Hip-hop culture has always had a complex relationship with race. From its inception, the relationship between hip-hop and race has been fragmented, decentralized, and, in many ways, fluid. Hip-hop emerged in the Bronx, New York, in the early 1970s. The economic environment that catalyzed its development reflected the negative effects of a postindustrial society and a rapidly changing economy. Inner-city communities were devastated by the emergent service economy and the shift from domestic manufacturing to overseas outsourcing.
At the same time, the social and racial environments in which hip-hop developed were multifaceted and have yet to be systematically studied. From hip-hop’s inception, the youth involved in its genesis were from a diverse array of African, Latino, and European origins. Hip-hop itself would not exist in its current style without the various and diverse contributions of pioneers and artists from the Caribbean and Latin America, as well as their African American neighbors and counterparts in the Bronx.
Most observers identify four foundational elements of hip-hop culture. These components are DJ-ing/turntablism, B-boying/breaking, MC-ing/rapping, and visual/graffiti art. Each component stands on its own, however, with its own artisans, audiences, and commercial products. The intersection of these components in the West and South Bronx generated the cultural revolution of hip-hop. Although rap music and hip hop are often used interchangeably, rap is only one of (at least) four elements of hip hop. A brief explanation of these elements underscores their original emergence and sets the stage for the corresponding racial categorizations.
DJ-ing is the deliberate and technical manipulation of the turntable, ultimately transforming it from a simple musical platform into a full-blown musical instrument with its own arsenal of sounds, such as scratches, temporally manipulated tones, sonic cuts, and samples (short bits of other people’s music). B-Boying refers to the kinesthetic or body responses to the DJ’s isolation of “break” beats on vinyl records. B-boys would break during the isolation and looping of break beats at the original hip-hop jams (parties). The break is that part of a song where the track is stripped down to its most fundamentally percussive elements. The connection between the highly percussive or beat-oriented segments in hiphop music and the power of the drum in African and African-American cultures should not be overlooked or underestimated. Hip-hop music captures and reflects the power of the drum in its dance and music.
The MC is the verbal arbiter of hip-hop culture. Originally cast as a tangential hype-man for the earliest well-known DJs in hip-hop, the MC has now graduated to the foreground of the culture. The poets, MCs, and rappers of hip-hop have become the main purveyor of rap music’s dominance on the pop culture landscape. Graffiti art is the element of the culture that most clearly and singularly predates the genesis of hip-hop. Indeed, graffiti can be traced back to ancient times. However, its development in conjunction with the other foundational elements of hip-hop is striking. Graffiti provided a viable artistic platform for poverty-stricken inner city youth, whose artistic outlets were diminished in most public institutions. In addition, in the 1970s there was a drastic reduction of musical and arts programs in public schools, and of funds that supported recreational centers and other public platforms for creative production. Many scholars have referred to hip-hop’s graffiti art as one of the most potent signals of young people’s reclamation of public spaces, which have been utterly privatized in this postmodern era. One generation’s rampant vandalism is indeed another generation’s revolutionary movement.
At the risk of promoting racial essentialism in hip-hop culture, the following is a brief outline of several of the seminal figures in the origins, development, and growth of hip-hop underscores the postmodern quality of the racial dynamics within the culture. To begin with, the consensus founder of hip-hop culture is known as DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell). Born in Kingston, Jamaica, not very far from Bob Marley’s neighborhood of origin, Herc moved with his family to the West Bronx in the late 1960s. Before long he borrowed elements of Jamaican “dub” and “yard” cultures and infused these public performance techniques with African-American soul music, the verbal styles of radio disc jockeys, and the aforementioned developing elements of hip-hop (especially graffiti art).
