Hip Hop Made the Label, the Label Never Made Hip Hop

     If someone said that hip hop was conceived after the creation of Def Jam Recordings, or that popular music genre was birthed as Biggie and Tupac came onto the music scene, they would be incorrect. Hip hop was actually born and bred in the Bronx due to sustained benign neglect from the state and federal government. Communities and citizens of the Bronx struggled to flourish, hamstrung by gang violence, lack of infrastructure, and impoverishment. Hip hop uplifted citizens of the Bronx from this destitution by giving them a voice and an outlet for creativity unprecedented at the time. Shaped in block parties and rec room bashes, hip hop became a culture promoting non-violence and providing a distraction from the less than ideal circumstances to which the Bronx community had become accustomed. After the release of “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugarhill Gang, hip hop was, for the first time, pushed into the mainstream spotlight. The newly discovered music genre gained popularity all over the US and grew to become a voice for the marginalized black race. Male and female creators entered the world of hip hop to perfect the blueprints laid down by the craft’s originators and greatly expand its audience. Hip hop culture is now seen and heard everywhere, whether it is 21 Savage scoring a spot on the cover of “Forbes” or the NFL hiring Jay-Z’s entertainment agency, Roc Nation, the culture has been taken to other levels – not all favorable.

     Over time, hip hop’s core elements have been diminished, even forgotten, drowned by the rap music deluge, but the revitalization of hip hop through new styles of rap and the ability to self-brand have led to the rebirth of hip hop music more meaningful to its core and allowed artists to gain greater creative independence.

     Originally, hip hop culture encompassed four elements of expression – breaking, DJ-ing, graffiti, and rapping, but as the culture transcended the block party scene, rap became dominant. In its purest form, a hip hop party or performance would consist of an impressive sound system headed by a DJ who would proudly relay music to the audience. The crowd would fill the location and breakdance in response to the DJ’s musical selection, giving the spotlight to the b-boys who would show off their unique styles. As DJ-ing evolved and techniques like scratching were invented, “crowds cared less about speaker size than showmanship and style” (Chang 114). Hip hop shows in the Bronx were an exhilarating experience in which the DJ and his listeners would engage in a performance that required all to participate.

     In 1979, the Sugarhill Gang’s release of “Rapper’s Delight”, presented Bronx hip hop to the world, but fundamentally changed its perception. The Sugarhill Gang became the cover boys of hip hop after their song went viral, yet they knew nothing of the Bronx and never performed with a DJ. The world perceived hip hop as a rapper’s art form that presented catchy phrases and slang that was insular to the culture created in the south Bronx, highlighting the DJ’s scratching and mixing skills for the audience. The scratching and DJ-ing skills that used to capture the ears of the audience became appreciated only when a rapper would point attention to the DJ.

     Hip hop’s exposure to the limelight drastically changed the atmospheric party-going experience to a passive appreciation of rappers, which subsequently, pushed DJs to the background of performances and relegated b-boys to the underground hip hop scene.
The artwork of hip hop, graffiti, similarly declined. By the 1970s, most Bronx youth had joined gangs for the sense of belonging it gave them, coupled with the threat of being harassed by the gangs if they did not participate. Blade recalls that “while all of those morons were out there blastin’ each other’s heads off, the rest of us were out there painting and having a good time” (Fricke 8). Graffiti became an escape for children seeking to avoid dangerous gang warfare and interested in a unique opportunity for creative expression in a place that offered little. In the Bronx, there were not many places where children could graffiti, so they began to explore New York and express themselves wherever they could.

     Then New York mayor, Ed Koch, deemed the graffiti around the city and, specifically, the graffiti on subway cars, as a form of vandalism and delinquency. He deployed “The Great White Fleet,” responsible for removing all existing graffiti from subway cars and the city, and setting up barriers to eliminate places where graffiti artists could express themselves. Kids who were part of the Bronx hip hop culture did not graffiti to engage in criminalism; they viewed graffiti as an opportunity to express themselves freely. Mayor Koch effectively took away the only canvases graffiti artists had, which forcefully pushed graffiti underground. As a result of graffiti being criminalized and pushed to the background along with DJing and b-boying, the possibility of the four core elements of hip hop being represented as originally intended was precluded.

     More broadly, the emergence of rap suppressed the underlying cultural message that was synonymous with hip hop. DJ Kool Herc, one of the originators of hip hop, was well known throughout the Bronx for the diverse music selection and the powerful sound system he provided at block parties. Herc was adamant about enforcing a non-violence policy at his appearances due to the threat of gang conflict breaking out. Herc accumulated a large following; word of his talents traveled; and he was able to drive from party to party, set up his operation, and get paid. He remembers the hustlers, high rollers, and bank robbers saying, “The reputation was, ‘Who is making money up in the Bronx? Kool Herc and the guy Coke La Rock with the music’” (Chang 82). Once Herc showed the community that being a gang member and inciting violence was not the only way to make money and be relevant, people’s perspectives and ambitions shifted. Afrika Bambaata is responsible for sharing Herc’s message of non-violence through the Zulu Nation. From borough to borough, Bambaata traveled to unite the youth gangs through a shared love for hip hop culture. Both Bambaata and Herc had tremendous success in defining hip hop as a culture that promoted unity, peace, and love. Once Rapper’s Delight was released, the public began to associate hip hop solely with money and mainstream appeal. The hippity hoppity style of rap and music that Sugarhill Gang used was different from anything played at a party in the Bronx. Released a year later was “The New Language of Rap” by the Treacherous Three, a song that had substance and flow similar to that of “Rapper’s Delight.” Jeff Chang says that “To the Bronx heads, the whole thing was a sham” (131). The two mainstream groups were viewed as sell-outs who were not in touch with hip hop’s roots and had sacrificed their artistic integrity in order to make money. The purpose of creating hip hop to unite broken communities and avert attention from gangs was lost on not only Sugarhill Gang and the Treacherous Three, but the world.

