As the youngest musical genre to arise from the Black experience in America, hip-hop simultaneously embodies the history and influence of its predecessors while keeping its eye trained on the new and the now, and its finger on the pulse of the next. NMAAM’s The Message gallery takes visitors on a journey from hip-hop’s origins at an infamous house party in New York City’s South Bronx, to its global domination as the top-selling genre in the world and hip-hop culture’s near-ubiquity in communities from New York to LA, to Paris and Basra, Iraq.
From its infancy, hip-hop has always been rooted in the everyday lived experiences of America’s inner cities and predominantly African American and Latinx underserved urban centers. Following in R&B and soul music’s footsteps during the Civil Rights and Black Liberation movements, early hip-hop artists acted as modern-day griots, conveying tales of economic blight and social and political dispossession. Spikes in unemployment, poverty, and declining property values in Black and brown communities–which began as early as the 1950s–made them all the more vulnerable to rising crime, gang violence, and police brutality. So-called “white flight,” the phenomenon of white residents fleeing neighborhoods with growing Black and brown populations for more affluent suburbs, also contributed to these once-thriving inner city areas’ demise and led to further neglect. All of these variables factored prominently in daily life in the Bronx in the 1970s, setting the stage for what would become perhaps the most influential form of Black creative and artistic expression.
Hip-hop scholars and aficionados cite one specific pivotal moment as hip-hop’s point of origin: A back to school jam held at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx on August 11, 1973, hosted by DJ Kool Herc. The Jamaica-born DJ was a fixture in the community, spinning at block parties and bringing the flavor of the Jamaican dancehall to the neighborhood. What distinguished Herc from other DJs at the time was his use of breaks; to get more bodies moving on the dance floor, Herc would extend musical breaks and highlight certain rhythmic sections of a song. This technique built tension as dancers anticipated Herc’s next moves, and when he finally brought the song back in, the crowd’s collective release was something like ecstasy.
Also crucial to this burgeoning musical artform, the emcee. If the DJ was largely responsible for the music itself, the emcee, or MC, was charged with communicating with the crowd. This could take the form of call and response, harkening back to hip-hop’s kinship with field hollers and gospel. Emcees would eventually evolve to command the stage much like singers, rapping over the DJ’s breaks and beats. This rhythmic, intricate rhyming performance is a direct descendant of African oral traditions, while the term “rap” gained popularity in the 1960s as part of youth counterculture. At the height of the Black Arts and Black Power movements, artists such as the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron delivered social and political commentary spoken over music that fused soul, jazz, and funk. Once hip-hop established its foothold, rap–like thousands of other words and phrases in the English language that would be touched, turned, and reclaimed by the culture–took on a new meaning as the emcee’s preferred style of musical expression.
Hip-hop spilled out from house parties and rec rooms and into storefronts, living rooms, and every other public space imaginable. The sleek, sexy aspirational fashions popular in the discos gave way to bold sartorial expressions buoyed by athletic wear and high-end brands. The first wave of hip-hop stars in the ‘70s and ‘80s made brands like Adidas and Fendi household names, and mixed prestigious labels with oversized gold chains, doorknocker earrings, nameplate necklaces, and African-inspired designs and patterns to create a distinct, highly-coveted look. Harlem’s Dapper Dan was among the first to thoughtfully pair street wear and couture, and for decades styled hip-hop’s A-listers in his unique designs that featured Gucci and Louis Vuitton (Dan and the former officially partnered in 2017). Graffiti, long associated with less savory aspects of inner city life, experienced its own renaissance of sorts as it became central to hip-hop’s artistic aesthetic. Hip-hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy began as a graffiti artist before becoming one of the genre’s most recognizable figures as host of MTV’s groundbreaking Yo! MTV Raps. Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the greatest contemporary artists of our time, started out as part of the graffiti art duo SAMO, and has remained a key artistic figure and inspiration within hip-hop culture.
