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PHOTO ESSAY

In the Beginning: Hip Hop's Early Influences

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Richard Pryor in concert.

Photograph courtesy of Staxx Museum of American Soul Music.

Of course not all of rap and hip hop's influences come from the world of musical performers or even the gray science of versifying. Among many important cultural and stylistic influences was the comedian, film actor, and writer Richard Pryor (1940–2005). Born in Peoria, Illinois, and raised in a brothel, Pryor went on to achieve international fame for his bold, profane, and fearless stand-up comedy routines. His landmark album, That Nigger's Crazy (1974), exploded on an audience ready for a challenge to the seemingly outdated codes and boundaries of polite performance, and was followed by such runaway hits as Outrageous (1979) and the classic Live on Sunset Strip (1982). Through his comedy, Pryor—like Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson—confronted the uncomfortable reality of race relations in the United States, as well as a seemingly endless catalogue of embarrassing and painful social, sexual, and personal situations. Unlike the worst of their numerous imitators, however, Pryor, Foxx, and Wilson were masters of an art whose appeal lies not merely in shock value, but rather in the humanity and sensitivity of their stories. Their honesty, storytelling skills, and the gifted use of colorful and profane language would have a significant influence on an entire generation of young hip hop and rap performers.

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