THE PRELUDE TO HIP HOP
Jazz Poetry: Voices of Black Power and the Black Arts Movement
This section illustrates the transition of Jazz and the rhythmic talk of the Blues and Jazz Poetry to the rise of Hip Hop as a music art and social movement of urban youth cultural expressions.
Jazz Poetry is comprised of lyrics, spoken word, and poetry recited over jazz music and drumming. This literary art is in the same vein as preachers speaking over spirituals, moaning, or gospel music and the rhythmics talking of blues. By the 1950s and 1960s these lyrical compositions emphasized themes of freedom and social justice. The Black Power Movement was built upon these talks of political persuasion. Student leaders of the movement use this style in their speeches and talks with local people as they were engaged in field organizing. For example, the StudentNonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Black Power emerging leaders were instrumental in the formation and support of the Black Panther Party in Lowndes
County, Alabama. Young leaders began to use the tone of jazz poetry in a technique known as “Rapping”. Youth leaders like H. “Rap” Brown (Imam Jamil El-Amin) was known for this type of persuasive oratory.
The Black Arts Movement of the mid-1960s provided the cultural philosophy of the Black Power Movement in similitude of how the Harlem Renaissance provided the cultural philosophy of the Jazz Age. The artistic devices of jazz poetry were popularized by the poet Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka). Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School in 1965. Although it was opened for less than a year, it laid the foundation for other Black theatrical
schools. This was in the mode of Katherine Dunham and the jazz dance schools.
In 1971, Barry Gordy of Motown Records started the Black Forum Records label for spoken word artists and new poetic voices. The label featured the recordings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure), Langston Hughes, Ossie Davis, and other literary artists. In 1972, Black Forum Records released the album Black Spirits: Festival of New Black Poets in America. While the album featured Amiri Baraka, it launched the Last Poets to stardom. It was the Last Poets style of Jazz Poetry that spun the music Art of Rap.
Unfortunately, Motown did not cultivate the Rap genre. So, jazz poets who were influenced by the Last Poets and the Black Arts Movement such as Gill Scott-Heron had to enter the recording industry through other record labels. Scott-Heron, who is best known for the record and phrase “The Revolution will not be Televise,” was popularizing the style of Rap while Hip Hop was being formulated. The Emcees were the element that introduced the Rap style into Hip Hop culture. While jazz poets were doing spoken word over jazz beats, the emcees were Rapping and doing spoken word over Rhythm and Blues break beats. Scott-Heron’s is known as the “Godfather of Rap.” His success with political rap through the 1970s laid the groundwork for the Conscious Rap genre in Hip Hop.
Hip Hop and the Rise of a World Culture
The purpose of this section is to situate Hip Hop within the historical context of Black cultural folkways and American classical music and artforms. It approaches the subject from several perspectives. First, it considers Hip Hop as the flowering of the Jazz Poetry genre of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s which was the voice of the Black Power Movement. In addition, it describes the fundamentals elements of Hip Hop in terms of their functions as artforms of American classical music features of synthesis, syncopation, improvisation, and innovation. Next, it details Hip Hop’s formation in the context of a united urban youth culture in the pursuit of mediums of expressions through street art and street dancing and as political statements of life in urban America of the 1970s and 1980s. Lastly, this section notes Hip Hop culture as giving rise to a socio-cultural and intellectual movement which was in essence the renaissance of Black Power as reflected in Afrocentricity and a new urban identity in similitude to the “New Negro” Movement which found its greatest illumination in Harlem and its Jazz scene of the 1920s. As Jazz dominated the music and dance of the early decades of the 20th Century, Hip Hop dominated music, art, dance, and the social movements of the latter decades of the century.
Hip Hop Culture and Its Fundamental Music and Dance Elements-
Synthesis, Syncopation, Improvisation, and Innovation
Fundamental Elements of Hip Hop
This section explores the fundamental elements of Hip Hop as a music art. Hip Hop is fashioned as other American classical music artforms. These features function to influence the artistry of synthesis, syncopation, improvisation,and innovation of music, lyrical, and dance elements of Hip Hop.
