Chuck D (2000) | Mika Väisänen via Wikipedia
Chuck D (2000) | Photo: Mika Väisänen via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0 (cropped)

Punk Rap: The Early Years

When the rebel subcultures punk and rap crossed paths in ’70s NYC, a hybrid was born that endures and reconfigures to this day.

It is hard to imagine a modern-day genre of music existing for half a decade without any recordings officially released or most of the nation from which it was born even being aware of it. Yet, such is the early history of rap music. 

Today, rap flourishes as our most dominant and successful form of popular music. This was not the case throughout most of the 1970s, though, when this fledgling form operated like a secret society within pockets of the five boroughs of New York City. Then, rap was confined to block parties in the local parks of run-down neighborhoods where few besides the local residents would (dare) venture. Unknown or ignored by a music establishment with its eyes fixed firmly on the disco cash cow, budding DJs and MCs within predominantly poor black and Hispanic areas like the South Bronx developed their crafts for each other with the understanding that the Studio 54 elites would never accept them.

Blossoming simultaneously within NYC’s bleakest corners was another underground genre trying to make some noise: punk. Also excluded from the rock mainstream, punk, like rap, created its own community identity and DIY practices by being left to its own devices. Just as rapping existed as merely one component of a creative subculture that included break dancing, graffiti art, and visual style, so punk music functioned likewise alongside its own related means of expression.

United by a common outsider status, both rap and punk crafted identities un-beholden to industry constraints and expectations, resulting in music that expressed the frustrations and anger of their youth followers, in styles more abrasive and hard than anything heard on the radio. However, this was the ’70s, a time when race determined rigid geographical demarcations. Thus, years passed before these comparable cultures would cross paths; but when they did, at the dawn of the ’80s, a new hybrid was born that has since been variously called punk rap, electro-punk, hardcore hip-hop, rap rock, and rapcore.

Mutual awareness of the existence of the hip-hop and punk subcultures emerged via New York’s equally exciting and rebellious art scene, of which members of many CBGB bands were patrons. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie met graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy through art channels, the latter becoming a conduit in introducing the former to hip-hop’s underground world. 

Blondie would later return the favor by citing the artist, along with DJ Grandmaster Flash, in their hit single “Rapture” (1980).  Recognized as a contender for the accolade of being the first punk rap release, “Rapture” was actually recorded two months after the Clash laid down “The Magnificent Seven” (1981), a song displaying more significant hallmarks of this infant hybrid.

One of many songs recorded in New York for their Sandinista! (1980) album, “The Magnificent Seven” encapsulates the hip-hop street culture the band heard and saw while scouting the city. Built around a funky bass line provided by The Blockheads’ Norman Watt-Roy, Joe Strummer freestyles in the rap mode of the day, rhyming around and about NYC with an attentive eye and ear that suggested he was no longer “bored” with the U.S.A.  

“Magnificent,” he ironically announces after detailing the drudgery of a work-life that starts at 7AM and ends with a paltry salary blown on the unrewarding pacifiers of material goods and mind-numbing alcohol. At a time when trivial party raps reigned supreme, their capitalist critique was ahead of its time, two years before Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five established conscious rap as a viable force with “The Message” (1982). 

As in that cut, the Clash used observational reporting as a method of calling attention to the dire conditions of typical inner-city life. They mixed this with rap’s ubiquitous boasting approach in a subsequent release from the Sandinista! sessions, “This Is Radio Clash” (1981). 

For the Clash, rap was more than just another underground music to adopt and adapt; to them, it represented an extension of an aesthetic that paralleled primary punk in its independent spirit, DIY self-reliance, and blunt irreverence. Not content to merely promote the form via their own songwriting efforts, however, the band also used their “star” power to bring some of its practitioners out of the Bronx and into Midtown Manhattan. 

