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date: 21 February 2020

Hip hopfree

  • Felicia M. Miyakawa

A collective term for urban art forms that emerged in the 1970s beginning in New York City. Initially the term was applied to the artistic outlets of b-boying/b-girling (what cultural outsiders recognized as breakdancing), graffiti writing, MC-ing, and DJ-ing, but as it has grown into a global phenomenon, hip hop has come to embrace fashion, language, and lifestyle.

Hip hop took root in the socio-cultural context of post-Civil Rights era New York City. White flight in the wake of integration depleted local, urban economies of the consumer power necessary to support local businesses. Unemployment in these areas skyrocketed. Urban planning, in particular the Cross-Bronx expressway (spearheaded by Robert Moses), uprooted established South Bronx communities, leaving gangs to rule the neighborhoods. At the same time, a deep fiscal crisis left the state and city of New York unable to support social services in impoverished areas. Landlords burned down their tenement buildings, taking easy insurance money over intermittent rent payments from unemployed tenants, further exacerbating the lack of sufficient housing for Bronx residents. In this context, local youth transformed neglect into numerous creative outlets expressing their frustration, joy, energy, anger, agency, and solidarity. Individual forms of expression associated with this culture—including DJ-ing (manipulating record turntables to provide continuous breakbeats for dancers; see DJ; Breakbeat), MC-ing (or emceeing, speaking in rhymes over a DJ’s beat), b-boying/b-girling (dancing specifically oriented to the beats provided by the DJ; see Breakdancing), and writing (graffiti or aerosol art)—have come to be known as hip hop’s original “elements.”

Public Enemy, 1988.

Mirrorpix/Lebrecht Authors

1. Roots.

By the mid-1970s, versions of all four original elements were in place. Various dance forms that would coalesce into what became known as b-boying were already being practiced in New York. DJ-ing, albeit without the isolation and juggling of breakbeats, already existed in different arenas. Live DJs in disco clubs had already familiarized US club goers with seamless streams of music. More significantly, Jamaican dancehall DJs (known as selectors) used two turntables and a vocalist (known as the DJ) who spoke in rhymes over the selector’s beat. This practice was imported to the United States by Caribbean immigrants, among them DJ Kool herc, one of hip hop’s first significant DJs. Numerous spoken word, poetic, and oral traditions fed into the element that developed into MC-ing. Dancehall selectors provided an immediate influence, as did spoken word political poets such as the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. The swagger and braggadocio typical of MCs have roots in sources as diverse as African oral practices and Blaxploitation films. New York had been attempting to counter graffiti artists since the 1960s. An early graffiti icon, Taki 183, known throughout the boroughs of New York City by the time he was profiled by the New York Times in 1971, was only the most notorious of graffiti taggers. By the time hip hop was “born,” New York City mayor John V. Lindsay had already declared a war on graffiti. As of the mid-1970s, these four artistic outlets were beginning to express a collective urban experience, catalyzed by a few key visionaries, including Afrika Bambaataa.

A former gang member, Afrika Bambaataa is commonly credited with the forethought of hip hop’s power for good. (Indeed, he is so revered that he is known by many as the “godfather” of hip hop.) Saddened by the continuous violence of gang life, he envisioned the creation of a safe artistic “space” (as much mental as visceral) as a potential path towards a peaceful existence. Already active in the urban practices of graffiti writing and DJ-ing for neighborhood parties, he founded a performing group that by 1974 he called the Zulu Nation. Grounded in pan-African ideology and Black Nationalist leanings (but boasting a membership of diverse racial backgrounds), the Zulu Nation quickly added b-boys and b-girls, graffiti writers, MCs, and additional DJs to its ranks. Performances were intended to be peaceful gatherings, alternative activities to gang warfare, but these events were not yet known as hip hop. Various apocryphal histories credit several possible “pioneers” (including the MC Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins of the Furious Five, and the DJs Lovebug Starski and Hollywood) with coining the term around 1978. By September of 1979, hip hop was a household word, thanks to the success of The Sugarhill Gang’s single “Rapper’s Delight”; “hip-hop” appears in the first line of the song’s lyrics and is repeated several times throughout the lengthy song. Further, use of the word “rapper” in the song’s title helped to solidify the practice of naming what an MC does as “rapping.”

