The Genres, Prosody and Pragmatics of Rap

Bachelor Thesis 2010 46 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Preliminaries

2. A Brief History of Rap Music

3. Genres of Rap
3.1 Party Rap
3.2 Mack Rap
3.3 Jazz Rap
3.4 Reality Rap
3.5 Generalizations and Comparisons of Genres

4. Prosody of Rap
4.1 Experiment
4.2 Flow Diagrams
4.3 Analysis of Speech-Effusive Flow
4.4 Analysis of Sung Flow
4.5 Analysis of percussion-effusive Flow
4.6 Prosodic Similarities and Differences of Flows

5. Pragmatics of Rap
5.1 Speech Act Theory
5.2 Speech Acts
5.3 Word-to-world Direction of Fit vs. World-to-word Direction of Fit
5.4 Classification of Illocutionary Acts
5.5 Black Speech Acts
5.6 Dissing

6. Conclusion

Flow Diagrams


Online Sources



Table 1: Contents, social issues and flows of genres of rap

Table 2: Speech acts

Table 3: Black speech acts in battle rap

Table 4: Words- duration, loudness and pitch in speech-effusive and sung flows

Table 5: Words- duration, loudness and pitch in speech-effusive and percussion-effusive

Table of Diagrams

Diagram 1: Words- overall mean intensity, duration and pitch

Diagram 2: Words- overall mean intensity, duration and pitch

Flow Diagram 1: Speech-effusive flow

Flow Diagram 2: Speech-effusive flow

Flow Diagram 3: Speech-effusive flow

Flow Diagram 4: Speech-effusive flow

Flow Diagram 5: Speech-effusive flow

Flow Diagram 6: Sung flow

Flow Diagram 7: Sung flow

Flow Diagram 8: Sung flow

Flow Diagram 9: Sung flow

Flow Diagram 10: Percussion-effusive flow

Flow Diagram 11: Percussion-effusive flow

1. Preliminaries

The first song whose rhythmic style of singing predates rapping was already published in the 1920s. About 50 years later, the first historically known rap song was published. Since then, this genre has undergone many changes and has been examined from diverse angles. Various cultural, historical and language-centered studies have been conducted on rap music. There is, however, little research particularly concerned with the different musical categories of rap, vocal deliveries of rap and the usage and understanding of language in contexts of rap from a pragmatical point of view. To investigate some of the genres linguistic properties, the main focus of this paper will be on the genres, prosody and pragmatics of rap music.

The paper is divided into five chapters and three major parts. After the introduction and some general thoughts about the history of rap music, the first major part deals with the generic classification of this genre in chapter three. A general overview of the different genres of rap is given here by focusing on their musical, thematic and vocal style variations. It will be explored whether genres of rap are related to each other, overlap and whether each genre encompasses a different style of vocal delivery. All the lyrics of the songs which will be mentioned and discussed in this thesis are available in the appendix accompanied by a CD of songs and files.

Taking into account the different vocal styles, which will be mentioned in chapter three, in chapter four, particular focus will be drawn to the prosodic variations of vocal styles, especially to stress. In this respect, an experiment has been conducted by which prosodic differences of vocal styles will be discussed in chapter four. It is not the objective of this thesis to focus on the physical nature of musical sounds (i.e. instrumental sounds) of rap music or the musical styles of different rap genres.

The third part of the paper focuses on the pragmatics of rap, more precisely on speech acts. Speech Act Theory (e.g. Searle, 1969) is a pragmatic theory of language. It focuses on natural languages not in terms of its syntax, but of their pragmatics. Firstly, in chapter five the theory of speech acts will be discussed and different song examples will be given for illustration. Secondly, the usage and function of speech acts will be analyzed and discussed in a particular rap context. There is a main question which needs to be addressed here. It has to be explored whether the conditions for performing speech acts can be satisfied in different rap contexts.

The underlying aim of this paper is to define rap in terms of some selected linguistic properties. At the outset, the generic classification will provide useful grounds for understanding different social, cultural, historical and musical aspects of rap.

The various sounds of genres of rap and their distinctions will be explored more closely by approaching the prosody of vocal styles of rap. Finally, the pragmatics of rap deals with the meaning of utterances of rap, uttered within particular contexts. Looking at rap also from the perspective of pragmatics is supposed to gain even deeper insight into linguistic properties of the genre and reveal how the contexts contribute to the meaning of different utterances. The thesis aims to define rap by fusing all the three fields, namely genres, prosody and pragmatics.

2. A Brief History of Rap Music

The basic historical aspects given in this section will serve as a general and brief overview of rap music before going into it at separate stages in the course of this paper.

