Hip-hop, in its most contemporary and uniform manifestation, emerged in 1973. Though various elements of hiphop culture—both culturally and aesthetically—are found in African culture, the Harlem Renaissance, and the black arts movement of the 1960s, it was not until 1973 with the legendary DJ Kool Herc's first block party that hip-hop truly began to emerge. Many factors are responsible for the creation and development of hip-hop culture in the South Bronx:
- American urban planning and later, Reaganomics;
- the postindustrial urban landscape;
- the crack epidemic of the 1980s;
- technological advances, namely sampling and synthesizers; and
- major cuts in funding for the arts in and around New York City (Rose, 1994).
Today, hip-hop culture and its constituents have crystallized into what Bakari Kitwana (2002) has appropriately labeled the "Hip-Hop Generation."
Hip-hop culture consists of at least seven elements, four primary and three secondary. The original, primary elements of hip-hop culture are DJ-ing (by nontraditional disc jockeys who were the first technicians to isolate and
sample the break-beats from popular songs of the 1970s); break dancing (by early dance athletes who borrowed moves from capoeira, ballet, and the martial arts, among other dance forms and kinesthetic techniques); graffiti, or graf (practiced by visual artists with no outlets who reclaimed public space by "vandalizing" trains and other visible, public canvases with spray paint); and MC-ing (referring to masters of ceremonies; the earliest rappers were mere background lyricists usually allowed only to give shoutouts to DJs, area crews, and announcements of upcoming hip-hop parties, originally referred to as jams). The second tier of elements developed as the culture grew into a worldwide phenomenon. These elements include fashion and modes of dress, entrepreneurship, and complex systems of knowledge (particularly elaborate language and other semiotic codes).
Each of the four primary elements centers around legendary historical figures within the culture. The figure credited with establishing the culture through a unique utilization of two turntables is DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell). Born in Kingston Jamaica, Kool Herc migrated to the west Bronx in 1967. By the early 1970s Kool Herc (who claims American soul and reggae as his seminal musical influences) had integrated elements of Jamaican yard culture into spontaneous parties (indoor and outdoor) that are now considered the first hip-hop jams. These parties were distinct for a number of reasons:
- They were cheaper than most disco parties of the time period;
- Kool Herc isolated and looped break-beats from 1970s soul classics and popular disco tunes in order to make the jam eminently danceable;
- The looped break-beats provided extended opportunities for breakdancers to showcase their amazing acrobatic skills; and
- MCs became the voice of hip-hop culture through shoutouts and party announcements.
Eventually the role of the MC developed into that of the central entertainer of hip-hop culture: the rapper. The first rap record that achieved mainstream radio attention was titled "Rappers Delight," performed by the Sugar Hill Gang and released by Sylvia Robinson's Sugar Hill Records in 1979. However, some of the lyrics of this historical record were actually written by Grand Master Caz, one of the original rappers from the South Bronx, who performed his raps in and around the same jams initiated by DJ Kool Herc.
There were several crews of young folk who participated in the development of break dancing and graffiti. One of the earliest and now most legendary breaking crews is the Rock Steady Crew. Bronx b-boys (b-boys and b-girls are imbibers of hip-hop culture who creatively participate in two or more primary elements of the culture) Jimmy D. and Jojo established the legendary Rock Steady Crew, joined by Crazy Legs and Lenny Len in 1979.
The earliest documented graf label belongs to Greece-born Demetrius from 183th Street in the Bronx. He made himself famous by tagging Taki 183 throughout the five boroughs of New York City via subway trains. There are several other dates and historical figures of note. In 1974 Afrika Bambaataa transformed one of New York City's largest and most violent gangs into hip-hop culture's first organization, the ZULU Nation. Even today the ZULU Nation is one of the most publicly active, communally oriented organizations in hip-hop. Bambaataa, along with DJ Busy Bee Starski, is credited with coining the term hip-hop (in reference to those original parties/jams) in the same year. In 1975 Grand Wizard Theodore discovered the scratch, a monumental DJ-ing technique by which DJs deliberately rupture a vinyl sound recording to produce the
now legendary scratching sound so often associated with hip-hop DJs and music producers.
From these origins, hip-hop's development can appropriately be broken down into three eras: The Old School Era, Golden Age Era, and the Platinum Present.
The Old School Era, from 1979 to 1987, is when hiphop culture cultivated itself in and through all of its elements, usually remaining authentic to its countercultural roots in the postindustrial challenges manifested in the urban landscape of the late twentieth century. Artists associated with this era include Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, The Sugarhill Gang, Lady B, Big Daddy Kane, Run DMC, Kurtis Blow, and others.
The Golden Age Era, from 1987 to 1993, marked a time when rap and rappers began to take center stage as the culture splashed onto the mainstream platform of American popular culture. The extraordinary musical production and lyrical content of rap songs artistically eclipsed most of the other primary elements of the culture (break dancing, graf art, and DJ-ing). Eventually the recording industry began contemplating rap music as a potential billion-dollar opportunity. Mass-mediated rap music and hip-hop videos displaced the intimate, insulated urban development of the culture. Artists associated with this era include Run DMC, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B and Rakim, Salt N Pepa, Queen Latifah, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Public Enemy, NWA, and many others.
The last era is the Platinum Present. From 1994 on, hip-hop culture has enjoyed the best and worst of what mass-mediated popularity and cultural commodification have to offer. The meteoric rise to popular fame of gangsta rap in the early 1990s set the stage for a marked content shift in the lyrical discourse of rap music toward more and more violent depictions of inner-city realities. Millions of magazines and records were sold, but two of hip-hop's most promising artists, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, were literally gunned down in the crossfire of a media-fueled battle between the so-called East and West Coast constituents of hip-hop culture. With the blueprint of popular success for rappers laid bare, several exceptional artists stepped into the gaping space left in the wake of Biggie and Tupac. This influx of new talent included Nas, Jay-Z, Master P, DMX, Big Pun, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Eminem, and Outkast.
By the mid-1990s hip-hop culture also emerged as an area of serious study on the university level. Courses on hip-hop culture, history, and aesthetics were offered on college campuses across America. Due largely to student demand and interest, these courses analyzed the origins and significance of hip-hop culture. Currently housed at Harvard University's W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, the Hiphop Archive, founded in 2002 by Marcyliena Morgan, is an example of this important pedagogical development.
Forman, Murray. The 'Hood Comes First: Race, Space, and Place in Rap and Hip Hop. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.
Kitwana, Bakari. The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002.
The Original Hip-Hop (Rap) Lyrics Archive. Available from <http://www.ohhla.com>.
Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1994.
Toop, David. Rap Attack #3. London: Serpent's Tail Press, 2000.
william boone (2005)
james peterson (2005)