• Hip-Hop: The Song Of The Streets

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    jam (origin unknown) – 1. to drive or wedge forcibly into a tight position. 2. to fill often to excess. 3. to make unintelligible by sending out interfering messages or signals. 4. to force one’s way into a restricted space. 5. to take part in a musical jam session.

    hip-hop – (hip — derived from the African Wolof language hipi– to open one’s eyes, to be aware; hop – derived from Old English hoppen– to move with light, bounding skips or leaps) – the popular street culture of inner-city youth, characterized by graffiti art, break dancing, and rap music.

    Not since the early days of rock and roll has a Black-driven cultural phenomenon taken such a strong hold of mainstream American society as hip-hop. Begun in African- and Caribbean-American dance clubs, discos and block parties in the South Bronx section of New York City in the late Seventies, hip-hop became identified with four related artistic expressions: the turntable wizardry of the DJ, the directly African-derived rhythmic recitation tradition of the MC, the spray-can dexterity of the graffiti artist and the explosive gymnastics of the break dancer.

    The standard repertoire of the DJ consisted of deconstructing and reassembling “found sound,” or “sampling” — using the turntable as an instrument. Selling recordings that included sampled music came with its own set of problems, calling into question copyright and intellectual property rights. Some artists claimed that by sampling recordings of a Black artist like George Clinton or James Brown (the two most sampled artists), they were challenging white corporate America and the recording companies’ right to own Black cultural expression. Be that as it may, this explanation didn’t take into account James Brown’s, George Clinton’s, and other artists’ right to own, control, and be compensated for the use of their own intellectual property. By the early 90s, a system of compensation was developed for sampled artists, and exposure of the work of earlier artists through sampling engendered a sense of musical history among younger Black (and white) audiences. DJ Spooky says, “I think of sampling as a form of ancestor worship.”

    DJs, at first, provided a backdrop for other aspects of the burgeoning hip-hop movement, specifically dancing and graffiti art. But by the late Seventies, DJs became an attraction of their own and dancers would stop in their tracks to watch a skillful turntablist. DJs recruited MCs, or “mic controllers,” to keep people moving by instigating call-and-response or urging the crowd to “get up” or “get down” or “jam on the beat.” MCs’ exhortations have origins in the performances of James Brown, in the gospel tradition, and can be traced back to musical traditions of West Africa. Grandmaster Flash’s MCs, the Furious Five, completed the development of rap when they began speaking in rhyme to the rhythm of the music. In 1979 the first rap records appeared, “King Tim III,” by the Fatback Band, and “Rapper’s Delight,” by the Sugarhill Gang.

    The thematic content of a lot of rap — the concerns of daily life, stinging social commentary, humorous boasting or playfully attacking a competitor — comes directly from African musical traditions and African- and Caribbean-American “toasting” and “signifying.” Rap also draws from the urban street jive that developed in Chicago in the Twenties. Rap, like jive-talk, subverts standard usage and creates a code language that only the initiated can understand, an African-American cultural survival tool utilized since slavery times. Rappers also referenced the patter of jive-talking radio DJs from the Fifties onwards. In the 1960s, Black Nationalist H. “Rap” Brown’s oratory style not only inspired rap, but also gave it a name. By the late 60s, the Watts Prophets, on the West Coast, and East Coast Last Poets, pioneered a style of proto-rap by setting H. Rap Brown’s speaking style to a rhythmic, musical backdrop.

    Whether hip-hop primarily reflects the culture from which it arises – the violence, despair, the sexism – or gives vent to the frustrations of that culture, remains a question. What is clear is that hip-hop’s main concerns, from simple human relationships to the burning social questions of the day, echo the voices and traditions of every African-American musical genre throughout the generations.

    Meredith Rutledge for the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

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