Hip hop music is currently one of the most influential genres in the world. It started among a culture of disadvantaged minorities of the United States and developed in the unique mixture of elements native to many communities and social classes. While hip hop nowadays has several trends that are very different from each other, it is crucial to understand its origins and the primary message it once carried.
Hip hop originated in the 1970s in the poor districts of New York, commonly known as ghettoes. These districts were mostly inhabited by people who came from African or Latin American countries. Teenagers and young adults used to exploit technological devices to create new music from the present compositions. The famous DJ Kool Herc, for example, used to play two records at a time. He first identified the most interesting part of the track according to its sound and popularity, which was commonly identified as the break. The break was a short part with numerous rhythmic beats. Then, as the broken part finished on one record, Kool Herc manually turned the second record to the start of it. Later these experiments transformed into a set number of rules and elements that defined hip hop as a genre. It has grown as a distinct trend, taking its roots from such music forms as jazz, blues, funk, rock, and roll, and salsa, all represented as the culture of minorities or rebel groups. For instance, the lyrics used in jazz and blues compositions were taken into hip hop as they did not follow the structure of songs that white people made. Funk relied on the technology a lot, and hip hop took this element as well. The movement could not be possible without the breaks’ looping.
It is necessary to know the way of life within these communities to come to an understanding of the reasons for hip hop’s development. The neighborhoods consisting of people of African and Latino origin were considered to be marginalized. This has a lot to do with segregation, which was a common practice before the 1970s and even after that. People of color received less money for their work than the whites did. They could not afford decent housing and essential household items. Crime rates were high as young people sometimes decided to acquire goods through robbery as they were desperate to be able to find a good job. Police viewed these districts as initially criminal and insecure, thus imposing an adverse attitude towards all their inhabitants. Hip hop became the youth’s answer to this oppression. It became a tool for transmitting the ideology of liberation and identity (Saunders 2012, 43). The texts like They Schools by Dead Prez, where the author perceives the education process as a form of oppression, roughly described the hardships of living in their community and the fight led by the people against the system on a daily basis.
The cultural background also has influenced hip hop. It is a fact that Latin and African-American communities in the United States lived in isolation. They shared the colonial past and were suspicious or sometimes even hostile of the nation. Like any isolated community, they kept their traditions different from the title nation. While white Americans enjoyed the rock music in the 1970’s, people of color preferred the melodies infused with the bongo drum beats and the fast pace of salsa dances. Although rock music is commonly thought of as the voice of freedom, its message did not find a response among the minorities who had different ways of expressing themselves.
Some studies offer, and opinion that the African tribal dances, including the use of drums accompanied by the rhythmic lyrics performed in a repetitive way, have served as a base for the hip hop structural development (Spady 2013, 126). Drums and voice patterns created a background suitable for ritual dancing (Appert 2016, 240). This idea implemented in hip hop is still persistent now as there is even a whole dancing trend that has developed from this music. Latin culture has also shared its elements with hip hop. Salsa and reggae tunes were among the elements, which added a twist to traditional African music.
Hip hop’s history is rich in names of artists who have done a lot for the genre’s development. It is commonly agreed that DJ Kool Herc was one of the first musicians who made hip hop popular. He came from a Jamaican family that moved to the Bronx district of New York City in the late 1960s (Kool Dj Herc 2001, 157). The young musician was highly influenced by the motives of his native songs and melodies. However, he came to an understanding that his music in New York was not as popular as other Latin or African genres. Kool Herc became the first one to introduce the technique of break, which was based on using the rhythmic part of the track in various ways to create a new sound.
When talking about the modern followers of the hip hop genre, there must be mentioned some of the most outstanding artists that are known both locally and internationally. Eminem (whose real name is Marshall Bruce Mathers III) is one of those artists. Although it has been mentioned that hip hop is the art of Blacks and Latinos, Eminem breaks the stereotypes about people whose experience suits this genre best. The artist comes from the poor district of Detroit, which has now gone bankrupt. He was one of the few white people in his community.
