Hip-hop, cultural movement that attained widespread popularity in the 1980s and ’90s; also, the backing music for rap, the musical style incorporating rhythmic and/or rhyming speech that became the movement’s most lasting and influential art form.
Although widely considered a synonym for rap music, the term hip-hop refers to a complex culture comprising four elements: deejaying, or “turntabling”; rapping, also known as “MCing” or “rhyming”; graffiti painting, also known as “graf” or “writing”; and “B-boying,” which encompasses hip-hop dance, style, and attitude, along with the sort of virile body language that philosopher Cornel West described as “postural semantics.” (A fifth element, “knowledge of self/consciousness,” is sometimes added to the list of hip-hop elements, particularly by socially conscious hip-hop artists and scholars.) Hip-hop originated in the predominantly African American economically depressed South Bronx section of New York City in the late 1970s. As the hip-hop movement began at society’s margins, its origins are shrouded in myth, enigma, and obfuscation.
Graffiti and break dancing, the aspects of the culture that first caught public attention, had the least lasting effect. Reputedly, the graffiti movement was started about 1972 by a Greek American teenager who signed, or “tagged,” Taki 183 (his name and street, 183rd Street) on walls throughout the New York City subway system. By 1975 youths in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn were stealing into train yards under cover of darkness to spray-paint colorful mural-size renderings of their names, imagery from underground comics and television, and even Andy Warhol-like Campbell’s soup cans onto the sides of subway cars. Soon, influential art dealers in the United States, Europe, and Japan were displaying graffiti in major galleries. New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority responded with dogs, barbed-wire fences, paint-removing acid baths, and undercover police squads.
The Empire State Building towering over a wall of graffiti in New York City
The beginnings of the dancing, rapping, and deejaying components of hip-hop were bound together by the shared environment in which these art forms evolved. The first major hip-hop deejay was DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell), an 18-year-old immigrant who introduced the huge sound systems of his native Jamaica to inner-city parties. Using two turntables, he melded percussive fragments from older records with popular dance songs to create a continuous flow of music. Kool Herc and other pioneering hip-hop deejays such as Grand Wizard Theodore, Afrika Bambaataa, and Grandmaster Flash isolated and extended the break beat (the part of a dance record where all sounds but the drums drop out), stimulating improvisational dancing. Contests developed in which the best dancers created break dancing, a style with a repertoire of acrobatic and occasionally airborne moves, including gravity-defying headspins and backspins.
In the meantime, deejays developed new techniques for turntable manipulation. Needle dropping, created by Grandmaster Flash, prolonged short drum breaks by playing two copies of a record simultaneously and moving the needle on one turntable back to the start of the break while the other played. Sliding the record back and forth underneath the needle created the rhythmic effect called “scratching.”
Kool Herc was widely credited as the father of modern rapping for his spoken interjections over records, but among the wide variety of oratorical precedents cited for MCing are the epic histories of West African griots, talking blues songs, jailhouse toasts (long rhyming poems recounting outlandish deeds and misdeeds), and the dozens (the ritualized word game based on exchanging insults, usually about members of the opponent’s family). Other influences cited include the hipster-jive announcing styles of 1950s rhythm-and-blues deejays such as Jocko Henderson; the black power poetry of Amiri Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron, and the Last Poets; rapping sections in recordings by Isaac Hayes and George Clinton; and the Jamaican style of rhythmized speech known as toasting.
Rap first came to national prominence in the United States with the release of the Sugarhill Gang’s song “Rapper’s Delight” (1979) on the independent African American-owned label Sugar Hill. Within weeks of its release, it had become a chart-topping phenomenon and given its name to a new genre of pop music. The major pioneers of rapping were Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, and the Cold Crush Brothers, whose Grandmaster Caz is controversially considered by some to be the true author of some of the strongest lyrics in “Rapper’s Delight.” These early MCs and deejays constituted rap’s old school.
