How ABC Television Introduced Rap Music to America in 1981: It’s Painfully Awkward

Of all the var­i­ous types of pro­fes­sion­al explain­ers out there, none may come across as more clue­less than the tele­vi­sion news reporter faced with a minor­i­ty youth cul­ture and try­ing to account for its existence—one he or she had pre­vi­ous­ly been unaware of. Every descrip­tion gets reduced to the broad­est of judge­ments, easy stereo­types fill in for appre­ci­a­tion. The larg­er the media out­let, the more these ten­den­cies seem to man­i­fest; in fact a string of such sen­su­al­ized reportage put togeth­er seems to con­sti­tute both the rise and the fall of a cor­po­rate news career.

All of the above should pre­pare you for what you are about to see in ABC’s 20/20 spe­cial “Rap­pin’ to the Beat” from 1981. Inves­tiga­tive reporter Steve Fox jour­neys into the world of rap music, a form—his con­de­scend­ing co-anchor tells us in a back-hand­ed remark—“so com­pelling, you’ll nev­er miss the fact there’s no melody.” “It’s a music that is all beat,” he says, “strong beat, and talk.” With the tone estab­lished, enter Fox to tell us that Blondie’s “Rap­ture” is the main rea­son rap caught on. It only gets worse. I sup­pose you could blame Deb­bie Har­ry, but she didn’t ask to be the first voice of rap we hear in a 20/20 spe­cial. That deci­sion was the spe­cial purview of “Rap­pin’ to the Beat”’s pro­duc­ers.

But like all archival film and video of emerg­ing cre­ative move­ments, these clips redeem them­selves with footage of the scene’s pio­neers, includ­ing a per­for­mance from a 22-year-old Kur­tis Blow and some ear­ly breakdancing—or, as one NYC Tran­sit cop calls it, a riot. The sec­ond part, above, gives us some insight­ful com­men­tary from NYC radio DJ Pablo Guz­man, folk­lorist John Szwed (who wrote the defin­i­tive biog­ra­phy of Sun Ra), and syn­di­cat­ed rock colum­nist Lisa Robin­son, who reminds us of how “very black and very urban” rap is, then goes on to say, “peo­ple hat­ed rock and roll 15 years ago.”

It’s cer­tain­ly true that 15 years or so after this clum­sy attempt at cap­tur­ing the moment, rap and hip-hop became ubiquitous—at a time when punk rock also hit the sub­urbs. Punk also had its 20/20 moment in the late 70s (above); it sym­bol­ized, the announc­er tells us, “the dread­ful pos­si­bil­i­ty of riot which has always seemed to cling to rock and roll.” Met­al got the Ger­al­do treat­ment in “Heavy Met­al Moms”—the exam­ples abound. Which of them is more banal, con­de­scend­ing, or just painful­ly awk­ward is impos­si­ble to say, but they make fas­ci­nat­ing win­dows onto the medi­a’s con­sis­tent­ly weird­ed-out response to out­siders they can’t ignore. As a coun­ter­point, check out the way Fred Rogers wel­comed to his show a 12-year-old break­dancer or a cou­ple of exper­i­men­tal elec­tron­ic musi­cians, mak­ing no effort to be cool, knowl­edge­able, or detached, only kind and curi­ous. It’s just my opin­ion, but I always thought TV news need­ed more Mr. Rogers and less.… what­ev­er the jour­nal­is­tic approach in “Rap­pin’ to the Beat” is sup­posed to be.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sam­pling Rev­o­lu­tion

Fight For Your Right Revis­it­ed: Adam Yauch’s 2011 Film Com­mem­o­rates the Beast­ie Boys’ Leg­endary Music Video

Mr. Rogers Takes Break­danc­ing Lessons from a 12-Year-Old (1985)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (6)
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  • 21st C. Poet says:

    Fun­ny, I just wrote about this less than a cou­ple of weeks ago:‑2020-report-on-rap-from-1981-video/

    (If any­one decides to read it, there is text after the sec­ond video that explains why there is any insight in this piece at all.)

  • Paul Tatara says:

    Say­ing there’s no melody was not remote­ly con­de­scend­ing at the time. West­ern music had been based on melody for cen­turies. The Bea­t­les did­n’t become the hugest band on earth because they did­n’t write melodies. In fact, I’d argue that the key thing peo­ple who cur­rent­ly don’t enjoy hip hop are miss­ing is a melody. It’s just how some lis­ten­er’s ner­vous sys­tems are wired. So yeah, this piece is awk­ward. But I have no prob­lem with that par­tic­u­lar con­cept.

  • sgtoox says:

    THe only con­de­scend­ing thing here is the base­less cri­tique of this doc­u­men­tary. It was much more in depth and curi­ous than most jour­nal­is­tic eval­u­a­tions. It did­n’t seem clum­sy. It is cringe-induc­ing to see this smug cri­tique of the doc­u­men­tary how­ev­er…

  • Do says:

    Yeah, I don’t get it either.

  • Jacques Rigaut says:

    Say, what? Dat­ed, per­haps. Painful­ly awk­ward? Nah. I was around when this music was emerg­ing and, real­ly, this was a com­par­a­tive­ly pos­i­tive and upbeat take on the phe­nom­e­non and at least tried to con­tex­tu­al­ize it in a longer musi­cal tra­di­tion. I mean, you have to remem­ber that the stan­dard fare in those days was out­right racist rejec­tion of rap. If you want painful­ly awk­ward, lis­ten to _any_ NPR report on _any_ con­tem­po­rary music!

  • Aaron says:

    Yeah, who wrote this con­de­scend­ing cri­tique of this doc­u­men­tary? Talk about smug. And you actu­al­ly have to ben­e­fit of hind­sight and still got it wrong.

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