Category Archives: a brief history of hip hop

A Brief History of Hip-Hop Conclusion – Hip Hop is Alive and Well

Read The Introduction, Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
9 10 11

When Nas came out with Hip Hop is Dead last year it sparked a lot of debate. Some people were angry that he could say such a thing. I understood where he was coming from and agreed with him. It seemed like there was no music of any substance being produced anymore. The songs that were hitting on the charts were all empty, soulless songs that did not appeal to me in the least. That’s not to say that quality rap did not exist, it is just to say that the culture was not being properly represented in the mainstream. Hip-hop did seem like it was dead.

I think this song lyric describes it all,

“If my partners don’t look good, Malik won’t look good
if Malik don’t look good, the Quest won’t look good
if the Quest don’t look good, the Queens won’t look good
but since out sounds are universal, New York won’t look good”
– A Tribe Called Quest Oh My God from the album Midnight Marauders.

For a while hip-hop did not look good. Too many rappers were focusing on materialism. Videos seemed to be all about drugs, sex, and rock and roll. Hip-hop forgot about all of the progress it had made. It forgot about the important contributions of the pioneers that made this art for great. This mind state and artists that didn’t really have a heart for this culture hurt it terrible. They made us all look bad.

I think that Nas helped bring hip-hop back to its roots by focusing on this and by naming his album Hip Hop is Dead. He seems to have kick-started a revival here that we are finally starting to see the effects of.

Hip-hop is not dead. It has been alive and well since its inception in 1969. I would argue that the culture didn’t official come together and solidify until 1972 but that’s up for debate. Nonetheless, it is clear that hip-hop is not going anywhere. It has a rich cultural history that cannot be ignored. It’s time that we built a hip-hop hall of fame so that everyone can be familiar with this great culture.

I hope that you enjoyed this series as much as I did putting it together. Thanks for all your comments and support!

A Brief History of Hip-Hop Part 11 – East vs. West

Read The Introduction, Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
9 10

Since its very beginnings, hip-hop has had distinct regional sounds. The art form was born in the Bronx but even then there were distinct styles in three different sections of the town. In the late 1970’s DJ’s three DJs were representing the sound of their respective neighbourhoods. Kool Herc held down the west side of the Bronx, Afrika Bambataa was influential in the southeast, and Grand Master Flash took over the center portion of the city.

The Bronx is the undisputed birthplace of hip-hop. Its popularity took it worldwide but there were some growing pains along the way. MC Shan came out with a record in which rapped with pride about being from the neighbourhood of Queensbridge. BDP came out with The Bridge is Over, a battle record, to make sure everyone knew that The Bronx is what hip-hop was all about.

In time, all areas of New York became accepted in hip-hop. Rappers could claim that they were from any of the five boroughs and they would be accepted without question. It was harder for rappers to come out from any other region of the country. New York was hip-hop and it wanted to keep the music to its own.

When rap became popular, it would not be held to the city boundaries. Rappers came out from the South but didn’t get much acceptance until recently. One area where rappers were more widely accepted was from the Los Angeles area. It made sense too. LA has a lot in common with the Big Apple.

In 1994, Bad Boy Records owned the New York sound. The record label was home to one of the biggest rappers of all time, The Notorious B.I.G. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, Death Row Records had a hot star by the name of 2Pac. These two MCs used to be friends. They had a falling out and it became public. Since Biggie was the biggest thing in New York and 2Pas was the biggest thing in LA, the media hyped up the beef between the two as an East Coast vs. West Coast battle.

The East Coast vs. West Coast was akin to a hip-hop civil war. It was almost expected that you needed to chose a side and remain loyal to it. The sounds coming from both coasts were quite unique and had a lot to offer. Hip-hop should not be dismissed because of geographical reasons. But the media fueled this battle, the regional mindset that hip-hop sprang forth from fueled this battle, and the fans bought into it.

