Hip hop is a bundle of cultural practices that coalesced during the 1970s. It was largely developed by black and Latino youth in the Bronx, a New York City borough particularly affected by urban blight, middle-class flight, and deindustrialization. Hip hop is often used interchangeably with the term rap to describe the musical dimension of the cultural movement. Hip hop, though, is an umbrella term that refers to four distinct cultural forms. Graffiti (or bombing ) is an art form that was typically staged on New York City subway trains before it gained mainstream recognition in the early 1980s. The second cultural practice associated with the emergence of hip hop is break-dancing or breaking (as performed, for example, by the Rock Steady Crew). Breaking has obvious roots in earlier forms of dance within the United States and provided the inspiration for the term b-boy, a male break dancer. The remaining two elements— deejaying and emceeing —constitute the primary distinguishing characteristics of the musical idiom associated with hip hop culture. The first refers to the role of turntables in the making and mixing of rap music rhythms in the place of live musicians (in the traditional sense). The emergence of the emcee as a dominant figure reflects the role the spoken word plays in hip hop, distinguishing it from the genres of gospel, blues, and rhythm and blues, in which singing features prominently. With time, graffiti and break-dancing became less prominent and commodifiable, as the deejay and especially the emcee emerged as the genre’s iconic representatives.
The three individuals most associated with the music’s early development were Bronx residents Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash. Herc is celebrated for his adaptation of the sound-system culture—bass and volume—of his native Jamaica to the parks and community centers of the Bronx. Afrika Bambaataa, the child of Caribbean immigrants, would contribute his eclectic taste and his willingness to use rock, reggae, soul, and jazz musical sources to create rap music. Grandmaster Flash, an immigrant from the Caribbean island of Barbados, is known as the pioneer in the realm of turntablism and for developing the art of mixing. At this early stage, the primary figures associated with the genre were all deejays. Their work, in the aggregate, provides evidence of the influence of Jamaican popular culture upon rap’s emergence (for example, producers such as Lee Perry and King Tubby, and performers such as I-Roy and U-Roy).
Hip hop emerged as a prominent form of black popular culture outside of the New York area with the success of the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” (1979), which was released on an independent label owned by musician and producer Sylvia Robinson. Indeed, most of the music’s pioneers did not consider rap to be commercially viable and, as a consequence, did not try to make and distribute recordings. The developing interest in these practices by the culture industries created new stars, such as Kurtis Blow, the Funky Four Plus One, and the Treacherous Three, along with older groups such as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force, and the Cold Crush Brothers. The genre also achieved crossover popularity through the work of pop groups such as Blondie (“Rapture,” 1980). Up until this juncture, most observers saw rap as a novelty and most of the records were made for independent labels.
As a recorded medium, the first classic era of rap music was launched with the release in 1982 of Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock” and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.” The former recording revealed a strong influence by the German electronic group Kraftwerk. The latter, with its relatively pointed social message, was recorded and released against the will and without the participation of most of the group’s members (including Grandmaster Flash), and would signal the changing balance between deejays and emcees, with the turntablists gradually fading in prominence. Following in the wake of these canonical recordings was the work of New York–area artists such as Run DMC, LL Cool J, Boogie Down Productions, Eric B. & Rakim, and Public Enemy. As the music’s influence spread beyond the inner city, suburban youth became involved as artists, including most prominently De La Soul and the Native Tongues movement. Hip hop’s audience crossed boundaries with time, and it is suggested that at points as many as three-quarters of the consumers of the music were neither black nor Latino.
The effects of crack cocaine and its associated industries energized (and in some instances subsidized) new forms of rap music. The kinds of rap that emerged from the west coast of the United States (especially Los Angeles and Oakland) were distinguished from their counterparts in the Northeast not only by their linguistic innovations and source preferences (e.g., Parliament/Funkadelic and Zapp versus soul jazz and James Brown), but also, at least initially, by their moral economies. By the middle of the 1990s, these perspectives provided the dominant template for the making of rap music in the South (OutKast, Petey Pablo, and others, in the wake of Miami’s 2 Live Crew), the West (N.W.A., Ice T, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Tupac), and the Northeast (the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, and later 50 Cent).
The musical genre of rap has proved to be diverse in many respects. Nevertheless, throughout its history it has been a space that has privileged masculine perspectives and—in contrast to rhythm and blues, which is often cast as its feminized other—has featured few successful women practitioners (exceptions include Roxanne Shanté, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, L’il Kim, and Foxy Brown). Indeed, the genre as manifested in its lyrics, its publications, and in film became relatively misogynistic. Its boundaries would also—in contrast to other black music forms, such as house music—discourage the open participation of lesbians and gays with its often ritualistic deployment of homophobic discourse. Its successful practitioners have also been overwhelmingly black with few exceptions (e.g., Eminem). Hip hop music and culture have also had a great impact abroad throughout Europe, Africa, parts of Asia, and the Americas, and have generated new genres in response, including drum and bass, reggaeton, grime, and kwaito.
Hip hop defined the generation coming of age in the 1980s and afterward. Moreover, with its particular sartorial, linguistic, gender, and class inflections, it represents in the eyes of many a rejection of the aesthetics, values, and goals of the civil rights generation. It has also been used to market clothing, running shoes, and subsequently a wide range of consumer goods, as well as politics (most prominently in the form of the Hip Hop Action Network and the Vote or Die voter registration campaigns mounted during the 2004 American national elections).
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Watkins, S. Craig. 2005. Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Boston: Beacon.