     The emergence of politically conscious rap and gangster rap realigned rap music with the roots founded in the Bronx and spoke to the tribulations from which hip hop was birthed. Sylvia Robinson, a representative of Sugarhill Records, encouraged the Furious 5 to record “The Message,” which was the first rap song of its kind. The beat and meaning behind the song were different from anything the Furious 5 had ever rapped to or about before, but unknowingly, they created one of the first conscious rap songs. A departure from the appealing wordplay of “The New Language of Rap,” “The Message,” was Melle Mel and Duke Bootee’s testament to the energy-draining realities of living in the ghetto. Public Enemy took the Furious 5’s blueprint and combined that with expert lyricism to make “Can’t Truss It,” a song that addresses the systematic oppression of blacks in America. Chuck D opens the song with a verse that expertly compares the Holocaust to slavery, followed by alliteration and monosyllabic rhymes. Flavor Flav is responsible for using the hook as a kind of political chant that can be read as a warning against trusting the system or a warning to the system that black America cannot be ‘trussed,’ or constrained, again. Through his next two verses, Chuck D utilized prosopopoeia to imagine himself as a slave in Little Rock and on a slave ship voyage in order to compare the present commercialization of black artists to the past commoditization of the black slave. Gangster rap shares the same sentiment as conscious rap but is used as an outlet for suppressed anger and combative lyrics. Amidst aggravated police brutality and containment of blacks on the west coast, NWA and other artists used gangster rap to express their restrained lifestyles and political opinions. In “Fuck tha Police,” NWA bluntly voiced their aversion for the police in response to an incident where they were forced by police to lay face down in the street with guns to their heads. The song went viral and, more importantly, caught the attention of not only the LAPD but the FBI. Black communities across the country had experienced the same injustices as NWA but were unable to have their stories heard and appreciated. The matter-of-fact style of gangster rap allowed artists to bring an irrefutable light to the oppression of blacks, a topic the country often neglected. Both gangster rap and conscious rap were essential developments of hip hop because they embodied the true purpose of hip hop and gave every unheard discriminated black person a voice.

     Another negative by-product of the Sugarhill Gang’s elevation of hip hop to the mainstream stage was the manipulation and exploitation of artists by white record label owners. Major labels took notice of hip hop’s newfound success and capitalized on the opportunity by signing every artist they could. Everyone from Afrika Bambaata to Grandmaster Flash was eager to sign a deal to increase their bookings and cash flow; only, they did not get what they signed up for. Bobby Robinson, a representative of Enjoy Records, was the first to sign Flash and the Furious 5 to a contract. During one of the groups’ first recording sessions, they were surprised to find out that they would be rehearsing with a live band rather than a DJ, something they had never done before. After the group’s first hit, “Superrapin,” Robinson gave the group a meager amount and never paid the group their promised royalties. Robinson epitomizes the exploitive nature in which record labels dealt with hip hop artists as he and many other music executives attempted to refine hip hop. Sylvia Robinson and indie record labels like Def Jam Recordings were able to rescue hip hop culture from the grasp of big market record labels. Sylvia Robinson, responsible for “The Message,” showed artists how to market themselves and gave them opportunities for exposure. Once artists recognized their impact and talents, they were able to control their careers and form personal identities. Music critic, Frank Owen, wrote that the founders of Def Jam, Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, were creating “the first Black music that hasn’t had to dress itself up in showbiz glamour and upwardly mobile mores in order to succeed” (Chang 231).

    Def Jam was one of the first labels to allow artists to release conscious raps about racial issues, most notably, Public Enemy. Def Jam was responsible for “leading the battle ‘against the gentrification of black music’” (Chang 231). Once Def Jam and Robinson set the tone, Diddy began to lay down the foundation of hip hop mogulism. Diddy used his rap skills, personality, and entrepreneurial edge to strike up deals with shoe, clothing, and movie companies. Diddy demonstrated to other hip hop artists that they were bigger than music and could market themselves in any way they wanted. Hip hop became the center of the globalist capitalist economy and gone were the days where rappers were bound to a contract or creative control that recreated a system of limitations on black artists.

     DJ-ing, breaking, and graffiti may never garner the attention that rap receives, but hip hop’s ascendance to the top created a model for everyone on how to unapologetically define yourself and be impervious to naysayers. The initiators, artists, and people who pushed hip hop forward had to withstand push back from government institutions and greedy individuals. Hip hop culture was created amid conflict in the Bronx and developed by creators motivated by prejudicial authorities. Now, hip hop is a billion-dollar industry that is avidly followed by privileged kids from the suburbs, aspiring SoundCloud rappers, and professional athletes. Hip hop’s most significant accomplishment is neither the industry’s net worth nor the broad fan base; it is the fact that the culture has reached these heights while remaining authentic and resilient. The perseverance along hip hop’s journey and the strength demonstrated by hip hop artists allows anyone who has ever felt subdued in life or had doubters to find solace and encouragement in hip hop culture.

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