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Saturday, December 10, 2011

What Hip Hop Is

Since we're doing a tribute to hip-hop tomorrow, I thought I'd write down a bit about hip-hop.  I'm not an expert though I spent years on websites like SOHH.com keeping an eye out for mix tapes and recordings that the regulars there used to post about.  I'd usually find the underground things, if not directly then referenced in the busy forums.

Hip-hop is a cultural urban movement born in the Bronx during the 1970s from mostly African Americans with a smattering of Latin American influence.  They would have block parties -- literally street parties.  They were loud neighborhood parties.

On August 11, 1973, Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc would DJ and Emcee a party in the recreation room of 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx -- this is warmly called the "Birthplace of Hip-hop", though in reality Hip-hop was born in several places.  DJ Kool Herc would extend an instrumental beat (through turntablism by scratching or breaking) to help people dance longer (break dancing) and began Emceeing (MC'ing or rapping) during the extended break dances.  This would lay the foundation for a cultural revolution (Hip-Hop).

Hip-hop is characterized by four pillars (see also http://www.hiphopgalaxy.com):

1. DJing (mixing, cutting and scratching) - the sounds of Hip-hop
2. MCing (Rapping) - the sounds of of Hip-hop
3. Breakdancing -  physical representation of Hip-hop
4. Graffiti Art (Tagging) - visual representation of Hip-hop

Later, the street origins of Hip-Hop would add in five more pillars:

1. Hip-Hop Fashion
2. Beatboxing
3. Hip-Hop Slang
4. Street Knowledge
5. Street Entrepreneurship (think Hustlers)

Over the years Hip-hop's influence would spread and become commercialized.  In fact it's become so popular that people have tried to draw from Hip-hop to sell their songs creating sounds like the popular Electro hop that populates the top40 charts (think LMFAO).

Unfortunately people confuse it and just lump everything as Hip-Hop: Motown sounds, Electro-hop, R&B.  But listen to the old rappers talk about today's music, of Hip-Hop purists who lament.  Read columns like this from SOHH.com who say even popular Hip-hop stars like Wiz Khalifa don't produce Hip-hop albums:


1.  DJ-ing
DJs, the music players, would loops portions of songs, highlighting the percussive patterns to create their own beats.  Their tools included turntable with which they would apply various techniques to craft their art including cutting, scratching, body tricks, needle drops, and blends or mixes.  Famous DJs include: Grandmaster Flash, Mr. Magic, DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Scratch from EPMD, DJ Premier from Gang Starr, DJ Miz, DJ Muggs from Cypress Hill, Jam Master Jay from Run-DMC, Eric B., Tony Touch, DJ Clue, DJ Shadow, DJ Q-Bert, DJ D-Styles and DJ Spooky (source http://www.hiphopgalaxy.com/Djing-hip-hop-2082.html)

2.  MCing
Rappers, aka MCs, would accompany the beats produced by DJs with a form of chant singing called rapping.  See details at http://www.hiphopgalaxy.com/rap-hip-hop-2073.html.  Rapping is a way of poetically expressing oneself while rhyming on a beat.

Though many older generations dislike rap, I'm fascinated by it.  There is so much to make up good rap:

The most important element of rap lyrics is rhyme.  In Hip-hop the ability to construct raps with large sets of syllables is considered a sign of intelligence and achievement (listen to Eminem complain about rappers who only rap in one syllable http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzJsIlRkgnQ at 2:15.. see also http://rapgenius.com/Eminem-seduction-lyrics#note-19165).

Battles are a popular part of Freestyle Rapping where two rappers try to bully each other using insults, metaphors and intimidating with improvised lyrics.  The rapper that can construct the best rhymes "off the top of the dome" is usually the winner.

Another important element of rap is flow.  Flow is like informal metre you studied in high school poetry.  The goal of rapping is to develop flow, something that doesn't drag on but draws the listener into the words.  Flow is all about how the voice comes through on the song.  Perhaps the best example is Rakim (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tR87_hzPutc)  who was able to change rhyme schemes by creating rhymes within a line instead of just at the end of the line.  Listen to it!

Other elements include Enunciation (some rappers mumble for the sake of speed);  Style, voice, tone, attitude, and soul; Speed (though fast doesn't mean quality) see Twista (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Laj2unxWsIg), and Slaughterhouse (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8rGawmENrg)  for amazing speed; Wordplay (using things like double entendres); and Message (what the rap's about).

If you read hip-hop you'll hear terms like flow, rhyme, message thrown around a lot.  Depending on personal tastes each will place a higher regard for a rapper's skill in one area or another.  It's what they quibble about in comparing who the best rappers of all time are.

3. Breakdancing
See http://www.bboy.org/forums/interviews-articles/51945-history-breakdancing.html for a better history.

Breakdancing (aka b-boying, b-girling, breaking) was made popular by African American and Latin American teens as an alternative to the influences of street gangs and was especially popular were many of the youths and street gangs that roamed the South Bronx.  Two gangs would battle in dance instead of fighting with an understanding that the better breakers would "win" the fight.  Sometimes the prize was that the loser could not go to the winner's turf anymore.  Sometimes it was just a battle for respect.  And often they just started fights since no one likes to lose.

Soon formal crews organized who not only practiced, preformed together, and developed dance routines.  And then Afrika Bambaataa came along. Bambaataa is the legendary grand master D.J. and  leader of the Zulu Nation in the Bronx, who is credited as being the most responsible for the successful growth of Breakdancing.

Breakdancing is often showcased in battles or cyphers.  Battles are breakdancing competitions like head-to-head duels or crew vs crew where winners are determined based on technical proficiency and the complexity of the routine. A cypher is similar to a breakdancing battle, but the competitive aspect is less emphasized.  I recommend watching a documentary called Planet B-boy (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0770796/)

Though styles like funk, popping, and other street dances have become associated to Hip-hop, the truest will be breakdancing.

4.  Graffiti Art (Tagging)
While rapping and DJing produce the sounds, and Breaking the physical manifestation, Graffiti is the visual representation of Hip-hop (see http://undergroundhip-hop.net/graffiti/ for works of graffiti art, and http://www.graffiti.org/faq/graffiti_edu_christen.html for a history).

Hip hop graffiti began in New York City during the late 1960's when teenagers from the South Bronx and other impoverished neighborhoods began blanketing the city with their "tags"-stylized signatures of names.  As the numbers of New York City taggers multiplied during the early 1970's, simply getting up one's name in large numbers was no longer sufficient for recognition and they began placing their tags into more conspicuous (and risky) places.

By the mid-1970's, the city's most skilled writers were painting elaborate works like this on trains, walls, tunnels, outdoor handball courts, and in a few cases, for mainstream art galleries and collectors.
Exciting new music and dance forms were also emerging in New York City during the mid-1970's.

During the early days of Hip-hop DJs and MCs and were entertaining the crowds while break dancers danced.  In the backdrop of these places was graffiti covering the subways and other public sites that had much in common with these music and dance forms.  In fact some were recruited graffiti artists who decorated the sites of their music and dance events. Together these music, dance, and visual expressions comprised a new urban culture, a rich mix of artistic practices that have come to be known as hip hop.

30 minutes worth of writing about Hip-hop.  It's a bit cluttered but there is enough in terms of links that you can learn more about Hip-hop if you so choose.  And no, lots of what is on today I do not consider Hip-hop -- but that doesn't mean I don't like it.  I love all music, all dance, and most art.

But be informed, have a bit of knowledge when you judge an art.  Hip-hop is amazing.