In the late 1970’s a new, popular form of urban youth culture emerged in the Bronx, New York that changed the face of popular music and American culture. Throughout its development, hip-hop has become a vastly commercialized, inextricable component of popular American culture; however, it took the efforts of many pioneers and innovators to shape modern hip-hop culture and music. By exploring hip-hop’s origins, one can better understand its evolution and its influence on different social groups throughout the United States.
There are many misconceptions about what the term hip-hop entails. Many believe hip-hop is synonymous for rap music; however, hip-hop encompasses all the cultural elements of surrounding rap. In its beginning, the hip-hop subculture included deejaying, emceeing, graffiti, and break dancing. These elements contributed greatly to hip-hop, and therefore must be considered when examining the evolution of hip-hop into the major cultural force it has become.
Hip hop’s origins begin much farther back than the 1970’s. According to Black Arts literary critic Addison Gayle, Jr., Black Art has always been based on the anger felt by African Americans. Thus, he draws a connection between the Black Arts Movement of the ‘60s and hip hop culture. Hip-hop culture absorbed many of the convictions and aesthetic criteria that evolved out of the Black Arts Movement, including calls for social relevance, originality, and an effort to challenge American mainstream artistic culture (Gladney 291).
... sound. Noticing dancing and music in Africa connecting to hip hop music today consider hip hop culture as a whole. The concerts, TV shows and ... talking. Controversy didn’t stop there when it came to black performers. Hundreds of years later there still lives the same ... . This art form has the exact same excitement passion and unity as the African dance. Whether its African dance or hip hop dance ...
Graffiti, rap music, and break dancing were all forms of artistic expression within the hip-hop culture. As writer Marvin J. Gladney asserts, “Those who pioneered hip-hop were offering artistic expression designed to cope with urban frustrations and conditions” (Gladney 292).
Scholar Cornell West believes that hip-hop is more than just feelings of frustration, but also an outward protest of the poor living conditions in the black ghetto which is intended to reach its listener on a personal level. He explained:
lack rap music is primarily the musical expression of the paradoxical cry of desperation and celebration of the black underclass and poor working class, a cry that openly acknowledges and confronts the wave of personal coldheartedness, criminal cruelty, and existential hopelessness in the black ghettos of AfroAmerican. (West 26)
Thus, rap developed as a form of artistic expression articulating the urban impoverished experience.
As New York City expanded due to the influx of immigrants new forms of public transportation were required. Thus, in 1959 the New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses began building an expressway through the heart of the Bronx (Rhodes).
The result was the migration of middle-class Italian, German, Irish, and Jewish people from the neighborhood (Rhodes).
African American and Hispanic families began moving into the vacated sections of the Bronx. Then, in 1968, Moses created 15,382 unit co-op apartment complexes eliminating the presence off a middle-class. Without middle class residents many landlords were forced to sell their buildings to “professional slumlords” leaving many vacated and rundown buildings (Rhodes).
The Bronx was left in a deteriorated state; these destitute conditions instilled frustration within the impoverished communities.
Before hip-hop music was widespread, hip-hop’s other cultural aspects developed at the forefront of the popular culture around the Bronx. Graffiti played a significant role in helping define hip-hop culture in its early stages. Like many other elements of hip-hop’s history, the direct roots of the graffiti movement are unclear. Although graffiti had existed for a long period of time, it developed into a significant art form. It was not until 1969 that graffiti began to materialize as a new form of expression for New York youths (Rhodes).
... graffiti have the lowest profit potential of any element of Hip-Hop, and therefore, in my opinion are the most pure forms of hip hop ... form of expression. In conclusion, Hip-Hop is the culture from which rap emerged but consists of the four main elements: Graffiti, ... , dancing and the visual arts." More specifically, hip hop is a combination of graffiti, break dancing, djing and mcing (also known ...
A Greek teenager from New York named Demetrius is attributed with making graffiti famous, after he began spraying his tag name “TAKI 183” in various places across the city (Rhodes).
