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The History of Hip-Hop Culture and Rap Music

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This year the world celebrated the 50th birthday of the culture and art we all love – Hip-Hop.

“Never thought that Hip-Hop would take it this far,” rhymed B.I.G way back in the day, and it still rings true today. Decades later it’s still an amazing thing to behold.

Hip-Hop is (and has been) a global phenomenon for a while now. It’s permeated every facet of life around the world – fashion, language, music, style, food and so much more.

It IS the global, universal culture in many ways. It’s always been inviting and diverse in it’s makeup. And people around the world have embraced it, making it their own. Including me – a Pakistani kid from bum-fuck nowhere Canada. And for the most part, I’ve never felt ostracized from it.

But make no mistake, Hip-Hop IS absolutely 100% Black American culture.

We owe a great deal of appreciation and respect to the originators and innovators of this “intelligent movement” (as KRS-One put it). But the culture has a warm embrace and has welcomed people of every creed, color, nationality and background into it’s open arms.

So let’s take a bit to talk about it’s humble beginnings and how it grew into the powerhouse it is today.

The Humble Beginnings

The backdrop is 1970s Bronx, New York. A rough time in a rough place that was often neglected by the powers that be.

There, a Jamaican-American DJ who went by DJ Kool Herc started throwing block parties in local parks. People loved it.

What would become Hip-Hop all started with “the break” – or the breakbeat – of certain old funk and soul records. There would often be a part of the record that only contained a drum groove in the middle of the song (i.e. the “beat” during the “break”).

Those breaks would always get the dance floor live – people loved dancing to those solo grooves.

Herc found out that if you had two copies of the same record (and two turntables with a mixer) you could keep on looping that short “break” over and over again. Making a 10 second drum loop turn into minutes of highly danceable energy.

That of course gave rise to the B-Boy and B-Girl – i.e. breakdancers. (And now you know why they are called “break” dancers). These crews and individuals would compete for the craziest dance routines on top of these looped breakbeats.

Microphone Month at Sweetwater

Enter Rap

But it went even further. Because Herc (and many others in the Bronx) had Jamaican heritage, the idea of “toasting” (spoken word) started to enter the parties. People would grab the DJ’s microphone (with permission, of course) and start rhyming or speaking on top of the breaks in a unique and engaging way.

This obviously gave rise to the Emcee (MC or “Master of Ceremonies”). The emcees then also began to compete for the most clever lines/rhymes, often in braggadocios ways.

These became local competitions between friends and crews from all over New York – DJs, emcees and breakdancers became the focus of the parties.

The Final Element

Hip-Hop is more than music – it’s an entire culture. And from the beginning that culture revolved around (and continues to) 4 separate but intertwined elements:

  1. DJing
  2. MCing
  3. B-Boying
  4. Tagging (Graffiti)

Graffiti is the fourth element of Hip-Hop culture. And it involves street art, most often done with spray paint on buildings, streets, trains and anywhere else you could get away with it.

The world was the artists’ canvas – and some of the most beautiful artistry and design has come out of it. Even though it’s often frowned upon by those on the outside, tagging is an integral part of Hip-Hop culture.

It’s not about “defacing property” – it’s about artistic expression by any means necessary.

And with those 4 elements, the culture of Hip-Hop was born.

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The Beginnings of the Business

Of course, the popularity of this culture continued to grow and gain traction all across the country.

The hated and neglected Black population who had their culture, heritage and leaders ripped away from them during slavery, the civil rights movement and the Jim Crow era, had something new to identify with. Something inspiring. Something creative, unique and beautiful that was their own.

By the late 1970s the first major “rap songs” were hitting the airwaves. They included the regular boasting/party music of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rappers Delight” and the new social commentary music of “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

Hip Hop's Evolution and History

“The Message” was huge because it started to give the rest of America insight into the plight of Black Americans living in impoverished neighbourhoods.

Both are seminal tracks in the history of Hip-Hop and Rap music and paved the way for some of the biggest selling artists/records in history.

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Hip-Hop was about to become BIG business.

Hip-Hop Goes Global

In the 1980s, Hip-Hop started spreading far and wide across the country. It went from being an underground phenomenon in New York to something mainstream people started to notice.

This is the era of Run DMC and Aerosmith mixing rap with rock together, widening the appeal to different (white) audiences. It was something never heard before.

Beyond that, artists like Rakim, Public Enemy and LL Cool J started to innovate with social commentary, storytelling and more intricate rhyme schemes and lyricism.

