What is Hip-Hop?
Hip-Hop is one of those terms that has a broad meaning and many will have their own definition. To most, hip-hop is a widely used term to describe rap music while to others, it describes a specific type of fashion notably the baggy pants and loose clothing popularized since the 1980s.
It is more than the music and the fashion, it is a full fledged culture and a genre in its own right. Being a culture on its own, hip-hop has become a way of life to some. KRS-One, a famous MC / rap artist from NYC and one of the most influential names in hip-hop stated,
“Rap is something you do, Hip-Hop is something you live!”Lawrence “Kris” Parker aka. KRS-One
Hip-Hop is a lifestyle to some especially with how they express themselves and communicate with others including body gestures. Those who have watched the documentary, Rhyme and Reason back in 1997, there was a scene where Tash of the group, Tha Alkaholiks passed an object to his group mates in a “hip-hop” manner even explaining such motion. And it is not only body gesture but hip-hop being a culture, also generated its own vocabulary of slang words that is mainly understood by other “heads”.
But again, there is still the real question of what is hip-hop and who is classified or is considered as one?
To me it is still the expression. Hip-Hop is a culture expressed through one or more of its four elements and other elements supporting the main four. A person is considered hip-hop if he or she either practices, show great support or has high interest on these elements.
The four elements
Hip-Hop is composed of four main elements,
DJing / Turntablism
DJs or “disc jockeys” have been playing recorded music in parties, on the radio and later on in discotheques and television since the 1930s. This development further evolved back in the 1960s where DJs not only played recorded music to a crowd, but innovated a way of playing it continuously without any interruption. Thus the creation of two turntables and a mixer which became the standard for any disc jockey.
One can argue that DJing is the most important element in hip-hop, for the reason that a disc jockey pioneered the culture notably Bronx based, Clive Campbell or more known in hip-hop as DJ Kool Herc. Back in 1972, he developed “The Merry-Go-Round”, a mixing technique where the “breakbeat” of a track (notably funk/soul) was prolonged. This was done by using two records of the same track and switching from one to another, back and forth using a mixer. The “Merry-Go-Round” became the blueprint for today’s hip-hop music.
Other DJs back in the 1970s have innovated techniques such as Theodore Livingstone or Grand Wizzard Theodore, also from The Bronx. Livingstone accidentally discovered “scratching”, a technique where sound effects are created by rubbing a record back and forth on a turntable. Scratching eventually became a trademark for hip-hop DJs performing a set.
Both scratching and mixing tracks became the foundation leading to the art of the turntable or turntablism. DJs who are into this art showcased their skills from mixing and scratching to “juggling” various beats as with DJ Steve Dee being among its innovators. The showcase of turntable skills would eventually lead to friendly battles, and eventually to official competitions organized by groups such as The UK based, Disco Mix Club or The International Turntablist Federation.
MCing / Rap / Rappin’
The MC or “Master of Ceremonies” serves as a host for an event, and entertains the crowd through vocal delivery and persona. Even if The DJ can do a similar job while spinning records, The MC is more focused to entertain and provide info on what is happening in a specific event. This includes introduction of the participants, notably The DJ.
While there are precursors leading to the evolution of rap, notably various “blues” musicians singing their tracks in a “rapping” manner, it was until the 1970s where rap evolved as its own musical genre and those expressing with this style emerged as musical artists in their own right.
The vocal skills and delivery of an MC plus the incorporation of rhymes and “punch-lines” eventually evolved to a musical form widely known as “rap”. And those who express in this form are known as “rappers” or “rap artists”.
A rap artist can be an individual or as a group with some, including one or several DJ(s). One of the earliest is the group, The Sugar Hill Gang in which their iconic track, “Rapper’s Delight” was the first to make “The Billboard Top 40”. Another is Kurtis Blow, the first rap artist to be signed to a major record label and also the first to achieve commercial success.