Hip-hop history had always been intricately tied to battling. It didn’t feel wrong at the time. Unfortunately, it went horribly wrong and both generals of this civil war fell victim to it. 2Pac was murdered and a few months later Biggie was murdered as well. Both murders have gone unsolved for over ten years.

Hip-hop has learned to be more accepting of regional sounds now in light of the tragedy of losing two of the best rappers ever. We can hear distinct regional sounds now not just from the East Coast and West Coast, but also from the South, the Midwest, Chicago, Atlanta, Canada, and many, many more. The sounds are often distinct enough that you can tell where a record was made from the vibe of it. While this isn’t always the case, the regional influences have had quite an effect on the music being produced today.

Next up – The Conclusion of this 12 part series

A Brief History of Hip-Hop Part 10 – The Production

Read The Introduction, Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Rap songs started out simply enough. It was what the DJs had available. They had record players and they had plenty of records. That was all that was needed, at the start. DJs could extend the break of the record to make a repetitive loop of one part of a song. In this manner, an eight bar break could be extended indefinitely.

When the turntable became an instrument and DJs worked hard to improve their sets with technical tricks, the emcee became very important. It wasn’t long before the emcees were improving as well. They tried to outdo each other with rhymes on the microphone. They wrote longer and more complex verses, and soon began to write actually songs.

Now, song production came to the forefront of the culture. The first rap songs were done over a break of a record that was looped repetitively over and over. Since many of the rappers were using the same records, they need to do something to set themselves apart from their peers. Drum machines, sequencers, and synthesizers were soon used to create the backdrop of the song.

Afrika Bambaataa used an eclectic mix of synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers to create an electronic sound. This funky electronic sound created a new genre all of its own but his experiments with sound collage mixing influenced hip-hop culture.

Producers would “sample” a portion of a record to borrow a sound or loop to create a new composition. This was similar to what DJs did when they extended breaks but with the advent of the technology, sounds could be easily layered on top of each other. This way a rapper wouldn’t just be rapping over a break, there would be other sounds added to it.

A lot of rappers started to sample portions of James Brown’s music. He remains today one of the most sampled of all artists in hip-hop. His unique sound and dance style really influenced the start of the culture so it was great to see his music become even more of an influence in the 1980s.

The technology allowed producers to layer sound upon sound, much the way Phil Spectre created the wall of sound technique for rock music. Rap music producers created walls of sound in rap music that often seemed chaotic. Some sounds would be deliberately jarring as was the case with Public Enemy’s unique sound. This chaos was seen as a reflection of the society that the music was coming from.

Sampling is really the foundation of rap music. Hip-hop started out by looping up breaks and just progressed from there. Some people outside of the culture may think that sampling is just redoing a song and being lazy but it is actually the basic core of this music form. I will agree that some sampling is lazy and uncreative. With the technology available today, sampling can be a creative and unique. We shouldn’t forget that it can still be a tool that can be used effectively to make great music.

Next up

Part 11 – East vs. West

A Brief History of Hip-Hop Part 9 – The Turntable as an Instrument

Read The Introduction, Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

Hip-hop started with the DJ. This is a point that I cannot emphasize enough. From the very first block parties, DJs used record players in very creative ways. They didn’t merely play a record for people to dance to. They mixed up two copies of a record to extend the break. The used a mixer to make this switch between records seamless.

In 1975 Grand Wizard Theodore invented the scratch. The legend goes that his mom yelled at him and he accidentally put his hand on the record and stopped it from spinning to hear her. The sound intrigued him and he experimented with moving the record back and forth to create a scratch sound.

Scratching didn’t get captured on record until the 1981 release of Grand Master Flash’s “The Adventures of Grand Master Flash on the Wheels of Steel.” This release helped to solidify the turntable as an instrument and gave us a new way to describe it. DJ equipment is still often referred to as wheels of steel.

In order to scratch a record all you really need is a record player and a record. The turntable spins the record while the needle reads the music on it and sends it up the arm to the receiver. Stopping the record in mid-spin produces a sound that is like a musical note. Like any instrument, you can use a turntable to get all sorts of different notes and pitches by manipulating the sound that is on the record.

