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Rap vs. Hip-Hop - What's in a Name?
Friday, February 29, 2008

A few weeks ago I had HiCoup and DJ Halo on my radio show and the topic of Rap vs. Hip-Hop came up. HiCoup stated “I’m a rapper. I don’t say I’m a Hip-Hop artist. It sounds silly to me.” This sparked a very interesting conversation regarding what the music of the culture should be called (a link to where the full six and a half minute conversation can be heard is included at the end of this article). Personally, this is one of those very rare times I’m on the fence about a topic because I can find a way to agree with both sides.

Rap is definitely a more powerful word than Hip-Hop. Just say both of them and you can easily tell which one is more likely to make people take notice. Rap sounds hard and forceful. Hip-Hop makes people think of something softer, probably because our first association with the word “hop” involves rabbits. Rap has always been the music of the culture that is Hip-Hop. We’ve all heard the KRS-ONE quote ad nauseam, “Rap is something you do, Hip-Hop is something you live.” For these reasons I can completely agree with HiCoup’s sentiment that he should be called a rapper.

A little over a decade ago things became murky genre-wise as people started to make distinctions between types of Rap music. They wanted a way to separate what they deemed positive Rap music, the socially conscious, more jazz influenced material, from the more street oriented reality raps that were so prevalent in Gangsta Rap’s heyday. They called the former Hip-Hop while keeping the Rap tag on the latter. The ideology behind the move still remains bothersome because people basically said “I like this, let’s call it something else so people don’t think I like that.” What it did was make Rap music second class to what was now being called Hip-Hop music.

While I don’t like the original sentiment that created the distinction, I can see why many people felt some sub-genres within Rap music needed to be made. The same way rock fans wouldn’t lump Korn with The Doors, rap fans wanted to find a way to differentiate between The Lox and Common. Each pair of artists I just named do vastly different forms of the same genre of music. No one would say Korn and The Doors sound anything alike, yet they are both under the umbrella of Rock. This is why subgenres can actually be helpful. Those who wanted to make the separation within Rap music, however, should have come up with an original word to describe the distinction they were trying to make. Hip-Hop was already in our lexicon as a culture made up of rapping, DJing, break dancing and graffiti art. You can’t just take that word and suddenly give it a new definition. This is where I start to side with HiCoup’s argument again.

The way I see it, a lot of the folks who decided certain music should be labeled as Hip-Hop did so to try to redefine the culture as a whole. They wanted to say this is Hip-Hop music and that Rap music, no, that’s not us, can’t be, we have this Hip-Hop music. Rock n Roll has Alt Rock, Punk, Metal, etc. Reggae has Dancehall, Roots Reggae, etc. If people are going to start separating forms of Rap music they need to find some new words with which to do it. Many of us already use subgenre creating phrases such as Conscious Rap to better describe an artist or album, so it’s not like we don’t have the terminology. Yes, I realize it’s putting artists into boxes, which they can’t stand, but it makes sense for the topic at hand.

I actually don’t mind people using Hip-Hop and Rap to mean different things as long as they’re not using it solely to differentiate between what they like and what they don’t. Please remember this, there’s no rule that says you have to be dope to be in Hip-Hop. There are plenty of wack rappers. You may know a few yourself. Just because they’re wack, however, doesn’t make them any less Hip-Hop than the dude who just blew your mind with a 16 the likes of which you’ve never heard before. They’re both rappers, and they’re both Hip-Hop.

If you want to call someone a Hip-Hop artist because you feel their music is jazzy, or socially conscious, I’m cool with that. If you want to label anything that involves an MC on the mic Rap music I’m fine with that, too (told ya I’m straddling the fence here). My lone issue is in when people start using the terms to create differentials based on their likes and dislikes, which suddenly makes genres of music matters of taste. “He’s good,” or “he sucks” doesn’t define a piece of music, it defines one’s opinion on a piece of music, and has nothing to do with where it should be placed in the CD rack at your local record store.

Related Links

Audio: Conversation w/ HiCoup, Adam B & DJ Halo


posted by Adam Bernard @ 7:54 AM  
  • At 10:37 AM, Blogger Clyde said…

    Nice work.