The 1980s have seen an emergence of rap artists from around New York City, throughout The United States and eventually, around the world. Some being signed to major record labels, crossing-over to the mainstream and achieved superstar status. Record companies see rap artists and groups as profitable and both the artist and the label benefit upon achieving success. Thus, rapping / MCing became the most known element in hip-hop and the one element most associated with the culture.
Rappers either have their own style when it comes to “flow” and delivery, or are influenced by the style of other rap artists. Flow meaning how the rapper expresses style, rhymes and rhythm upon performing or expressing. And delivery is the complete outcome of the rapper’s performance.
In addition, rap artists will have a wide variety of styles, themes and subject matter. Some will use profanity in their lyrics especially those who express a hardcore, “gangsta” style of rap music. Various rap artists will usually perform verses that they have previously composed while some resort to “freestyle” in which the rapper improvise and perform the lyrics on the spot without any previous memorization. Freestyle is arguably the ultimate form of rapping especially when one is engaged in a “battle” with another.
Breakdancing / Breaking / B-Boying / B-Girling
Clive Campbell or DJ Kool Herc, The Godfather of Hip-Hop was known for playing hard funk and soul music in various block parties, especially those held in-front of his apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in The Bronx. He noticed that those dancing in such parties were most active when the “break” was being played. The break is the part of the track or song that focuses on the percussion and various instrumentals. And the break part of the track will usually have no to minimal vocals. From there, Campbell prolonged the break by using two turntables, a mixer, and a technique he innovated called “The Merry-Go-Round”.
In addition, this technique also switched from one break to another from other musical tracks such as “The Mexican” by the British rock band, Babe Ruth (no relation to the baseball legend), or “Apache” by The Incredible Bongo Band.
The mixing and playing of various breaks gave a vibrant energy on the dance floor that some of those dancing began to perform various acrobatic moves. This evolved to the art of breakdancing or breaking and those who perform this style of dance are called breakdancers, breakers or break-boys / break-girls. The latter in short, b-boy / b-girl.
Breakdancers either perform solo or as a “crew”. Some of the most known is The Rock Steady Crew which includes members such as Crazy Legs, Frosty Freeze, Ken Swift and more. The crew was founded in 1979 and became famous during the early 1980s when they were featured in iconic hip-hop related films such as Wild Style, and even the romantic dance themed film, Flashdance and more. They were also featured in the iconic graffiti and hip-hop documentary, Style Wars directed by Tony Silver in collaboration with Henry Chalfant.
Breaking has four phases starting with the first phase called “Top Rock”. This phase is concentrated in foot movements while in a standing position. It is more a “warm-up” to set up the breaker before performing the acrobatic moves of the next phase, “Down Rock”. The second phase has the breaker on floor level, performing using both hands and feet and showing both speed and control. This leads to the third phase of breaking and its trademark, “The Power Move”. The third phase is where the breaker uses strength, power and balance to execute some of breaking’s signature moves such as “The Windmill” or “The Headspin”.
It is up to the breaker on whether to perform power moves or not but the entire performance leads to the fourth phase, “The Freeze”. This is the phase where the breaker gets into an “acrobatic” position and holds movement, thus a “freeze”. Such phase requires strength and balance on the performer. After the fourth phase, it is up to the breaker whether to stop performance or continue performing with most returning to the second phase of “Down Rock”.
In all the elements of hip-hop, it was breaking that introduced many youth from around the world into hip-hop culture especially back in the 1980s. This is because, various breakdancers and crews performed live on television shows and even featured in various films. Major breaking competitions such as Battle of The Year are also held yearly and attract breakers from around the world.
Other than breakdancing, “popping and locking” is also a popular dance form in hip-hop in which the performer mimics the moves of a robot.
Graffiti Art / Writing
Ever since ancient times, people have been scribbling on walls and other surfaces. There were discoveries of writings and drawings scratched in the walls of various historical places dating centuries back. This kind of activity continues up to the present times and such scribbles in walls and other surfaces have become part of our urban environment. The term used to describe these scribbles is “graffiti”.