Demetrius’ tag name was comprised of his nickname “Taki” and the street he lived on 183rd street (Rhodes).
In the early stages of graffiti writing, artists limited themselves to spraying their tag names (Rhodes).
Artists earned respect by creating creative lettering styles. The mid-70’s signaled a change in graffiti, as artists began painting large murals on subway cars (Rhodes).
Graffiti writing groups formed, uniting talented artists who created murals that expressed the thoughts and sentiments of the impoverished and disenfranchised city dwellers. New York City’s Transit Authority reacted to the growing trend of subway car murals by establishing a subway car wash at the Coney Island train yard in 1977 (Rhodes).
This discouraged writers from spraying subway cars, and as a result, murals began appearing on handball courts instead. Graffiti writing essentially helped define the visual component of hip-hop culture, and provide voice to an overlooked portion of the New York population. Nowadays, graffiti’s prevalence in hip-hop culture has subsided; however, graffiti is still visible in urban settings, and its ability to communicate the sentiments of its artists continues. Although graffiti no longer represents the visual aspects of hip-hop, it has developed its own role in American culture. Unlike the 1977 subway car wash, in recent days the government has funded graffiti murals, officially establishing it as a legitimate art form. Still, the original art from of tagging and graffiti has lingered within some social groups. Taging has continued to be strongly connected to gangs, acting as a territorial marker. IIn addition tagging has become popular within select urban groups worldwide. Graffiti, however, has developed two different identities. Unlike the murals painted on the subway cars of NYC which depicted the challenges of the people of the ghetto, newer graffiti murals are often solely artistic expression without an underlying political message of protest. Still, graffiti is often associated with the street culuture of hip-hop and continues to provide an artistic outlet expressing similar sentiments expressed in rap music. As the hip-hop movement progressed the emphasis shifted away from graffiti and tagging, and towards the DJ and MC.
... Often times when people hear about Hip Hop/Rap music, they’ll paint a picture in their heads of ... that DJs are the backbones to the Hip Hop music. The final element is Tagging, and its graffiti. This is actually a controversial issue ... knowledge of the music so they can make people dance according to the mood and time. Also scratching records were their performance ...
The disc jockey or DJ, may in many ways be considered the original founder of rap music, because the DJ created the sound responsible for rap. Of the many influential DJs that have been given credit for founding rap’s unique sound, perhaps none were as significant as Clive Campbell (a.k.a. Kool Herc), who is credited with inventing the “breakbeat” (Rhodes).
Herc immigrated to the West Bronx from Jamaica in 1967 (Unofficial Timeline).
He was nicknamed “Hercules” or “Herc” for short because of his athletic talents (Rhodes).
In 1973, Herc débuted as a DJ, beginning his intense passion for deejaying. Herc is best known for creating the breakbeat. The “break” is the part of the record when the drums or percussion take over the song (Light 15).
Thus, Herc played two copies of the same record and extend the “break” by switching back and forth between the records. The result was the creation of the breakbeat, which helped define and produce an entire sub-culture.
Another DJ who played a crucial role in the development of rap music was Joseph Saddler (a.k.a. Grandmaster Flash) (Light 19).
Flash and Herc are two of the most influential pioneers in the hip-hop industry. One of Grand Master Flash’s greatest achievements was the creation of the cue monitor, which allowed the DJ to hear one record through their headphones while the other record was playing (Light 19).
This tool was vital in allowing the DJ to locate specific sections of the record. Additionally, Flash helped popularize the technique of “scratching” in which the DJ uses the sound of the record players needle moving back and forth over the record to create a rhythmic sound (Light 19).
While DJs were the primary foundation of rap music, the MC began gaining ground, and by the late 1970’s, the MC had taken over the focus of the audience, leaving the DJ in the background.
... considered fair game and rap artists borrowed sounds from such disparate sources as Israeli folk music, bebop jazz records, and television news broadcasts ... studio musicians, who replicated the basic groove of the hit song 'Good Times' (1979) by the American disco group Chic. Perceived ... culture in North America. Much of the slang of hip-hop culture, including such terms as dis, fly, def, chill, and ...
