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What Is Hip-hop? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ife Oshun   
More info
Hip-hip history
R&B/Soul history

This article was originally published by Ifè Oshun in 2005 for About.com and has since been spotted on various sites. Feel free to use it... just link back to us and give the author credit.

What is hip-hop?: Hip-hop is a culture. The term is loosely used when referring to commercialized rap music, however hip-hop is more than just music. It is the hearbeat of American ghetto youth who claimed their own self-expression and used it to rise above their physical circumstances. Hip-hop culture has its roots in pride, truth, courage and self-determination. As a result it has grown to influence almost every segment of the planet.

The Elements: Composed of four subcategories, universally known as "elements." The elements are: dance (commonly referred to as breaking or breakdance), graffiti (also known as writing), DJing, and rapping. These four elements developed along different time lines and each have their own unique history underneath the umbrella of hip-hop culture. Rap music has developed at a faster rate than all the other elements and as a result can claim a number of sub-genres.

When it all began: Hip-hop culture started to develop as an entity in the early '70s in New York City, while its different elements, namely graffiti and break dance can be traced back even earlier to the late sixties. Some trace rap back to the spoken word poetry scene of the late sixties, while many go even further back to ancient African societies who boasted griots, women and men who were walking vessels of their people's history and related the various stories and histories through spoken word.

Pioneers: Afrika Bambaataa, TAKI 183, Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, VIC 156, Pete DJ Jones, Kool DJ Herc, DJ Hollywood, Eddie Cheeba, "Love Bug" Starski, Kurtis Blow, CORNBREAD and COOL EARL, Cold Crush Brothers, The Last Poets, Run DMC, the Fat Boys and Rock Steady Crew, just to name a few. There are many other notable and unsung pioneers of hip-hop, too many more to list in this brief overview.

Overview: Hip-hop music was pioneered in part by Afrika Bambaataa, aka the "Godfather of Hip-Hop culture." He started to DJ in the early seventies with wax records, mixing all genres of music, most famously funk combined with European electronic music. He would later go on to found the Universal Zulu Nation. Grandmaster Flash also pioneered the turntable technique that DJs and the world knows as the "scratch."

DJs would rock crowds in parks, at block parties and the like by playing the "breakdown" sections of funk songs, and mixing various songs together on turntablesso that the music never stopped. Accompanying the DJ was the MC, or "master of ceremonies" who would use the spoken word to hype up the crowd and praise the DJ.

How "rap" started: In the beginning, the DJ was the most prominent person in the rap music equation, but once the music industry saw dollar signs in the creative efforts of MCs, or masters of ceremonies, such as "Love Bug" Starski and Kurtis Blow, the MCs were termed as "rappers," and the music was labeled "rap." Soon, in the eyes of the public, rapping eclipsed the art of DJing, and rappers became kings and queens.

Hip-hop dance: The other elements of graffiti and dance developed at their own pace. One popular form of hip-hop dance, breakdance, grew out of a need for youth to express themselves and prove their prowess in a creative, non-destructive way. Many heads who would have been involved in gang activity or street life were able to express their frustrations through the art of a dance that was at once aggressive and poetic.

Breakdance drew from many dance styles and incorporated elements of Brazil's capoeira, other forms of martial arts, and was sometimes mixed with other hip-hop styles like popping and locking. Crews like the Rock Steady Crew, developed and "battled" other crews on the dancefloor, elevating the dance to an art form with now classic moves such as the 2 step,the Airtrack, the headspin, The Glide, and many more. Krump emerged from clown dancing in the new millennium.

Graffiti: Also known as writing, it started as underground urban art boldly displayed in public areas, usually sides of buildings or walls. It was used by citizens to make political and social commentary, as well as gangs to mark territory. Folks would leave their mark with "tags" such as TAKI 183, FRANK 207 and countless others. Eventually the art of tagging would blossom into a full-blown art form, consisting of beautiful mural art that would cover trains and buildings... and be villainized by the clueless New York Transit System.


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