“Rapture”

The new ad for Acura is pretty cute, and a lot of fun, just a woman rapping along to Blondie’s “Rapture” as she cruises along in her new car:

It’s kind of stunning to recall that “Rapture” was the first rap song to hit #1 on Billboard‘s Hot 100. It is still easy to find online nitpicking about the song: “Rapture wasn’t really a rap song, but rather a new wave/pop song that featured rap.” (It’s two, two, two songs in one!) But what exactly is it about this song that upsets these people?

Is it because the lyrics are so goofy and Debbie Harry’s rapping so stilted that its appeal is clearly that of novelty? (Raising the great mystery of why some novelties continue to appeal long after many more serious songs have faded from our memories.) But humor was common in early rap. Think of early rap recordings like Spoonie Gee’s “Spoonin’ Rap,” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “Superrappin’,” Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” and, especially, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” And this strain of rap continued, and went even further over the top, in groups like Digital Underground, Pharcyde, 2 Live Crew and many more.

Could the real problem be that white artists were the first to take this black artform to number one, both Blondie’s “Rapture” on the singles chart and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill on the albums chart? Sure, these milestones might once have seemed to be signs that, like ragtime, jazz, swing and rock and roll before it, rap would come to be defined by white imitators, but debates about Eminem and Iggy Azalea’s appropriation aside, that has not been the case. Rap authenticity continues to be defined by blackness (often exaggerated and offensive stereotypes of blackness, but that is a debate for another day), so is it still wrong to enjoy these early rap novelties by white artists? Was it ever wrong?

Blondie (along with Beastie Boys) clearly respected the South Bronx roots of the music they embraced. The video for “Rapture” was the first glimpse much of the country had of the totality of hip hop culture, including not just rap, but graffiti artists Lee Quinones and Fab 5 Freddy (who was name-checked in the song), along with break dancer William Barnes; the onscreen DJ was later famous artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (apparently Grandmaster Flash, who was also name-checked, did not show up for the shoot):

And respect flowed in both directions in this cultural exchange — Grandmaster Flash included part of “Rapture” (granted, the part where he was name checked) in “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” the first widely distributed example of cut-and-mix deejaying; along with the Furious Five, Flash also covered Talking Heads-offshoot Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” which was itself inspired by rap.

Tom Tom Club’s Tina Weymouth and Grandmaster Flash

In that light, it’s interesting that “Rapture” was not the song the white woman was rapping in the viral video that inspired the ad:

She was actually rapping “None of Your Business” by black rappers Salt-N-Pepa:

Is it merely coincidence that Acura switched the race of the rapper or is race still complicated when it comes to which fans identify with which music?

Of course, Salt-N-Pepa themselves are currently appearing in Geico’s “Push It” ad:

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