2. The elements.

The success of “Rapper’s Delight” brought hip hop to public attention, but also began a separation of one element—MC-ing—from the other original elements. The song itself was put together in a manner inauthentic to hip hop practices. Whereas hip hop musical events (parties, park jams, club events) were DJ-driven and DJ-centric (and focused on getting the crowd to move, especially the b-boys and b-girls), “Rapper’s Delight” was created with a house band and not a DJ. Furthermore, the Sugarhill Gang was comprised of three MCs who had no street credibility. Sylvia Robinson (the owner of Sugarhill Records) put the trio together as a studio project. One member of the Sugarhill Gang, Big Bank Hank, borrowed lyrics from a well-regarded MC (Grandmaster Caz of the Cold Crush Brothers) without giving due credit. Such unauthorized borrowing of lyrics is anathema in hip hop culture, referred to pejoratively as “biting.” Insiders did not consider “Rapper’s Delight” to represent accurately what was practiced on the streets and in clubs. Consumers, however, heard only a compelling, fresh, new approach. Demand for similar products was immediate, spawning more and more Rap, music that featured an MC or group of MCs who spoke in rhymes over a repetitive disco- or funk-based groove. Very little “rap” music involved a DJ. MCs became marketable stars; rap became a fungible commodity.

While the popularity of rap music quickly rose, the other elements developed along quieter pathways. A few DJs tried to enter the public arena with recordings of their own. Grandmaster Flash, for example, released the landmark single “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (1981), in which he showcased his technical prowess on three turntables. In 1983, the DJ known as Grandmixer D.St. collaborated with Herbie Hancock on the song “Rockit,” which quickly became a dance hit. D.St.’s “scratch” solos on this recording became the stuff of legend: a good number of DJs mark hearing his solos as the beginning of their interest in DJ-ing. (See Scratching.) Consumer demand for DJ recordings, however, was low, so many DJs placed their efforts into production. Others turned to competing in DJ battles, which has since developed into a worldwide network of spirited contests. (DJs who work primarily to hone virtuosic DJ skills have become known as turntablists; their art is known as Turntablism). DJs compete either as individuals or in crews; famous crews include the Invisibl Skratch Piklz and the X-ecutioners. Some DJs have collaborated with rock bands, worked with symphony orchestras, or fused DJ-ing with other genres in new compositions of their own. DJ Spooky collaborated with composer Anthony Paul De Ritis on Devolution (2004), a live synthesis of Beethoven’s Seventh symphony and Ravel’s Bolero. And DJ Radar’s Concerto for Turntable has been performed at Carnegie Hall and various European venues.

B-boying, or early hip hop dancing, was successfully commodified for a few years by the film industry, taking a central place in films such as Wild Style, Flashdance, and Style Wars (all from 1983), and Beat Street and Breakin’ (both from 1984). Members of the Rock Steady Crew enjoyed cameo appearances in most of these films, cementing Rock Steady as the nation’s best-known b-boy crew. B-boys had a short media life, virtually disappearing from the big screen by the late 1980s until revival films such as Planet B-Boy (2007) brought the dance back to public attention. Like their DJ counterparts, b-boys have continued to hone their skills away from the spotlight through local gatherings and regional, national, and international battles (such as those featured in the film Planet B-Boy). Battles typically showcase competing crews rather than individuals. Crews from outside of the United States, and especially those from South Korea, France, and Japan, consistently take top prizes at international battles.

Efforts to commercialize graffiti art have not met with the same sustained success. A number of official graffiti shows were curated in the early 1980s as graffiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and those deeply influenced by graffiti including Keith Haring made a splash in the downtown Manhattan art scene. This crossover was short-lived. In its purest form, graffiti writing happens in outdoor, public, off-limits spaces. Heavily guarded subway train yards held a special appeal for writers, who stood to gain immediate, city-wide notoriety if trains they painted made it out of the yard and into the city. The risk of getting caught was worth the bragging rights. Taking graffiti and its wrong-side-of-the-law essence out of the train yards and putting it in museums seemed to take the life out of the paint. This style of urban art influenced the next generation of visual artists and has heavily influenced commercial design, but the art of making graffiti itself remains an underground art.