Eventually the simple rhymes expanded, and MCs emerged as a separate entity. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were at the forefront of the shift to the MC (Light 19).
The Furious Five comprised Keith Wiggins (a.k.a. Cowboy), Melvin Glover (a.k.a. Melle Mel), Danny Glover (a.k.a. Kid Creole), Eddie Morris (a.k.a. Scorpio), and Guy Williams (a.k.a. Raheim) (Light 19).
The Five elevated and evolved the art of emceeing by employing more complex rhymes and rhyming styles (Light 19).
In the wake of the Furious Five’s success, other MC crews developed. These artists demonstrated an ability to communicate the experience of the oppressed. This is evidenced in the Five’s song “the Message,” which communicates the pain and sense of hopelessness instilled by the American urban ghettos:
A child was born, with no state of mind/Blind to the ways of mankind/God is smiling on you but he’s frowning too,/Cause only God knows what you go through/You grow in the ghetto, living second rate/And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate/The places you play and where you stay/Looks like one great big alley way (Leo’s Lyrics)
This song established a precedent for a great deal of rap music that would follow it in the years to come. Rather than only producing pop songs, intended to gain commercial appeal, groups like the Five also strove to articulate the ills of American culture, and give voice to the exploited and disenfranchised. Yet, despite rap music’s immense popularity within New York City’s African American community, many Americans had never even heard rap music, and thus, the music’s message was limited to a specific audience. This, however, would change with the release of a record that would mark hip-hop’s entrance into mainstream American culture.
In October of 1979, a trio made up of unknown rappers, Michael Wright (a.k.a. “Wonder Mike”), Guy O’Brien (a.k.a. “Master Gee), and Henry Jackson (a.k.a. “Big Bank Hank”), who called themselves the Sugarhill Gang, recorded the song “Rapper’s Delight” by rhyming over the music from the disco band Chic’s number one single “Good Times” (Light 21).
The song was released on Sugar Hill records, and it became an overnight phenomenon, as many people outside of the hip-hop scene in New York were given their first exposure to rap music (Light 21).
... teens my age are into hard rock, metal, pop, hip-hop, etc. I like these genres, however I enjoy more ... , but it was also the heyday for the music itself. There were many bands that came out ... classic rock.Classic rock also brought a revolution, the music of today. However, most of the musical innovations ... you ask most teens what their favorite style of music is, you will probably hear country the least. ...
Some consider “Rapper’s Delight” to be hip-hop’s entrance into commercialism.
Although the response to “Rapper’s Delight” was overwhelmingly positive, many of the hip-hop pioneers were disillusioned about its success. Some felt the song did not properly represent hip-hop, and rap innovators like Grandmaster Flash wondered why relatively unknown and inexperienced MCs were getting so much attention (Ahearn 196).
Despite the hype and controversy surrounding the record, it was apparent that “Rapper’s Delight” had changed the dynamic of rap music. Instead of performing at block parties and clubs, MCs and DJs were signing recording contracts and making records. Grandmaster Flash commented on this transformation saying, “The game of hip-hop changed. ‘Rapper’s Delight’ just set the goal to a whole ‘nother level. It wasn’t rule the Bronx or rule Manhattan, or rule whatever. It was now how soon can you make a record” (Ahearn 196).
It was clear that hip-hop was heading into an entirely different direction. It was slowly making its way into American pop culture.
In 1981 hip-hop continued its push into the American cultural landscape with the release of the New York punk band’s record “Rapture,” in which lead singer Debbie Harris raps one of the song’s verses. The song was followed by a video, which attempted to portray New York hip-hop culture with graffiti murals and break dancers. “Rapture” became a relatively formidable hit, and as Blondie band member Chris Stein remarked, “A really odd note is that that song really was the first rap song that most people heard. Or most white people” (Ahearn 284).
