Hip hop is a subculture that originated from an African American community during the 1970s in New York City, specifically in Morris Heights, Bronx, then later spread its influence to Latin American communities. While the term is often used to refer to hip hop music, in its broader sense hip hop culture is characterized by the four elements of rapping, DJing, breaking and graffiti.
The origin of the subculture stems from the block parties of DJ Kool Herc at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, where Herc would mix samples of existing records with his own shouts to the crowd and dancers. Kool Herc is credited as the ‘father’ of the art form. DJ Afrika Bambaataa of the hip-hop collective Zulu Nation outlined the pillars of hip hop culture, including: MCing, DJing, B-boying and graffiti writing. Since its emergence in the South Bronx, hip hop culture has spread to both urban and suburban communities throughout the world. Hip hop music first emerged with Kool Herc and contemporary disc jockeys and imitators creating rhythmic beats by looping breaks (small portions of songs emphasizing a percussive pattern) on two turntables, more commonly referred to as sampling. This was later accompanied by “rap”, a rhythmic style of chanting or poetry often presented in 16-bar measures or time frames, and beatboxing, a vocal technique mainly used to provide percussive elements of music and various technical effects of hip hop DJs. An original form of dancing and particular styles of dress arose among fans of this new music. These elements experienced considerable adaptation and development over the course of the history of the culture.
Hip hop is simultaneously a new and old phenomenon; the importance of sampling to the art form means that much of the culture has revolved around the idea of updating classic recordings, attitudes, and experiences for modern audiences – called “flipping” within the culture. It follows in the footsteps of earlier American musical genres blues, jazz, and rock and roll in having become one of the most practiced genres of music in existence worldwide, and also takes additional inspiration regularly from soul music, funk, and rhythm and blues. At its best, hip hop has provided an escape from poverty while giving a voice to oppressed and “poverty-stricken” people worldwide, particularly in inner cities and neighborhoods suffering from urban blight, and showcased their artistic ingenuity and talent on a global scale. At its worst, hip hop has mirrored the worst aspects of the mainstream (American) culture that it emerged from: materialism, sexism, an internalized racism, violence, and antipathy towards intellectualism.
Hip hop is the combination of two separate slang terms—”hip”, used in African American English as early as 1898, meaning current or in the now, and “hop”, for the hopping movement.
Keith “Cowboy” Wiggins, a member of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, has been credited with coining the term in 1978 while teasing a friend who had just joined the US Army, by scat singing the words “hip/hop/hip/hop” in a way that mimicked the rhythmic cadence of marching soldiers. Cowboy later worked the “hip hop” cadence into his stage performance. The group frequently performed with disco artists who would refer to this new type of music by calling them “hip hoppers”. The name was originally meant as a sign of disrespect, but soon came to identify this new music and culture.
The song “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang, released in 1979, begins with the scat phrase, “I said a hip, hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, a you don’t stop.” Lovebug Starski, a Bronx DJ who put out a single called “The Positive Life” in 1981, and DJ Hollywood then began using the term when referring to this new disco rap music. Hip hop pioneer and South Bronx community leader Afrika Bambaataa also credits Lovebug Starski as the first to use the term “Hip Hop”, as it relates to the culture. Bambaataa, former leader of the Black Spades gang, also did much to further popularize the term. The words “hip hop” first appear in print on September 21, 1981, in the Village Voice in a profile of Bambaataa written by Steven Hager, who also published the first comprehensive history of the culture with St. Martins’ Press.
In the 1970s an underground urban movement known as “hip hop” began to develop in the South Bronx area of New York City focusing on emceeing (or MCing), breakbeats, and house parties. Starting at the home of DJ Kool Herc at the high-rise apartments at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the movement later spread across the entire borough. Rap developed both inside and outside of hip hop culture, and began in America in earnest with the street parties thrown in the Bronx neighborhood of New York in the 1970s by Kool Herc and others—Jamaican born DJ Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell is credited as being highly influential in the pioneering stage of hip hop music, Herc created the blueprint for hip hop music and culture by building upon the Jamaican tradition of impromptu toasting, boastful poetry and speech over music. This became Emceeing – the rhythmic spoken delivery of rhymes and wordplay, delivered over a beat or without accompaniment—taking inspiration from the Rapping derived from the griots (folk poets) of West Africa, and Jamaican-style toasting. Melle Mel, a rapper/lyricist with The Furious Five, is often credited with being the first rap lyricist to call himself an “MC”.
