Throughout the last twenty-five years, a new form of expression has continued to evolve despite the efforts of many in the so-called "establishment" to minimize its influence on young people. Hip-Hop, once limited to urban music and dance has become a widespread form of communication exhibited and enjoyed by young people throughout the world. Hip-Hop is no longer limited to rap music and break dancing; today it represents a multi-billion dollar industry that influences everything from automotive design and fashion to prime- time television programming, collegiate and professional sports, mass media marketing and Madison Avenue advertising. Today Hip-Hop is for many a way of life, a culture that is intricately woven into every aspect of young people's daily lives.
In contemplating this phenomenon and making an effort to understand not only its foundation but the premise that comprises the root of Hip-Hop ideology, it is important to remember that this emerging culture has similarities to other cultures that have emerged throughout history. Hip-Hop was initially born of the ability of those early practitioners of rap music, DJ wizardry and street-corner fashion creation to overcome their inability to gain acceptance and recognition by the established music, fashion and entertainment industries.
Further galvanizing the fledgling culture was the lack of acceptance by adult culture, who refused to recognize these newly emerging forms of expression as legitimate. This was particularly true where many parents were concerned. Needless to say, if parents and other authority figures didn't understand Hip-Hop, didn't like it and, in many instances, admonished young people for embracing it, young people were even more compelled to further immerse themselves in this newly developing culture.
Hip-Hop, like Rock 'n' Roll before it, is not only a genre of music, but also a complex system of ideas, values and concepts that reflect newly emerging and ever-changing creative correlative expressive mechanisms including but not limited to song, poetry, film and fashion. In the early days, Hip-Hop was primarily related to the rhyming, rhythmic spoken word art-form known as rapping. Rapping is, in fact, not a new method of creative expression. The ease with which young people can participate in this form of creativity seems to have helped the phenomenal growth of this genre of music and expression.
Review of rap music lyrics and styling from the early to mid-1970's, when Hip-Hop began, reveals several aspects of the musical genre that appear to have had significant appeal to young people, particularly those in urban communities. There has never been one all-inclusive form of rap music. It covers a broad range of ideas, styling and techniques that are unique to specific demographic areas, geographic regions and territories and locales.
The following comprises some of the hallmarks of early rap music:
Simple yet dominant percussive patterns
- Limited reliance on traditional musical systems of chord, verse, chorus and other formal and/or traditional methods of Western musical structure
- Non-traditional utilization of musical instruments including the human voice; i.e., the technique known as "beat boxing" where a person imitates the sounds of percussive instruments.
- Another Hip-Hop innovation is the technique utilized by the DJ (acronym for disc jockey) known as scratching. Scratching is when DJs rhythmically drag the turntable stylus across a record, so that the needle creates unique "scratching" sounds. Over the years, it has become an art-form.
- Rapping serves as a method of declaring pride in one's community. It also becomes a form of competition whereby a rapper can display his skills and defend his neighborhood or community. This competition was created during the early days of rap , commonly referred to as "battling"
- Early rap relied heavily on lyrical compositions that expressed the joy of immersing oneself in the music, dancing, partying and competing in the various forms of musical expression particularly rapping, scratching and break-dancing
- Spontaneous "rapping" (delivery of rhythmic lyrical compositions) known as "free styling" comprised many competitions between rappers from school corridors and grounds to street corners to large promoted demonstrations. Competitions have remained a mainstay of Hip-Hop culture
It is interesting to note that rap music was widely ignored by the music industry until approximately the mid- 1980's. Even the ground-breaking, innovative cable television music program MTV stayed clear of rap music and Hip-Hop during its infancy. It was when rap music became more violent and volatile that the music industry became interested in the possibilities the genre represented, at least from a business perspective.
Part of the appeal of rap music appears to be its ability to easily deliver the message of the author or the artist to the listener. Much like blues and country music, Hip-Hop is a form of music that is close to the hearts of many of its listeners. Rap lyrics echo familiar themes that cans can identify with, including young people involved in gang culture.
There are many who question why Hip-Hop culture appeals to young people who have no association with urban communities or urban culture. There is no clear-cut answer to this question, but it would appear that the fascination with urban culture for many middle- and upper-middle-class young people is nothing new. During Prohibition, it was typical for young affluent white youth to frequent the "juke joints" and taverns of urban communities. Other forms of music throughout history have attracted those young people that were prohibited from listening to music that was not part of their respective culture and therefore was not culturally acceptable.
The advent of television changed how young people are influenced and, as global communications become faster and more far-reaching, new cultures are more readily revealed and promulgated. Hip-Hop for many young people is the proclamation that they are independent and intolerant of much of what they consider to be adult society, which they frequently view as hypocritical. Whereas conventional wisdom states that family, school, church and community are the primary influences on young people, Hip-Hop declares otherwise.
Hip-Hop is having a profound affect on young people throughout the world, as technology spreads the gospel of this new way of thinking and the ideology is reinforced in the things young people are exposed to daily. Hip-Hop is not a monolithic voice or idea but rather a complex hybrid of democratic values, street culture ideology, prison culture philosophy, rock 'n' roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, world music and reggae doctrine, and African American and Latino American creeds and cultural traits and so on and so on.
In recent years, Hip-Hop has become the voice for many angry young white males who have chosen to dispel many of the myths that being young and white in America allows easy attainment of the American dream. Marshall Mathers, a young white man from the Detroit, Michigan area has skyrocketed to fame as Eminem, by providing a dark view of his world, a view apparently shared by many young white men throughout America.
Polls conducted throughout the United States and parts of Europe reveal that many young people are drawn to Hip-Hop because not only is it exciting to them, but it provides them with a brutally honest view of life. As one young man responded when asked why he liked Hip-Hop, "Because it's real, man. It ain't fake like all that shit the government and everybody be putting down." When asked to elaborate, this young man went on to explain. " Look at the war in Iraq, man, where the weapons they said was there, how come gas prices went up when all that oil is over there? Look at how the vice-president was hooked up with the companies that got paid over there. Man, they must think people real stupid. And then look at the priests in the Catholic Church, playing with li'l boys and shit. Everybody talk about Eminem and cats in Hip-Hop, but at least they real with theirs, and that's how I'm living, being real and trying to get paid".
This view is indicative of the mindset of many in Hip-Hop culture. Whether subscribing to the ideology of being "gangsta" or simply being radical in their thinking and views of the world, the shared theme throughout Hip-Hop is being "real". It is perhaps in this "being real" that the culture finds its willingness to be arrogant and unapologetic in its brazen disregard for anyone that does not appreciate what Hip-Hop is. Therein also lies some of the confusion, because there is as stated earlier no one consistent theme regarding what Hip-Hop is.
From the "bling-bling" of such Hip-Hop artists as 50 Cent, to the gritty southern Nappy Roots, from the macabre theater of the Insane Clown Posse, to the pimpish styling of Snoop Dogg, the themes are as broad and conflicted as the frequent disagreements and altercations that arise between various camps in Hip-Hop.
Reprinted with the permission of the Journal of Urban Youth Culture.