Like rock and roll to the baby boomers, hip-hop is the sound and look of a generation. To those immersed in it, hip-hop is a way of life and a worldview with its own theoretical basis. The “four elements” of hip-hop—emceeing, deejaying, graffiti, and breaking—form the core of a creative, energizing, and bonding subculture that engenders freedom of expression.
The roots of hip-hop can be found in the songs of James Brown, the taunts of Muhammad Ali, the “toasts” of deejays in Jamaica, even as far back as West Africa’s griots—travelling storytellers and singers. It originated in the early 1970s at house parties and block parties in the Bronx, an area devastated by misguided urban planning. Dubbed “the father of hip-hop,” DJ Kool Herc developed a style that involved reciting rhymes over instrumental breaks in songs, breaks he extended by playing the same record on two turntables and going back and forth between the two. DJ Grandmaster Flash is credited with introducing cutting and scratching, the characteristic sounds made by moving the record back and forth under the needle. Breakdancing developed during the block parties, as b-boys and b-girls, exhorted by the MCs, got in front of the audience to dance in a freeform, highly athletic style of complex footwork, spins and “freezes”—held positions balanced on hands, head or shoulders.
A distinctive feature of hip-hop is showing off skills, boasting and one-upmanship. Improvised or memorized, self-aggrandizing raps spun by emcees—anecdotes, jokes, rhymes and poetry—are used as introductions, shout outs, insults and challenges to rival emcees. These are sometimes formalized into actual contests, battles raps where competitors vie for the loudest audience approval.
Hip-hop was largely an underground, live phenomenon until The Sugarhill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, which made it to #36 in the Billboard charts. Throughout the ’80s, the style diversified musically, and factions began to appear, with some emphasizing the party and dance atmosphere while others embraced political, even militant and confrontational agendas. The mid-’80s saw hip-hop enter the mainstream, both through the popularity of individual rap artists such as Kurtis Blow, LL Cool J, and Run-D.M.C. and through the crossover appeal of some hits, such as Blondie’s Debbie Harry rapping in “Rapture” and Run-D.M.C.’s collaboration with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way.” Hip-hop has achieved dominance as the most popular music in the United States, and is heard, and performed, globally. It continues to evolve and become more eclectic, borrowing from jazz, soul, and rock, incorporating live instrumentation and local idiom all over the world.
– Contributed by the CST Education Department
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