    I agree that the big problem is that certain subcultures started using hip hop to indicate something meaningful and rap to indicate something commercial or less valuable.

    The problem is that I have never seen a useful definition of that difference that is ever anything other than, I don't like it, so it's rap.

    Any other attempt at definition falls apart immediately or takes one on an obscure verbal journey that is ultimately ridiculous.

    KRS-One just did a Smirnoff commercial in a series that includes Common!

    What's not commercial about that?

    None of these hip hop purists can actually provide a definition that holds up but some of them feel quite free to attack if you don't recognize lyrics they deem important or like what they like.

    Ok, I'm ranting but rap is an element of hip hop and that's the end of that story, IMHO.

    Oh, and "back in the day", if they knew they could get paid, they would have tried to get paid. Even the early guys say that so this concept of a purer time without financial concerns is one of the myths that support these weird and inadequate distinctions.

    Thank you for your time!


    Clyde, that ProHipHop guy.

  • At 3:19 PM, Blogger Adam Bernard said…


    Thanks for the response.

    I agree 100%. I don't think anyone would have said "take your paycheck elsewhere, my lights don't need to stay on."

  • At 8:21 PM, Blogger Sketch Tha Cataclysm said…

    I have always thought those discussions are kind of childish. You should basically just say "I don't like it" instead of separating it from the whole.

    A while ago I started saying the "I HAte Rappers" shit at my shows and it got misconstrued as being something like "I Hate Rappers but I love MCs" like there is some difference. I was being self-deprecating as I am the type of person that enjoys being different and I am contradicting myself by doing something that everyone else is doing and alot of people are bad at lol. The people that are bad at it are still technically doing the same form of music as I am. Just as Clyde said. . . rap is the form of music within the culture of hip-hop which is also what I think KRS meant by that.

    Years ago I believe he even had a debate with Michael Eric Dyson about that topic because he misunderstood what KRS meant.

    As far as sub-genres go, I give up on those after a point. Things after a bit of time just tend to blend together and since rap music is a genre built off of samples of other genres it makes it kind of ridiculous to start sub categorizing things.

  • At 3:29 PM, Blogger crew54 said…

    It's all about the labels, not the record companies but the labels that people put on the music to categorize it. I know there is a need to point out the different genre's but at the same time people use rap or hip-hop to get on their high horse and claim one is better than another.

    You hit the nail on the head with this one here man.

  • At 4:09 AM, Blogger Claudia Alick said…

    It's all nomenclature and labels so folks know what to expect or so you can fight false expectations. I always tell folks that rap is a subset of hip-hop which is a larger cultural expression. You don't "rap dance" but you can you hip-hop dance and within that there are subsets like crumping or breaking. I find that when I tell folks I do hip-hop theatre they automatically think I dance (like folks oin hip-hop videos) and when I tell people I'm a hip-hop artist they automatically think I rap (like folks in hip-hop videos). As a non rapper and non breaker I have affinty with the larger more inclusive term of HIP-HOP. That said, without rap we'd be missing a big part of the culture!!

  • At 5:57 PM, Blogger Noah said…

    Let me start out by saying everybody does something different and therefore I think that labels and genres/sub genres are theoretically meaningless.

    Now its true, hip-hop music has become the definition of "conscious rap." However, Hip-hop music doesn't necessarily need rapping in it. A DJ shadow instrumental album is just as "hip-hop" as anything with a rapper on it. Which brings me to my point. Hip-hop is a culture... a set of collectively agreed upon actions, methods, ideologies, beliefs, and traditions. Therefore, you can rap, but not be hip-hop at all and conversely, not rap and be the most hip-hop artist there is.

    Of course this opens a can of worms. What fits into hip-hop culture and what doesn't? And even more importantly, who decides?

    Anyway, I consider myself a hip-hop artist, but not a rapper. I rap, but I also sing, play guitar, make music (not just "beats" - which is a whole other terminology problem that I won't get into here), and I used to b-boy and even write a bit. I'll step on stage wearing some clothes that don't look particularly hip-hop and perform some music that isn't traditional rap. People might look at me and say, "you're not hip-hop" but that's bullshit. If the idea in what you are doing is true to the culture in your mind, then you are hip-hop.