Yet, the impact of “Rapture” and the growing popularity of various rap artists had nowhere near the impact that three middle-class African Americans from Hollis, Queens, New York would have in bringing rap music and hip-hop culture to the masses.
Rap music experienced a massive change in 1983, when Run- D.M.C. released “Sucker MCs.” The group brought a brand new sound and style to hip-hop. As writer Sasha Frere-Jones explained, “In 1983, rhymes were mostly about bragging and boasting tales of partying and being your bad self. The backing tracks were still largely live renditions of obscure ’70’s funk tunes [¼] ‘Sucker MCs’ upended that” (Light 63).
... many types of music, some genres being similar to others, and some not so similar. Country (western) and rap (hip-hop) are most likely ... that is obvious throughout country music is the honesty that the singer provides, which makes the song become reality. On the other ... hand country music can also be very rhetorical as well ...
Unlike the majority of rappers during that time, Run-D.M.C. came from Hollis, an African American middle-class section of Queens, instead of the South Bronx. Run-D.M.C. was made up of Joseph Simmons (a.k.a. Run), Darryl McDaniels (a.k.a. D.M.C.), and Jason Mizell (a.k.a. Jam Master Jay) (Light 63).
The group redefined rhyming with a style that Jones described saying, “Run and D.M.C. shout, basically, but the rhymes go back and forth like beach balls between sea lions, with one finishing the other’s line” (Light 62).
Their style strayed from the more flamboyant dress of other rap groups – they often wore Adidas sweat suits or black leather suits with their notorious black fedoras (Light 63).
The group’s greatest success came with their third album, Raising Hell, which became the first rap album to reach number one on the R&B charts, and the first rap album to go multi-platinum (Light 65).
Raising Hell included Run-D.M.C.’s legendary remake of Aerosmith’s song “Walk This Way,” which reached Billboard’s Top 10 and established rap as more than just a fad in the music world (Light 65).
Run-D.M.C. bridged the gap between a white and black audience. Run-D.M.C. became fixtures on the MTV network, and suburban white teenagers became more and more familiar with rap music. Run-D.M.C.’s songs connected with white listeners because they were more able to relate to the groups. They came from a middle class area and rapped less about the difficulties of living in the ghetto and more light-hearted. For example the song “My Adidas,” from the smash-hit album Raising Hell, discusses the rapper’s shoes. This type of music is more inviting for white listeners because it is part of their culture too. Also, unlike some rappers at the time Run D.M.C. did not express militancy towards the whites who controlled the government and they felt were responsible for the poor living conditions in the ghetto. Run D.M.C.’s connection with a large white audience was the first of its time. Hip-Hop had officially garnered a position in American culture, and it was only going to get larger.
Towards the end of the 1980’s, hip-hop’s presence continued to grow with artists like Public Enemy and KRS-One. These artists built on the progress made by their predecessors and strayed from the former tone of hip-hop. KRS-One and Public Enemy are given credit for utilizing rap to express ideas and issues that had gone untouched. They added a political flavor to their music, and tackled such issues as race, poverty, and the government with a radical and assertive approach. Public Enemy’s leader, Chuck D once explained that his goal for the group was to produce 5,000 new leaders for the African American community (Light 166).
During the height of their career, Public Enemy created plenty of controversy and laid the seeds for future conscious rap. Their lyrics empowered African Americans and called for a revolution to correct the ills of society. This can be seen in such tracks as “Fear of a Black Planet” in which the injustice of racism is examined:
I’ve been wondering why/People live in fear/Of my shade/(Or my hi top fade)/I’m not the one that’s runnin’/But they got me on the run/Treat me like I have a gun/All I got is genes and chromosomes/Consider me black to the bone/All I want is peace and love/One this planet/(Isn’t that how God planned it?) (Leo’s Lyrics)
These lyrics provide an excellent analysis of lingering racist sentiments in America. KRS-One, like Public Enemy, promoted African American empowerment and discussion of pressing controversial issues in the American landscape.
