The Surprising Roots of Hip Hop Culture
Posted on 11 August 2017
Hip Hop is a modern social movement with its roots in 70's NYC. The term “Hip Hop” has been used and diluted to the point that it can be hard to pin down the meaning. This is a social movement which has made its way through multiple generations and continues to grow and change to this day.
These factors combine to create an environment where it can be hard to pin down specifics. What defines hip hop culture? Are these key elements fixed or have they shifted over time? These questions are essential to understanding the core components of hip hop, and yet they’re rarely discussed.
Without understanding where hip hop culture came from, it is very difficult to understand why hip hop culture is what it is. The original components of hip hop are still highly correlated with the core components of the culture today. Many aspects of urban streetwear make little sense without the context of hip hop’s origin.
While there is much argument and discussion about what factors define the hip hop of today, there is such speculation about the key elements which define Hip Hop culture as it originated. Most historians agree that the original hip hop movement consisted of four key components:
- Graffiti Writing
Graffiti writing rose to prominence in NYC during the same period in which hip hop was emerging. Graffiti in 1970's NYC was largely unpoliced. This lack of enforcement led the city’s writers to cover the city in art.
Graffiti culture began to merge with hip hop fairly early. Graffiti became a fixture at the block parties where early hip hop was played. Graffiti writers and B-Boys were often one and the same.
The flashy one-upmanship of graffiti culture lends itself to hip hop culture. Groups of popular graffiti writers often gathered at hip hop parties and and tagged the area where the party was occurring. These groups slowly became their own (nonviolent) gangs. They “warred” over territory, painting over each other’s work, and competing to make the most innovative, and surprising art.
Graffiti, with its rebellious nature and urban vibe quickly became a secondary performance art subset of hip hop culture. The needs of graffiti writers had a heavy impact on the clothing associated with hip hop. If you look carefully, you can still see the impact to this day:
- Hoodies and backpacks are a recurring detail of clothing worn by urban youths. While many now wear the items purely for looks, their original purpose was to hold (and hide) canisters of spray paint.
- Fonts used in urban street wear frequently hearken to the graffiti aspects of hip hop culture.
B-Boying refers to the dancing and activities of B-boys and B-girls. This style of dancing is frequently spoken of as break-dancing, its practitioners (somewhat) incorrectly called break dancers.
The term ‘break’ refers to the extended musical break downs between musical segments in songs. Early hip hop consisted of consistently looping these bits in order to extend songs. These bits of music were rapped over and scratched on.
The term ‘break’ also hearkens back to slang, common among African Americans and Puerto Rican Americans in 1970's NYC. Breaking referred to getting excited and hyped. The dancers who appeared at hip hop events got crowds so hyped and excited about the music, that they eventually coming to be named for it.
Break dancers made use of several dance techniques not common anywhere else. These included popping, locking, and various lifts, freezes, and spins. As breaking became more popular, groups of break dancers formed. These groups often competed publicly. It was not uncommon for these groups to use graffiti to tag public spaces in the areas where they lived.
Breaking had a massive impact upon the clothing associated with hip hop culture. While breaking is no longer specifically associated with mainstream, popular hip hop, the impact that breaking has had on urban fashion is readily apparent.
- The image of a boom box is a common motive in urban fashion. This references the large boomboxes that groups of break dancers would set up on the street.
- Break dancers who performed head spins made use of slick cardboard and baseball caps to do so. In order to spin smoothly, the dancers would rotate their hats and wear them backwards. Backwards baseball caps are still very heavily associated with hip hop culture.
Rapping emerged from a combination of Jamaican ‘toasting’ - bragadocious speech set to the beat of accompanying music and MCing, a traditional position in which a performer would repeatedly engage in several rhythmic performances. This would often rhyme and would increase in intensity as an event went on. While MCs started out as the entertainment in between performers, it wasn’t long until they became the performance.
Rappers became an integral aspect of hip hop culture immediately. As Djs began to experiment with the instrumental ‘breaks’ in their favorite songs, rap quickly became the standard method by which a slick DJ would keep a crowd engaged.
The importance of rappers in hip hop can be seen in the streetwear that is a central component of hip hop today, and images of the microphones used by rappers and MCs is a common visual motif in streetwear.
As hip hop spread through downtown NYC, DJin quickly followed. Many DJs operated using two turntables at once. This allowed them to scratch and spin without ever stopping the music.
When DJ-ing took off, it did so quickly. Withing the space of a single summer, the streets of NYC were flooded with DJs.
Many of these artists plugged their equipment into the streetlights on corners and set up their speakers in the middle of their communities. These public engagements turned into the block parties which are still a large part of how underground hip hop is consumed.
The fashion influence of these DJs is easily seen in the headphone motif common in streetwear. Whether it be the wearing of physical headphones as a fashion statement or the image of a pair of headphones on a t-shirt. Large, production quality headphones have become a visual staple of hip hop.
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