Herc also developed upon break-beat deejaying, where the breaks of funk songs—the part most suited to dance, usually percussion-based—were isolated and repeated for the purpose of all-night dance parties. This form of music playback, using hard funk, rock, formed the basis of hip hop music. Campbell’s announcements and exhortations to dancers would lead to the syncopated, rhymed spoken accompaniment now known as rapping. He dubbed his dancers break-boys and break-girls, or simply b-boys and b-girls. According to Herc, “breaking” was also street slang for “getting excited” and “acting energetically”.
DJs such as Grand Wizard Theodore, Grandmaster Flash Jazzy Jay refined and developed the use of breakbeats, including cutting and scratching. The approach used by Herc was soon widely copied, and by the late 1970s DJs were releasing 12″ records where they would rap to the beat. Popular tunes included Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks” and The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”. Herc and other DJs would connect their equipment to power lines and perform at venues such as public basketball courts and at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Bronx, New York, now officially a historic building. The equipment was composed of numerous speakers, turntables, and one or more microphones. By using this technique DJs could create a variety of music, but according to Rap Attack by David Toop “At its worst the technique could turn the night into one endless and inevitably boring song”. Nevertheless, the popularity of rap steadily increased.
Street gangs were prevalent in the poverty of the South Bronx, and much of the graffiti, rapping, and b-boying at these parties were all artistic variations on the competition and one-upmanship of street gangs. Sensing that gang members’ often violent urges could be turned into creative ones, Afrika Bambaataa founded the Zulu Nation, a loose confederation of street-dance crews, graffiti artists, and rap musicians. By the late 1970s, the culture had gained media attention, with Billboard magazine printing an article titled “B Beats Bombarding Bronx”, commenting on the local phenomenon and mentioning influential figures such as Kool Herc.
In late 1979, Debbie Harry of Blondie took Nile Rodgers of Chic to such an event, as the main backing track used was the break from Chic’s “Good Times”. The new style influenced Harry, and Blondie’s later hit single from 1981 “Rapture” became the first major single containing hip hop elements by a white group or artist to hit number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100—the song itself is usually considered new wave and fuses heavy pop music elements, but there is an extended rap by Harry near the end.
Hip hop as a culture was further defined in 1982, when Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force released the seminal electro-funk track “Planet Rock”. Instead of simply rapping over disco beats, Bambaataa created an electronic sound, taking advantage of the rapidly improving drum machine Roland TB-303 synthesizer technology, as well as sampling from Kraftwerk.
Encompassing graffiti art, mc’ing/rapping, dj’ing and b-boying, hip hop became the dominant cultural movement of the minority populated urban communities in the 1980s. The 1980s also saw many artists make social statements through hip hop. In 1982, Melle Mel and Duke Bootee recorded “The Message” (officially credited to Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five), a song that foreshadowed the socially conscious statements of Run-DMC’s “It’s like That” and Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”. During the 1980s, hip hop also embraced the creation of rhythm by using the human body, via the vocal percussion technique of beatboxing. Pioneers such as Doug E. Fresh, Biz Markie and Buffy from the Fat Boys made beats, rhythm, and musical sounds using their mouth, lips, tongue, voice, and other body parts. “Human Beatbox” artists would also sing or imitate turntablism scratching or other instrument sounds.
The appearance of music videos changed entertainment: they often glorified urban neighborhoods. The music video for “Planet Rock” showcased the subculture of hip hop musicians, graffiti artists, and b-boys/b-girls. Many hip hop-related films were released between 1982 and 1985, among them Wild Style, Beat Street, Krush Groove, Breakin, and the documentary Style Wars. These films expanded the appeal of hip hop beyond the boundaries of New York. By 1985, youth worldwide were embracing the hip hop culture. The hip hop artwork and “slang” of US urban communities quickly found its way to Europe, as the culture’s global appeal took root.