Like Jazz, Hip Hop was formed out of the desire to create music for social dancing. Jazz was created from existing artforms of spirituals, blues, creole, march music, and ragtime. Hip Hop was created out of a synthesis of existing recordings of Rhythm and Blues and Soul music. DJ Kool Herc, the inventor of the Hip Hop music artform, was looking for innovative
approaches for extending the tempo for dance music. While growing up in Jamaica, Herc would listen to Rhythm and Blues and Soul singers like James Brown. Impressed with Brown’s music and dance styles he was seeking to replicate the excitement of club dancing at his house parties in the Bronx. He developed a technique to maintain the flow of dance music for the partygoers. His method was to buy 2 recordings of the same album or 45 and use 2 turntables to keep the cue on the breakbeats of songs playing the instrumental sections. He would alternate between turntables. Herc used this method at a houseparty on August 11, 1973, inaugurating the Hip Hop composite artformsand culture.
Since DJs were concerned withkeeping the instrumental breakbeats looping, the vocals of the songs were notplayed. DJs that were hosting dances becameannouncers speaking over the music. Grandmaster Flash coined the style as Emceeing-Master ofCeremonies for those DJs. Emcees began
performing lyrics synthesizing and fusing the Rhythmic Talking of the Blues into Hip Hop in a Free Style design. At times, the Rhythmic Talking became a message with a social or political theme. Over time, the messages became more politicize as Hip Hop culture incorporated the socio-cultural movement of Afrocentricity. The RhythmicTalking became Rapping, and then Rapping with rhymes, a performance akin to Jazz Poetry. Beatbox using the voice to imitate the sound of the drum was an improvisation added to the Art of Rapping in the Hip Hop culture. Later, Rapping and Freestyle battles were staged.
3. B-Boys and B-Girls
Hip Hop, as Jazz was designed for social dancing at house parties and clubs. DJ Kool Herc was focused on the instrumental component of the breakbeats of recorded music and synthesizing or mixing music. The instrumental portion intrinsically have syncopation of notes conducive to dancing. Looping the break beats allowed for an extended period of dancing. In a sense of collective improvisation developed by King Oliver and Kid Ory in the Creole Jazz Band, Herc would call on the dancers to perform during the break. Youths would come forth to dance. Most of them were too young to go toclubs. For the most part there were no social outlets for youths. The dancers included youths of Black American, Puerto Rican, West Indian, and African
heritage. While the dancers were diverse, their hearts pulsed with the same harmonic beats. The dances largely reflected their heritages.
Herc commented that “break”was the 1970s terms for “getting excited.’ Herc played James Brown songs. Brown was known for his dance moves and splits to the floor. Bruce Lee movies and martials arts moves were popular at the time, as well. Most of the B-boys and B-girls imitated these moves. The choreography of street dancing was a demanding performance of the dance artform. They would do dances on their heads and backs such as the “CrazyLegs.” These energetic dance styles have their roots in the Moorish dance, the Cakewalk and Chalk-line, Juba (Hambone) and jazz dances like the Lindy Hop and Charleston.
The streets, subways, block parties became the dance halls of youths who did not have clubs or other dance outlets. The break was an alternative to street gangs. Dancers were surrounded by a cypher a circle of onlookers reminiscent of the ring shout folkway, one of the cultural traits of Black America. The cheering was like the hollers and call and response folkways. Break style has become one of the most popular dance styles and is a true American artform. The Rock Steady Crew has been featured in mass media and are best known among the B-boys and B-girls. There are annual dance competitions for b-boys and b-girls.
The Ethnogenesis of a United Urban Youth Culture: Expressions of Social Realism
As Jazz had its origins in the Creole culture of New Orleans, Hip Hop had its Bronx Beginnings in the ethnogenesis of urban youths of the 1970s. Many of them were immigrants or the children of immigrants. These youths were living in the waning of the tumultuous social movements that began in the mid-20th century. Perhaps unbeknown to them, they were existing in an era that was reeling from the ramifications of antiwar, political, economic, and drug crises that made wastelands of rural, urban, and rustbelt areas throughout the United States. Hip Hop is the product of American urban youth culture. The ethnogenesis of the Hip Hop Nation took shaped in the Bronx. It is rooted in Black American customs that are an amalgamation of Southern migrants, West Indian, African and a predominantly Puerto Rican Latin-based tradition. By the 1970s, the Bronx had a large immigrant community. These immigrants were quite aware that they were not living the American dream. Yet they had high expectations. While their parents were working and trying not to be engulfed by the economic crises of the day, youths were experiencing social and cultural isolation.
Hip Hop came of age during this era of national chaos. This was a period of social upheaval, economic instability, and political turmoil, especially in New York City with particular impoverishment in Black and immigrant communities of the Bronx.
The remnants of social movements of the 1960s were present in the early 1970s. The women’s movement had made gains that saw more social, economic, and political inclusion for women. Women in the workforce and sexual freedoms were having an impact on home, family, and lifestyle choices.