Herc’s sensibilities for these forms, and his understanding of their potential to entertain inner city youth in postindustrial New York, bloomed suddenly in the summer of 1973, when he took over for a DJ at his sister’s birthday party, held in the rec room of their housing project. From this point forward, the hip-hop “jam” became the fastest-growing and most engaging form of youth entertainment. In interviews and in public appearances, Kool Herc readily concedes the importance of his relationships with African-American and Latino youth, as well as his Jamaican heritage and love of African-American soul music. In particular, James Brown’s soulful stylings and live music performances inspired Kool Herc’s desire to
isolate the break beats of records in order to extend the most danceable aspects of the original hip-hop jams.
At least two other DJs share the honor as founders of hip-hop: Afrika Bambaataa, of West Indian heritage, and Grandmaster Flash who is of Jamaican heritage. Aside from being one of the originally eclectic hip-hop DJs (e.g., using music from Japan and Germany, and borrowing and sampling from electronica and disco), Afika Bambaataa was also a leading figure in one of the largest and most notorious street gangs, the Black Spades. During the early stages of hip-hop culture, Bam was the leader of the movement within the Black Spades to transition away from the violent activity usually associated with gangs. The result was the birth of the largest and longest-lasting community arts organization in hip-hop culture: the Zulu Nation. DJ Grandmaster Flash learned the basic technique of scratching from Grand Wizard Theodore, and in the mid-1970s he developed it in a way that transformed the turntable into a bona fide instrument.
Although youth from all backgrounds have been influential in “breaking” (sometimes referred to as “break dancing’’), the earliest pioneers are of Latin American origins. One of the first dominant breaking crews was the Rock Steady Crew. One of this group’s leaders and most endearing personalities is Crazy Legs, who starred in a number of Hollywood films, including Flashdance (1983) and Beatstreet (1984). Though he witnessed the decline in mainstream popularity of breaking, he continues to be an ambassador for hip-hop dance forms all over the world.
One of the first MCs, Busy Bee starred in the groundbreaking docudrama Wild Style (1982). Of African-American origin, MCs and rappers such as Busy Bee, Coke La Rock, Grandmaster Caz, and Melle Mel extended the African-American oral tradition (including field hollers, ring shouts, spirituals, the blues, sermons, toasts, and playing the dozens) into the twenty-first century with their rap lyrics. The best rappers and MCs have generally been of African-American origin—Rakim, Jay-Z, Nas, and Tupac Shakur are usually included in this group, though this is not to exclude their West Indian counterpart, Notorious B.I.G., whose Jamaican American heritage informed his milky and melodic lyrical delivery.
One of the most noted pioneers of graffiti art in hip-hop culture was a young Greek-American named Demetrius. His “graf tag,’’ taki183, is credited as one of the first monikers to go “all-city” (i.e., to be recognized in all five boroughs of New York City) via its ubiquitous presence on subway trains and various neighborhoods. Many graffiti pioneers were of Latin American descent, such as the extraordinary Lady Pink, who braved the same dangers and pitfalls of graffiti writing as her male counterparts. Clearly, “graf art” is another element of hip-hop in which African-American ethnicity is not an essential prerequisite to artistic or commercial success.
It is admittedly a racially essentialist conclusion to assert that any of the aforementioned elements of hiphop are dominated by any particular ethnic group. Yet each element, through its pioneers and most significant contributors, often suggests a particular ethnicity’s penchant for artistic expression. So it may be appropriate to conclude that young people of European descent have (at least in America and Europe) been more prominent in graffiti artistry than in MC-ing or rapping. Likewise, Latin American acrobats have been more prominent in breaking and B-boying than in MC-ing or rapping. DJs tend to run the ethnic gamut, though various DJs of Asian ethnicity dominated international competitions in the early twenty-first century. These racial assignments and categorizations ultimately deconstruct the spirit of hip-hop culture, which tends to invite people of all hues to participate in and experience what is the most pervasive popular form of entertainment across the globe in the early twenty-first century.
Chang, Jeff. 2005. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the HipHop Generation. New York: St Martin’s Press.
Forman, Murray, and Mark Anthony Neal, eds. 2004. That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. New York: Routledge.
George, Nelson. 1998. Hip Hop America. New York: Viking Penguin.