In the mid-1980s the next wave of rappers, the new school, came to prominence. At the forefront was Run-D.M.C., a trio of middle-class African Americans who fused rap with hard rock, defined a new style of hip dress and became staples on MTV as they brought rap to a mainstream audience. Run-D.M.C. recorded for Profile, one of several new labels that took advantage of the growing market for rap music. Def Jam featured three important innovators: LL Cool J, rap’s first romantic superstar; the Beastie Boys, a white trio who broadened rap’s audience and popularized digital sampling (composting with music and sounds electronically extracted from other recordings); and Public Enemy, who invested rap with radical black political ideology, building on the social consciousness of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” (1982).
Rap’s classical period (1979–93) also included significant contributions from De La Soul—whose debut album on Tommy Boy, 3 Feet High and Rising (1989), pointed in a new and more playful direction—and female rappers such as Queen Latifah and Salt-n-Pepa, who offered an alternative to rap’s predominantly male, often misogynistic viewpoint. Hip-hop artists from places other than New York City began to make their mark, including DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince (Will Smith), from Philadelphia; the provocative 2 Live Crew, from Miami; and M.C. Hammer, from Oakland, California, who experienced short-lived but massive crossover success with a pop audience. The most significant response to New York hip-hop, though, came from Los Angeles, beginning in 1989 with N.W.A.’s dynamic album Straight Outta Compton. N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) and former members of that group—Ice Cube, Eazy E, and Dr. Dre—led the way as West Coast rap grew in prominence in the early 1990s. Their graphic, frequently violent tales of real life in the inner city, as well as those of Los Angeles rappers such as Ice-T (remembered for his 1992 single “Cop Killer”) and Snoop Dogg and of East Coast counterparts such as Schoolly D, gave rise to the genre known as gangsta rap. As the Los Angeles-based label Death Row Records built an empire around Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and the charismatic, complicated rapper-actor, Tupac Shakur, it also entered into a rivalry with New York City’s Bad Boy Records. This developed into a media-fueled hostility between East Coast and West Coast rappers, which culminated in the still-unsolved murders of Shakur and the wildly gifted MC known as the Notorious B.I.G.
By the late 1990s hip hop was artistically dominated by the Wu-Tang Clan, from New York City’s Staten Island, whose combination of street credibility, neo-Islamic mysticism, and kung fu lore made them one of the most complex groups in the history of rap; by Diddy (known by a variety of names, including Sean “Puffy” Combs and Puff Daddy), performer, producer, and president of Bad Boy Records, who was responsible for a series of innovative music videos; and by the Fugees, who mixed pop music hooks with politics and launched the solo careers of Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill.
Although long believed to be popular primarily with urban African American males, hip-hop became the best-selling genre of popular music in the United States in the late 1990s (at least partly by feeding the appetite of some white suburbanites for vicarious thrills). Its impact was global, with formidable audiences and artist pools in cities such as Paris, Tokyo, Sydney, Cape Town, London, and Bristol, England (where the spin-off trip-hop originated). It also generated huge sales of products in the fashion, liquor, electronics, and automobile industries that were popularized by hip-hop artists on cable television stations such as MTV and The Box and in hip-hop-oriented magazines such as The Source and Vibe. A canny blend of entrepreneurship and aesthetics, hip-hop was the wellspring of several staple techniques of modern pop music, including digital drumming and sampling (which introduced rap listeners to the music of a previous generation of performers, including Chic, Parliament-Funkadelic, and James Brown, while at the same time creating copyright controversies).
