The Real and True Story of the Birth of Rap Music

April 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

First, I have been MIA for a bit from here @ Spatialities and from my duties over @ Current Intelligence.  I have been off on medical leave from work since February. Regular programming here and @ CI will resume shortly. In the meantime, I am spending a lot of my time recovering reading. I have been ploughing through books, taking advantage of all of this free time to read. I’ve been reading all kinds of things, both fiction and non-fiction, everything from paperback novels to philosophical ones, from philosophy to history and current affairs. The fruits of my labours will soon be appearing on my CI blog, “Advance Copy.”


I teach Western Civ every semester. Teaching the same course over and over again, well, I need to find ways to make it interesting. And for the students, too, they are forced to take the course, it’s a requirement in the Social Sciences programme at John Abbott College. So, we all need coping mechanisms. One is obviously humour. When we get to the Reformation, we get to that great anti-Semite, Martin Luther (who my students inevitably confuse with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King). And whilst explaining how the Lutheran Reformation came to be, I discuss the protection Luther received from Frederick of Saxony, who gave Luther shelter against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. As an aside, Frederick was actually the pope’s choice to become the next Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. Turns out it was a good thing he didn’t become Holy Roman Emperor, since Frederick was instrumental in the Lutheran Reformation.

Back to the main point: there is this great picture of Luther and a bunch of other men standing behind Frederick, a rather large, portly man, who is standing in what can only be described as his b-boy stance, wearing some heavy gold jewellery around his neck (see picture below), with his posse (Luther is the sour-faced dude at Frederick’s right shoulder). I explain to my students that Frederick was actually the first gangsta rapper in history.

It turns out, however, I was wrong. Frederick was not the first gangsta rapper in history. Moreover, rap was not, as has long been thought, invented in the Boogie Down Bronx in the 1970s. Nope, rather, rap was invented in the early 7th century Before Common Era by the Assyrian emperor, Sennacherib, following his defeat of the Elamites in 691 BCE.

Sennacherib had his court historian record the events of the war, from the emperor’s point of view. The account of the war is pure braggadocio, hype, and chest-thumping, not unlike early hip hop. See, for example, KRS-One’s video for “Outta Here” from 1993.

Compare KRS-One’s lyrics with Sennacherib’s account, taken from a quote in John Keegan’s A History of Warfare, the quote itself taken from H. Saggs’ The Might That Was Assyria:

I cut their throats like sheep…My prancing steeds, trained to harness, plunged into their welling blood as into a river; the wheels of my battle chariots were bespattered with blood and filth. I filled the plain with the corpses of their warriors like herbage…[There were] chariots with their horses, whose riders had been slain as they came into the fierce battle, so that they were loose by themselves, those horses kept going back and forth all over [the battlefield]…As to the sheikhs of the Chaldaceans [Elamite allies], panic from my onslaught overwhelmed them like a demon. They abandoned their tents and fled for their lives, crushing the corpses of their troops as they went…[In their terror] they passed scalding urine and voided their excrement in their chariots.

Seriously, just throw a beat under that, and you’ve got a dope track. So, hip hop, it turns out, is approximately 2800 years older than we thought it was.


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