A brief history of the culture that shaped the most popular genre in the world.
Hip-Hop is more than just a genre of music – it’s a cultural movement that started in the Bronx during the 1970s. Evolving from a counter-culture against a racist society, the music was seen as a direct result of the harsh living standards in the poor side of New York City, particularly in African-American communities.
A lack of opportunities in white-dominated capitalist America meant unemployment levels were highest amongst minority, urban communities. What started off as just a recreational hobby at parties turned into a platform for giving these communities financial incentives and culturally creative opportunities.
The early evolution coincided with the accessibility of sampling technology and drum-machines as opposed to professional studio equipment. This meant the production of hip-hip was affordable to the average consumer who wanted to produce music.
It wasn’t just socio-economic factors that spurred these communities on. Although largely influenced by disco music, hip-hop also saw disco as a stain on music. Kurtis Blow, a forefather of the genre, described the production of hip-hop as a “direct response to the watered down, Europeanized, disco music that permeated the airwaves.”
Before music even entered the fray, there was another form of artistic expression that became the first element of hip-hop. In 1972, a Greek American teenager ‘tagged’ Taki 183 (his name and street number) on walls throughout the New York subway, beginning a new cultural phenomenon, graffiti.
After that, spray-painted murals became commonplace on walls across the city as street artists came together under the cover of darkness to produce their artwork. Before long, graffiti started being used to convey social and political messages which kick-started a creative rebellion against the forces that looked to marginalise their communities.
However, the police regarded graffiti as vandalism and when it was discovered that the street art was also being used as a means for gangs to mark their territory and served as an indicator of gang-related activities, there was resistance from the law. Undercover police squads, barbed wire fences, dogs and paint-removing acid baths were used to stop graffiti artists and so the urban communities upped their game.
An 18-year-old immigrant that went by the name DJ Kool Herc presented the Bronx with his colossal native Jamaican sound systems. He threw block parties where people from all walks of life could gather from areas around the entire city, in turn creating the second element of hip-hop, DJing.
Before any vocals were added, the music was just funk and disco beats that the masses could dance the worries of everyday life away to. DJs got creative and developed scratching which early hip-hop DJ Grand Wizard Theodore described as, “nothing but the back-cueing that you hear in our ear before you push it [the recorded sound] out to the crowd.”
DJ Kool Herc also introduced break-beat DJing, where the most danceable, rhythmic breakdown section of funks songs, called the breaks, are isolated and prolonged by being looped successively to keep the crowds dancing throughout the night. As a result of this innovative technique, a revolutionary new dance style and the third element of hip-hop was created, breakdancing.
The break-beat provided party-goers with an opportunity to impress the crowds with improvised dance moves. Eventually, the dancing turned into competitions, or battles as they were called where two people would dance head-to-head and be judged on their creativity, skill and musicality to earn bragging rights amongst their respective communities.
The competitions happened in cyphers which were circles of people that crowded around the dancers to watch them battle it out. Sometimes these circles were huge, sometimes only a few people wide, but the sense of competition always remained and drew communities closer and closer together.
Word of the competitions that were held in New York spread and within the following few years breakdancing became an international phenomenon with championships being held everywhere from Brazil all the way to South Korea.
As the popularity of the dance rose, hip-hop purists became increasingly frustrated by the terminology used for the dance as they saw it as an ignorant term coined by the media. Breakdancing became associated with the exploitation of the art used to sensationalise ‘breaking’, the supposed proper name for it. DJ Kool Herc said ‘breaking’ was slang for ‘getting excited, acting energetically or causing a disturbance.”
The fourth and possibly most important element of hip-hop is MCing. DJ Kool Herc used a microphone to start interjecting his voice over the records he played. The master of ceremonies (MC) role began by simply presenting the DJ, speaking to the audience and entertaining them with jokes.
The MCs role as a presenter evolved creatively as they started to use rhyming verses to introduce the DJ. Some were pre-written but the most talented MCs did ad lib for theirs, freestyling their verses to entertain the crowds and develop their reputation in the community.
In their 1993 album Midnight Marauders, A Tribe Called Quest noted, “the use of the term MC when referring to a rhyming wordsmith originates from the dance halls of Jamaica. At each event, there would be a master of ceremonies who would introduce the different musical acts and would say a toast in style of a rhyme, directed at the audience and to the performers.”
Aside from the presenting role, rap’s history is believed by many to go back to the griots of West Africa. The griots were storytellers, singers, musicians and historians that used musical traditions of telling stories rhythmically over instruments. It has also maintained that James Brown, as the inventor of funk music in the mid 60s, was one of the main influences on hip-hop artists for using rhymes in his songs and starting the funk drum beat that was and still is so common in hip-hop tracks today.
Like breaking, rapping became a competition judged on the MC’s content, flow (rhythm and rhyme) and delivery. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were one of the early groups who performed in battles. They embodied all four elements of hip-hop with their eccentric style, turntablism, break-beat DJing but most importantly, their conscious lyricism which established the group as pioneers of rap as an art form.
But at this point, hip-hop was still only considered an underground movement in New York. African-American Sylvia Robinson saw its potential and decided to materialise what was happening at these parties and events, so she founded the label Sugar Hill Records.
Robinson brought together Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien and called them the Sugarhill Gang. Rapping over a sample of Chic’s Good Times, 1979’s Rappers Delight took the world by storm and became a chart-topping phenomenon.
The hip-hop communities were outraged by the Sugarhill Gang’s success. Purists claimed it didn’t reflect the hip-hop that was really happening on the streets and Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers claimed his lyrics were stolen and used in Rappers Delight. There was a bitter backlash against how the song commercialised hip-hop as well as the fact that they hadn’t done it by themselves.
Rappers Delight demonstrated the potential hip-hop records could have and, not long after, they were everywhere. The early DJs and MCs represented what in rap is today’s ‘old-school’ and, in the mid-80s, the new school of rappers arrived.
The four elements have remained through hip-hop’s transition into the 21st century, even they can often be forgotten. It’s important to remember the likes of DJ Kool Herc and hip-hop’s origins as we enter into a new era – an era where hip-hop has become the most popular genre in the world.