Scotland takes the rap for hip hop

SCOTLAND takes justifiable pride in a history of invention that has given the world the telephone, television, radar, penicillin and even cloned sheep.

But now there are claims that the land of Burns and bagpipes is also the ancestral home of rap music.

Academics insist that the roots of the bombastic form of spoken-word music stem from the taverns of medieval Scotland rather than the mean streets of the Bronx and Brooklyn.

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They claim the contemporary art of the rap battle, popularised by Eminem in the hit movie 8 Mile, is a direct descendant of the ancient Caledonian art of 'flyting', where feuding opponents settled scores by trading ever more elaborate insults.

According to the theory, Scottish slave owners took the tradition with them to the United States where it was adopted and developed by the slaves themselves, emerging many years later as rap.

American academic Professor Ferenc Szasz is convinced there is a clear link between the robust verbal feuds of old Scotland and the rap contests of the contemporary United States.

The historian from the University of New Mexico, who specialises in American and Scottish culture, said: "The Scots have a lengthy tradition of flyting: intense verbal jousting, often laced with vulgarity, that is similar to the dozens that one finds among contemporary inner-city African-American youth.

"Both cultures accord high marks to satire. The skilled use of satire takes this verbal jousting to its ultimate level – one step short of a fist fight. All words can sting, and hard ridicule such as mimicry, irony and sarcasm, stings most painfully. When used by an expert it can reduce an opponent to jelly."

The leading theory is that the traditional form of settling scores was taken across the Atlantic by Scottish colonialists who passed it on to African-American slaves who were working on their plantations.

Professor Willie Ruff of Yale University is in no doubt that the music of Scottish slave owners had a profound impact on the development of black music traditions in the US.

He said: "We clearly have European roots too. While it may not be satisfactory and it may not be comfortable, it is what it is. It is in our names, it's in our music, it's in our blood."

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Ruff cites black musical giants like Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Mingus – or Menzies – as examples of individuals whose ancestors were given their surnames by Scottish slave masters.

In this shameful episode in history, slaves were expected not only to adopt the monikers of their European owners, but also to adopt their customs.

The cultural fusion between the early African Americans and their Scottish overlords was such that black worshippers sang in Gaelic in church services in Alabama and other parts of the South until as late as 1918.

Ruff said: "While black culture and worship do come from Africa, there were elements that were imposed by the whites, but they took this and 'blackened' it."

Szasz's theory about the links between flyting and rap come in a new work examining the historical context for Robert Burns's work. The most famous surviving example of the combative Scottish oral tradition comes from the 16th-century work The Flyting Of Dunbar And Kennedy. There, two rival poets attempt to establish their supremacy by hurling increasingly obscene rhyming insults at one another before the Court of King James IV.

Dr Katie Lowe of Glasgow University referred to it as "Just over 500 lines of filth", adding: "It is a hilarious tale about a rivalry and two poets battling each other with a series of nasty put-downs." It contains the guttural lines: "Mauch muttoun, by t buttoun, peliet glutton, air to Hilhous, rank beggar, ostir, dregar, foule fleggar." The poem also contains the first recorded use of a lavatorial insult, still very much in use, when Kennedy calls Dunbar a "s*** without wit".

Meanwhile, Ruff points to the American Folk Arts in Education project, which explores musical traditions and also links European flyting to rap battles, concluding that in both cases: "Exchanges are stylised, parallel, symmetric and stanzaic.

"Two people engage in ritual verbal duelling and the winner has the last word in the argument, with the loser falling conspicuously silent."

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The project also cites an American civil war poem, printed in the New York Vanity Fair magazine on November 9, 1861, as the first recorded example of such crossover. The verse, which contains numerous uses of Scottish expressions, states: "Mounting my prad, I'd go the forts/Take all my bob culls and my bene morts/I'd hold high revel, sluice my gob away,/Ne'er fash myself, nor think of cramping day,/McClellans cutty eyed and knows my lay,/He's fly enough to shut up every boozing ken./If I did that each day, I would be losing men./Our game is dusty, but we cannot stop./It's either fight or take the morning drop."

Earlier this year, Scotland on Sunday revealed that acclaimed Aberdeenshire percussionist Evelyn Glennie was planning to collaborate with Detroit rap superstar Eminem. The tradition has also come home, with clubs in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen inviting all-comers to take part in rap battles.