  • At 8:19 PM, Blogger iamthegif said…

    Good post man. To me it's sort of like an R&B singer saying he doesn't sing he does R&B. When you perform R&B you're singing. I'm a rapper, people generally seem to allocate the term MC to the most lyrical dudes. I don't agree with that though. I am no Hip Hop historian by any means, but as I recall, MC's just grabbed the mic at party's and said bullish to get the crowd hype. By that you could classify Phat Man Scoop as an MC, Luke, and those similar to those dudes. In the late 90's I can remember having debates with people on some: he's a rapper, he's an MC type ish, now it's he's a rapper he's a Hip Hop artist. I think it's the same guy that got bored enough to come up with the terms African American and Negro, somebody needs to find that guy because he's confusing the world!

  • At 10:35 AM, Blogger chadeo said…

    Oh so many things can be said about this topic. I'm going to limit my response to a single idea... the difference between a Rapper and an MC. Because, whether you choose to accept it or not, there is a difference.
    My platform is going to be the long-lost art of performance.
    To begin, anyone (and yes I mean anyone) can Rap. At this point in time rap music has become accessible enough that any person that has read a dr. seuss book, and has had some sort of struggle in their life believes they can grab a mic. Not everyone, however, can Master the Ceremony, so to speak.
    The MC, as stated in an earlier comment, was the person that got the crowds attention. They were the "hype man" for lack of a better term, while the Disc Jockey played the music. This didn't make this person any less important to the chemistry in the clubs of those days. We know that they then evolved into the vocalists for what became rap music. But not everybody could do what they did, and still do. I can yell all day for you to throw your hands up and say "hooo" and guarantee that 90% of you would look at me and think "what an idiot"
    But if KRS-1 got on stage you'd throw yourself around like a church full of tongue speaking snake worshippers. Why is that?
    Any of you that have worked within music must be able to agree that you have met artists that either have it or they don't. There is an almost undefinable quality among those that have it. A charisma beyond that of the average person. They have the ability to attract attention. When they speak, people listen.
    This is the number one qualifying factor of an MC (emcee). This is a rare quality, and 9 out of 10 people that DON'T possess it, think that they can some how force themselves onto people, and they will some how follow along.
    Maybe its something in the stars. Maybe our astrologies do predict the type of personality that we are to become. Maybe its how we're raised. Whatever the source is, these people have a gift.
    You put a person with this charisma on a stage with a microphone, and suddenly they have the crowd in the palm of their hands. Now teach this person the art of performance. Show them how to work a stage. You now have a superstar in the making... just stir in a little musical talent for the final ingredient.
    Can you imagine if Barack Obama had decided to become a rapper instead of a politian? When that man speaks to a crowd of people, he has their full attention from word one. He is unbelievably charismatic, along with highly educated and well spoken. A deadly combination.
    This, to me, is an MC. A Master of Ceremonies. A Mic Controller.
    Now lets look at the opposite side of this coin. The entire reason that I stopped going to rap shows. You look at a stage and see anywhere from 5 to 15 guys just standing around, looking at the crowd like they just stole their last piece of bread. Somewhere among this over-crowded stage is someone with a microphone shoved so far down the back of their throat that the only sound escaping the speaker sounds like an over amplified cat in heat.
    He's yelling at me and everyone around me violently, and for the past 40 minutes I haven't understood a single word.. and I'm almost glad, because he could possibly be telling his stage gang to climb down here and kill me for all I know.
    This is not performance. There is no quality of art to what this person is doing. This is someone capitalizing on the fact that Rap music is one of the top selling genres of this generation.
    There is no entertainment value. Where is the fun in watching this? I go to a show to be entertained. James Brown was an entertainer, he knew what it took to make the crowd happy. He would sooner kick his drummer off stage for missing a beat, than let you not be entertained during his performance.

    Also, the title of MC can't just be self labeled. You can't just call yourself an MC just because you get on stage and rap. Even if you have some of the illest lyrics around. MC is like an honor. MC is like an award given to those who have earned it. In the female singing world they call this a Diva.

    This has nothing to do with lyrical content, and everything to do with physical presence (sp?)
    Commercial, underground, whatever you want to call it.. makes no difference.
    There are those that should Lead, and those that should Follow.

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