Thus, he might also be called a minority representative. The lyrics of his songs are generally aggressive and targeted at mocking social groups and individuals. Critics claim that Eminem and his partner performers are responsible for translating the ideas of violence to the public (Enck 2012, 619). Yet, it reveals through a deeper understanding of this artistry that Eminem is not supporting the discrimination practices and is rather being satirical of people who think that prejudice is normal. Since he is a popular mass media figure, the attention to the issues that are described in his lyrics is guaranteed. Whether or not people support this artist, his songs create a public discussion of this topic and cause the growth of awareness that inequality issues still exist even in the post-industrial countries. Thus, hip hop by Eminem is also an indirect liberation tool, which acts through creating community talks and drawing the government’s attention to the social issues among the vulnerable communities.
Nas (full name Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones) is another famous musician that has popularized hip hop. With an African-American background, he became interested in his cultural roots from a young age. Since Nas played some instruments, music was one of his primary activities and spheres of research. He began his career in the late 1980s and is currently active in the media business. One of his most outstanding innovations lies in songs’ stories told from the perspective of different people and objects. Nas experimented with lyrics, discovering the new word and rhyme combinations. His songs present much interest to language researchers as they are an example of modern folklore.
Hip hop is currently present in various countries. It is no longer the culture of the poor populations. Modern artists like Kanye West promote a luxurious life and generally support the existing social systems in their countries. There has even been a claim that the original hip hop is dead, for its ideas are no longer finding support among people (Rashid 2014, 342). Nevertheless, there are still communities that view this genre as a tool to show their protest for the existing way of life.
The world is currently experiencing an immigration crisis. Whether the situation is concerning the United States or Europe, the similar trend of immigrants that are unable to assimilate can be seen everywhere. These people face prejudice based on their religious beliefs, traditions, language, and other cultural elements. It is natural for the immigrants to oppose this system, and a hip hop is a powerful tool for that (Vue 2012). Women are part of another group that looks for support in music. While they are commonly disregarded at work in some countries, they can be influential in music. For example, M.I.A., a young hip hop singer of Tamil ancestry, proves that women can also be the leading power in matters concerning immigration issues. Apart from the national problem, women are faced with prejudice concerning their sexuality. Hip hop artists like Nicki Minaj and Missy Elliott use language and visual tools to promote female empowerment (White 2013, 608). Their input is especially valuable among the Black community, where views regarding female sexuality are sometimes too conservative.
Hip hop has dramatically transformed over the years. It has followed the path of being a variation of traditional music of American minorities to a way of praising a luxurious lifestyle. Nevertheless, it still remains a powerful tool for answering the current problems faced by immigrants and vulnerable communities in the Western world.
Appert, Catherine M. 2016. “Locating Hip Hop Origins: Popular Music and Tradition in Senegal.” Africa 86, no. 2: 237-262.
Enck, Suzanne Marie. 2012. “Playing with Fire: Cycles of Domestic Violence in Eminem and Rihanna’s ‘Love the Way You Lie’.” Communication, Culture & Critique 5, no. 4: 618-644.
“Kool Dj Herc.” 2001 In The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music, edited by Phil Hardy. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.
Rashid, Kamau. 2016. “’Start the Revolution’: Hip Hop Music and Social Justice Education.” The Journal of Pan African Studies 9, no. 4: 341-363.
Saunders, Tanya L. 2012. “Black Thoughts, Black Activism: Cuban Underground Hip-Hop and Afro-Latino Countercultures of Modernity.” Latin American Perspectives 39, no. 2: 42-59.
Spady, James G. 2013. “Mapping and Re-Membering Hip Hop History. Hiphopography and African Diasporic History.” Western Journal of Black Studies 37, no. 2: 126-157.
Vue, Pao Lee. 2012. Assimilation and the Gendered Color Line. Texas: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.
White, Theresa Renee. 2013. “Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott and Nicki Minaj: Fashionistin’ Black Female Sexuality in Hip-Hop Culture—Girl Power or Overpowered?” Journal of Black Studies 44, no. 6: 607-626.