Boom Bap to Trap; What’s the difference?
Hip-Hop and Rap, two terms often used interchangeably. Two terms, I’m certain most of the general public won’t know are two separate entities. Fact of the matter is; there’s Hip-Hop, and then there is Rap music. It’s easy to think it’s one in the same, especially since iTunes, Spotify, and most other media conglomerates group all ‘urban’ music under the title of Hip-Hop. However, there are distinct differences between the two, which I will elaborate on with this post. So if you’re ready, strap up, and let’s revisit this often debated, yet complicated topic.
So what is the difference between Hip-Hop and Rap?
First, with a quick google search you’ll see that; “hip-hop is a culture and rapping is one of the four elements contained therein”.- (Ebony.com) So yes, by definition, the art of rapping or (emceeing) is a part of hip-hop, however that is a broad summary, and the issue of course is more complex, as you will see. Allow me to elaborate; The trajectory of this music has evolved drastically since The Sugar Hill Gang released what is widely recognized as the “first” rap record “Rapper’s Delight” to gain mainstream exposure in 1979 till now in 2017; where as I’m writing this, “Bank Account” by 21 Savage is the most streamed rap song according to the Billboard hot 100 charts. Over these years/decades , hip-hop has spread from it’s birthplace in the Bronx, to other cities, and regions throughout the country, adding new sounds and voices, with every pitstop. This resulted in the creation of sub-genres, and categorizing, sparking the age-old debate of what’s “real” hip-hop, and what’s simply rap. It’s a conversation I often here, in barbershops, bars, on social media or just with my homies around the way. We usually call out whatever artists that’s buzzing at the time, and give them their real hip-hop or not verdict. You often hear such artist like a J.Cole or Kendrick Lamar get tagged with the hip-hop label, while other artist like Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and Kodat Black do not. This same labeling system been taking place throughout the history of the culture. Remember the whole Ice T and Soulja Boy thing? In the early 2000s, while Jay Z and Nas battled for the God MC title, at the same time Eminem and Andre 3000 from Outkast were both making a case for themselves as hip-hop legends; Nelly who was just as successful, was going through a similar war of words with hip-hop elder statesman KRS-ONE, about what’s real hip-hop, and what’s not. Just as in the 90s, I’m sure MC Hammer, and Vanilla Ice, struggled to get the same verification as a Biggie, Wu-tang, A tribe Call Quest, etc. Even The Sugar Hill Gang, the group aforementioned to have introduced hip-hop to the world, faced some resistance with their hip-hop credibility.
Again, what’s the difference between hip-hop and rap? When I first began this piece, I thought I had a firm understanding of the difference between the two. As I began doing research, and having conversations with people, I realized the answer is not as straight-forward as I initially thought. After my conversations, I noted that there are a couple different theories on the criteria that makes certain music hip-hop and not simply rap. We will dive deeply into each theory to gain a better understanding.
The first similar criterion in which people make the distinction between hip-hop and rap, is the production style of the music. Back in the analogue days, the early hip-hop producers; most of whom started off as DJs, use to take their Jazz, funk and Soul records , recorded the best parts of a certain song with an MPC or similar drum machine/sampler, and re arrange the elements to create a brand new composition. This process is called sampling. The art of sampling laid the foundation for what would become hip-hop music. This style of production is different from let’s say “Trap’ music, which main elements are composed of heavy bass, 808s, synthesizers, and more bass. Thus it is a common belief, that in order for music to be considered hip-hop, it must be sampled based. A recent example of this, is Jay Z’s The Story Of O.J. track on his new album. The only issue with this theory, is that Jay Z has also rapped to other types of instrumentals that wasn’t sampled driven. He destroyed the DJ Khalid track “I got the keys”, is that not hip-hop simply because the instrumental is not a breakbeat? Kendrick Lamar, who is widely considered hip-hop, dropped his latest project DAMN. One of the standout tracks on that album is DNA, which has more of Trap sound to it. Does that make it just rap music and not hip-hop?
That brings us to next theory I often hear, when comparing hip-hop to rap. This understanding states that it’s not so much the sound of the instrumentals, but rather the lyrical content in which the MC raps about over the beats. The theory here is that, to be considered hip-hop the artist, must have a certain amount of depth to their lyrics, or have complex rhyming schemes. Which means that “socially conscious’ rappers like A tribe called Quest and Mos Def, and super technical rhymers like Rakim and Eminem gets the hip hop label. Again there’s holes with this theory as well. A big foundation to hip-hop, especially in the earlier days, was the call and response technique MCs used to do to hype up a crowd or party. Artist like Doug E Fresh and DJ Kool are widely respected in hip-hop mainly because of their ability to master this technique. Their lyrics aren’t conscious, or overly technical, so is it not hip-hop?
The third criterion, and perhaps the one I disagree with the most, is the theory that in order for music to be considered real ‘hip-hop’ it has to remain underground. Those that take this position say that once rap goes ‘pop’ or mainstream then it is no longer considered hip-hop. I disagree with the notion that having commercial success makes you less hip-hop. That’s basically saying every rap song you ever heard on the radio, seen on tv, or live at a concert cannot be considered hip-hop. So that’s implying that Biggie, Jay Z, Nas, Public Enemy, Nas, Wu-Tang, 2Pac, Snoop and Dre, or anyone you want to insert in that; people who we thought were hip-hop legends, are actually just rap music legends. Not satisfied with any of the answers I was receiving, I decided to keep “digging”. Then, there was an interesting conversation I had with DC based journalist Marcus K Dowling, that ultimately led me to the conclusion I was looking for. He told me to check out Delicious Vinyl entire catalogue, Tone Loc and Young MC especially. He followed by saying “Respected [ Tone Loc & Young MC] because the genre was so new, pop rappers, and were lauded for opening lanes and the samples were so damned catchy. There’s a sense that they came up the “right way” and had “legitimate” cosigns’”.
That statement was exactly what I needed to hear. The difference between hip-hop and rap, is not necessary determine by a certain sound, but rather a FEEL. This how I see it; anyone can rap to anything. You can rap over a breakbeat, you rap can over a trap beat, you can rap to an RnB groove, you can rap over country music. The other day I was on youtube with my son watching people over nursey rhymes. Anything that contains rapping as element is thus considered rap music. Hip-Hop, on the other hand is a vibe. It’s about being authentic, original, doing things the “right way” without the promise of commercial gain. And if you do achieve commercial success, well that’s just the cherry on top. Hip-Hop is staying true to self, and respecting the culture.