There are a few ways to manipulate the sound on the record. The first is by cutting the record back and forth at different speeds. It is important when doing this not to let the needle leave the groove of the record. This way we are working with one sound that is on the record and we are basically playing it forwards and backwards rapidly. This gives us a duffa-duffa-duffa sound. The sound drastically changes depending on what sound you are scratching on. For example, a snare drum will sound a lot different than a kick drum.

If you hook up a mixer to the turntable you can rapidly cut off the sound of the record whenever you want by moving the crossfader to the side. If you move the record rapidly and the crossfader rapidly at the same time, you can play just the forward bursts of the sound. If you move the record slowly back and forth and the crossfader quickly you get what is called a transformer scratch.

The turntable is a versatile instrument. DJs work hard learning tricks and creating montages of sounds that can be created into unique musical compositions. It is quite the show to see at DJ at work. It takes years of practice to get good at it and learn the basics. This makes it like any other instrument out there.

Next Up

A Brief History of Hip-Hop – Rap Gets Political

Read The Introduction, Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

In the late 1980s, we saw a shift in the lyrical content of rap songs. This new style is referred to as political rap. The emcees started to talk about real life issues. Chuck D, of the legendary group Public Enemy once referred to rap music as “the Black people’s CNN.” His statement basically meant that hip-hop, at its root, could be used to deliver messages and educate the youth to issues that really mattered to them and the black community.

In 1987 Boogie Down Productions (BDP), with producer Scott La Rock and emcee Krs-One, came out with their historic album Criminal Minded. Public Enemy came out with Yo! Bum Rush the Show. These two albums set off a new mind state in hip-hop where social commentary and the message of the lyrics became just as important as the overall sound of the record.

The following year saw the release of an album that scared a lot of people outside of the hip-hop culture. NWA came out with Straight Outta Compton. The group consisted of Dre. Dre, Ice Cube, Easy-E, Mc Ren, and DJ Yella. Their raw sound and edgy lyrics really brought forth a new style and sound that would be referred to as gangsta rap.

NWA rapped about police brutality, poverty, and the daily life of the ghetto. This style of rap had been around for a few years but had been flying below the radar, as it were, until this album was released. Rappers that made this style of music described their sound not as gangsta rap but as reality rap.

NWA’s song F*&# The Police started off a heated debate about the censorship that would continue for quite some time. These three albums were hugely influential and proved that rap music was more than just putting simple and catchy rhymes to a break.

The production values took the music to new heights as well. The records sounded more musically complex, the lyrics were really saying something and people started to take notice.

Rap music exploded in popularity in the late 1980’s. People who didn’t understand what it was at the time and called it a fad, tried to dismiss it, or censor it. Fortunately, hip-hop would prevail and prove its staying power.

Next up

Part 9 – The Turntable as Instrument

A Brief History of Hip-Hop – Part 7 Break Dancing

Read The Introduction, Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

In 1962 James Brown recorded his historic Live at the Appolo. His sound and performance really introduced a new form of dancing. In 1969 he recorded two songs that have had quite a lasting influence on hip hop culture; Sex Machine and Funky Drummer. His records emphasized the break down, the part of the record that is stripped down to the drums and only basic accompaniment.

James Brown would put a lot of energy into his shows. He would shift his feet so that it looked as if he was gliding across the stage. This style of dance was known as The Good Foot.

The Good Foot became quite popular and took on the name B-boy. It soon started being referred to as break dancing because DJs would extend the breaks using two copies of the record on two turntables. When this dance first started, there were no headspins, or aerial manoeuvres. It consisted of footwork and was actually quite complex.

Afrika Bambaataa saw the dancing as a way for young people to really accomplish something and, as such he started one of the first crews, The Zulu Kings. Soon after a number of crews were created. The crews practiced together and became quite dedicated to the craft. Break dancing battles were common. Crews of dancers would compete and try to out do each other.

