers and never get to cut a single? Here Blow is, talking on a groove, and now he's making an album."