The Antiwar Movement was very strong. The Vietnam War was escalated when the Nixon administration began bombing in Cambodia. Returning veterans were exacting a toll on society with drugs and psychological problems. After the war ended in 1975, Indochina refugees were overwhelming Asia and resettling in the United States and elsewhere.
Also, the 1970s were a period of unfulfilled expectations of the Civil Rights Movement. This became known as the 2nd Post-Reconstruction Era. This refers to the systematic dismantling of programs to support racial inclusion and upliftment. There were attacks on affirmative action policies in economic policies and the Bakke case challenge college admissions quotas for Blacks. In 1971, “All InThe Family” began as a weekly Mr. Bigot-type program featuring the Archie Bunker character. The character was spewing racial hatred reminiscent of the minstrels and Jim Crow Era practices.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon began a series of policies that he labeled “The War on Drugs.” The “War on Drugs” began to decimate antiwar and racial equality social movements. John Ehrlichman, special assistant to President Richard Nixon, explained to Dan Baum of Harper’s Magazine in a 1994 article that
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I'm saying? We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
The War on Drugs effectively decapitated leadership of these movements and knowledge of Black liberation. It was not until a generation later when the Hip Hop culture’s quest for knowledge initiated the intellectual movement of Afrocentricity in the 1980s that knowledge of leaders such as, Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey began to resurface in Black ideology. Also, the War on Drugs continued through several presidential administrations. It was a major catalyst for mass incarceration and a barrier for youths getting grants and other college financial aid.
Spending on the war in Vietnam had eclipsed social spending on the War on Poverty programs and upkeep of America’s infrastructure. High unemployment and inflation were rampant. In 1971, unemployment was 6.1% and inflation was 5.84 %. Beginning in 1971, President Nixon in response to increasing inflation set forth a series of economic measures. Among the measures were wage and price freezes. There was increased surcharges on imports and Nixon eventually took the U.S. off the gold standard that backed the U.S. dollar. The value of the dollar plunged in the 1970s.
Furthermore,the Nixon administration was not able to stabilize the U.S. dependency on
oil. From October 1973 to March 1974,the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) imposed an oil embargo. During the years 1973-1975, the U.S. experienced an economic recession. The country was experiencing stagflation which is characterized by a high inflation rate with slow economic growth amid high unemployment.
President Gerald Ford became President in August of 1974. The annual inflation rate at the time was more than 12%. Ford started an economic grassroots campaign called Whip Inflation Now (WIN). The initiative encouraged e conomic changes among the public in areas such as increasing personal savings, regulating thermostats to save energy, carpooling to decrease dependency on foreign oil, and starting vegetable gardens to avoid hunger. WIN was not a successful government scheme.
The early 1970s was also a time of political turmoil in the country. In 1971, the explosive Pentagon Papers were printed by the New York Times. The Pentagon Papers were the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Taskforce: History of United States Political and Military Involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967. The report illustrated how the Johnson Administration had escalated the war in Indochina and lied to the public and the U.S. Congress about the extent of U.S. involvement. The report was given to the newspaper by Daniel Elsberg a member of the taskforce.
Moreover, the early 1970s witnessed America’s most famous modern political scandal. The Watergate Scandal consumed media and public attention for nearly two years. President Richard Nixon had authorized wiretapping and the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Complex in Washington, D.C. in May and June of 1972. A constitutional crisis ensued over revelations of White House tapes. The American public was inundated by congressional investigations, and media reports. In February of 1974, the U.S. House started impeachment proceedings of President Nixon. Nixon finally resigned on August 9, 1974. Gerald Ford became president. In the next month of September, President Ford pardoned former-President Nixon.
NewYork City Financial Crisis
By the 1950s, New York City population of 2nd and 3rd generation European immigrants had been assimilated as "white" Americans. These persons began to move to the new suburban residential areas and became a part of the new middle class. They were replaced by new immigrants. A significant number of these immigrants were, Caribbean, and Latin Americans. They moved into the old European immigrant neighborhoods. New York City peaked in population after World War II. The city experienced post-war prosperity, new buildings such as the United Nations and urban renewal projects.
By the1 970s, New York City was in financial crisis. The social and education programs and city government jobs that had supported European immigrants had bankrupted the city. The city experienced numerous social problems because of its economic uncertainty. By the end of the 1970s, a million people had left the city. New York City had begun to spiral into urban decay. The infrastructure was crumbling. The subway system had several breakdowns. There were blackouts and smog.