KRS-One was born Lawrence Brown in Park Slope, Brooklyn in 1965 (Light 145).
KRS-One ran away from home at age 16 and immersed himself in books and hip-hop culture. After traveling with a number of graffiti writing groups and gangs, KRS-One turned his focus to rap music, and earned his reputation as “The Teacher” (Light 149).
He wrote lyrics inspired by the teachings of Malcolm X and other radical African American minds, and he sought out to expose police brutality, poverty, and American hypocrisy (Light 149).
For example, in his song “Sound of the Police” KRS-One addresses the issue of police brutality against African Americans, especially in light of the LA riots:
First show a little respect, change your behavior/Change your attitude, change your plan/There could never be justice on stolen land/Are you really for peace and equality?/Or when my car is hooked up, you know you want to follow me/Your laws are minimal/Cause you won’t even think about lookin’ at the real criminal (Leo’s Lyrics)
Although the practice of racial profiling and police brutality within urban African American neighborhoods was a familiar issue for African Americans, whites were relatively unaware of such practice. Thus, KRS-One and other rap artists were able to arouse awareness with such songs as the one above. This is a major reason why rap music is such a relevant artistic expression – it communicates the concerns and sentiments of those who are rarely given voice.
For the most part, hip-hop culture was associated and designated to the East Coast, and specifically the New York area. This changed, however, with the rise of the West Coast hip-hop scene, epitomized by the gangster rap phenomenon that dominated popular music for much of the ’90s. Rapper Ice-T was one of the founding members of the gangster rap movement, with his graphic tales of gang violence; however, it was the contributions of Niggaz With Attitude (N.W.A.) that truly changed the course of rap music and hip-hop culture. N.W.A. consisted of Andre Young (a.k.a. Dr. Dre), Eric Wright (a.k.a. Easy E), O’Shea Jackson (a.k.a. Ice Cube), Antoine Carraby (a.k.a. DJ Yella), and Lorenzo Patterson (a.k.a. MC Ren) (Unofficial Timeline).
The group produced raw, violent, and aggressive music that portrayed and glamorized the urban street life they grew up around. This can be seen in such tracks as “Straight Outta Compton” in which Ice Cube declares, “When I’m called off, I got a sawed off/Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off” (Leo’s Lyrics).
Rather than alienating the white America that had no understanding of the gangster lifestyle, N.W.A. and its successors captivated the attentions and desires of white suburban youth, who were inexplicably drawn to the frightening demeanor of gangster rap. Although their lyrics seemed excessive and overly abrasive, N.W.A. provided America with a picture of the destitute conditions of the urban ghettos, and the dangerous lifestyle that many of the African American youth fell victim to as a result of their dire circumstances. In 1991, N.W.A. released their sophomore album Niggaz4Life, which sold 945,000 copies in its first few weeks of release, and reached the number one position on the Billboard charts (Unofficial Timeline).
This event signaled rap’s pinnacle – for the rest of the ’90s, rap became the highest selling musical genre (Unofficial Timeline).
Additionally, it was evident that hip-hop culture had left behind the era of poor rap stars that it had originated from.
The gangster rap era of hip-hop continued through much of the ’90s with artists like Snoop Doggy Dogg, Dr. Dre, Warren G, and TuPac Shakur dominating the charts. Much had changed since the birth of hip-hop. In fact, rap was no longer a genre fighting for acceptance in the mainstream, it was already well established. The industry grew into a multi-billion dollar phenomenon, and as hip-hop entered the new millennium a new mentality was born – or rather reborn.
