From its humble beginnings from the poorest of the poor to the far and wide stages worldwide, hip hop has grown into one of the world’s most popular music genres. It has inspired significant cultural influences spanning several generations. It is an artistic movement that had a substantial impact on the music industry.
Hip hop is music with a heart-thumping beat, spinning dance moves with a cyclone’s speed, machine gun lyrics timed to the rhythm of the tune, and art forms that defy common logic and speak to the soul. These are the four elements of hip hop.
But we’re getting a bit too far and far too fast. To understand the history of hip hop, we need to go back to the very beginning.
Origins of the Hip Hop Genre
Back in the early 1970s, the hip hop culture, or to be specific, hip hop music, was born in the Bronx, New York City. The early 1970s was an age of economic collapse due to the decline of the manufacturing industry.
As the middle classes escaped the socio-economic challenges by moving to the suburbs, this segregated the community, leaving the struggling African American youth and other cultural minorities behind with no jobs and no livelihood.
The times were tough, especially for the struggling youth of that period. Fortunately, a few of them did manage to land jobs as DJs in discos throughout New York City. Wanting to escape the social issues that plagued them, dance parties in abandoned buildings, parking lots, and schoolyards rose to popularity.
These events brought together DJs and emcees. It’s in this setting that the hip-hop culture was born.
The Hip-Hop Culture is Born
Clive Campbell, known to the world as “DJ Kool Herc”, is credited with founding this cultural movement. A DJ of Jamaican-American descent, Kool Herc essentially established the music genre in 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, his home, when he hosted his “Back to School Jam” on August 11, 1973, Bronx, New York City. This would come to be known as the first hip-hop party in history.
The Four Elements of Hip Hop Culture
Hip Hop Music
DJ Kool Herc created the technique used as the basis of hip hop music. Using the two turntables in his sound system, he developed his style focusing on the ‘Breaks’ of songs.
Breaks are the short instrumental sections in music tracks that highlight percussion and rhythm. He noticed that this was when the energy of the dancers at parties start going wild.
By setting up his two turntables with two copies of the same record, he would find a way to extend this section by switching back and forth, Break after Break, between these records.
This ‘back and forth’ style of Kool Herc’s became the foundation of the type used in hip hop music.
One of the other critical elements of hip-hop history is the emcees. Being the vocal part of hip hop, they would time their lyrics to the rhythm of the beat, joke around and say lines that would draw energy from the crowd to get up and dance.
DJ Kool Herc also helped found this rhythmic style of speech based on African American music.
At first, the spoken sections in early hip hop were meant to introduce the DJs, but as these sections got longer and longer, the emcee became a more vital element in hip hop music and would later evolve to become rapping.
Just as the high points of energy in hip hop music are the Breaks, the dance used would later be known as Break Dancing, one of the critical elements in hip hop.
Once again developed by DJ Kool Herc, the dance moves were used as a way for dancers to display their skill during the Breaks, which he would often call the “most danceable” part of the beat.
Breakdancers use various techniques, drawing elements from different dance cultures, but with none of the tradition.
They would twist and torque their bodies with swift footwork, alternating between robotic and fluid dance moves that would have them spinning on the dance floor, halting mid-movement, and immediately launch into another gravity-defying pattern.
Interestingly enough, this ancient art style is one of the hip hop elements that pre-dated the music genre. Often involving writing or drawing on a surface without permission, modern versions of graffiti apply spray paint and stylizing text or drawings in public view as a means of expression.
This has recently come to be considered vandalism and can be illegal, although there are well-known “graffiti artists” who openly oppose this.
It has also drawn controversy as several modern hip-hop artists do not even consider this as an element of the genre.
Old School Hip Hop
The early 1970s saw the birth of the hip-hop music genre. Since the first hip hop dance party hosted by DJ Kool Herc in his home of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, this era gave rise to several other prominent hip hop artists like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash.
Afrika Bambaataa, born Lance Taylor of South Bronx, New York, is one of the pioneers of hip hop music, releasing music tracks that define hip hop culture. Inspired by DJ Kool Herc, he began his hip hop DJ career in the late 1970s in hopes of drawing kids and angry teens out of street gangs.
In 1982, Afrika Bambaataa and several other artists would host the world’s first hip hop tour, wanting to expand hip hop culture around the world as a means to end violence and spread love and friendship.
Grandmaster Flash, born Joseph Saddler, also from The Bronx, New York, is another pioneer in the hip hop culture influenced by DJ Kool Herc’s work and other artists.
Much like Afrika Bambaataa, he began his career in hip hop in the late 1970s. His contribution to hip hop history was techniques with DJ equipment after observing the turntable style of artists like Kool Herc and others.
These innovations remain the standard of turntable techniques DJs employ today.
Grandmaster Flash often questioned the authenticity of graffiti as an element of hip hop, as he could not see any connection between them.
His group, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five founded hip hop battles (later called throw-downs) in the late 1970s. His group became prominent in the early 1980s after one of their songs, The Message, took the music industry by surprise.
The lyrics depicted social issues of city life such as drugs and poverty and having a slower beat that was not usual for most hip hop records.