In 1993, in Los Angeles, a funeral was held for the word “def,” the old-school hip-hop term. Rick Rubin, the impresario who founded Def Jam Recordings in 1984 in his dorm room, presided. Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy. “Def was kidnapped by mainstream corporate entertainment and returned dead…. When we bury Def we bury the urge to conform.” Def’s disputed origins may in fact reside in the word “death” (as in “to death,” “done to death,” overdone). Etymology was, in this instance, destiny: the word was written on a slip of paper, placed in a breadbox-sized coffin, and lowered into the earth. It rests in the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, near the graves of Peter Lorre and Douglas Fairbanks.
The show funeral for “def” suggests some of the funny ways hip-hop had evolved. Like many great inventions, hip-hop solved a problem people didn’t even realize they had. It turned out that people wanted to dance, uninterrupted, all night long. R&B, Motown, and reggae served as a pretty good score for these all-night parties, but there were some problems. You might think of a James Brown song like “I Feel Good.” The first problem is that it ends after only two minutes and forty-seven seconds. Whatever groove you get into dancing to it, it ends almost instantly. Problem two is that the really danceable part of the song—of any song—is the instrumental “break”—an even shorter interval.
Hip-hop, as invented by DJ Kool Herc in the West Bronx in 1973, found a way to expand the break infinitely: cue up two turntables, and when the break ends on one, play it on the other—repeat, repeat, repeat. Then mix it up: change one record, or both (“scratching” and other ways of making the turntables themselves instruments would come later). Everything followed from there: “breakdancing” was simply the kind of dancing you did to a potentially infinitely repeatable break. “Rapping,” or speaking in time to the beat, was possible, since, to use my example, James Brown’s spasmodic vocals had been cut.
But Herc and the other early stars (Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash among them) were slow to record. What they were making were not “songs”: they had no set duration, and they happened not in recording studios or even on concert stages, but in the basement rec rooms of housing projects and in the bombed-out lots of the Bronx. They were parties that unfolded as the score revved and slowed. Real purists would say that recorded hip-hop is by definition impossible. And so the rap “song” is an adaptation to commerce, which is why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that ways to make and spend money—by dealing drugs, by signing with a record label—became its folkloric core. The staged funeral for “def,” convened by Rubin,…
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