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What you hear is not a chorus

The truly original thing about "Rapper’s Delight"

(Getty Images)
By Matthew Guerrieri
October 25, 2009

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“Now what you hear is not a test”: Thirty years ago this month, a thrown-together crew from Englewood, N.J. - Wonder Mike, Big Bank Hank, and Master Gee, collectively calling themselves the Sugarhill Gang - released their first single, “Rapper’s Delight.” It wasn’t the first hip-hop recording, but it was the first to become a widespread hit, reaching number 4 on the Billboard R&B Chart. (It reached number 1 in Canada.)

Today, “Rapper’s Delight” is considered a watershed in popular culture, the song that introduced rap into the wider pop-music landscape. It demonstrated - for better or for worse - that there was money to be made in hip-hop records.

Compared with the contemporary hip-hop it helped bring about, “Rapper’s Delight” has aged, but not badly, its beat disco-light but still propulsive and catchy. But there’s one other thing about the song that’s notable. “Rapper’s Delight” has no chorus.

Sure, Wonder Mike spins a variation on his opening scat about a third of the way through the record’s 15-minute span, but musically, the only form in evidence is a repeated 16-bar loop lifted from Chic’s number-one hit “Good Times” - eight bars of Bernard Edwards’ bass, eight bars of funky rhythm guitar and piano, over and over and over again. No separation into verse and chorus, no buildup to the release of a collective sing-along.

Pop music had produced the occasional chorus-less song - Jimi Hendrix’s blues-based “Purple Haze,” for example, or through-composed tableaux like Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” But “Rapper’s Delight,” spooling out over the simple machine of its backing track, was something else: fluid dynamics instead of architecture.

In forgoing a chorus, “Rapper’s Delight” contradicted a popular-music trope dating back to the 1840s, when E. P. Christy’s eponymous minstrels first brought their act to New York, playing continuously for nearly a decade. Christy’s Minstrels weren’t the first group of white performers to don blackface and offer a theatrical caricature of African-American culture, but they were the most famous. They also, along the way, introduced the pop-music chorus.

Folk songs had long used refrains, either nonsense syllables (“hey nonny nonny” and the like) or repeated lines to round off verses. But Christy’s group sang free-standing choruses, eminently repeatable in themselves: the memorable high point of the song. In enshrining the pop-music chorus, Christy’s Minstrels drew on their skill at singing in harmony - while earlier groups had only featured unison singing, Christy’s were noted for their four-part performance, which a contemporary reviewer called “some of the sweetest chords to which the human ear ever listened.” They also enjoyed the songwriting services of Stephen Foster, whose melodic gifts were perfectly matched to Christy’s style. The format - solo verses alternating with repeated, harmonized choruses - became the standard for standards.

You can still find old pop-song sheet music in which “Chorus” is not just a label. I pulled out one from 1910, a “Southern croon” with the typically minstrel-show exceptionable title “Little Puff of Smoke, Good Night” (lyrics by sportswriter Ring Lardner, music by Major League pitcher “Doc” White - there’s a cover inset photo of him in his White Sox uniform). Sure enough, the last page features a four-part “Male Quartette” arrangement.

While the minstrel show itself finally became an anachronism, anticipation-building verses followed by catchy choruses persisted through style after style, from Tin Pan Alley to rock and roll, Broadway to barbershop, doo-wop to disco (“Good Times,” the musical foundation of “Rapper’s Delight,” fits the pattern perfectly). It is, after all, undeniably gratifying when a full-out chorus returns to once again shift its song into a higher gear, right on schedule. But it also made the success of “Rapper’s Delight” all the more unexpected.

In a universe with a better sense of poetic justice, “Rapper’s Delight” would have ended the pop-chorus hegemony, hip-hop’s first burst into the mainstream knocking out one of the last musical vestiges of minstrelsy. That’s not what happened, of course; pop music still thrives on the chorus, and hip-hop and rap soon came around to its addictive power - Run D.M.C., for example, made their career in no small part on anthemic refrains.

But “Rapper’s Delight” offers one of the few exceptions, rolling along on self-renewing hip-hop boasts, not needing the deliverance of a chorus, its goodwill like that of a casual party, linear and cumulative. Like the balladic verses of the blues, or the improvisatory excursions of long-form jazz, the song is less interested in how loud it can rev its engine than in how long it can keep it running. It just wants to, in one of the song’s only repeated lines, bang the boogie to the boogie.

Thirty years after “Rapper’s Delight,” hip-hop is so established in American popular culture that eight out of the top 10 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 list show its influence. (Even Miley Cyrus name-drops Jay-Z.) Thirty years from now, hip-hop may or may not have run its course, but the chorus will probably still reign - except, echoing “Rapper’s Delight,” when it doesn’t. If the exception proves the rule - and keeping in mind that aphorism’s archaic sense of “prove” - then what you hear is, in fact, a test. Perhaps, one day, the chorus will give way.

Matthew Guerrieri writes about music for the Globe, The Faster Times, and on his blog, Soho the Dog. He is currently working on a cultural history of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.