As common as it is now to hear words like “innovation” and “disruption” applied to certain industries and public figures, one could argue that hip-hop is the original innovator and disruptor of the modern era. DJs and emcees combined turntables, tape machines, mixers, drum machines, and synthesizers to produce new musical sounds and possibilities. Not unlike rock n roll, older music lovers often dismissed hip-hop as a passing fad for teens and young adults, suggesting that it would eventually fade into the background to be replaced by “real” music. Hip-hop’s reliance on sampling triggered a decades-long debate amongst some of the most esteemed figures in Black music, who argued that utilizing compositions previously recorded by other musicians didn’t constitute artistry or innovation; it was simply copying. Despite such pushback, many of hip-hop’s earliest DJs and emcees became award-winning producers, parlaying the skills honed creating beats and mixtapes into multi-million dollar careers.
As hip-hop came of age in the late ‘80s and into the first half of the 1990s, the music reflected shifts in the social and political climates of the times. While some of hip-hop’s original voices remained steadfast in their commitment to using the music as a form of protest and resistance, new voices emerged alongside them and offered a broad range of topics in their songs. This was especially true of women artists such as Roxanne Shanté, Queen Latifah, Salt n Pepa, and MC Lyte, all of whom brought messages of female empowerment, sexual liberation, and socio/economic independence to the forefront of a male-dominated genre.
The changing cultural landscape also saw hip-hop artists moving from the competitive battles for lyrical superiority essential to the genre in the late ‘70s and ‘80s to grittier, more aggressive rhymes that not only spoke to the growing drug and gang violence epidemic in poor Black communities, but, according to some critics, seemed to glorify it. “Gangsta rap,” popularized by groups such as NWA, emerged from urban centers like Compton, CA on the west coast. The controversial sub-genre quickly took over airwaves and became the subject of much public discourse due to lyrics many believed glamorized crime. Gangsta rap also came under fire for misogynistic content that hyper-sexualized women.
At the same time, more politically-minded hip-hop acts like Public Enemy and KRS-One treated the topics like inner city crime and violence, political disenfranchisement, and lack of access to gainful employment more as cautionary tales while simultaneously challenging racism and injustice. Conscious and “backpack” artists such as De La Soul, Digable Planets, and A Tribe Called Quest offered a slight alternative to the grim narratives coming out of South Central LA and even cities like Houston, and delivered highly experimental musical experiences that blended jazz, soul, and pop sensibilities with tried and true hip-hop production. Still, they were all eventually eclipsed by their edgier counterparts.
As the ‘90s progressed, yet another aspect of hip-hop culture took center stage: over the top consumerism. While gangsta rap still had a hold on the minds and consciences of many fans and artists, the relative economic prosperity of the time seemed to occupy the culture’s imagination. By the dawn of the 21st century, hip-hop artists-turned-moguls like Sean “Diddy” Combs and Jay-Z came to represent a very particular brand of new Black wealth to which others in the culture could aspire; they name-checked high-end clothing and accessories brands, and featured luxury vehicles and expensive European spirits in music videos. The “bling” era further displaced rap and hip-hop artists whose music tackled urgent social and political issues, but also opened the doors for even more disruption and innovation as artists and producers recognized the benefits of building their own empires in the forms of record labels, clothing lines, and spirits brands.
Women in hip-hop also thrived in the ‘90s and into the aughts. Acts like Li’l Kim and Foxy Brown raised the stakes on unapologetic sexual expression and representation, while Missy Elliot turned the industry on its ear with infectious tunes featuring pristine production (courtesy of Elliot and her musical partner in crime, Timbaland) and mind-blowing visuals. Women also took over the 1’s and 2’s, as DJs such as Jazzy Joyce, Beverly Bond, and Salt N Pepa’s Spinderella established themselves as forces with which to be reckoned behind the wheels of steel.
From the latter part of the 20th century onward, hip-hop experienced even greater growth as regional groups from Atlanta (Outkast), Memphis (Three Six Mafia), Miami (2 Live Crew), and New Orleans (Master P) placed themselves and their cities on hip-hop’s ever-expanding map. Hip-hop culture decimated boundaries and borders, influencing and inspiring young people thousands of miles away from its birthplace to tell their stories and reveal their truths and aspirations through the art form. The genre continues to reimagine and rebirth itself, keeping innovation and disruption at its core, and has introduced more superstars to the world who uphold and extend the legacy of the DJs and emcees who paved the way.
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