The answer to the question “What is Hip-Hop?” isn’t easily answered. Hip-Hop is a culture, a style, music, dance, and a visual artform all combined. But even those terms are restrictive for something as monumental and impactful as Hip-Hop. What we can say is that Hip-Hop started in the 1970s and hasn’t stopped since. Hip-Hop has undoubtedly changed the world since its birth in the Boogiedown Bronx. Hip-Hop was a response to the problems minorities faced in society when it was created. A form of expression to rival any before. An art form that was decidedly and purposely made for the minority but catchy enough to be irresistible, even to the powers that be, it disputed. Hip-Hop is an art form that thrives on change. It has stayed on the cutting edge of the media remaining a hotly debated topic even in modern times.
Hip-Hop at its basis was a cultural movement founded around 1978 by Grandmaster Flash, a DJ. His unique sound system and style of mixing the “breaks” of songs together was something entirely new. At the time, disco was the scene sweeping New York by storm, but the sparkly outfits and ephemeral lifestyle associated with the style seemed unattractive and unattainable for the impoverished youth of the city. This new style of music, however, was infectious, accessible, and relatable. DJs would often use the most popular parts of songs that people already knew which appealed to people because it was easily recognizable but at the same time very different from any style before it.
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It didn’t take very long for people to figure out a dance style that could match the DJs. Soon enough party-goers could hear Grandmasters calling the dancers from the crowd. Grandmaster Flash would chant, “B-boys are you ready! B-girls are you ready!” as he got to the breaks of the songs. B-Boys and B-Girls took over the dance floor at the parties with a bold style of popping, locking, and explosive power moves. Before anyone had even figured out what to call the music, breakdancing found its name. It took a bit longer for people to coin the term Hip-Hop as the name for the entire culture composed of four basic elements. DJing, breakdancing, rapping, and graffiti.
Hip-Hop played a major historical role in the unification of African-American youth. In the wake of the civil rights movement, the youth had to figure out more subtle methods of continuing to advance the status of minorities in America. By most accounts, the battle for equality was technically over but the social constructs that had kept the African-American community at a standstill were still operating to a large degree. The minorities of the world’s great mixing pot were still plagued by blatant racism, discrimination, and incarceration. The generations before were able to unite over their lack of civil rights. The lack of one big problem to solve seemed to leave the minority youth of the country separated. It seemed that there wasn’t a contest to become the next symbol of black culture. After the deaths of so many black leaders, who would want to carry that burden? Hip-hop became the answer, the media of Jeff Chang’s so-called Hip-Hop generation. Hip-Hop made sense, it carried the power of and inspiration of all the previous African-American art movements from negro hymnals to the blues. In New York City Grandmaster Flash’s rhymey style of addressing the crowd had evolved into a new element of Hip-Hop called rap. Suddenly Hip-Hop was more than parties in parks and common rooms, it had a voice!
Hip-Hops in your face style was impossible to ignore and soon enough it was breaking its way into every major art scene in America. When the 1980s began with Ronald Reagan taking office, Hip-Hop was catching on as the hot new subculture to watch. The biggest clubs of the time started to focus on the new style emerging from the “Boogiedown” Bronx. The punk icons of the 70s were replaced by the booming breakdowns of Afrika Bambaataa in clubs like Negril and the Roxy. When The Sugar Hill Gang debuted their smash hit “Rapper’s Delight” hip-hop really entered public view. Suddenly, rap was a nationwide topic of conversation. The eclectic, disco-inspired beat of the iconic track and it’s distinct difference from other rap groups of the era set it apart. Despite the fact that portions of the track were directly lifted from Grandmaster Caz (a.k.a. Cassanova Fly), the Sugar Hill Gang was leading the culture in a new direction by marketing it to a worldwide audience. It was a concept that many early pioneers of the hip-hop movement disagreed with. Despite the debate Hip-Hops entrance into the mainstream caused, it helped rap to evolve into something entirely new.