Beatboxing (the art of producing drum-like sounds using one’s mouth and body; descended from the practice of “patting Juba”), and knowledge (proposed by Afrika Bambaataa as the fixative that provides cohesion between the other four elements) have been proposed over the years as additional hiphop elements. Other forms of expression have vied for a place within hip-hop culture after rap was commodified into a mainstream entertainment industry in the mid-1980s. Hip hop and the world of fashion began to merge in 1986 when Run-D.M.C released their single “My Adidas”; shell-toe Adidas shoes, Cazal glasses, and fedora hats immediately became fashion musts for hip hop fans, setting in place a trend of product placement and sponsorship in rap songs and videos. Following established designers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Karl Kani benefitted from urban interest in their products, a number of hip-hop entrepreneurs have developed fashion lines that attempt to capture, package, and sell some essence of hip-hop culture. Examples include Sean Jean clothing, founded by Sean Combs; Phat Farm, founded by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons; and Rocawear, founded by Damon Dash and megastar Jay-Z.

Hip hop has also infiltrated the world of theater, resulting in initiatives such as the Hip-hop Theater Festival, founded by Danny Hoch, with branches in New York City, Washington, DC, Chicago, and San Francisco. Journalists writing about various aspects of hip-hop culture such as Harry Allen (self described “media assassin”), DaveyD, Kimberly Osorio, Joan Morgan, Oliver Wang, and Akiba Solomon have helped to establish hip-hop journalism. Some commentators argue for the existence of hip-hop politics, a political worldview shaped by growing up in what has been called the hip-hop generation, the generation born after the Civil Rights Movement but before 9/11 (Kitwana, 2002). Hip hop’s influence has also extended to the fields of photography, film, literature, philosophy, and language.

Since the late 1990s, journalists have been debating the “death” of hip hop, inferring that the cultural diversity, optimism, and social consciousness of hip hop’s earliest days have been replaced by crass commercialism, misogyny, and violence. Nevertheless, grass roots organizations built on hip hop’s ideals and aesthetics continue to take root around the globe, even as the industry of hip-hop music continues to thrive in the popular music marketplace.

3. Globalization.

Many of hip hop’s cultural insiders argue that hip hop is merely a modern manifestation of ideals and principles practiced for millennia by Africa’s indigenous peoples. Within this framework, the expansion of hip hop outside of the United States could be seen as part of an ongoing dialogue between African peoples around the globe, a construct Paul Gilroy has called the “Black Atlantic.” In the 1980s, hip hop as a cultural product quickly expanded beyond US borders, thanks both to hip-hop tours (such as the New York City Rap Tour of 1982, which included MCs, DJs, b-boys, and graffiti writers) and mainstream films that popularized b-boying in other countries. MTV’s rising interest in rap helped spread the music as well. As hip-hop culture and rap music took root in other countries, local musical and cultural influences laced hip hop with new flavors. Of particular interest to MCs and MC crews outside of the United States has been the use of rap music as a tool for political, social, and cultural empowerment. Members of minority communities—such as Algerians in France, and Turks in Germany—use rap as a platform to protest racism, poverty, and social strictures. As Tony Mitchell (2000) has documented, the use of local, vernacular languages by MCs is often in itself a political tool.

The story of globalization is not limited to foreign appropriations of a US product. Looking for new sounds, local hip-hop producers have turned to music from around the world for inspiration. For instance, a number of hip-hop producers have incorporated samples from Asian and South-Asian sources, including Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” (2001), Eric Sermon and Redman’s “React” (2002), and Timbaland and Magoo’s “Indian Flute” (2003). Producer DJ Quick did not account for the global popularity of Bollywood star Lata Mangeshkar when sampling one of her recordings for the song “Addictive” (2003) by Truth Hurts, which led to a copyright infringement lawsuit. New hybrid forms have also resulted from incorporating East Asian, South-east Asian, Latin American, and Caribbean musical influences. Reggaeton, which combines elements of rap and reggae, represents yet another link in the longstanding musical conversation between Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the United States.

