MC-Terms to Know
The basic vocabulary of MCing—Hip-Hop’s vocal style:
end rhyme rhyming words at the end of lines
flow a rapper’s vocal style
freestyle improvised rapping
griot (gree-OH) oral storytellers and historians of West Africa
internal rhyme rhyming words within the same line
MC short for “master of ceremonies”; also performer who uses rap techniques to interact with an audience
meter rhythm of a poem
persona character assumed by a performer
rap spoken-word lyrics performed to a beat; one of the elements of Hip-Hop
rapper performer that rhymes lyrics to a rhythm
spitting speaking, performing a rap
syncopation shifting a rhythm away from the normal beat
Today, MCs like Jay-Z, MC Lyte, and Kendrick Lamar fly high profiles in the world of Hip-Hop. But that wasn’t always the case for the poets of the microphone.
In Hip-Hop’s early years, its music scene focused on the disc jockey and the dance floor. The MC—short for “master of ceremonies”—was often a kind of sidekick to the DJ. In Yes Yes Y’all, an oral history of early Hip-Hop, Grandmaster Caz describes the rise of MCing this way: “The microphone was just used for making announcements, like when the next party was gonna be, or people’s mom’s would come to the party looking for them, and you have to announce it on the mic.”
Before long, though, MCs wanted to showcase their own talents. Grandmaster Caz continues: “Different DJs started embellishing what they were saying. I would make an announcement this way, and somebody would hear that and they add a little bit to it. I’d hear it again and take it a little step further ’til it turned from lines to sentences to paragraphs to verses to rhymes.”
More and more, MCs earned the right to grab the mic using freestyle skills to entertain and command a live audience. A “master of ceremonies” might make all the needed announcements; but the job of an MC then and now is to guide everyone’s good time with their energy, wit, and ability to interact with people on the floor. And good MCs don’t just demand the mic—the audience honors their skills by demanding they take it.
Rappers emerged as a somewhat distinct group as rap gained commercial success. They were the voices and characters that created and sold the records. In some ways, the talents and responsibilities of rappers overlap with MCs, and an MC might also rap. The interaction with the audience is the big difference.
In 1979, a trio of MCs rapped over the break from Chic’s “Good Times.” The result was The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” rap’s first hit. Three years later, Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five released The Message, a funky but unblinking account of hard times in an inner-city neighborhood. As the 1980s unrolled, MCs and rappers rose rapidly from second fiddles to big dogs including Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Run DMC, and Public Enemy. They created personas, cooler-than-life characters that might be super-smooth or gangland tough. They boasted about their style and talents and made sure to honor the DJ. MCing and rapping went from sideshow to main event as one of Hip-Hop’s essential elements.
Hip-Hop’s Rapping Poets
An MC or rapper’s “flow” is crucial to his or her performance. The flow is the combination of rhyme and rhythm to create the rap’s desired effect: fluid and soothing to communicate romance, for example; staccato and harsh to signal anger and conflict.
Before Hip-Hop and rap took hold in the United States, spoken-word poetry occasionally worked its way into jazz performances. Many history-minded rappers also connect their art to The Last Poets, a Harlem-based group, and The Watts Prophets out of Los Angeles. Both emerged in the late-1960s and paired political poetry with improvisational jazz. Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” resembles rap before it got the name.
Increasingly, students of Hip-Hop culture recognize the best MCs as accomplished formal poets. They rap complex rhyme schemes, most built on a rock-solid four-beat rhythm, or meter. But again, a good MC surprises audiences with syncopation and other off-the-beat techniques. Hip-Hop aficionados reserve special respect for MCs with freestyle skills—the ability to improvise fresh rhymes while standing in the heat of the spotlight.