The rise of rap music began around 1976 in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York City (Stanley, 1992: xy). The song “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), performed by Sugarhill Gang, is considered the first breakthrough rap song which received wide air play on radio stations (1992: xy). However, there had been many other artists who could be considered as pioneers of rap music. The song “On the Road Again” (1928), performed by the blues group Memphis Jug Band exemplifies some features of sung flow of rap music. Slim Galliard, a jazz singer and pianist, performed the song “Cement Mixer” (1945) whose rhythmic style is similar to that of a rap song. The comedian Pigmeat Markham ’ s song “Here comes the judge” (1968) is historically known as the first rap song (1992: xvi).

In the last decades, especially around the turn of the millennium, rap music has changed considerably. The rhythmic style of rappers, their musical style as well as the semantic themes are the most profound changes that separate the old-school1 from the new-school era of rap music. The rhythmic practice of rappers has progressively become faster since the end of the old-school period. The rhythmic structure of songs is more complex in new-school rap songs. There are different types of rhymes such as end rhymes, internal rhymes and multisyllabic rhymes, just to name a few (Krims, 2001:49, Edwards, 2009:81-94). The musical style of early old-school rap songs may sound monotonous and very simple technically. Besides changes in styles of music, rhythmic practice and changes of semantic themes in rap music, old-school and new- school rap still share some common elements such as braggadocios (i.e. boasting and bragging) and dissing (i.e. short form of the verb to ‘disrespect’). An important aspect which has not been mentioned yet here is that rap is one of the elements of Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop denotes a set of social practices, namely break dancing, deejaying, rapping and graffiti writing. Each element of Hip-Hop relies on different performance modes, such as visual representation (i.e. graffiti writing), sound (i.e. rapping), movement (i.e. break dancing), selecting, playing and mixing of tracks and turntable scratching (i.e. deejaying).

Some laymen, rappers and music scholars consider Hip-Hop a genre of music separate from rap music. There are different views on this point, but it is widely accepted on the academic level that rap is an element of Hip-Hop (e.g. Androutsopoulos, 2009:43, Hess, 2010:151). In fact, Hip-Hop is a lifestyle known worldwide. One may speak of Dutch Hip-Hop, German Hip-Hop, French Hip-Hop, Nigerian Hip-Hop, etc. However, Hip-Hop in different countries might contain some features of the American Hip-Hop as a source. It can also contain features that may not utterly rely on its African American roots. Global Hip-Hop maintains its African- American origins, re-embeds in new locations and changes in different societies. For example, the rap band Spookrijders represents the “Dutchness” of Amsterdam life in their songs and call its genre of rap music “Nederhop” or “Dutch-Hop” (2001:186).

3. Genres of Rap

The main focus in this thesis is on the US-American rap genres. Rap has always been in flux since it started and re-embedded in new societies. Ever since it started, rappers have tried to establish different genres of rap music. The following short exposition of rap genres is based on research conducted on genres and sub-genres of rap music by Krims (2001). According to Krims (2001), there are four main genres of rap music, namely Party rap, Mack rap (also called “Pimp” or “player” rap), jazz rap (also called “college-boy” or “Native Tongue Style”) and reality rap (2001:47).

Each genre has common variations such as vocal delivery or flow, semantic themes and the associated social factors. In this respect, some examples of different lyrics of genres will be given including their flows. According to Krims (2001:51), there are two main types of rap flows, namely sung and effusive flows. He differentiates between two subtypes of effusive flows, namely speech-effusive and percussion- effusive flows (see chapter four, sections 4.3-4.5). The flow on its own cannot demarcate any particular genre or sub-genre from other genres or sub-genres. Other factors such as semantic themes and style of music play a major role as well. A rapper’s flow may even change within the same song. The flow of rap may vary from track to track in the entire field of rap music. In fact, a rapper can mix various types of flows within a song of any rap genre.

3.1 Party Rap

Party rap is one of the earliest genres of rap music. As the name implies, its main purpose is to make people dance and celebrate. It is recognized as one of the most commercial genres of rap and, therefore, practitioners and audiences of other genres of rap may deny the authenticity of party rap (Krims, 2001:56). They may consider the genre as a form of commercial and unauthentic music. However, the dichotomy between “commercialism” and “authenticity” cannot question the historical validation of this genre. Even before establishment and popularization of rap music, deejays scratched on their turntables, played catchy dance-oriented songs to make people dance, used to call people’s name in the audience or boasted about themselves on the microphone (Stanley, 1992: xv). Early practitioners, more specifically very early old- school rap artists in the 1970s “[…] chanted their rhymes and scratched their records simply for the pleasure […]” (Everett, 1997:116). This aspect can best be shown in “Rapper’s Delight” (Sugarhill Gang, 1976), one of the earliest rap songs, which demonstrates some common semantic features of party rap songs such as celebration and dancing to the music:

