Master of Ceremonies to Mic Controller
Emceeing or rapping, simply put, is the primary vocal style in Hip Hop music characterized by spoken word or rhythmic chant. Singing is part of Hip Hop, and many vocalists utilize a kind of fusion between rapping and singing, but today I want to focus on emceeing, as it is arguably the most reliable indicator of Hip Hop music for listeners. Rap only refers to the vocal style and not the broader picture as a whole. Let’s take Beyoncé for example; no one calls her genre singing music as it only refers to the way she is manifesting her lyrics not R&B as a genre. I like how KRS-One puts it best, “Rap is something you do, Hip Hop is something you live.” Hip Hop is about so much more than rapping, but this type of vocal performance is an essential piece of Hip Hop culture and the history behind it goes much deeper than I think most would realize.
The art of emceeing stems from the practice of oral history and oral tradition, which can be dated back to a concept in Western Africa called nommo. As a concept in philosophy, nommo is the power of words to shape reality, act upon objects and give life to ideas. This idea paved the way for traveling griots to rise in importance for African tribal communities. Griots cataloged mass amounts of knowledge and history in their minds to share it with people who had no other way of learning about places and ideas from outside of their immediate surroundings.
For information passed on to matter, it needed remembering, and this paved the way for memory aid rhyme to become common practice in cultures around the world. One of the earliest examples of rhyme as a memory aid comes from the Chinese Shi Jing or Classic of Poetry. Later on, it became essential to the survival of the Quran, one of the world’s most influential pieces of oral history.
Fast forward centuries later as rhyme and verbal teaching consistently remained to aid in both the spread and preservation of ideas. We come to the piece of performance terminology that most directly precedes the concept of an emcee, the MC. This acronym stands for Master of Ceremonies and later “move the crowd,” an alteration created by Rakim for his 1987 song of the same name. The MC hosted any stage event or performance, one of its earliest uses was in the Catholic Church where still today Master of Ceremonies acts as an official in the Papal Court.
At the beginning of Hip Hop, before the time of emcees as musical artists, DJ’s were the original acts that attracted crowds to clubs and the MC mainly functioned as a way to get people excited about the DJ before their performance started. Over time the MC’s began to get more creative in their methods of pumping the crowd up, eventually becoming part of the shows for the entirety of their duration. Once the Sugarhill Gang recorded Rapper’s Delight, the emcee cemented itself as the new centerpiece of Hip Hop. This change pushed the genre and culture to new heights, paving the way for a plethora of artists to push the boundaries of artistic expression.
To us, the guys on the street, it meant the guy on the mic. Not singing, just talking on the mic. Today the role of the MC in hip hop culture has grown far beyond its initial function of announcing what the next jam is going to be. In order to fully understand the role of the MC in hip hop culture, we must examine the origin of the MC. Today, the MC can boast about being responsible for a multibillion dollar industry.
But how did the role of the MC come about? We will have to go back, way back. Let’s call it 1974 BR (before rap). When the cultural phenomenon we now know as hip hop was in its infancy. DJs emerged at a rapid rate to supply music to the growing demand of bboys and young eager “hip hoppers.” It was the DJ who supplied the sound system (usually plugged into a lamppost or donated electricity from an apartment) and decided when the first MCs would use their catchy phrases. The DJ decided when the name of the DJ and crew would be announced. The DJ was responsible for any break in the flow of music. The MC was there to put a little extra on it. The main job and function of the MCs were to blow up the DJ and big up the crew. By 1977 the MC had become a fixture in every hip hop crew. Just as the DJs had battled and raised the standards of excellence, turning their hobby into an art form, so began the MC craft. Many crews tried to conquer new territory. Many were crushed and left by the wayside as is the balance of nature. Only the cream rose to the top.
MCs rhymed about how great they were and how big and bad their crew was. Some were writing stories that were either close to home or totally fictitious. One MC in particular was primarily a crowd rocker. He did not rhyme that much but his quick clever one liners have echoed throughout the hallowed halls of hip hop history,
Busy Bee was the first MC to translate that disco MC style to hip hop. He is the hip hop master of audience call and response. The role of the MC catapulted to the next level. The MC was now a showman, the leader of a unit, a team. The MC’s role as an artist grew as a result of the recording industry’s interest in the hip hop. Not only was the MC the new cultural icon, but the pillars upon which the rap industry was built. The MC represented hip hop in every way. MCs represented through their rhyming skills, their style of dress, their walk and their attitude. While the DJ was delegated to background status, the MC came forward, and became “the man.” The MCs became writers, composers and arrangers. The DJs became producers.
Prior to the industry’s involvement, competition on the street was fierce. There was no love lost between rival MC camps. The crew at the forefront of hip hop prior to the “official” rap era was Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 5, they set the standards for all MC groups. Their leader was one of the most prolific rhymers of all time, Melle Mel.
Grandmaster Flash and The Furious 5
By the 1980s, the era of the MC as a showman and entertainer was just about over and the art form was about to be simplified to its barest elements: no long hair, elaborate routines, flashy costumes or intricate rhyme patterns. The arrival and wild success of Run DMC made everyone want to become an MC. It was not hard anymore because beats and rhymes became a simple formula. All the glam and glitter became a thing of the past.
So where are MCs today? Look around, chances are you are listening to and watching them every day. You are watching them in music videos, perhaps wearing their new line of sportswear, or clothing endorsed by them. Maybe you have watched one of the sitcoms on television or even a motion picture starring an MC. Maybe you have attended one of their sold out concerts, or have seen one in a commercial. One way or another, people all over the world have been affected by the impact hip hop has had on society. At the core of all the excitement… the MC. At a closer look, the role of the MC has not changed much. They are still inventive, informative and entertaining.