Deteriorating neighborhoods had social impact including crime and drug use. Sex businesses began to fill Time Square. The 1969, Stonewall riots when homosexuals in Greenwich Village fought back against police was a major social revolution. By 1970, New York City was infamous for high crime, social disorder, and sexual depravity.
Also, manufacturers, blue collar jobs, government military entities, and other businesses left the city. With the loss of a substantial tax base, New York City became financially vulnerable. A fiscal crisis ensued because the city could not pay its employees and debts. The sanitation workers went on strike. Also, teachers were on strike. Firefighters and police were on slowdown. Corruption of government officials and the police department was on the rise. The city could not meet its obligation for social programs.
In 1975, the city had run out of money and was $11 billion in debt. President Gerald Ford refused to give New York City a federal bailout. Instead, President Ford had Congress to pass the New York City Financing Act of 1975. The act approved $2.3 billion dollars of loans for 3 years for the city. Also, the act stipulated 3 conditions for the city. The conditions included an increase in charge for city services, no wage increases for city workers, and a reduction in the
The Bronx: Urban Blight and the Rise of Hip Hop
By the early 1970s, the Bronx especially South Bronx was an area of urban blight with socially isolated neighborhoods, significant immigrant population, unemployment, poverty, crime, and housing projects. The impoverishment in the Bronx was astonishing. The Burrough was plagued with landlords burning their property because the insurance values were greater than it took to renovate the property. There was a tremendous amount of burnout buildings. The South Bronx was especially impoverished. It had a significant immigrant population. There was a disproportionate level of unemployment. There was a lack of livable housing and a concentration of housing projects. South Bronx was like an American colony and had more in common with Third World nations then the rest of New York City. Today, the 15th Congressional District in the Bronx is the poorest congressional district in the United States. The Hispanic population is mainly comprised of Puerto Ricans and Dominican Republican immigrants. Unlike earlier European immigrants, they have not been economically assimilated into American culture.
The Bronx youths were cloistered in impoverished enclaves. Hip Hop was cultivated in this social, economic, and political climate. Urban youths were displaced and outcasted without any social outlets and limited adult and educational guidance to help them understand and cope with national chaos. They were as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had stated a decade earlier, “exiled in their own land.” Yet, they were attempting to normalize a world for themselves.
Hip Hop culture cocooned youths in a protected world that they were shaping and felt safe. Hip Hop help shape a place where they could express themselves. Moreover, Hip Hop was a shared experience where they could learn from each other in a positive manner.
Hip Hop, as a unified cultural movement, began to empower youths with the capacity for self-determination and to define the society based on their terms. They were strengthened to impose their style, sense of self-worth and self-expression on the world.
Out of this national chaos and with the advent of Hip Hop, the Bronx became a creative and energetic socio-cultural enclave bursting with music, dance, art, and intellectualism. The Hip Hop scene was expanded through a network of DJs, house parties, block parties, park activities, clubs, and street art graffiti. The music was being recorded and distributed locally. Cassette tapes began to appear throughout the country. The music was packaged and proved to be marketable. Thereafter, Hip Hop in its wholistic form emerged as a unified youth cultural experience. Because it is youth-oriented, it has become transgenerational and over the last 50 years it became the heritage of a least three generations.
Youths of the Bronx ignited a unified cultural movement with technical innovations by DJs looping the instrumental break beats of Rhythm and Blues records, transforming style of the beats and sounds-scratching and boxbeating, the creativity of the emcees and rappers, B-boys and B-girls dancing during the break music, and the beautification of urban blight by street artists, tagging and political and social messaging with graffiti writing. Afrocentricity expanded their knowledge-base and contributed to the intellectual growth of a generation of youths of the Post-Civil Rights Era to help them understand the social, economic, and political conditions in which they found themselves and help them develop their own movement.
Hip Hop was a unifying youth culture for the various ethnic groups and the Latin strands that ran through it was a natural feature. After all the Bronx had been the home in which Latin Jazz had been formulated. By means of low budget records, cassette tape recordings and urban radio, the lifestyle emanated from its source in the Bronx and propagated throughout the U.S. and elsewhere engendering the acculturation of and the socialization of the Hip Hop Diaspora.
Rapping about Reality: Cultural Folkways and Conscious Rap
Urban youths were looking for guidance and knowledge that would help them to comprehend the social environment in which they existed. They sought some analysis that would help them frame the social problems that they observed. For earlier generations, the hollers,spirituals, blues, ragtime, and jazz were not only mediums of expression, but they helped people to put in perspective the world in which they lived. Moreover, the music art helped people psychologically cope with life experiences. Gil Scott-Heron rapped:
Ever feel kind of down and out
You don’t know just what to do?