And me, the groove and my friends are gonna try to move your feet See I am Wonder Mike and I 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 the boogie to the boogie

In this excerpt of the song, the rapper directly addresses his listeners from different nations and raps about dancing and music. The word “boogie” represents music and dancing. The topics of romance and sex are also very common semantic categories of party rap (2001:57). These features can be, for example, shown in the first verse of the song “Carry Out” (Timberland feat. Justin Timberlake, 2009):

Baby, you're looking fine

I have you open all night like an iHop

I take you home baby let you keep me company You gimme some of you, I give you some of me You look good, baby must taste heavenly I'm pretty sure that you got your own recipe So pick it up, pick it up, yeah I like you I just can't get enough I got to drive through Cause it's me, you, you, me, me, you all night Have it your, way, foreplay

In this extract of the song there are many words, phrases and sentences which potentially refer to sexual activity such as “You gimme some of you, I give you some of me”, “baby must taste heavenly” and “foreplay”.

The musical style of the party rap has the tendency towards faster beats. Deejays in Hip-Hop dance clubs, not surprisingly, prefer party rap more than other genres because with this music they make people dance more easily. Not only the music, but also the rhythmic style of rapping in this genre plays an important role. One of the very common flows in the party rap is the sung style of rapping whose rhythmic delivery is similar to that of much sung rock or pop music (2001:50). The common characteristics of the sung flow are rhythmic repetition, end-rhyming, few internal rhymes and regular on-beat pauses. One of the rappers who frequently raps with the sung rhythmic style is Timbaland, as in his song “Carry Out” (see app., p. 38). The female rap artist Missy Eliot also raps in the song “Up Jumps Da boogie” (Timbaland & Magoo feat. Missy Elliott, 1997, see app., p. 39) with the sung flow of rapping. Another example of sung rhythmic flow is the song “In Da Club” (50 Cent, 2003, see app., p. 40). However, semantically this song may not be put into the category of party rap genre. Rather, it exemplifies features of gangsta rap2 and mack rap, which will be outlined in the following (sections 3.2 and 3.3).

3.2 Mack Rap

In this context, a “mack” may not literally mean a “pimp”. A mack is rather someone whose sexual success and confidence with women mark him as a “player”, i.e. as someone who has sexual relationship with women other than his wife. The contribution of the mack rap as “sexist” music to the entire field of rap is indisputable. In mack rap songs, the lyric persona addresses a third person, boasting about his sexual desire for women, experiences with women and his power over the women. He does this by employing the speaking persona to address a woman in second person describing a sexual activity, as in the song “Yo Neck, Yo Back, My Dick and My Sack” (Too $hort, 2002) of the hard-core mack rapper Too $hort (see app., p. 41). There are also songs in which a male and a female performer rap together about their (sexual) desire for each other, for instance, in the song “Doin’ It” (1996) of LL Cool J and LeShaun (see app., p. 42). The genre is more gender-specific than the other genres of rap. However, some songs have been rapped by female practitioners of this genre as well, as in the song “Fucking me Tonight” (2006) of Khia (see app., p. 43). Nevertheless, a large number of the practitioners of this genre are men (Krims, 2001:63).

The contemporary Rhythm and Blues style of music, better known as R&B, is quite common within the mack rap. The musical style also contains features of Pop and Hip-Hop. It is quite common for this genre to feature sung choruses as well as sung flows (2001:82).

This genre of rap has been criticized by many rappers of other genres. For example, the Roots, a jazz rap band criticizes the mack rap in the song “What they Do” (The Roots, 1996, see app., p. 44). Much of the video visualization of mack rap genre was applied in the video-clip of the song “What they do” critically, as a parody.

3.3 Jazz Rap

This genre of rap music was an attempt to fuse jazz, which is classical African- American music with rap as a new form of African-American music. In the popular media and among many fans Jazz rap is considered to be a more thoughtful and verbally complex form of rap music than the other genres of rap music (Krims, 2001:69).

There are some internal clashes between fans of rap genres as well. In some contexts jazz rappers are called “college-boy” rappers by the fans of other genres of rap music (Krims, 2001:65). The rhythms of jazz rap music are typically those of rap rather than jazz music, over which repetitive samples of jazz instruments are placed, such as trumpet, double bass etc. The song “Music Evolution” (1997) of the Buckshot Lefronque validates rap music as a modern equivalent to jazz music (see app., p. 45). Guru ’ s Jazzzmatazz Vol.1 is one of the first albums, which is a combination of rap with jazz musical style. Guru Razzmatazz ’ s other albums are based on this phenomenon as well (see discography).