Few Clash fans had heard a single bar of rapping when the band hired Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to open for them during their 1981 week-long residency at Bond’s Casino in Times Square. As is the case with many radical new stylists, the rappers’ reception was mixed at best; however, a marker was laid down, a foot shoved in the door, and a precedent set for future punk-rap alliances.

The Clash were early punks to the hip-hop party, but they were not alone for long. Like them, Blondie spent their most successful years not consolidating the sound they had established, but branching out and experimenting with other genres. “Heart of Glass” (1979) and “Atomic” (1980) saw them flirting with disco, “The Tide is High” (1980) with reggae, but “Rapture” was a bold departure in that it involved appropriating a genre few had even heard. 

What could have been an act of commercial suicide ended up quite the opposite, with the song reaching number one on the US national charts. Its video was even the first to air on MTV featuring the rap genre. While this distinction added to the growing evidence of MTV’s institutional racism at the time, its showing served to promote not only the song and the band but hip-hop culture in general, especially with its cameos of Fab 5 Freddy and Jean-Michel Basquiat posing in front of walls of graffiti art. 

Grandmaster Flash, praised as “fast” and “cool” in the lyrics, was, alas, a no-show at the video shoot. Aside from helping bring a regional phenomenon to the broader world, “Rapture” paid tribute to the methodology of rap, one the band shared, in which old forms are pulled apart then reconstructed anew.

Notable in some of the lines within “Rapture” and “The Magnificent Seven” is their nonsensical nature. The freestyling both bands had heard on the streets had taught them that the sound of the rhymes, diction, and delivery was as important and satisfying as any meaning. Others from the art punk world assessed similarly and followed suit, Tom Tom Club’s Tina Weymouth, in “Wordy Rappinghood” (1981), exercising her own exorcism of wordy play. Adam and the Ants, too, tossed out boasts on the beats in their own bizarre linguistic salad “Ant Rap” (1981). By this point, new listeners could have been mistaken for thinking that rap was merely a practice of self-indulgent gibberish.

Such was not the case, though, and although banter and boast raps have been omnipresent in the genre’s history, so have socially conscious and “woke” lyrics. The Clash saw the potential in this latter path, as did key players from their punk arch-rivals, the Sex Pistols. John Lydon/Rotten had long been a fan of Jamaican dub reggae, with its improvised toasting about the inequities of “Babylon”, so rapping was not as alien to him as to most of his white peers. Thus, when Afrika Bambaataa came calling with an invitation to collaborate on his Time Zone song, “World Destruction” (1984), Lydon jumped at the chance. 

Bambaataa had been at the forefront of hip-hop developments since its earliest days, and his efforts at redirecting the self-destructive energies of New York’s urban gangs into creative channels had made him the indisputable godfather of the scene. Like his hero, George Clinton, Bam had a passion for Afro-futurism, particularly for projecting visionary positivity through awareness of self, community, and the world. In his own journey from being a gang member of the Black Spades to the founder of the Universal Zulu Nation, he made sure that hip-hop culture would always transcend its more trivial traits.

It was Bambaataa that ex-Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren hooked up with when he went to New York in 1981 in search of a fresh band to open for Bow Wow Wow on their upcoming tour. Acting as a cultural attaché for the hip-hop movement, Bam invited McLaren to attend a block party he was hosting in the South Bronx that weekend. There, the punk guru underwent an epiphany of sorts when he saw how two turntables and a microphone could be used as a means of unifying youth culture. New world music was born in McLaren’s mind that night, and when he returned home he applied what he had learned to a new project that became Duck Rock (1983), an album made in collaboration with producer Trevor Horn and NYC’s hip-hop DJs, the World Famous Supreme Team. 

Amongst the album’s various adventures into street music from around the world were some of the wildest hybrids ever put on wax. The lead-off single, “Buffalo Gals” (1982), was, as Simon Reynolds says, a “delightfully daft composite” of rap and Appalachian hillbilly characteristics (p.372), but it was also a statement of intent, an anthem foreshadowing hip-hop as a potential gateway to international youth communities. When the sampled spoken phrase “all that scratching is making me itch” appears in the song, its meaning exceeds its reference to the DJ technique; it encapsulates McLaren-as-punk, someone always “itching” to discover and disseminate subterranean forms of expression.