Living all of your days in darkness
Let the sun shine through
Ever feel that somehow, somewhere
You lost your way?
And if you don’t get a help quick
You won’t make it through the day?
Could you call on Lady Day?
Could you call on John Coltrane”
Now, ‘cause they’ll wash your troubles
Your troubles, your troubles, your troubles away!
He goes on to explain the power in the music to give contextual meaning in the lives of people….
Its all because they’re afraid to say they’re all alone
Until our hero rides in on his saxophone.
Urban youths of the 1970s needed cultural folkways that they could access to help
them make sense of their social environment. The new music of Hip Hop used these cultural folkways to make public announcements about the social ills that plagued their communities. The presence of Conscious Rap in which MCs are aware of their social environment and skilled in tapping into cultural folkways to make declarations about it is a key component of the Hip Hop Movement. From its inception, the MCs and their lyrical tool,the Art of Rap, have been powerful mediums of social realism that communicated the concerns of the community. They have been meticulous in pinpointing cultural folkways that allow for emotional outlets. The MCs used hollers and spirituals like preachers speaking over the moaning and cries of dancing
congregations and ring shouts of B-boys and B-girls.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5’s public announcement of social realism “The Message” (1982) on the radio and videos of the 1980s was a contemporary street oratory in the fashion of Hubert Harrison of the “New Negro”Movement in Harlem of the 1910s and 1920s. Moreso, “The Message” because of modern media technology could reach the minds of tens of millions.
“Broken glass everywhere
People pissing on the stairs
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
A man with a tow truck repossessed my car
Crazy lady living in a bag eating out of garbage pails
Got a bum education, double digit inflation
Can’t take the train to the job, there is a strike at the station
My son said, Daddy I don’t want to go to school
Because the teacher is a jerk, he must think I am a fool
And all the kids smoke reefer
‘Cause it’s all about money
Ain; t a damn thing funny
You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from going under”
“The Message” inaugurated Conscious Rap as a marketable social commodity. It was a mainstream success because it was not a newsflash. “The Message” was social realism in its truest sense. It was a vivid, revelation with a lyrical moment-by-moment news account of life not just in America’s inner city but the rustbelt and farm heartland, as well. It exposed the actuality of life in the U.S. and the fallout of Reaganomics and classism in America. It broke the spell of the nation as the mythical “Shining City on the Hill.”
An Arts Movement of Their Own:
The Element of Graffiti Writing Street Art as Expressions of Social Realism
Graffiti involves imagery that is used as a form of visual communication for personal
identification of a name or symbol called tagging, to convey messages or themes of social and political statements, characterized by vivid colors, ranging from a simple throw piece of art to just exaggerated lettering or drawings using aerosol paint. Graffiti occurs in public spaces on a canvas which is public property and it exists for public intellectual consumption. The purpose is often to make a social statement or political commentary, personal, or to mark a group’s, primarily gang territory or affiliation.
Graffiti Writing as an element of Hip Hop is a product of the same urban youth culture
that was shaped in the social, economic, and political conditions of the 1970s. These conditions isolated urban youths without social outlets, economic means, and educational guidance. Fab 5 Freddie Brathwaite was the first to recognize that graffiti was an urban declaration of imagination as DJs, MCs, and B-Boys and B-Girls. Brathwaite’s family were activists and a part of the New York jazz scene. He was able to relate with all aspects of youth activism. Graffiti embodies a synthesis of all the aspects of Jazz in visual aesthetics of colors, form, and harmony. It is a visual syncopation of movement of jazz patterns and improvisation of style.
Graffiti writing as an Arts Movement has had impact on society. It has secured the acceptance and popularity of street art, murals, and the painting of public property such
as subway trains and public surfaces as backdrops. Hip Hop made graffiti an acceptable artform and not a crime. Graffiti is the creative expression of social realism in Art. It was the Art Activism component of Hip Hop. Its mission was to convey the anguish of youths with political leadership over their condition in the urban America of the 1970s. It was a sense of beautification for urban areas in the wake of the New York City bankruptcy. Graffiti artist Lee Quinones, of Puerto Rican heritage, as a teenager was a subway graffiti artist, poetic messages, and a member of the Fabulous Five group. Quinones finally received recognition for his work and was funded to paint a line of subway cars murals in his neighborhood.