Semantically, this genre of jazz rap is closely related with the genre of reality rap (see section 3.5 below). The semantic themes of this genre tend to have some didactic characteristics. A jazz rap may emphasize the value of acquiring knowledge, promoting Afrocentric values, political consciousness, and artistic traditions and criticizing the “negativity” of some other genres of rap (2001:68). It is not uncommon that a jazz rap artist may narrate in a song about romance or toast about his musical skills. However, these aspects may not be the most typical characteristics of this genre. Besides these topics, there are songs in the jazz rap which criticize other rap genres. The band De La Soul has the reputation to be one of the most confident opponents of the so-called gangsta rap. De La Soul criticizes the hardcore images (i.e. violence) in rap music in their song “Please Porridge” (De La Soul, 1991, see app., p. 45).

According to Krims (2001), the rhythmic styles of jazz rap tend to fall, to some extent, between sung and effusive rhythmic style of rapping. In terms of the sung rhythmic delivery, there is the tendency to sing not only in refrains, but also sometimes in the middle of the verse. Such singing is often out-of-tune, as in the song “I Can’t Call It” (1996) by De La Soul (see CD). Q-Tip exemplifies a style of flow not being very far from the party rap sung style. When delivering sung flow, Q-Tip frequently shifts into percussion-effusive rhythmic style. For example, in his song “We Fight/We Love” (2008), Q-Tip exemplifies percussion-effusive delivery frequently3 (see CD).

And || and || and it begins/ he’s off the ball/

He left || his friends/ he ain’t || home no more/ He’s in || a place/ that’s || faraway/ Where || he can’t || understand what they say/

Q-Tip usually applies different rhythmic strategies. Especially, in the first and fourth lines of the second verse of his song mentioned above, he raps with a percussion- effusive flow. The main characteristic of the percussion-effusive style of articulation is staccato. Staccato is a form of unconnected articulation, often followed by a brief caesura. In the first half of the first line, his rhythmic delivery is disconnected by brief caesuras, as also indicated in the fourth line. It is necessary to mention that Q-Tip raps with a mixture of sung and percussion-effusive flows. The latter illustrates a type of flow by which practitioners use their mouth like a percussion instrument. Such style of flow is one of the most essential characteristics of jazz rap (see section 4.5). Other jazz rappers, such as Freestyle Fellowship, exemplify sung flow of rap including scat singing4, e.g. in their song “Inner city Boundaries/Bomb Zombies” (Freestyle Fellowship, 1993, see CD).

3.4 Reality Rap

The reality rap refers to a broader field of rap, which may include any types of rap about conflicts and socio-political issues including violence, poverty, religion and economic concerns. The social issues could be portrayed in different ways, for example, through fictional and hypothetical songs, as in the song of the band Gravediggaz “Diary of a Madman” (Gravediggaz, 1994, see app., p. 47) or in a more realistic way of seeing life (and life in ghettos), as in the song “ghetto gospel” (2004) of Tupac Shakur (see app., p. 48). The genre of reality rap also encompasses gangsta rap. Generally speaking, gangsta rap refers to gang life and life in ghettos.

Topics of “ghetto-life” play the most central role in the reality rap (Krims, 2001:78).There are several ways of representing different themes in a rap song. A rapper has the choice to decide which content and form his songs should take. The form of a song is the method the rapper uses to present that topic. For example, a rapper can focus on politics and life in ghetto as a topic but then present that topic in the form of battle rap. Such a song may include a lot of braggadocio content including “combined with put-downs, insults and disses against real or imaginary opponents […]” (Edwards, 2009:25). The rapper can represent the same topic in a form of a story as well.

Besides boasting, bragging and diss songs, lamentation themes are also quite common in the reality rap genre, as, for example, in Tupac Shakur’s song “Life goes on” (Tupac Shakur, 1996, see app., p. 49). There is an entire subgenre of reality rap which propagates political consciousness. It has didactic topics with Afrocentric values and Five Percent Nation of Islam ideologies (Krims, 2001:78).5 Krims terms this subgenre “knowledge rap” as it is distinguished by its semantic characteristics.


1 The name “old-school” of the first period of rap music was established in the jargon to separate between new and old styles of rap music. Old School started in 1979 and lasted around 1984 (Toop, 2000:216).

2 In this context, the word “gangster” is written as “gangsta” and pronounced in non-rhotic way as / gæ st /.

3 The double pipe (“||”) marks short caesuras (i.e. breaks occurring within a line) and (“/”) stands for long breaks occurring at the end of utterances.

4 Scat singing is a way of singing in jazz music with nonsense syllables. Ella Fitzgerald is considered as one of the best scat singers in the history of jazz music.

5 The Five Percent Nation of Islam is an institution or organization. The advocates of Five Percent Nation of Islam claim ideologically that black people are the original or first humans of earth and refer to black men as “god” (Krims, 2001:79).


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Title: The Genres, Prosody and Pragmatics of Rap