Blondie's 'Rapture:' The New Wave Goes Hip Hop, Meaning And Lyrics
The first rap song to go to #1 on the Billboard pop chart? That would be "Rapture" by Blondie, from 1981, featuring the fresh rhymes of Debbie Harry. The song hasn't aged well, and neither has the look -- of an already-successful white artist crafting a pop hit with her version of an urban black genre of music. But before we go down that path of analysis, let's remember something: that in 1981, Debbie Harry was just about the coolest person in the most interesting music scene of the Groovy era. She wasn't exactly born to rap, but she and her band Blondie were eclectic experimenters, drawing inspiration from and giving it back to the musical eco-system in New York.
Fixtures in the New York City art scene of the late '70s and early '80s, Blondie and Debbie Harry were in rarified air. They could play punk, they could play disco, and they could play funk and it was all cool, it was all Blondie. The band's incredible list of influences is most on display in "Rapture," their last number one single and the very first number on song in the United States to feature rap vocals.
If there's a sound of New York at the beginning of the 1980s it's "Rapture." This mix of disparate genres all jammed together in one six-and-a-half-minute song is a link between the quickly waning disco era and the emergent sound of hip hop. Blondie definitely released better singles than "Rapture," but it's with this song that they introduced masses of white American listeners to one of the most important art forms of the 20th century.
New York, New York
In the late '70s and early '80s hip hop was something that could be heard on the streets of Brooklyn, the "Boogie Down" Bronx and Queens. Local heroes were spitting bars on street corners and on basketball courts. Years away from the bling and the executive producers dancing all up in the videos, it was a new art form with few rules. At this point aspiring rappers didn't even need two turntables and a microphone.
Artists like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa were kings of the underground scene who mingled with the art world, but to the world outside of New York City they may as well have been invisible. The Sugarhill Gang scored a major coup when "Rapper's Delight" became the first hip hop song to break the Top 40, but hip hop was still seen as a niche genre, something that would pass in the same way that "Disco Duck" disappeared into the bargain bins of history.
But that's not what happened. Where punk codified a style and an ethos of downtown culture in the '70s, hip hop did the same thing for graffiti artists, dancers, and streets artists in the early '80s. In the same way that the disparate looks and sounds of The Ramones, Talking Heads, and Blondie defined New York punk, so did the electro of Afrika Bambaataa and the frenetic stylings of the Fabulous 5. All of these different cultures and factions were splattered across New York by some kind of Jackson Pollack inspired civil engineer and it took Debbie Harry to bring them together.
When did Blondie hear hip hop?
It's not out of order to ask just how Blondie first heard hip hop. At the time the underground cultures of New York City were clearly segmented. There was the punk scene at CBGB's and the Mudd Club. Out of towners drove into the city to dance at Studio 54, goths went to Danceteria, and hip hop fans took the train to the Bronx and Queens to pop off on the weekends. Debbie Harry may have been a fixture at the Mudd Club but thank goodness there's more than one night in a week.
Side note: From 1978 to 1982 Chris Stein, the co-founder of Blondie was also the co-host of a weekly public access show called TV Party. The series was an off the rails variety show with interviews from artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Fab Five Freddy, a graffiti artist and hip hop lifer. Never mind the question of how Stein found the time to host a weekly show when he was in one of the most popular bands in the world, but was it through TV Party that Blondie came to rap?
By all accounts Debbie Harry and Chris Stein first heard hip hop when Fab 5 Freddy brought them to see the Sugarhill Gang. From there they begin meeting guys like Grandmaster Flash and the Cold Crush Brothers. In 2014, Stein told Entertainment Weekly:
Around that time we met Funky 4 and Cold Crush and Grandmaster Flash, all those guys. That’s how I ended up working on [the iconic 1983 hip-hop movie] Wild Style, which was very gratifying. It was so exciting to see this whole other world that was going on at the same time as what was going on downtown in New York, even though we were only vaguely aware of it. It took a while for all that stuff to start coming together later on. It’s ironic what’s happened to New York now, especially in comparison to what was going on back then.
Cadillacs, Lincolns too, Mercuries and Suburau
"Rapture" appears on Autoamerican, the band's 1980 album that saw them playing with reggae, psychedelia, and hip hop in the same way they played with disco and pop earlier in their career on Parallel Lines. The group was already playing around with their version of Reggae on "The Tide Is High" so why not continue experimenting with hip hop? It's important to note that "Rapture" isn't really pure rap -- it's more like a disco groove that has a rap section -- but it is pure Blondie.
