Hip Hop: A Culture of Vision and Voice
Hip hop is global, lapping on every shore and landing at every airport. But what does hip hop mean? Is it the music with a chest-thumping beat? The rapid-fire lyrics rapped into a handheld mic? Gravity-defying dance steps? Writers turning walls into canvases with larger-than-life letters and illustrations?
The answer is all of the above—and more. Hip hop embraces these artistic elements, most definitely. But it also has blended and transcended them to become a means for seeing, celebrating, experiencing, understanding, confronting, and commenting on life and the world. Hip hop, in other words, is a way of living—a culture.
The elements of hip hop came together in the Bronx borough of New York City. It was the early 1970s and times were tougher than usual for the poorer parts of urban America. From a whole lot of nothing—and a whole lot of imagination—hip hop took form.
DJ Kool Herc is credited with throwing the switch at an August 1973 dance bash. He spun the same record on twin turntables, toggling between them to isolate and extend percussion breaks—the most danceable sections of a song. It was a technique that filled the floor with dancers who had spent days and weeks polishing their moves.
The effect that night was electric, and soon other DJs in the Bronx were trying to outdo Herc. It was a code that has flowed through hip hop ever since: 1) Use skills and whatever resources are available to create something new and cool; 2) Emulate and imitate the genius of others but inject personal style until the freshness glows. Competition was, and remains, a prime motivator in the hip hop realm.
Like a powerful star, this dance-party scene quickly drew other art forms into its orbit. A growing movement of hopeful poets, visual artists, and urban philosophers added their visions and voices by whatever means available. They got the word out about what was happening in their neighborhoods—neighborhoods much of mainstream, middle-class America was doing its best to ignore or run down. Hip hop kept coming, kept pushing, kept playing until that was no longer possible.
Today, some hip hop scholars fold as many as six elements into hip hop culture. They include:
- DJing—the artistic handling of beats and music
- MCing, aka rapping—putting spoken-word poetry to a beat
- Breaking—hip hop’s dance form
- Writing—the painting of highly stylized graffiti
- Theater and literature—combining hip hop elements and themes in drama, poetry, and stories
- Knowledge of self—the moral, social, and spiritual principles that inform and inspire hip hop ways of being.
From its work-with-what-you-got epicenter in the Bronx, hip hop has rolled outward to become a multibillion-dollar business. Its sounds, styles, and fashions are now in play around the world. DJs spin turntables in Sao Paulo, Brazil. MCs rap Arabic in the clubs of Qatar. B-boys and b-girls bust baby freezes in Finland. Graffiti rises on the Great Wall of China. Young poets slam poetry in D.C.
So what is hip hop? All of the above and more—whatever we love enough to bring.