By the mid-’80s, rap had established itself as a recorded as well as performance genre, and “Buffalo Gals” had become a common go-to song for samplers looking for hot beats. A Jewish white guy like McLaren may seem an unlikely pioneer for this genre, but as some of the key players within Def Jam Records were to show, he was not the only one.  Rick Rubin had his finger on the pulse of New York’s underground music scene in the early ’80s, moonlighting from his college studies to play in local hardcore bands while keeping his eye on happenings within hip-hop. In both genres, he heard an elemental power, sounds that echoed the streets, and energetic kids willing to take musical risks. 

Local legends Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Afrika Bambaataa displayed some of these traits, but to Rubin, they still had one foot in the past, in an exotic Afro-futurism already explored by George Clinton and other ’70s funkateers. In Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy, he found a different kind of theater, one more combative and less stylized, more punk and less funk. 

Teaming up with go-getter entrepreneur Russell Simmons, Rubin set up a recording studio in his college dorm room and Def Jam was up and running. Few, however, could have predicted the dramatic spread of rap to cities, suburbs, and small towns around the world that occurred with the release of Licenced to Ill (1986), the Rubin-produced debut release from three white Jewish kids from Greenwich Village called the Beastie Boys.

Even by 1986, rap still paralleled rhythm and blues in 1954 as a mostly underground black form unlikely to break through institutionalized color barriers. Hence, on discovering the Beastie Boys, Rick Rubin must have felt like Sam Phillips hearing Elvis Presley sing for the first time. However, whereas many early listeners thought that Presley was black, few could miss the distinctive white punk heritage of Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D. 

All players on the city’s hardcore circuit before turning their interests to hip-hop, punk’s spirit, attitude, and sound have always registered in the band’s essential DNA. The mark of punk can be heard in their sense of humor, too, which combines the irreverent silliness of the Circle Jerks with the smart-dumb caricature wit of the Ramones. Punk articulation is also in their MC flow, which favors staccato sloganeering and shouting against backdrops that often feature distorted guitar and “real” drums. 

The Beastie Boys’ breakout single, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” (1987) has all these punk traits, as do cuts like “Time for Livin’” from Check Your Head (1992) and “Tough Guy”m “Heart Attack Man”, and “Sabotage” from Ill Communication (1994). During their sessions for Hello Nasty (1995) the band even took time out to return to their instruments and record a low-key and lo-fi ep of short and fast hardcore songs collectively entitled Aglio e Olio

Opening for the Beasties on their 1986 Licenced to Ill tour were label-mates Public Enemy from Long Island. Since first hearing “The Magnificent Seven” rotating from New York’s WBLS radio station, Chuck D determined that his contributions to rap “had to be a bit more than recreational” (p.iv). From the Clash he learned that music could and should address serious social concerns.  Moreover, that address need not be just descriptive as “The Message” had been; it could protest and advocate like much punk did. 

Self-identifying as social warriors, Public Enemy set out to “fight the powers that be” and to do it loud!  With executive producer Rubin encouraging PE to play to their punkier instincts, the band crossed over, enlightening white and black audiences and rock and rap media in both the US and UK. NME, long the paper of punk in Britain, even voted their debut, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, album of the year in their 1987 critics’ poll. By the time It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988) and Fear of a Black Planet (1990) had dropped, rap was no longer dismissed as party music devoid of artistic merit, a status shift at least partially propelled by its intermittent commingling with the punk culture of the day.

Works Cited

D, Chuck. “Foreword”, Rebel Music: Resistance Through Hip Hop and Punk. Eds. Priya Parmar et al, Information Age, Inc. 2014. 

Reynolds, Simon. Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984. Penguin. 2005.

PopMatters