Illustration by Emily J Wang/ The Gazelle

Defining Realness in Rap

Illustration by Emily J Wang/ The Gazelle Editor’s note: The following article includes vulgarity There are many things that spurred the creation of ...

Dec 13, 2014

Editor’s note: The following article includes vulgarity
There are many things that spurred the creation of this article. The most important one, though, happened when a friend and I were watching the comedian Kevin Hart, known to play the role of a rapper in some of his skits. In this particular skit, he wants to prove to an actual rapper that he was the best by freestyling. He said a bunch of random lines that did rhyme, clearly intending to be comedic.
Halfway through the video, my friend suddenly remarked: "He's clowning. This isn't real rap." He then went on to name a pop star, insisting that the artist was a real rapper.This whole experience was weird, because the skit that he insisted was clowning was actually closer to real rap than the music the artist he mentioned makes. This got me thinking: what is real rap music?
One doesn't need a standardized definition to describe rap music. For it to be rap, all it has to do is have the characteristics that define rap. First, the beat. It could be that West Coast G-Funk from the legendary Dr Dre. It could be a crazy synth-soaked beat from Yeezus himself. It could be something more eclectic and stripped-down made by former NYU student Rick Rubin. Nevertheless, when you hear it, you know it’s rap. No matter how much other genres are interpolated into the art, once the beat starts, you'll probably feel like someone is about to spit some bars.
Next, the words. Some people call them bars, punchlines or fire, if they are good. Nevertheless, whatever your choice of terms, you're still talking about the same thing: lines that probably rhyme, punctuated by a beat. However, there is an organization and you'll notice it. Finally, my last criterion, is sort of a less obvious, more personal one: the aura of realness. There's a kind of vibe that rap gives out that feels real, especially if you're fortunate to come across rap with strong meaningful lyrics, whether it's old material from Tupac, Mos Def, Kurtis Blow or Public Enemy or new material from J Cole, Kendrick, Wale, Kanye or the like. More often than not, it's real and you'll know it, even if it sounds arrogant, or insulting or stupid.
Since the 56th Grammy Awards, when “The Heist” won Best Rap Album over a four albums by rappers who could have taught Macklemore and Ryan Lewis how to rap, there's been some kind of uproar about the dying away or contamination of the sound. I'm not going to start preaching on anything related to an individual rapper's race, because Eminem is literally a rap god and the Beastie Boys are legends in the sound, so that renders any such arguments null. The real problem here is that rap is no longer being appreciated for what it started as.
It's funny how parents now even buy rap CDs for their kids. I'm not saying that rap should be a vulgar, age-restricted genre. But the genre started out just like that: uncensored and straight to the point. Take N.W.A. for example. They have a song called “Fuck Da Police.” There was Tupac, who went at the political and judicial systems of U.S. America. These are topics associated with the black experience, because rap started from black culture. Well, rap did start from black culture.
But, let's look at other examples. Take Eminem. People protested his music, claiming its message was vulgar and hateful. His music, some of which is extremely personal, never seems to self-censor. Or take the Peruvian–American Immortal Technique. His song “Dance With The Devil” is brutally uncensored and to the point. The world is not the clean and politically corrected lyrics minors are sheltered from. Eminem is not for children, but they grow up in a world where people say words that are explicit or vulgar. But that's besides the point. What I'm saying in essence is, it’s completely real. People in similar situations relate to it and people not in similar situations are given a clear glimpse of what it's like. Even though realness seems to be reduced by commercialization, it is still there. Lil Wayne raps about drugs and women because that is a part of his lift. Bobby Shmurda sings about violence and partying, again, because that is part of his reality. The emphasis is on creating a sense of realness.
Much of the music called rap today does not fit this definition. It is true that rap is created by black culture, but it does not require you to rap about black culture. Even if you rap about a whole different culture, people will enjoy that it has that beat, bars and the realness.
But when I hear a song from a group like White Girl Mob, it really confuses me. It's quite obvious that they are borrowing elements from old gangsta rap, but that's not real to them, because I'm pretty sure they haven't experienced the lifestyle that created gangsta rap. Or when Iggy Azeala says things like "my flow is retarded." The first thing I think is that she doesn't actually sound like that. And even if she’s changing her accent to allow more people to understand her, it should be done in a less offensive way.
Given everything said after that line, I ask if the meaning of "flow" is actually understood? "Better get my money on time, if they not money, decline," I pause the song and think, is that even grammatically correct? Forget colloquial or informal language, that doesn't even make sense. But this is what is called rap.
So, when I'm on Spotify listening to Mos Def or Tupac, having a blast, and I decide to start a radio channel and this comes next, it hurts, a lot. This is definitely cultural appropriation. However, it is not necessary. One doesn't have to adopt a culture to respect it. Rap did stem from black culture, but rappers don't have to be black to rap. And if you're not black, the realness of your rap is lost if you rap about being black, because it is not real to you.
There are rappers who rap in other languages that I respect as much as I respect Nas, because they're all being real. I was once listening to German rap. The beat was sick and I was bobbing my head to the rhythm. I didn't understand any word he said, but at a point, the beat stopped, he said some lines, screamed "Booommm!!!" and started rapping again with the beat back on. I just knew that, at that point, he probably dropped a crazy killer line. He didn't have the Brooklyn accent of Jay-Z or the South Central L.A. sound that Ice Cube has; he was speaking German, but it was still as awesome. Why? Because, that's what real to him and I respect that.
These are posers in the rap community who are really doing heavy damage to the culture and they're the ones getting respect. But the real artists and poets, the ones who studied the art as far back as Grandmaster flash and the Furious Five, SugarHill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa and even the rhythms of funk masters like James Brown are not getting the props they deserve. I won't claim to have a solution to this dilemma. However, whatever solution is proffered, I'm pretty sure it starts with weeding out the fake artists.
In the end, there's more to it that just being real, because as I said before, there are beats, and words, and rhythm, and flow and much more. But if you have all that and you're not real, you're just a joke. Like Eazy-E says, " I don't think I'm all this or that but I'm all me.”
Chukwuyem Onyibe is a contributing writer. Email him at
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