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Then & Now: The Reign of Hip Hop

Many genres of popular music boast to have “changed the landscape.” Some of them even make a strong case for the claim. But of all the musical styles to have arisen in the past few decades, it’s arguable that none has had as deep an impact as hip hop. And though it’s unquestionably an expression of the African-American experience, it’s found resonance in every corner of the globe and on every continent. (Yes, including Antarctica.)   

Why? Even when the message isn’t overt, or it’s subsumed by boasts and one-upmanship, hip hop is implicitly linked to acts of political and cultural resistance. No matter the language or style in which it’s delivered, when you’re hearing hip hop, it’s a safe bet you’re not hearing a song championing the status quo or the establishment (there are exceptions).

You hear hip hop in Atlanta, in Gaza City, in Warsaw and in Soweto. Hip hop uses a simple musical vocabulary to say “This isn’t right; something needs to change.” And so while the genre was initially intended as dance music, its directness, its accessibility, its capacity to shape-shift and most of all its primal power have made this American export a global phenomenon.

Building Blocks of Hip Hop: Making Music From Machines

Musically speaking, hip hop is nothing more than a beat or rhythm, and vocals, more often spoken than sung. In this, it’s a throwback to ancient and preliterate styles. How did you make music before dedicated instruments had been devised? You clapped and you sang.

Thus there are many potential precursors to hip hop, depending on your perspective. African chants and drumming, and early African-American field songs come readily to mind. More directly, the emphasis on rhythm in 20th-century R&B and soul points to a direct through-line.  

But because hip hop not only embraces, but is reliant on technology, it’s a thoroughly modern creation. Though there are clear precursors, hip hop as we know it could only have come through the use of a mechanical playback device. In this case, it was the machine most synonymous with 20th-century music: the turntable.

Emile Berliner filed the first patent for a “gramophone” in 1887, though the first practical models wouldn’t hit the shelves for another seven years. Over the course of the next 75 years or so, the push was for greater accuracy and linearity in transducing the audio information etched into discs’ microscopic grooves.

Of course, the fact that turntable arms can be lifted and placed on certain spots of a disc again and again is merely a by-product of its design. While this was of use for musicians looking to learn their favorite solos by ear, it didn’t occur to most listeners to exploit this feature until the early 1970s, when teenaged DJ Clive Campbell noticed something happening at parties: the instrumental and drum breaks seemed to excite the room. As he explained in a 2005 interview:

“The breaks came out of an experiment. I’m watching the people dancing, a lot of people used to wait for some particular part of the record. I’m studying the floor…I was noticing people used to wait for the particular parts of the record, to dance to, just to do their special little moves.”

As Campbell had a standard DJ rig with two turntables (yes, and a microphone), he experimented first with alternating the best instrumental breaks from different songs, and then, crucially, playing the best breaks from the same song - such as James Brown’s “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose,” from Sex Machine - over and over again, in effect becoming a human sampler.

That explains the rhythm track, but what about the vocals? Because Campbell - soon to be rechristened DJ Cool Herc - had spent his formative years in Jamaica, he was familiar with “toasting,” a practice dating at least to the late 1950s and Jamaica’s Count Machuki, which involved DJs singing, talking or merely dropping slang over instrumental versions of popular songs.

As with so many great American inventions, it was this borrowing from another culture that proved key. Imagine Cool Herc interjecting phrases like “This is the joint!” or “You don’t stop!” over breaks and what emerges is a fairly full-fledged and recognizable version of hip hop.

By Leaps and Bounds: Hip Hop Pioneers Push Turntables to the Limit

It wouldn’t be long before others picked up Cool Herc’s lead. Afrika Bambaattaa would range even further in his quest for new sounds and inspiration; already incorporating salsa and rock beats, his 1982 hit “Planet Rock” would sample German electronica pioneers Kraftwerk.

Untold thousands of would-be “scratchers” have DJ Grand Wizard Theodore to thank. His innovation - rubbing records backwards to create percussive sounds - was a significant leap forward in exploiting the creative potential of the turntable. So too was the contribution of Grandmaster Flash, who began “cutting”: Playing two identical of songs simultaneously, and then switching the mix between the two to repeat musical or lyrical phrases. His 1982 masterpiece “The Message” would demonstrate hip hop’s ability to deliver clear-eyed social commentary, a lofty goal that, when it’s actually pursued, continues to be one of the genre’s enduring strengths.