Hip Hop Culture and the Element of Knowledge: The Renaissance of the Black Arts Movement, Afrocentricity, and the Makings of a Hip Hop Diaspora
In the latter decades of the 20thcentury urban youths in the Bronx were creating a music and dance artform of their own. This artform would become known as Hip Hop. Since it came of age, it has had as just as powerful impact on the world as Jazz. The DJs keeping the flow on the break beats with the instrumental sections of the music, the MCs rhythmic rapping, the dancing. and
twirling of the B-Boys and B-Girls were a synthesis of the cultural folkways and the epitome of collective improvisation of the new music, dance, and visual art. Collectively these were a declaration that a United Urban Youth Culture had emerged in the United States of the 1970s.
Two factors were impacting the development of urban youths of the 1970s. First, because of the downturn of the economy, urban youths had few social outlets. The streets were essentially their hangouts. House parties, parks, block parties became the venues for their social events. So, these venues were where Hip Hop was being designed, systematized, and performed. Unfortunately, the street settings were unsafe for youths. Street gangs were prevalent, and the streets became outdoor drug markets. There was an increase in gun-related violence and excessive deaths of youths. Other social problems included that the streets were outdoor areas for, sexual activity and homeless persons. Later the streets were outdoor marketplaces for crack cocaine ruled by street gangs and intravenous drug use and activities resulting in the transmission of HIV/AIDS.
Second, schools and education programs were failing. A generation earlier, Black students had integrated into the American educational mainstream. Little did Black parents realize that they were insisting that their children integrate into a failing school system. The 1983 report A Nation At Risk The Imperative for Education Reform noted that the qualityof teaching and learning in American school systems were mediocre. The lack of educational guidance contributed to increasing school dropout rates and the making of a significant percentage of
functional illiterate persons, and the fear of a permanent underclass. The rise of youth gang violence in the schools and the response with massive police presence and metal detectors made schools virtual prisons.
Hip Hop needed an added element that would counteract the negative influence of street life with socialization programming. Also, Hip Hop, as a youth activity, needed to infuse the lack of education and training with cultural knowledge and character education. Hip Hop needed an element that would be the foundation on which a new cultural arts movement could stand, build, and become empowered with the cultural folkways of Black America. Essentially, Hip Hop needed to replace street smarts with cultural wisdom.
Urban youths realized that they were not the cause of urban decay, but they would not wallow in the notion that they were victimized by it either. They were grasping for cultural folkways that would lift them above. It was imperative that they have an ideology which they could relate to and help them rise above their social condition. They needed a social philosophy that could shape and give meaning to their lives and help them build resiliency with several cultural coping methods.
Afrika Bambaataa, Hip Hop DJ and street organizer, surmised that the new music and
parties could help to counter the negative influences on youths from the streets and help educate and motivate them to engage in positive social and cultural activities. Bambaataa was a member of the Black Spades gang. He, some Black Spades members, and other gangs, came together to find alternatives to gang violence. On November 12, 1973, Bambaataa found the Universal Zulu Nation in the South Bronx. The UZN’s theme was “peace, love, unity, and having fun.” He added the element of “Knowledge” as a fifth and fundamental element to Hip Hop. It became a significant influence in the development of the Hip Hop movement. The UZN included some of the earliest Hip Hop figures including Kurtis Blow and Kool Moe Dee. It successfully decreased gang activity.
The focus on cultural programming aided to solidify Hip Hop as a new Black Arts Movement. Hip Hop revived interest in figures of the earlier Black Power Movement. Powerful and influential figures such as Malcolm X and Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense became icons for a new generation. Hip Hop galvanized interest in other Black leaders such as Harriet Tubman, Martin Delaney, and Marcus Garvey.
Jazz was a psychological cultural confidence builder that undergirded the “New Negro” Movement of the 1910s and 1920s. The commitment to the authenticity of Black folkways metamorphized into artforms. Jazz was a validation of the value of the Black civilization that had been cultivated in the Western Hemisphere during the prior four centuries of European occupation. It gave self-worth and pride to a new ethnic group of American people. This “NewNegro” identity gave them the confidence to advocate for the protection of constitutional rights and upliftment of their status in the United States.
