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50 Years of Hip-Hop: Tracing the Global Journey of Its Beats, Rhythms, and Influence within the Black Community

Sep 01, 2023 10:00AM ● By The Conversation via Reuters Connect

Image: 1520 Sedgewick Avenue. Source: Wikimedia Commons

On August 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy threw the now legendary Back To School jam in the recreation room of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in The Bronx, New York.

Herc’s party represented a coming together of music and the start of something new. The Bronx crowd did not want the dancehall sounds Herc had begun to play. They wanted soul and the tough percussion of funk. So, Herc changed up the sound and used the main switch for the lights like a strobe light to add atmosphere. Little did they know, that his event would be commonly accepted by the hip-hop fraternity worldwide as the starting point of what was to become one of the most important creative movements of the last century.

This year, members of the hip-hop community, spanning several generations, will be celebrating the core elements of hip-hop culture: graffiti, breaking (or breakdancing), DJing, and rapping that have thrived in the last 50 years.

Although 1973 is recognized as the year that gave birth to hip-hop, it was not until 1979 that the first rap records connected to hip-hop culture were recorded. Fatback’s King Tim III (Personality Jock) arrived in the spring of that year followed by Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight in the late summer. Over the next three years, a swathe of disco-oriented rap records followed, solidifying hip-hop culture through the medium of vinyl.

The six years between 1973 and 1979 are hugely significant to hip-hop’s development. Grandmaster Flash, DJ Mean Gene, GrandWizzard Theodore, DJ Breakout, and DJ Baron from The Brothers Disco, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kool Herc were each pioneering hip-hop jams in their respective Bronx neighborhoods. MCs and rappers, such as Coke La Rock, Grandmaster Caz, and M.C. G.L.O.B.E., also developed rap styles.

Breakers were also progressing breaking moves, styles, and forms of dance in response to the breakbeat – the parts of the record where rhythm and percussion take over. Kool Herc developed the Merry-Go-Round, a method of continuing the break by utilizing two copies of the same record, thus providing a music space where breakers could dance longer and in more creative ways.

Image: DJ Kool Herc in 2009. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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While all of this thrived in the US, it was almost a decade until hip-hop culture reached other shores.

The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight and Kurtis Blow’s Christmas Rappin’ (1980) were chart hits overseas. Hip-hop’s identity was transported globally, however, by the visuals in punk impresario Malcolm McLaren and World’s Famous Supreme Team’s Buffalo Gals music video. It was also helped by The New York City Rap Tour in 1982.

Throughout its history, hip-hop has been accused of not producing proper music. Its early incarnations of rhymes over records and studio band cover versions of funk and disco jams to programmed drum machine and digital sampling did not sit comfortably with the canon of 20th-century music.

MCs were charged with rapping because they couldn’t sing. Breaking was labeled a fad that kids would grow out of, like yoyoing or jumping on pogo sticks. Hip-hop challenged the norms of mainstream music. Yet, here we are, rejoicing in a cultural movement that continues to develop.

Hip-hop’s significance is multifaceted, but one of the most important things about it is its ability to foster confidence, self-expression, and forms of identity for its participants. Through the practices of the elements, hip-hop adopters learn new ways of making art. Formal education in visual art, dance, and music is unneeded, it is not necessary to own musical instruments or have access to a dance or art studio.

Aspiring hip-hop artists learn from each other and the ethos of “each one teaches one” – adapted from the African American proverb – applies across the culture. Relating to ideas of identity, hip-hop also brings teachings of Black history – histories that were traditionally not taught through conventional Western school curricula. This is often referred to as hip-hop’s fifth element.

In the late 80s, Public Enemy and the Native Tongues collective brought a level of social consciousness to rap music, but hip-hop has always maintained a political and critical edge.

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Image: Single label for How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise? Source: Wikimedia Commons

Brother D’s How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise? from 1980 is perhaps the clearest example:

My people, people, people, can’t you see

What’s really goin’ on?

Unemployment’s high, the housing’s bad

And the schools are teaching wrong

Cancer from the water, pollution in the air

But you’re partying hard like you just don’t care

But the more well-known Melle Mel recording with Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five took socially conscious lyrics to the mainstream with songs like New York, New York, and The Message (co-written with Duke Bootee).

The rise of socially-conscious hip-hop was crucial for listeners. Chuck D, his group Public Enemy, and others like Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, made lyrical references to political Black figures such as Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King.

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Image: Kanye West. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hip-hop has always produced a counter-narrative to the mainstream, staying true to its underground ethos. You can hear it in the music of superstars like Kanye West whose early career lyrics keenly described American racial inequality. Take the song Never Let Me Down off his debut album The College Dropout, where he raps about how his grandparents fought for civil rights, adding:

Racism is still alive, they just are concealing it

Many of today’s rappers are also still using the form to expose inequality. Popular artists like Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott are telling evocative stories about racism, generational trauma, inequality, and a broken culture. These mainstream artists are cut from the same cloth as the more underground rappers like Roughneck Jihad and Worms Ali.

With history 50 years deep and its continuing innovations, hip-hop can and should remain at the forefront of these conversations for the next 50 years.

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