The mishmash of disco, pop, and funk all with Debbie Harry's ethereal vocals floating over the top of it would have been enough to make this an unforgettable track, but Harry's extended rap that shouts out Grandmaster Flash, Fab 5 Freddy, and a man from Mars with an appetite for cars, bars, blissed out dancers, and anything else that catches his eye.
Aside from Stein and Harry, the rest of Blondie thought that "Rapture" was a head scratcher but they went along with it anyway. The song spent two weeks at #1, but it wasn't done introducing audiences to hip hop.
MTV took Blondie's hip hop experiment coast to coast
As if sitting at the top spot on the Hot 100 for two weeks wasn't enough, Blondie's super weird video for "Rapture" was one of the 90 videos that was in constant rotation on MTV when the channel first started. Every teenager whose parents had a cable subscription was inundated with the same visuals over and over again, and its through this strange piece of New York cool that the world became enamored not only with hip hop, but with Fab 5 Freddy and hip hop dance culture.
Debbie Harry looks cool as always in the video, but the real focus here is on William Barnes (the video's director and choreographer) who plays the man from Mars in a white suit and matching top hat. Fab 5 Freddy and fellow graffiti artist Lee Quinones pop up, and when Grandmaster Flash bailed on the shoot Jean-Michel Basquiat was called in to replace him on the wheels of steel.
With "Rapture" punk and hip hop were forever bound together
Did Blondie make it cool for punks to like hip hop? Were they just the first group to vocalize their love of the genre? The same year that "Rapture" hit #1 the Tom Tom Club (Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads) released "Genius of Love" which definitely owes its groove and shouted outro to hip hop and Jamaican toasting culture, and ESG put out their eponymous E.P. featuring the track "UFO" which is easily one of the most sampled songs in hip hop. Maybe it was only time before hip hop spread to other genres, with all of these artists in remaining in New York City with nothing to do but create it makes sense that they would dabble with one another and take chances.
In 2016, Grandmaster Flash spoke about the effect of "Rapture," specifically on his career and while he refused to appear in the song's video he recognized an immediate sea change when the single was released. He told the NY Daily News:
Debbie Harry has always been big for me. My audience at one point was predominantly black and Hispanic and when she came to the Webster Avenue P.A.L. in '77 to see me play and she says to me, 'I didn't come on the stage right away. I stood in the crowd for about twenty minutes, to watch the way you play.' About five or six months later, 'Eatin' cars and . . . eat up bars . . . and Flash is fast, Flash is cool.' I was introduced. So now ...white people and people of other colors were, 'Who is Flash?' So she tremendously opened the door.
The Lyrics To 'Rapture'
Toe to toe
Dancing very close
Wall to wall
And they're stepping lightly
Hang each night in Rapture
Back to back
And a wild attack
Face to face
And it's finger popping
Twenty-four hour shopping in Rapture
Fab Five Freddy told me everybody's fly
Dj spinnin' I said, "My My"
Flash is fast, Flash is cool
François c'est pas, Flash ain't no dude
And you don't stop, sure shot
Go out to the parking lot
And you get in your car and drive real far
And you drive all night and then you see a light
And it comes right down and it lands on the ground
And out comes a man from Mars
And you try to run but he's got a gun
And he shoots you dead and he eats your head
And then you're in the man from Mars
You go out at night eatin' cars
You eat Cadillacs, Lincolns too
Mercurys and Subaru
And you don't stop, you keep on eatin' cars
Then, when there's no more cars you go out at night
And eat up bars where the people meet
Face to face, dance cheek to cheek
One to one, man to man
Dance toe to toe, don't move too slow
'Cause the man from Mars is through with cars
He's eatin' bars, yeah wall to wall
Door to door, hall to hall
He's gonna eat 'em all
Rapture, be pure
Take a tour through the sewer
Don't strain your brain, paint a train
You'll be singin' in the rain
Said don't stop to punk rock
Well now you see what you wanna be
Just have your party on TV
'Cause the man from Mars won't eat up bars when the TV's on
And now he's gone back up to space
Where he won't have a hassle with the human race
And you hip-hop, and you don't stop
Just blast off, sure shot
'Cause the man from Mars stopped eatin' cars and eatin' bars
And now he only eats guitars, get up
Tags: Blondie | Debbie Harry | Hip Hop | Number-one Singles | Rap | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts
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