In 1977, probably the most recognizable name in break dancing, even today was born, The Rock Steady Crew. They took the dance to new heights, quite literally. Their style included aerial manoeuvres and we started to see backspins, headspins, handglides, and windmills.

Break dancing wavered in popularity of the years but it has never gone away. Today’s break dancers are performers who are just captivating to watch. The routines that some of the crews do and intricate and quite complex.

Of course, we need to remember that hip-hop started with the DJ. The dancing was the whole impetus behind the birth of the culture. Break dancing clearly started in 1960s and was heavily influenced by James Brown. This is an important part of our history and culture.

Next up

Part 8 – Rap Gets Political

A Brief History of Hip-Hop – Part 6 A Piece

Read The Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5

Graffiti rose in popularity in the 1960s and 1970s in New York. It went from simply writing a name on the wall or subway car, to painting larger, more complicated designs. This new form of graffiti art was called a piece, short for masterpiece.

Writers now showed even more artistic talent in their pieces. Lettering was given a third dimension and depth. Logos and pictures also became part of the art. The pieces were large and colourful. It was an exciting time to be a writer.

The art even received some legitimate attention in 1973 when The New York Magazine Newspaper ran a competition to find the best piece. In 1982 the art form was the subject of a motion picture, Wild Style. The film introduced a lot more people to the art and only widened the popularity.

In the 1980s, this style of art started to appear in other parts of the world. Europe, Spain, and Canada all have writers. Australia is a hot spot for graffiti even today and one of the best places to see fresh art.

It is clear that graffiti art is not going anywhere. Some cities have actually tried to give artists a place to create where they don’t need to fear prosecution. Hamilton used to have a yearly event called Concrete Canvas. It was a weekend long event where the true culture of hip-hop was celebrated. Artist created pieces on large wooden planks right before the spectators’ eyes. Rappers, DJs, and break dancers entertained the crowd from the stage. It was always a great event.

Next up

Part 7 – Break Dancing

A Brief History of Hip-Hop – Part 5 Graffiti Art

Read The Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4

To most people, graffiti has a negative connotation. It is often associated with vandalism and crime to those outside of hip-hop culture. It is probably the most misunderstood of the four elements. It is an element that often gets overlooked. It shouldn’t. It is significant and plays an important part in the history of hip-hop.

People have been writing on walls and surfaces since man first walked upright and used a stick to draw in the dirt. We have some great records of the way Ancient civilizations used and created art. Graffiti as we know it was created in New York in the 1960s.

I think that as soon as someone saw a permanent marker, they had a desire to write their name on the walls. It’s almost primal, the need to create art on the surfaces available. Sure, we can get slabs of rock, paper, canvas, and other surfaces to write on other than walls in the city. Unfortunately, those that can’t afford such art materials are shut out of creating art.

It is simple and cost effective to grab a marker and write your name on the wall. This is what is known as tagging. Writers, as they are known, would tag their nicknames on the walls wherever they could. Writers tried to outdo themselves by the style of the lettering that they would use. The tags moved from marker to spray paints. This allowed writers to blend colours, bend the letters, and just be creative with the whole process.

A good tag is a work of art. It is not simple a two-second scribble. I don’t have any use for that style of tagging. Writing “Melissa was here,” or carving your initials into a tree is not art.

Writers became famous, much like the DJs who were running block parties at the time. Their signature was not just a name but a style. Writers had unique styles of lettering, colouring, and shading.

After a while, it was hard to find a clear wall or place to paint. The Metropolitan Transit Authority didn’t appreciate the art on their trains and subways. They spent considerable time and money removing graffiti.

The artists would not be deterred. They all tried to outdo each other. Tags became more complicated and stylized. They became larger and more colourful. Tags now became only one part of graffiti art.