In the same manner, Hip Hop helped shape the Afrocentric worldview as a new identity among urban youths and made it the focus of a burgeoning national and global Hip Hop Diaspora. Afrocentricity was an intellectual and social approach of the late 1980s and 1990s. Afrocentricity became a powerful acculturation worldview that shaped the identity of Black America in the post-Civil Rights Era. It revived the Hubert Harrison, street oratory tradition and writings of the “New Negro” Movement. Afrocentricity was equal in intellectual prowess of the Harlem Renaissance. Afrocentricity empowered Black communities through fashion, hairstyles, African and innovative naming. Afrocentricity had impact on Black heritage celebrations and mass social events like heritage street festivals. It impacted fashion by popularizing the wearing of African clothing especially the wearing of Kente cloth. It influenced hairstyles including cornrows, braids, and dreadlocks. The naming of babies with African names became commonplace. Kwanzaa became a widely celebrated holiday in many Black communities. Afrocentricity was the driving force behind critical thinking of Pan-Africanism and was reflected in films, books, and mass events such as the Million Man March and the Million Woman March.
Afrocentricity bolstered Conscious Rap as the propaganda arm of global social and political protest. Rapping became a tool of advocacy with the vocal delivery of the lyrics conveying the messages of Conscious Rap. MCs became American griots teaching the history of the people. Their voices were lyrical drumbeats that conveyed the message and organized the street and foot soldiers of a new movement. The layered expressions of the Conscious Rap of the Hip Hop culturally inspired movement promoted racial pride, advocated for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday, and supported the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The MCs and Rappers were decentralized voices of the movement and negated the voice of movement headed by one leader. Their socio-political content sounded the alarm of Self Destruction (1989) in response to community violence and Fight the Power (1991) in response to social control and police state tactics in Black neighborhoods.
The Knowledge element incorporated into Hip Hop forever enshrined Hip Hop as a United Urban Youth Culture. These youths with simple pronouncements and the collective capacity of the spoken word brought into existence a new cultural reality for a new generation of followers. The UZN through its introspection of the Black experience enlightened the world with knowledge of Afrocentricity. Just as important, UZN help to intellectualized Hip Hop, situate the Hip Hop culture in the historical context of Black cultural folkways and link the music, dance, and visual art culture to other American classical music artforms of Jazz, spirituals, the
Blues, and Ragtime. Lastly, the UZN chapters enlightened the world with Black American history and culture and made Hip Hop the voice of a world culture and the force of the Hip Hop Diaspora.
Hip Hop and Mass Culture: The Marketing of the Music
Motown’s Black Forum Records label had release spoken word and Jazz Poetry pieces in the early 1970s because of Berry Gordy’s desire to capture the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and voices of the Black Arts Movement. The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron had become successful recording artists. However, as of the late 1970s, no major recording company had tapped into the talent pool of the new music. They were either unaware of the potential influence of the emerging Hip Hop Movement or they did not know how to market the music.
Bobby Robinson owned Bobby’s Record Shop in Harlem from the late 1940s until the early 2000s. Robinson was a record producer and had produced such recording artists as Gladys Knight and the Pips. Robinson owned several record labels. His label Enjoy Records produced and recorded several early Hip Hop artists and groups. including Grandmaster Flash in 1979, Kool Moe Dee and Doug E. Fresh.
Black woman businessowner Sylvia Robinson was the first to envision the market potential of
the new music. Robinson was a producer, publishers, and nightclub owner. She had been a successful recording artist as a part of the duo Sylvia and Mickey. They recorded “Love is Strange,” and worked with such groups as Ike and Tina Turner and The Moments. Sylvia is perhaps best known for her record “Pillow Talk.” Sylvia and his husband Joey Robinson started the record label Sugar Hill Records to market Rap music or what would become widely known later as Hip Hop. They were able to packagethe music for mass appeal.
In 1979, "Rapper’s Delight" by the Sugar Hill Gang became the first Hip Hop successfully recorded record. The song sampled Chic’s "Good Times” and became the standard form for future Hip Hop recordings. “Rapper’s Delight” was a worldwide hit. It is VH-1’s Number 2 pick for the 100 Greatest Hip Hop Songs National Public Radio ranks “Rapper’s Delight” as one of 100 most important musical works of the 20th Century. In 2010, it was ranked as 251 on Rolling Stones Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song is preserved in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
In 1981, Sylvia worked with Grandmaster Flash to produce the 12-inch single “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” The recording became the quintessential style of classic Hip Hop DJ Mixing including the breaks, loops, and sampling. Sylvia was the driving force behind the 1982 hit “The Message.” The song is a signature musical work in Hip Hop culture’s style of social realism. It was Sylvia who requested the writing of songs about everyday experiences of rappers. She set the standard for Conscious Rap music. Sugar Hill Records folded in1 985. By that time the Art of Rap and Hip Hop had been accepted as its own musical genre. Hip Hop had come of age as a true American musical artform and a world cultural phenomenon.