But it would fall to the Sugarhill Gang - a trio not actually from Sugarhill, Harlem but Englewood, New Jersey - to truly bring hip hop to the masses. Taking note of the interplay between DJs and and crowds at dance parties, and the way an inspired voiceover—or rap—would fire up the audience, the Gang built an epic track over Chic’s “Good Times,” a major disco hit of 1979. The resulting “Rapper’s Delight” charted in no fewer 14 countries, hitting #36 on the US Billboard Hot 100. Hip-hop had arrived.

People Power: Hip Hop Hits the Streets

The success of “Rapper’s Delight” brought hip hop to a global audience. Unlike the many other styles struggling to bubble up to the mainstream, hip hop had a fully developed culture backing it up. Very much like punk - a genre also suddenly finding itself with a global audience around this time - hip hop was a bottom-up, street-level enterprise. Standout practitioners like Cool Herc and Kurtis Blow set the tone, but because the tools needed to create hip hop were readily accessible and low-tech, nearly anyone could (and did) use them to make music.

What’s more, hip hop demanded participation. The earliest hip hop events were dance parties, and soon specialized dancing to the breaks created by DJs - b-boying and b-girling, or more popularly, breakdancing - became as important as the music itself. Challenging, sometimes confrontational, athletic and as fresh and inventive as the music inspiring it, breakdancing required little more than practice and a flattened sheet of cardboard over the sidewalk.

One very site-specific element in hip hop’s creation was the backdrop of New York City in the 1970s. A near-perfect encapsulation of the phrase “urban decay,” New York was dirty, dysfunctional and in places downright dangerous. Public services like sanitation, police and firefighting were hard-pressed to meet the environment’s demands, and gangs ruled large swaths of the five boroughs.

With gangs came graffiti. Of course, informal and unauthorized public art had existed since prehistory, but the rise of hip-hop culture gave it new impetus and inspiration. Along with breakdancing, tagging became an important facet of hip hop culture, and it remains its signature visual aesthetic to this day.

Hip Hop Today: Eternal Reinvention, or a Genre on the Wane?

Over the course of the new decades, hip hop would experience a startling surge in popularity. By 1989, when Tone-Lōc’s “Wild Thing” became the biggest-selling single of the year, nearly a third of the songs in the Billboard Top 100 were hip hop or rap. The rise would only continue, as Public Enemy, Dr. Dre, Notorious B.I.G. and others found massive public and critical acclaim.

At the same time, the acrimonious - and sometimes deadly - feud between East Coast and West Coast schools of hip hop shone a negative light on the genre. For those opposed to hip hop on stylistic, aesthetic - or, sadly, racial - grounds, the spate of violence only served to confirm their suspicions that the genre was morally and creatively bankrupt.      

Still, hip hop remained dominant through the end of the 90s. Beginning in 2005, that began to change. For reasons that remain unclear, sales of hip hop albums began a steep decline. Some, such as Courtland Milloy, writing in the Washington Post, posited that the explicit sex, violence and misogyny that had come to characterize much of hip hop culture had finally turned young listeners off of the genre.

Others point to more technological and structural challenges. Laws governing the use of samples finally caught up with the times, leaving music makers without easy access to perhaps their essential tool. And the decline in music sales wasn’t limited to hip hop. Online streaming and peer-to-peer sites such as Napster allowed fans instant, free (and illegal) access to music.   

Is hip hop dead? Not by a long shot. As with so many other genres, the decentralization of the music industry over the past 20-odd years means that artists who would formerly be considered “underground” or “alternative” now have a better shot at mainstream success.

As with many other genres, the genre has experienced a welcome redistribution on gender grounds. Jay-Z and Kanye West rose to rule the scene, but female artists such as Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliott, Cardi B, Lauryn Hill and M.I.A. found equal critical and public acclaim in the last decade.

Nor has hip hop’s global presence waned. Like so many American cultural exports, it’s finding a seemingly endless stream of new fans all over the world, in the process enfolding local idioms and flavors to create Arabic and Afrobeat-inflected hip hop, and new subgenres like J-rap, merenrap, grime, crunk and other hybrids.

Perhaps more than any other genre, hip hop has not only survived but thrived in the last 40-odd years. A fully formed, diverse and endlessly regenerating culture, it’s given the world musical, poetic, dance-based and visual languages all its own, and we’re grateful. 

At its base level, requiring nothing more than a human voice and handclaps, hip hop is a truly egalitarian enterprise. No matter your race, gender, ethnicity or experience, everyone is invited to the party.   

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