4. Hip-hop and the academy.

Most early hip-hop scholarship investigated rap music at the expense of the other elements, helping to solidify the public understanding of rap as synonymous with hip hop, a perception instigated by the success of “Rapper’s Delight.” Once rap became commercially successful in the 1980s, cultural insiders began a movement to differentiate between “hip-hop” as the culture and “rap” as the product, some going so far as to position commercial gain from the culture as a marker of inauthenticity. Legendary MC KRS-One KRS-One is credited with the oft-quoted definition: “hip-hop is something you live; rap is something you do.” According to this adage, artists who participate in rap music’s commercial juggernaut may or may not be interested in promoting the values and practices of the culture that spawned the music. Within this framework, much rap music could be better described as part of popular culture, not hip-hop culture. The terms “rap” and “hip hop” are fluid enough to inspire lengthy scholarly discussions. Since 2000, scholars have begun to critique rap’s dominance in scholarly literature by bringing attention to other elements. Joe Schloss’s ethnographic history of hip hop’s dance traditions in New York, for example, challenges not only the traditional narrative of DJ-ing as the first element of hip hop, but also the standard history of b-boying (Schloss, 2009). Jeff Chang’s 2006 collection Total Chaos: the Art and Aesthetics of Hip Hop, deliberately foregrounds scholars and practitioners of dance, filmography, journalism, and graffiti in an attempt to recover the totality of the culture.

A second trend in recent scholarship has been the proliferation of ethnographic research. Most scholarship produced in the 1980s and first half of the 1990s came from an etic standpoint; scholars did not usually engage with members of the culture. Schloss’s groundbreaking study (2004) of sample-based DJs, built from many years of work within the DJ community, effectively blended ethnography with rigorous scholarship. Ethnographic work with hip hop “pioneers” has not only provided more balanced accounts of its early diversity but also attempted to offer an undiluted view of the non-commercialized, pre-commodified existence of hip-hop culture (Fricke and Ahern, 2002; Chang, 2006; Schloss, 2009). As part of this resurgence of interest in oral history collection, certain hip hop legends, such as dancer Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon, are increasingly in demand on the lecture circuit. Some have taught hip-hop-based courses in various university and college settings.

A third scholarly trend involves a general revisionist project, challenging early histories of hip hop that tended to center around African American male subjects without revealing more nuanced understandings of hip hop’s early diversity. Such work has sought to critique and re-examine conceptions of race within hip hop history and also to account for the experiences of women in hip hop. Tricia Rose’s foundational text Black Noise (1994) introduced the topic of female subjectivity in rap scholarship. Despite some work on figures such as graffiti artist Lady Pink, recovering female lost voices from hip hop’s earliest years remains a priority. The writings of Joan Morgan helped to establish what has been dubbed hip-hop feminism. A central dilemma at the heart of this concept, which prompted the historic Feminism and Hip-hop conference in 2005 at the University of Chicago, is the difficult challenge of carving out feminist agency within a culture that seems to take women’s objectification as its starting point. Documentary films such as Byron Hurt’s Hip-hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes (2006) and Rachel Raimist’s Nobody Knows My Name (1999) brought the discussion to wider audiences. Scholars such as Whitney Peoples, Gwendolyn Pough, and Marcyliena Morgan continue to foreground issues of feminism and women’s agency.

Early hip hop scholarship, beginning with David Toop’s The Rap Attack: African Jive to New York Hip Hop (1984, 3/1993), grounded hip-hop culture within African American and African diasporic aesthetics, a trend continued in subsequent scholarship (Rose, 1994; Keyes, 1996). Whereas this approach acknowledged the significance of African American hip-hop “pioneers,” it also effectively erased the many Latina/o contributions to early hip hop. Although this oversight has been gradually addressed since the mid-1990s, such work remains far from complete. Indeed, questions of race in hip hop have only become more complex as hip hop has grown into a global phenomenon. Scholars are presently examining the diverse racial politics at play in hip hop from countries as diverse as Japan, Brazil, France, Croatia, Cuba, Canada, Slovakia, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Bibliography

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