Hip Hop and Social Controversy
A half a century before Hip Hop, Jazz was popular in the 1920s and 1930s. This was a period of social turmoil and controversy during Prohibition, illegal alcohol, and speakeasy clubs. There were changing social mores for women. Women were exerting more social freedom and political influence with the right to vote. Gangsters were violent with street gunfights and bank robbing. Jazz clubs were often associated with these vices. This period was like the rise of crack cocaine as a social scourge. Street markets for drugs, gang violence, and other criminal activities of the 1980s were leading to an increase in violence in Black communities. Police tactics to counter crime was just as oppressive as the violence that was suppressing Black neighborhoods. Mass incarceration split families and removed a generation of young Black men and women from
Just as Jazz became associated with social ills, Hip Hop became synonymous with social problems. Hip Hop artists were criticized for exploitation of women. The rise of Gangsta Rap was contentious. The East Coast-West Coast rivalry was deadly. These controversies were found to be caused by the commercialization of Hip Hop as a commodity of an entertainment industrial complex, conspiracies related to the War on Drugs, and the intensification of police and prison state tactics. rather than the intrinsic value of the culture.
Gil Scott-Heron, “the Godfather of Rap,” cautioned Hip Hop practitioners that the commoditization of the musical product could diminish their ability to be cultural change agents. For example, Scott-Heron showed in his hit Angel Dust (1978) the social impact of drugs. He did not glorify drugs, instead, he explained the situation and circumstances. In addition, he sought to guide younger rappers of Hip Hop with Message to the Messengers (1993). He criticized rappers for not be wholistic persons implying that the person, the words, and the music must be one. When they are not he suggested that the rapper is merely engaged in posturing.
Attemptimg to diminish the quality of Hip Hop and its elements as an American artform. Critics sought to cast a negative light on Hip Hop characterizing it similar to contemporary minstrels or coon songs. Also, there were detractors who called into question the authenticity of the cultural foundation of the Hip Hop Movement. These pundits sought to disassociate Hip Hop from its historical roots in Black cultural folkways. But Hip Hop has triumphed over its disparagers. As Jazz did in an earlier generation, Hip Hop showed that it was stronger than the negative individuals and activities that had attached itself to the music and hijacked the movement and denigrated the culture.
The last half century has witnessed the rise of Hip Hop culture, its orthodoxy as a true artform, and its mainstay as classical American music historically linked to cultural folkways forged in the Black American experience and other traditions that are millenniums old. The social environment of the early 1970s in the Bronx was conducive to creative expressions of entertainment and artistic
political commentary as vehicles of social realism.
Hip Hop’s fundamental elements of DJing,the innovation and synthesizing of instrumental beats, Emceeing,the improvisation of the Art of Rapping, beatboxing, and rhythmic talking, the syncopation of the dancing of the B-Boys and B-Girls, the vivid melodic artistic syncopated patterns of Graffiti writing, and the connection to ancient wisdom via synthesized cultural Knowledge programming of the Universal Zulu Nation igniting the renaissance of the Black Arts Movement, and the teachings of Afrocentricity, functioned as a United Urban Youth Culture.
Despite the controversy surrounding the composition and presentation of some Hip Hop genres and personalities, the image of Hip Hop has remained positive and is now conventional in American society and is largely thought of as a culture and not a commodity. It is being sampled, used as an educational resource, featured in advertising and film, and used as a political tool. Hip Hop has become accepted as standard world culture in music and dance. Street art has become an artistic movement and a world phenomenon. Moreso, Hip Hop’s elemental features have served as the propaganda voice of several international social and political movements.
The Golden Jubilee of Hip Hop is seeing a desire to learn more about its Bronx Beginnings and the social, economic, and political environment that gave rise to a United Urban Youth Culture. Also, there is a renewed interest for the resurfacing and the honoring of the pioneer practitioners of the Hip Hop Movement and to document their lives, motivations, and innovative techniques that forged the music, lyrics, dance, art, and cultural intellectualism of the movement. Next, there is greater appreciation for the music artform and attentiveness to its historical connection with universal indigenous cultures and Black American cultural folkways. There is increasing intrigue about Hip Hop’s links with other artforms such as spirituals, blues, creole, ragtime,and America’s classical music of Jazz. Finally, there is a growing commitment in ensuring international recognition for Hip Hop as classical American music and world culture. These objectives, along with others, is making for a captivating Golden Jubilee of Hip Hop.