While there are many styles of graffiti from around the world, the style that is most associated with hip-hop is the letter style that developed in New York City back in the 1970s, particularly in The Bronx. Although Philadelphia had an earlier scene back in the late 1960s with notable “writers” such as Cornbread and Cool Earl, it was in New York where the scene became very active. Many youth living in NYC started “tagging”, or writing their nickname or street name in numerous surfaces around the city, usually in areas that are visually visible to the public. Julio 204 was among its predecessors but it was a young Greek-American living in The Washington Heights section of Manhattan who became famous for this, Taki 183. His tags can be seen around Greater New York and has influenced other youth to mark their name around the city.
Tagging their names in various surfaces is technically illegal but because of earning public notoriety, people risk breaking the law to commit such acts. The earliest tags were basic handwritings done with markers, but those tagging in walls have developed their own “hand styles”, adding more creativity to their tag. While the act of writing their name began in walls, it was tagging subway trains that became most popular as they travel around the city and were seen by many. As the years progressed, many taggers started using spray paint allowing them to paint in a larger scale. With the use of spray paint, the standard tag evolved and was added with size, depth, color and design. With this evolution comes the “piece”, short for “masterpiece”.
Graffiti associated with hip-hop culture is based on the letter, particularly the piece. It is also based on the name of the “writer” itself, usually a nickname or the name that they use in the street. While graffiti is the visual element of Hip-Hop, those who do this style prefer to be called “writers” instead of “artists” as they are technically “writing” their name, but are writing it with creativity. As graffiti is letter based, such varies from simple fonts to the fully complicated “wild-style”. Some graffiti works will have painted characters, themes and etc. but the entire work is still centred around the letter.
Much graffiti activities are illegal but many do legal works or paint walls with permission from the owner or from the city council. And while graffiti is an element of hip-hop, many of its practitioners are not associated with the culture but respect it in a way. In fact graffiti became an element of hip-hop because the art form developed in the same area and period where other elements experienced the same level of development.
Spray paint is the tool most commonly used by graffiti writers and many paint companies have created spray paint that is formulated for graffiti art such as Montana Colors, Ironlak and many more. In addition, numerous graffiti events are held throughout the world, one of the most notable is Meeting of Styles.
There are numerous elements that support the four main elements of hip-hop, such as beatboxing where the human voice can creatively create and mimic percussion sounds and various effects created by turntablism. Beatboxing is considered by many as the “fifth element” of hip-hop.
In addition, hip-hop heads have their own style of fashion characterized by loose clothing and baggy pants for men while women will have a variety when it comes to fashion statement. Numerous clothing labels have designed and create various apparel, with hip-hop heads are their primary market.
Hip-Hop culture also has its communicational expression and developed its own slang and vocabulary of terms. An example is the word, “WORD” itself which is usually used as a response. Another is “FRESH” meaning nice or good. This slang term was used by Hip-Hop heads back in the days especially during the 1980s and early 1990s. As Hip-Hop culture evolve, new slang terms are created and after “FRESH”, the term was replaced with words such as “DOPE” or “PHAT”.
Notable hip-hop icons such as KRS-One or Afrika Bambaataa would have their philosophical thoughts on the culture. Thus, the creation of self awareness and various moral and spiritual principles on those expressing the culture. Conscious and sensitive themes on what is going on around our environment and society have become common themes in the music of many rap artists around the world. This is because hip-hop as a culture emerged in an inner-city environment filled with various social problems such as The South Bronx in New York City. And many rap artists will have a wide variety of vocabulary in their lyrics.
Overall, it is the four main elements of DJing, MCing, Breaking and Graffiti that defines hip-hop culture and those who practice, has great interest or show great support in one, more, if not all of its elements is considered a hip-hop head.
And it is not only expression, but it has been a lifestyle to many as hip-hop culture has been merged in their everyday life such as the way to communicate with people and bodily expressions plus movements.
Through the famous words of KRS-One, “I am Hip-Hop”!