Raise your hand if you thought Hip Hop was just another term for rap music? Now put that hand back down before someone gives you a high five.
Let’s be honest – when we hear the words Hip Hop, we think of rappers with high energy and low baggy jeans delivering rhymes to a rhythmic beat. However, that’s a common misconception. Hip Hop is so much more than that – it is a culture and a lifestyle that has a deep history.
What is now one of the important and influential movements in the world, started out as a localized urban arts pastime. But, to understand where Hip Hop came from, it’s crucial to also understand what it actually is.
The Way I Are: What is Hip Hop
Hip-Hop embraces four different elements of art. These four ‘pillars’ of Hip-Hop are:
1. DJing OR Turntabling
2. MCing OR Rapping/Rhyming
3. B-boying OR Break Dancing
4. Graffiti Painting or Writing
Though these elements might have developed during different times, they came together in the late 1970s in the Bronx, New York. Graffiti has been around since mankind discovered writing tools, B-boying came into being to match the ‘breaks-beats’ in early hip-hop music, Turntabling is a technique DJs use to quickly transition between tempos or songs and rapping was influenced by black power poetry, talking blues songs and the Jamaican style of rhythmic speech known as ‘toasting’.
Hip-Hop embraces these four artistic elements, but it also has blended and expanded them to become a means for feeling, understanding, celebrating, challenging, and commenting on matters of the world. According to The Journal of African American History1 “For many youth, Hip Hop reflects social, economic, political, and cultural realities and conditions of their lives, speaking to them in a language and manner they understand.”
While people are mostly familiar with these four elements, there’s a fifth element of Hip Hop that’s often missed, and that is knowledge or social consciousness. It means knowledge of self, the community, the movement and the world at large. While the other elements are oral (MCing), aural (DJing), physical (Breakdance) and Visual (Graffiti), knowledge is more mental and philosophical. It’s what binds all other elements together and what allows the artist to explore and understand their identity so that they can truly express themselves in such a way that others can fully experience it. In a way, it is the most important element as without self-knowledge, there would be no self-expression.
Empire State of Mind: The Origin of Hip Hop
During the early 70’s, the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the decline of the manufacturing industry caused the economy to fall apart. This construction displaced many black and Hispanic families while most of the white families moved to the suburbs. As economic opportunities and entertainment sources dwindled, the youngest generation of these displaced families began anxiously searching for outlets to vent and channel their creativity and frustration. Soon, the abandoned buildings and empty parking lots became the venues for block parties and these parties laid the foundation for all the four elements of early Hip Hop culture. DJs and MCs set up mobile “Sound Systems” and played music. Cardboard sheets became dance floors for the break-dancers, and the surrounding walls acted as blank canvases for graffiti.
While the roots of Hip Hop date back to the South Bronx in the 1970s, there’s actually a specific date, time and address of its birth. Although shaped by many artists, Hip Hop is believed to have come to life on August 11, 1973, at a birthday party in an apartment building in west Bronx, New York City. That location was 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, and the man who started it all was the brother of the birthday girl. His name was Clive Campbell—better known as DJ Kool Herc, the founding father of Hip Hop.
DJ Kool Herc introduced the “breakbeat” DJ technique, which was a mixing practice he modified from Jamaican dub music. He would use a pair of turntables to play two copies of the same record and would switch between them so that the percussive section would be extended. It was during this ‘break’ section when people would dance the most. Along with the music, he would yell phrases like “B-Boys, B-Girls, are you ready? Keep on rock steady,” “To the beat, y’all,” and “You don’t stop!” This style of lyrical chanting and wordplay was an early form of rapping.
DJ Kool Herc along with two others – Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash are known as the “Holy Trinity” of Hip Hop.
My Name is…: How ‘Hip Hop’ Got its Name
The words “hip” and “hop” have a long history. The word ‘hip’ has been a part of the African American Vernacular English language since as early as 1904. It meant ‘current’. Today, it means being aware, conscious or enlightened. It embraces the fifth element of Hip Hop – knowledge.
And hop simply means to move or ‘hop’ to a beat. During a lecture at Cornell University in 2012, Afrika Bambaataa (one of the pioneers of Hip Hop) was asked how, of all the names and terms he could have chosen, he settled on “hip-hop” and he said he liked the sound of it in songs and in talks. In his words: ‘This is hip and when you feel that music you gotta hop to it, so that’s when we called it ‘hip-hop.’
Started from the Bottom Now We’re Here: Evolution of Hip Hop over the Years
In the 80s there was new technology and a new wave of rappers. Machines like synthesizers, drum machines and samplers became cheaper and accessible. Music makers started experimenting with techniques, such as looping, layering, adding effects, sequencing elaborate arrangements and more. It was during the 80s and 90s that Hip Hop started to rapidly spread across the United States. That era became the ‘Golden age of Hip Hop”. Record labels started investing in it and new artists with different styles emerged. Those rhythmic chants progressed into lyrics that explored a wide range of subjects including social and political issues.
Some of the innovators of the golden age were RUN DMC, The Beastie Boys, L.L.Cool J, Public Enemy, M.C.Hammer, Salt-n-Pepa and many more.
Walk This Way: Hip Hop Today
Hip-hop quickly grew from being the creative outlet of impoverished African and Latin teenagers living in the Bronx in the late 70s to an extremely successful, (multi-billion-dollar-a-year) industry. Today Hip-Hop can mean anything, from music to clothing, from dialect to traditions. But we’ll save that information for another day…and another post.
So in the words of Wiz Khalifa – See you again.