This article was excerpted from the book: The History of Hip-Hop. If you would like to learn more about how the genre has evolved from the 1970s to the modern day please click the book title to be redirected to the amazon page.
Although widely considered a synonym to rap, Hip-Hop refers to a diverse culture comprised of four key elements: deejaying, rapping, graffiti painting, and “B-boying”. These four key elements embody the dance, style, and attitude behind the Hip-Hop culture. In the 1970s, an underground urban movement based around these four key elements started to gain some traction among Bronx, New York youths. This movement, which later became known as Hip-Hop, started as a form of expression for many of the urban youth that were written off as marginalized communities. Hip-Hop was seen by many marginalized teenagers as a powerful medium to protest and spread the awareness of the unfair treatment of minorities at the time.
The earliest form of Hip-Hop came with the invention of percussion “breaks” by Jamaican-born DJ Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell. DJ Herc’s revolutionary innovation came after observing that many people in the parties he DJed for would wait for the drum breaks to dance or do a “specialty move”. Playing to his crowds, DJ Herc decided to extend the drum brakes of his songs to further allow his crowds to try out their “specialty moves”. By using two turntables, DJ Herc was able to extend the short drum break that his crowds most wanted to hear. After practicing this trick, which is now known as the “breakbeat”, he debuted it at his sister’s back-to-school party on August 11, 1973. Following resounding positive feedback from his crowd, the “breakbeat” became well known, within a few years, across all of Brooklyn eventually becoming the start of the Hip-Hop movement. Due to this many consider this back-to-school party as the “Birth of Hip-Hop”.
Another key musical element in Hip-Hop that was developed and popularized in the 1970s was emceeing (also called MCing or rapping). Emceeing, defined as the rhythmic spoken delivery of rhymes and wordplay, began as a performance where two men tried to outdo each other and gain the favoritism of listeners through the use of the spoken word. This key aspect (beating other artists using the spoken word) of Hip-Hop can be seen throughout the history of the genre from its earliest creation to some of its greatest rivalries like Tupac vs. Biggie and Jay Z vs. Nas. In the early days of Hip-Hop, emceeing was seen as a rather minimal part of the genre. Many times, the MC’s sole role at DJ events would be to pump up the audience — rather than as the main source of entertainment; however, the MCs were still able to find ways to shine in these early Hip-Hop parties. Many times, MCs would often use the time between the DJ’s songs to energize the crowds and display their emceeing talents. As time went on, this role evolved into a pivotal part of Brooklyn parties with organizers allotting longer sessions of time for the MCs to shine.
While DJs and MCs are the most recognized parts of these early Hip-Hop parties, the dancers in the crowds also played an integral role in the development of the cultural side of Hip-Hop. Herc as he continued to develop upon breakbeat, deejaying created a new sound of “breaks” with the help of funk songs. This sound of breaks, using hard funk and rock, went on to form the basis for what early Hip-Hop sounded like. It could be heard in songs such as Funky Four Plus Ones’ “That’s the Joint” and Run-DMC’ “Sucker M.C.’s”. As the popularity of Herc and his breakbeat deejaying grew, so did the popularity of the MCs that accompanied him. This combination of talented “break-beat” DJs accompanied by rhythmic MCs started to gain widespread imitation across the Brooklyn borough. By the late 1970s, DJs started to release 12-inch records that displayed MCs rapping over the top of a beat created by a famous DJ. While many of these records, like Rapper’s Delight by the Sugarhill Gang and Christmas Rappin’ by Kurtis Blow, garnered considerable commercial success some DJs felt they were polluting the underground Hip-Hop environment by releasing music that wasn’t true to what the Brooklyn parties felt like. Nevertheless, these early Hip-Hop groups garnered substantial fame and notoriety due to their genre-defining music.
Street gangs, at the time of early Hip-Hop, were prevalent in many of the poverty-stricken parts of South Bronx. At early Hip-Hop parties, much of the graffiti, rapping, and b-boying were done as an artistic alternative to the common aspects of the street gangs such as competition and being the best in the respective area. Because of this, many Bronx citizens that were in gangs or were being recruited by gangs used rapping as a way of channeling violent urges into artistic ones instead. Seeing this, a highly influential Bronx native, Afrika Bambaataa, brought together street-dance crews, graffiti artists, and rap musicians into a group named the Zulu Nation. By the late 1970s, the Hip-Hop movement started to gain mainstream media attention and because of this, the culture soon became nationally recognized. Billboard magazine blazed a trail of this national recognition with their article titled “B Beats Bombarding Bronx” which commented on the local influential figures including, Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc Jazzy Jay, and the phenomenon growing out of the Bronx. This article was a turning point for the Hip-Hop genre and was able to touch many readers, who eventually turned into fans.
Another critical contribution to the growth of the Hip-Hop genre was New York City’s Blackout in 1977 where NYC saw widespread looting, arson, and other violence in the Bronx area. In the blackout, a large number of DJ equipment was stolen from electronics stores. As a result, the Hip-Hop genre saw a large increase in DJs from 1977 onward. This increase subsequently further popularized the use of DJs at parties (due to the excess of professionals at extremely low prices) and allowed for the genre to continue to grow outside of just the Bronx area. As the genre grew, DJ Kool Herc’s events moved from small house parties to large outdoor venues which were commonly hosted in large public parks. For many of the inner-city youth, these events, especially the Hip-Hop culture, became an outlet for them to deal with the hardships of life as minorities in America. It also became an escape from the very real risks of violence within the poverty-stricken parts of the country. According to many former MCs from this era, the genre was extremely beneficial to the reduction of violence in the Bronx. Some Bronx citizens would break-dance or MC against each other to settle disputes instead of resorting to violent measures.
As Hip-Hop was a way to express the emotions of the Brooklyn youth, the lyrical content of many early rap groups was focused on their everyday struggles, most notably in the groundbreaking track “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five which discussed the realities of living in the poverty stricken areas of Brooklyn. Hip-Hop, ever since “The Message”, has given African Americans a voice to let their issues be heard even when the media doesn’t report on such issues; however, the genre has been vigorously opposed by conservatives because they see the genre as romanticizing violence, law-breaking, and gangs. While some conservatives may see Hip-Hop only for its alleged negatives, the genre has been revolutionary for many underprivileged citizens due to its ability for massive financial gain and general capability to produce hope for the hopeless.
As the 70s neared its end, Hip-Hop finally started to gain attention from artists from other genres. After attending a Hip-Hop party Debbie Harry of Blondie, traditionally a punk band, became heavily influenced by the energy from the new genre. This experience went on to influence songs like “Good Times” and the later hit single “Rapture” which became the first major single containing Hip-Hop elements by a primarily Caucasian group or artist to hit number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
Hip-Hop in its earliest infancy (the 70s) has been described as a largely beneficial outlet for many Bronx citizens. The genre truly changed many lives by giving many of the disenfranchised youth a voice and a culture of their own to spread awareness of the social, economic, and political realities of their lives. To this day, these aspects of the Hip-Hop genre remain prevalent and have gone on to help change some of the unfair treatment against minorities in America.