Next Up

Part 6 – A Piece

A Brief History of Hip-Hop – Part 4 Rap Becomes Popular

Read The Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3

Run-DMC signaled the new era. Their music was able to appeal to a very wide audience. Hip-hop moved beyond the ghetto and white fans gravitated toward the music. Run-DMC released three albums; a self-titled one in 1984, King of Rock in 1985, and the ground breaking Raising Hell in 1986. All of these records fused together the street sound of rap with hard guitar sounds of rock. It was a sound that was unique and could not be ignored. They would release several more records over the years but these three are very important in the expansion of the art form.

Run-DMC took a group under their wing. This group borrowed heavily from the success of Run-DMC. They used rock guitars, they traded off vocals, and their songs were quite good. The only difference was that these kids were white. As such The Beastie Boys’ License to Ill hit a wide audience.

Run-DMC wanted to sample an Aerosmith record. Their producers thought that it would be a great idea to redo the entire song. Run-DMC thought that it was a terrible idea but reluctantly agreed to make the record. They shot a video for “Walk this Way,” where they were practicing the song in a studio space. Aerosmith was in the next room and trying to rehearse as well. Run-DMC turned up their music so loud that Steven Tyler took a mic stand and crashed through the wall, and starts signing the hook.

Later in the video, Run-DMC crashes an Aerosmith concert and they do the song together on the stage. It was an amazing video. And it turned out to be Run-DMC’s biggest hit. It also rejuvenated the fledging career of Aerosmith.

Singles started to pour out like crazy. UTFO released Roxanne Roxanne and Roxanne Shante’s countered that with Roxanne’s Revenge. Doug E. Fresh released The Show and La-Di-Da-Di, Kool Moe Dee put out Go See the Doctor .

Groups even started to come out of areas other than New York. The Geto Boys originated in Texas and became instrumental in starting the southern rap movement. It became clear that rap music was here to stay. This was not a fad as some people had called it.

Next up

Part 5 – Graffiti Art

A Brief History of Hip-Hop – Part 3 The Shift to the MC

Read The Introduction, Part 1, and Part 2

In 1978 a subtle shift happened to the culture of hip-hop. The music industry needed a name to call this music and started referring to it as “rap music.” Most people didn’t mind the new term. In fact, people started to call themselves rappers. This term shook up the very foundation of hip-hop. The music shifted from being about the DJ to being about the person rhyming on the microphone.

Rap radio shows were born. Then first one was Mr. Magic’s “Rap Attack” on WHBI. So now with an outlet for the music to be heard other than just parties, the focus shifted from DJing and dancing to rhyming. It took a while but soon the MC was front and center and the DJ was pushed to the rear.

In 1982 Kool Moe Dee crushed Busy Bee in a rap battle on stage. Busy Bee was known for kicking famous party raps that sounded good but really didn’t say much. Kool Moe Dee was much harder in his delivery and lyrics and beat the popular MC hands down. Since then, battling has become part of the culture as well.

In 1983, Run-DMC released a single on vinyl. 12-inch singles would feature two songs, one on either side of the record. On one side of this historic single was “It’s like That,” which was much like Kurtis Blow’s “The Breaks,” in that it dealt with real issues for the poor black nieghbourhoods. Run-DMC had a harder and more street sound that the flashy Kurtis Blow. This was more evident on the B-side to the record “Sucker MCs.” This track was a battle track where Run ripped through any would be MC. It was a great record and had an edge to it unlike any other record out at the time.

The following year, The Fresh Fest tour rolled through 27 cities with the biggest acts of the time; Whodini, Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, and Run-DMC. The tour was such a big success that they ran what was billed as “The Second Annual Fresh Fest” only six months later.

The rappers were now more popular than the DJs. DJS still had a vital role in the shows but the rappers seemed to garnering all of the attention. Battle raps came to the forefront. Doug E Fresh came out with “The Original Human Beat box,” and blew everyone away with the drum sounds he was able to make come out of his mouth.

It was an exciting time for hip-hop culture and it was only about to get bigger.

Next Up

Part 4 – Rap Becomes Popular