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A Hip-Hop History

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A group of young adults in vibrant colored sweats hop, skip, and jump their way into the subway, searching for the right spot.

They find a deserted corner where the walls are covered in graffiti. One can no longer tell what the spray-painted messages say; they have been painted over many times. One member of the group sets up turntables and drops a beat. He freestyles to the rhythm as the rest of the clan begins to pop, lock, and break dance on top of a large piece of cardboard.

This is hip-hop. It is too complex to understand by definition only. You have to see it to understand it. You have to live it to appreciate it and love it.

Hip-hop’s roots stretch from West Africa to Jamaica and it soaks up inspiration from soul and rock and roll and anything else it can get its hands on. It takes the vibes and grooves it gains from the world and synthesizes it into the four elements of emceeing/rapping, DJ-ing, break dancing, and graffiti art.

Hip-hop started in the streets and subways of The Bronx, but it has since spread across the world. It became more than just about the music. It was a lifestyle, a way of getting up in the morning and getting dressed. It became a way of looking at the world, a way of responding to the stimuli around you. Indeed, for many, hip-hop is the fire, air, water, and earth that they stand on.

The genre was having its birth pangs decades before it emerged on the streets of New York in the 1970s. James Brown danced to beats that breakdancers, or b-boys, would soon break dance to. Mohammed Ali’s chant before his legendary fight with Sonny Liston was reminiscent of the future rhymes that emcees would place over driving drum beats. In fact, hip-hop’s origins stretch all the way back to West African traditions of storytelling which was characterized by chanting and rhythmic drumming.

It could be said that hip-hop was finally born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1956, as this is when and where Clive Campbell (“Kool Herc”) was born. Campbell would later become the father of hip-hop. Campbell migrated to the United States at the age of 11 and deejayed for the first time at his sister’s birthday party in 1973.

Afterward, hip-hop pioneers such as Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash joined the movement. As deejays and emcees continued to pop up all over the streets of New York, the term “hip-hop” was coined, giving a name to the phenomenon. Other pioneers of the genre included Sugar Hill Gang, whose classic song “Rapper’s Delight" is still popular, and Run DMC, who was instrumental in getting the movement going.

Hip-hop music became a unifying force and helped sate gang violence and the brutal street mentality through music and dance. As deejays scratched turntables and b-boys twirled around on the ground, they formed a sort of chaotic peace that gave hope to all those that participated in it.

Hip-Hop also was the avenue of African-Americans and other minorities in the Bronx to express their feelings and thoughts about society, life, and America. Instead of voicing opinions through violence, emcees battled each other with intelligent poetry to see who was best.

In the first two decades of its existence, hip-hop lived in the obscurity of the streets and subways of The Bronx. Then, the music began to gain the attention of the mainstream media in 1988. MTV gave the genre its own television show called Yo! MTV Raps. Hip-hop was now poised to move from the inner-city to the suburbs, and beyond. This change created a crucial division in hip-hop music between the gritty, grassroots “old-school” hip-hop and the mainstream and soon to be heavily commercialized “new-school” hip-hop.

The switch from the underground to the mainstream presented its own benefits and problems. African-Americans were now having their voices heard on the radio and receiving notoriety and accolades for their artistry.

However, commercialism affected Hip-hop negatively by slowly zapping the originality and style of the genre and replacing it with generic rap stars whose only purpose was to make money. For instance, strong female presences in hip-hop such as Queen Latifah and Salt n’ Pepa were eventually replaced with mindless video girls who were treated like objects. Emcees with clever, thought- provoking rhymes were replaced with rappers who had nothing more to talk about than chasing cash and expensive cars.

By the new millennium, hip-hop was no longer a realistic portrayal of the life of African-Americans and minorities living in the US. It was a corporately constructed pipe dream.
The rise of west coast Gangsta rap in the late 80s also complicated hip-hop’s rise to popularity. This style of rap displayed vividly the violence of the streets in such a way that it was attributed with furthering gang and gun brutality.

The murders of rap icons Tupac and Notorious B.I.G in 1996 and 1997 further sparked debate over whether hip-hop simply told the story of inner-city life and violence on the streets or whether it was the cause of all the violence itself.

In an ironic turn, the music that had once given inner-city dwellers a way to blow off steam was now blamed for fueling the fire. This connotation of hip-hop being violent, along with the negative images of women and senseless money chasing, marred the image of the movement.

These issues have been a constant cause of tension within the community. Many attempt to separate the true, pure form of the art by calling the corporate bubblegum “rap” and the real, gritty, inspiring music hip-hop. In recent years, hip-hop and rap music suffered in the market as sales of albums dropped. Rap sales fell 21 percent from 2005 to 2006 and that trend seems to be continuing. As people stopped buying albums, many began to predict the death of the art.

However new rappers on the scene, such as Lupe Fiasco, and old veterans, like Nas and Jay-Z, who are attempting to turn the tide back in their favor by continuing to release compelling material that truly speaks to life and genuine human experience. Amid all the constant tension between success and turmoil, hip-hop has gone global, spawning movements in South America, Europe, and Asia.

Now rhymes can be heard in various different languages and b-boy battles can be seen from France to Japan. Hip-hop now had the ability to unify not only the streets of New York, but the entire world. The hip-hop community actively struggles to understand its power and influence and figure out how to use it.

If a popular emcee comes in the room with his hat turned sideways, everyone else starts doing it. If they come in with their pants rolled up, everyone does it. Likewise, if hip-hop speaks peace, peace tends to follow, and if hip-hop speaks violence, violence follows.

From West Africa, to Jamaica, to New York, and back across the globe, hip-hop has become a tangible presence. Kool Herc’s humble desire to put on parties for his friends spawned an unstoppable movement. Despite naysayers that declared it a passing fad and those in power who have tried to limit it, hip-hop lives on. It lives on through every scratch of the turntable and every lithe movement of the b-boy’s body. It lives on through the resilient, bold voices of the emcees and its heart pulses in the bass line of every beat. And in the right hands, hip-hop can affect our culture and change the world for the better.

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About Jelani Sims