The Golden Era

The 90s and the turn of the millennium saw what’s affectionately known as the “golden era” of Hip-Hop. Creativity and innovation was at an all time high and the art form and culture came into it’s own.

Sub-genres of Rap started to pop up – from “G-Funk” and “Gangsta” Rap to “Conscious” Rap and even “Alt” Rap. Each area of the country even had their own unqiue styles of music – the east coast’s boom-bap, to the funk-inspired west coast and of course the eccentric styles of the south.

Rap flows got more intricate, storytelling got more poetic and more and more artists started to create all across the country.

And it was in the 90s that we started to see the rising stars of some of the biggest names in Hip-Hop and Rap – The Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, Outkast, 2LiveCrew, Tupac, Ice Cube and Dr. Dre to name a few.

All of this energy and creativity helped it to become even more of a global phenomenon – so much so that a kid like me was able to find meaning and identity in the culture from hundreds of miles away and no real “ties” to it.

This truly was the culture’s Golden Era, but after this it didn’t decline in importance and popularity. It continued to grow.

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The Turn of the Millennium

By the year 2000 and beyond Hip-Hop truly became a dominating force in the mainstream. Artists like Eminem helped to break down racial stereotypes. And artists like Kanye West would go on to influence the birth of brand new genres of music while also influencing existing genres like Rock.

Rappers like Lil Wayne became sensations and were literally EVERYWHERE, giving the “dirty south” the much needed attention and recognition it deserved in the Hip-Hop world.

Bands like Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park were heavily influenced by Hip-Hop music and culture. They helped bring the elements to new audiences that otherwise may not have embraced them, like Aerosmith and Run DMC did more than a decade earlier.

It was at this time that the business started to grow even more. It was also when the culture started DOMINATING cultures around the globe.

Everyone seemingly started embracing the raw, realness of Hip-Hop culture and Rap music. You could find B-Boys/Girls, Emcees, DJs and Graffiti artists all across the globe.

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The Take Over

By the 2010s it was CLEAR that Hip-Hop culture was dominating the mainstream. Everywhere you looked you saw the influence of Black American culture and Hip-Hop.

Even the president at the time – Barack Obama – opined about his love for artists like Jay-Z.

By the mid 2010s it was hard to find anything that wasn’t Hip-Hop tinged (even in the corniest or corny commercial jingles and political messaging).

Artists like Kendrick Lamar, Young Thug, Drake and many more would eventually become the new royalty of the artform and culture. Their innovative takes on the music and the culture helped to shape it beyond what was normally seen as “acceptable” in previous eras.

Hip-Hop Takes Over

Artists like Travis Scott and Future also became hugely popular with their takes on on various sub-genres – Travis doing a psychedlic style of rap and Future doing a modern version of Trap, popularized years earlier by artists like T.I.

And of course, the “Soundcloud era” helped push things even further since now so many people around the world could make music easily and with little cost and distribute it through the internet for free.

The 2010s saw more and more White Hip-Hop artists like Post Malone and others accepted by the mainstream. And of course non-Hip-Hop artists like Ariana Grande (a pop star) have extremely Hip-Hop influenced music.

And by 2017, Hip-Hop officially overtook “pop music” as the dominant mainstream genre of music GLOBALLY.

It was the biggest thing all over the world. And the most non-Hip-Hop of artists (like BTS and Ed Sheeren) started to implement the sounds and styles into their own music.

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The Future of Hip-Hop

And that brings us to today – the early 2020s. Hip-Hop is still a dominant force to be reckoned with 50 years later. It’s all grown up and still evolving.

Some say it’s become stagnant and repetitive, with a loss of real creativity. Some blame the internet, others blame the accessibility of

But I say, don’t count it out just yet.

So much of mainstream music culture has come from Black America – from Jazz and Blues to Rock and, of course, (my love) Hip-Hop. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the next great art form and culture may likely come from Black America again.

Will it be an evolution of Hip-Hop or something entirely different? Who knows…

But when you look back and see how the art and culture has continued to push boundaries and grow beyond everyone’s expectations I hold out hope that we will see more evolution within this beautiful thing we call Hip-Hop.

Until then, I can only say this…

Thank you Hip-Hop. You not only saved me, you gave me purpose, meaning and community. And I can’t wait to see where we go next.

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    About The Author:

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    Omar Zulfi

    Omar Zulfi is a music producer, rapper, singer, songwriter and digital entrepreneur. He is the founder and head writer at Deviant Noise. Learn more about what he's doing by clicking here.