A short history of Hip-hop
By Jean Petit Jean
Hip hop began in New York City in the 1970s. Found by African Americans, Latino Americans, and Carribean Americans in the streets of the Bronx, the formalization as a movement beyond music was set forth by Afrika Bambaataa, founder of hip hop collective, Zulu Nation. He outlined four core principles of hip hop: Rapping, DJing, Breakdancing, and Graffiti. These core principles are the defining forces in the music and cultural street style of hip hop.
Rap wasn’t officially recorded till 1979.The genre grew behind the scenes through block parties in much of the 70s, where DJs played percussive breaks of popular songs using two turntables; and then EmCees would rap in a chanting vocal style, over the DJ beats. The first track to gain mainstream popularity was “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang.
The 1980s were a real break out point for hip hop. Kurtis Blow dropped the single “The breaks” in 1980 and the track became the first rap song certified gold. In the years following, many acts would release genre defining hits, including 1982’s “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”. Also notable is the socially conscious statement, “It’s like that”, by Run-DMC.
Audiences and artists alike would embrace the core principles defined by Bambaataa, with minority groups fully embodying the culture in urban centers through the music, breakdancing and graffiti in the streets. The fluid intersection between hip hop and the streets meant that make shift parties and music spontaneously erupted and people began using their bodies to make beats, giving birth to beatboxing, where people use their lips, tongues, and voices and other parts of their body to make beats to rap and dance to.
Heavily mirroring the streets in which it emerged, hip hop soon left the realm of purely party jams as artists began infusing stories from the violence in the streets in their rap, giving birth to gangsta rap. Featuring hardcore lyrics on drugs, violence, misogyny, and the harsh lives of ghetto youth, music by artists like Ice T in the East Coast and NWA in the West Coast, changed the tone of rap as their songs spread across the United States. With the rise of gangsta rap, early female pioneers, Queen Latifah, Monie, Salt-N-Pepa, began to lose appeal as labels favoured their more aggressive male counterparts, whose music had more demand. The decline in female hip hop artists has continued in hip hop well into today as female MCs still struggle to start and build a career in the industry.
During the early 80s although popular, hip hop didn’t have commercial success, as it was largely ignored by music establishment. But with the breakout success of gangsta rap, music industry executives took notice, creating a formula to amplify the glorification of the fast life: violence, sex, drugs, and of course money, money, money. The 90s saw a new breed of rap artist emerge who embraced this formula to widespread appeal. Pioneers like Jay Z, Dr. Dre, Puff Daddy, and Andre Harrell capitalised on the new direction to build successful music empires around their craft and various associated acts.
Throughout the 90s, artists like Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Tupac, Snoop Dogg, were bringing in millions of dollars for themselves and their record labels in record sales, sold out concerts and endorsement deals paving the way for the genre across the States and globally.
And the appeal of rap artists began to cross over from music into other areas of entertainment. 2pac in Juice. Will Smith in The Fresh Prince. LL Cool J in In the House. DMX in Cradle to the Grave and Romeo must Die. Eminem in 8 mile. The list is endless, from cameos to starring roles, rappers have since the 90s crossed over from the rap game to the film business.
Since the early 2000s hip hop has become a multifaceted and diverse genre intersecting with various mainstream and underground cultures, to create a larger than life lifestyle that lives beyond the music and shapes global culture. Some artists however, still continue to fly the flag of “Retro hip hop”, some new, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Logic, to name a few, create music with a heavy focus on lyricism, and old heads like Jay Z, Eminem, and Nas, have released new music in this decade. Eminem's last album dropped in January 2020.
Many purists do not consider the style of hip hop music that dominates the airwaves today hip hop, with some arguing that the new wave lacks the style and substance of hip hop’s origins; whatever side you’re on, no one can deny the influence that retro hip hop has had on all of today’s rap culture and all culture globally.