As the century turned, the music industry entered into a crisis, brought on by the advent of digital downloading. Hip-hop suffered at least as severely as or worse than other genres, with sales tumbling throughout the decade. Simultaneously, though, it solidified its standing as the dominant influence on global youth culture. Even the massively popular “boy bands,” such as the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, drew heavily on hip-hop sounds and styles, and rhythm and blues and even gospel had adapted so fully to the newer approach that stars such as Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, and Kirk Franklin straddled both worlds. In the early 2000s, hip-hop’s creative center moved to the American South. Following the success of the increasingly experimental OutKast and the stable of New Orleans-based artists that emerged from two record companies—Cash Money and No Limit Records (which was both founded and anchored by Master P)—the chant-based party anthems of such rappers as Juvenile, 8Ball & MJG, and Three 6 Mafia brought the sounds of the “Dirty South” to the mainstream.
Big Boi (left) and Andre 3000 of OutKast performing at an awards show in 2004
Dr. Dre remained a crucial figure; his New York City-born protégé 50 Cent achieved multiplatinum status with 2003’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and another protégé,
Eminem, became perhaps the world’s biggest pop star when 8 Mile (2002), the loosely autobiographical film in which he starred, enjoyed huge popular and critical success (his “Lose Yourself” won the Academy Award for best song). However, Dr. Dre remained mostly silent for the remainder of the decade, working on technology for a new brand of headphones but never releasing an album after 1999. Eminem, whose outlaw status was challenged by his Hollywood success, seemed adrift for a time, and the Los Angeles style exemplified by Dr. Dre in the 1990s lost much of its power.
Eminem in 8 Mile (2002)
Dr. Dre’s legacy, though, was visible in the extent to which hip-hop had become a producers’ medium. In the 21st century the music—born from the sonic creations of the deejay—saw its greatest innovations in the work of such studio wizards as Timbaland, Swizz Beatz, and the Neptunes. The focus on producers as both a creative and a commercial force was concurrent with a widespread sense that the verbal dexterity and poetry of hip-hop was waning. The genre had truly become pop music, with all of the resultant pressures of accessibility, and the intricacy and subversive nature of earlier MCs had largely been pushed to the “alternative”/“underground” scene spearheaded by rappers such as Mos Def (later known as Yasiin Bey) and Doom (MF Doom). The dissatisfaction with the state of mainstream hip-hop was sufficiently common that in 2006 Nas released an album titled Hip Hop Is Dead.
Still, major stars continued to emerge. Many of the biggest figures continued to rise from the South, including Atlanta’s T.I. and Lil Wayne from New Orleans. Hip-hop celebrity now often came hand-in-hand with multimedia success, such as a burgeoning film career for Ludacris. The genre continued to be assimilated deeper into the nonmusical culture, with some of the genre’s early stars—LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Ice-T—established as familiar faces in movies and television. Snoop Dogg headlined rock festivals alongside Bruce Springsteen. Perhaps no one represented the cultural triumph of hip-hop better than Jay-Z. As his career progressed, he went from performing artist to label president, head of a clothing line, club owner, and market consultant—along the way breaking Elvis Presley’s Billboard magazine record for the most number one albums by a solo artist. Candidate Barack Obama made references to Jay-Z during the 2008 presidential campaign, and on the rapper’s 2009 album The Blueprint 3 he claimed to be a “small part of the reason” for Obama’s victory.
Kanye West, one of Jay-Z’s producers, emerged as one of the most fascinating and polarizing characters in hip-hop following the success of his 2004 debut album The College Dropout. Musically experimental and fashion-forward, West represented many of hip-hop’s greatest possibilities with his penetrating, deeply personal lyrics. However, his endless self-promotion and often arrogant aura also demonstrated some of the elements that now tried the patience of many listeners.
Regardless of hip-hop’s own internal struggles, the music’s global impact constantly continued to expand. No single artist may have better-personified hip-hop in the 21st century than
M.I.A. Born in London raised in her family’s native Sri Lanka, and trained as a graphic designer, M.I.A. wrote politically radical lyrics that are set to musical tracks that drew from wildly diverse sources around the world. Not only was her album Kala named the best album of 2007 by Rolling Stone, but M.I.A. was also listed as one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People”—illustrating the reach and power of music born decades earlier on litter-strewn playgrounds.