Hip-hop was founded on the art of boasting, and thus it was no surprise that as hip-hop approached the new millennium it shifted back to bragging and self promotion. This time, however, one was not concerned with asserting their superiority in rhyming, instead, the focus shifted to one’s wealth of material objects. Artists began writing braggadocios songs about cars, houses, clothing, and jewelry. Many hip-hop aficionados were troubled by the superficial nature hip-hop music had developed. Hip-hop no longer expressed the toils and tribulations of an impoverished and oppressed people, instead, it promoted shallow and unrealistic goals. Ronald Jemal Stephens commented on the type of lyrical shift:
[…] the commercialization of rap lyrics… undermine the importance of the African oral tradition. According to Anthony Palmer, the majority of commercialized rap lyrics are concerned with humor and mockery, a lighter version of rap that reduces it to another faddish new musical form whose newness… allows it a hearing from white culture while denying African Americans their cultural roots. (Glandey 293)
He points out that the shallowness of new gangster rap songs not only influences its audience but also degrades what hip-hop music stood for.
Artists like the Big Tymers, Master P, Lil Wayne, and others wrote raps centered on cars, houses, jewelry, and other material pursuits. For example, in the song “Shine” rapper Juvenile begins his verse by bragging about his car collection saying, “Yellow Viper, yellow Hummer, yellow Benz/Yellow PT Cruiser, yellow ‘Lac on rims/Drop yellow ‘Vette and a platinum Rolls Royce/That’s seven different cars every day I got a choice” (Leo’s Lyrics).
Other rap artists followed the trend, and radio airwaves became dominated by songs lacking substance or significance. In 1993 a Tripe Called Quest tried to warn agains this change and defend the rap industry in their song “we can get down” :
How can a reverend preach when a rev cant define/the music of our youth from 1979/ we rap about what we see/ meaning reality/ from people busting caps to Mandela being free/ not ever M.C. be with the negativity/ we have a slew of rappers pushing positivity/ hip-hop will never die yo, its all about rap/ Mayor Barry’s smoking crack/ let’s preach about that. (Gladney 293)
Unsubstantive music appealed to white listeners which fund a lot of the multi-billion dollar industry. Yet, despite the success of this new era of hip-hop, many strived to uphold the roots of the culture and advance the consciousness established by such figureheads as Public Enemy, KRS-One, and Afrika Bambaata.
In the wake of the materialistic charged wave of rap music, artists like Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli, Jurassic 5, the Roots, and Blackalicious took a different approach to their music, choosing to focus on more substantive issues than wealth and possessions. These artists are often considered underground artists because they are not played on the radio. Yet, many artists such as these have developed a large following of white listerners. In a song on The Root’s newest album Phrenology, the roots explain how the black man does not financially support their group, but instead they depend on their white listeners. Larger issues like poverty, racism, and African American empowerment were among the many topics examined by such artists. For example on his song “Get By,” Talib Kweli scrutinizes the disproportionate number of African Americans in jail saying, “Yo, I activism- attackin’ the system, the blacks and latins in prison/Numbers of prison they victim black in the vision” (Leo’s Lyrics).
Kweli effectively raises notice of this issue, which has had devastating effects on the African American community. Lyrics like these are reminiscent of the Black Arts poetry of the 1960’s, which addressed plaguing issues in black America. The work of artists like Kweli demonstrates how rap music can serve as an effective medium for constructive artistic expression.
Hip-hop culture in its beginnings was a counterculture movement that gave voice to the downtrodden, silenced, and oppressed members of the American society. As hip-hop culture evolved and entered mainstream American culture its focus shifted greatly; however, regardless of the general trends of the genre, hip-hop – specifically the rap music component – continued to express the concerns of an otherwise overlooked portion of America. Today, rap music stands in the forefront of popular music, and the effect of hip-hop culture on the American public is blaringly evident. Yet, despite its commercialization, hip-hop has maintained its status as a highly pertinent method of expression.
Light, Alan, ed. The Vibe History of Hip Hop. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999.
Rhodes, Henry. The Evolution of Rap Music in the United States. Yale?New Haven Teachers Institute. 13 Mar. 2003 <//www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1993/4/93.04.04.x.html>.
Unofficial Hip Hop Timeline. 8 Apr. 2003 <//www.b?boys.com/hiphoptimeline.html>.
West, Cornel. The Cornel West Reader. N.p.: Perseus Publishing, 1999.