When rap broke it’s way onto the national charts the effects were immediate. The lyrics of tracks like The Message were different from everything else at the time. They introduced the world to the plights of life as a minority constantly facing severe adversity. Whether or not the rappers had anticipated it they had inadvertently become the leaders of the new civil rights movement. In the 1980s, rap groups like Public Enemy started to use hip-hop as a way to spread political messages highlighting the problems still affecting the minorities, especially those in urban environments. Hip-Hop was beginning to impact America. The minorities of the country had leaders, goals, and a reason to unify once again. The youth of cities across the US were ready to fight the powers that be.
There were several major shifts in Hip-Hop after the 1980s like the emergence of gangster rap which was popularized in California by groups like N.W.A. There was the emergence of the first major rap record labels, although the first rap label was technically Sugar Hill Records started in 1979 under BMG Rights Management. Companies were beginning to realize that rappers had the platform to market directly to a specific target audience and the potential to generate vast sums of money. The first and most notable instance of corporate sponsorship of hip-hop occurred when Adidas began sponsoring Run-D.M.C. As hip-hop entered the digital age it became increasingly commodified, aggressively marketed, and more rapidly changing.
One of the key evolutions in modern rap is the use or overuse of repetition in songs. Music overall has become more and more repetitive overtime and rap is no different. In fact, the top charts have consistently included songs with more repetition than the average. It certainly seems that artists have taken notice and purposely taken advantage of this trick. To a degree, rapping has never been easier. Two of the biggest trends in rap are repetition and freestyling. Now freestyling isn’t a new concept in rap but the idea of one-take freestyles being released as finished tracks is certainly a recent idea. In fact, artists are pretty open about the fact, blatantly including “Freestyle” in the title of tracks. In a way, the meaning of the word freestyle has evolved. Freestyling was always popular, just in a different way. From the early days of Hip-Hop, MCs and DJs were freestyling along to tracks but the freestyles were normally a way of sharing practical information like an introduction to the next song or to call someone to the stage. Freestyling became known for its role in battling where competitors had to think on the spot to create bars. While written rhymes became more common in the battle scene freestyles were often a way to show-off a rappers’ ability to rhyme on demand without the help of a pen and paper. It seems that the use of freestyling as a form of showboating originated there. It continued when artists like Jay-Z started recording tracks without writing them. In an interview with MTV in 2007, he spoke about the fact that he hadn’t actually written any of his tracks since 1996. Instead, he mentally memorized and freestyled on tracks inspiring a new type of recording process. Now it’s common to hear rappers brag about freestyling entire tracks like the late XXXTENTACION. He finishes his track “UP LIKE AN INSOMNIAC (Freestyle)” by boasting:
“Hey, that was a fuckin’ freestyle, just so y’all fuck niggas know
Thank you very much, this- this whole thing was a freestyle
You can ask my engineer
I was doin’ this shit in the motherfuckin’ booth
Thank you very much, okay!”
The concept of fully freestyled tracks goes hand in hand with the progression of repetition in rap, which again isn’t an entirely new concept. The popularity of songs relying heavily on repetition has only grown in recent years with songs like “Yeah Right” by Vince Staples and “Hot” by Young Thug reaching tens and hundreds of millions of streams. While pop music popularized the idea of highly repetitive choruses rap has recently taken full hold of the concept. The intro and outro of “Hot” are the same, Gunna the featured artist on the original track repeating the word hot, 16 times on the beat.
Hip-Hop has created a lasting impact on media and culture in America. It changed the perception of African-American artists in the country and unified the urban youth in the wake of the civil rights movement. It gave minorities across the country a way to communicate freely about the oppression they faced in society. Hip-Hop continues to allow anyone with a voice, a can, a turntable, or some dance moves to freely express themselves. Hip-Hop changed and while some of the original styles have faded in popularity. The changes that hip-hop has experienced have only added to the definition of hip-hop.