A Brief History of Poetry & Hip Hop
With rhythm, rhyme, and flow at the cornerstone, it’s no surprise that poetry and hip hop share a special history. Hip hop, as we know it today, is said to have originated in the Bronx in the 1970s, with DJ Kool Herc at the center. Influenced by jazz, blues, soul, and R&B records, the early hip hop tracks laid by DJs of the time would become the foundation for future rap artists.
However, the roots of rap can be traced much further back in history to the West African griot tradition. Griots were historians, storytellers, poets, and/or praise singers. Griots may be referred to by a number of names in different societies, and they may perform slightly different functions in each one. No matter the term, the overarching call of the griot is to recount stories in a poetic or musical fashion.
The creative use of language and rhetorical styles shown in the Griot tradition appear throughout rap and hip hop history. Early examples of rap (sometimes called proto-rap) often fall into the category of jazz poetry—in which a poet responds to the sounds of Jazz. With music and lyrics built into the genre, this was a natural entry point for rap and hip hop (which are often used interchangeably, although they are not the same).
Early blues artists with rhythmic and lyrical content began to form in the Mississippi Delta as early as the 1920s, with groups like the Memphis Jug Band. The 1950 song “Gotta Let You Go” by one-man-band Joe Hill Louis is one of the earliest recorded examples of rapping in blues music.
In 1958, composer George Russel and vocalist Jon Hendricks collaborated on the album New York, N.Y. Hendricks has been called the “Poet Laureate of Jazz” for his lyrical and scatting abilities. Somewhere between spoken word and talk-singing, his style is arguably one of the most recognizable forms of early rap. Soon after, Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali) released the comedy album I Am The Greatest (1963). Somewhere between trash talk, spoken word, comedy, and rap, the album has inspired modern rappers such as LL Cool J, Jay-Z, Slick Rick, and even Migos.
The early work of Jon Hendricks and Muhammed Ali paved the way for more artists to blend hip hop, blues, and poetry, including the often-profane rhyming comedian Rudy Ray Moore, the soul and jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron, and the revolutionary group The Last Poets. Founded in Harlem in the late 1960s, the group became known for their politically-charged spoken word verses and Afro-centric musical accompaniment. The Last Poets are often credited with setting the stage for hip hop today, priming the public for beat masters of the 70s like DJ Kool Herc and the lyricists who followed.
In the 1990s, hip hop music made its mainstream breakthrough with groups like N.W.A and Run-DMC. Names like Tupac, Biggie, Snoop Dogg, and Dre dominated the scene. Today, many writers, educators, and scholars are more closely studying hip hop and rap music as a form of literature. Britannica Digital Learning offers a great playlist on the poetry of hip hop, which discusses the relationship between rap music, literature, and literacy. Newbery honoree Jason Reynolds spoke on the subject on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Not to mention, Jay-Z’s 2011 book, Decoded, tells the story of rap and hip hop as poetry, an art form, and a movement. “I hope readers take away from this book that rap is poetry,” said Jay-Z. “You never hear rappers being compared to the greatest writers of all time. You hear that about Bob Dylan, but so is Biggie Smalls.”