Hip hop as a musical genre appeared in the U.S. in the 1970s and since its birth has progressed and formed various sub-genres. Hip hop music is the product of the sub-culture of hip-hop, which consists of four primary elements: “MCing/rapping, DJing/scratching, break dancing, and graffiti writing” (Kugelberg, 2007, p. 17). The term hip hop refers to both the genre of music as well as the subculture, which the style of music resides. The term hip hop is often used when in reference to rapping, though they are not the same thing. Rapping is a rhythmic and rhyming speech that is chanted or spoken over a beat (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016), and though not required, hip hop music typically involves the vocal style of rapping. Keith Cowboy, of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is known as being the founder of the term hip hop (Dictionary, 2010), though the term reached mainstream recognition when the Sugarhill Gang referenced “hip hop” in their hit song “Rapper’s Delight”. Through it’s evolution and different eras, hip hop has transformed and can be broken down into many styles and sub-genres.

Hip-hop was born in the 1970s in New York City. At the time, block parties were becoming extremely popular in New York City, especially among African American teenagers residing in the Bronx (Dyson, 2007). During these block parties, DJs would play popular genres of music, such as funk or soul music. Influenced by Jamaican dub music, DJs began to incorporate and highlight the percussive breaks within these songs (Beckman, n.d.). This influence from Jamaican dub is no coincidence, as many immigrants from Jamaica and other parts of the Carribean were moving to New York and influencing the hip hop scene, such as DJ Cool Herc (Tony, 2000). Herc is a pioneer of the genre and has been called a “founding father of hip hop” (Farley, 1999). “Two turntables and a microphone is a common phrase in rap music, referring to the equipment used in the genre. Herc is responsible for this aspect, which has become crucial to the genre. Herc’s main focus was emphasizing the breaks in songs, and due to the short duration of the breaks in funk, soul, and disco songs, Herc, followed by other prominent DJs, implemented a second turntable in order to lengthen these breaks (Farley, 1999).

Though everything in society seems to be impacted and enhanced with technology, especially musical genres, hip hop and the transformation of hip-hop have been especially enhanced by technology. In hip hop, the instruments all revolve around technology, such as “two turntables and a microphone” – the basis of hip hop. At this time sampling technologies and drum machines became affordable and accessible to the general public, and this rapidly affected the evolution of hip hop. Technologies were then created, which combined samplers and drum machines, known as an MPC (music production center), one of the first models being the Linn 9000, introduced in 1984 (Past Products Museum, n.d.). At this time, hip-hop was emerging at a rapid rate, though rapping had not become a component of the genre yet. The mixing and matching of the breaks within songs eventually created a base for rap vocals to be implemented into the tracks.

Songs such as, “Hip Hop, Be Bop (Don’t Stop) by Man Parrish or “Chinese Arithmetic” by Eric B. and Rakim among other songs, go down in history as successful hip hop songs without the presence of rapping. Though as the genre evolved, rapping, also known as MCing or emceeing, became a prominent element. This is a vocal style where an artist speaks over an instrumental or synthesized beat in relation to the rhythm and beat. One of the earliest influences of rap is boxer Muhammad Ali, with his “funky delivery, the boasts, the comical trash talk, the endless quotables” (Reeves, 2016). His ability to freestyle and his use of flow inspired work later seen in old school hip hop music. Some of the most prominent artists of this time, in addition to DJ Kool Herc, were Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Doug E. Fresh, and Whodini, to name a few. The first hip-hop song to reach mainstream success was Sugar Hill Gang’s 1979 hit “Rapper’s Delight”.

The success of “Rapper’s Delight” had put the genre in the mainstream, though it wasn’t until the early eighties when the genre began to develop into more a diverse genre. The genre began to spread across the U.S. and began to show up in many other countries as well. This second wave of hip-hop emerged in 1983-1984 and was know as “new school hip hop” and all hip hop before this time became known as “old school hip hop”. At this time New York City was considered the home of hip hop and served as the birthplace for new school hip hop. This diversification process involved aspects of music that had not been seen in hip-hop, such as entire tracks consisting of sampling, or the combination of unlikely genres. The combination of genres was seen in the early 1980s with Afrika Bambaataa’s combination of hip hop with electro, and the shift was enhanced in the mid-1980s as rock music samples began to appear in hip hop. Examples of this include Run-D.M.C.’s 1984 album “King of Rock”. In addition to the implementation of rock, new school hip hop typically included arrogance lyric, spoke on political issues, and contained an overall more aggressive tone than old school hip hop. Songs durations became shorter, in hopes for mainstream success through radio play. The Beastie Boys exemplified this success with their 1986 album “License to Ill” which topped #1 on the billboard charts. In addition to Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys, LL Cool J was another notable artist of this era.

Following the new school era came the “golden age” of hip-hop, which occurred in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Notable artists from this period are Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Gang Starr among many others. In addition to mainstream attention, innovation serves as the most prominent characteristic of the golden age. This was a time “when it seemed that every new single reinvented the genre” (Coker, 1995). In reference to genre theory, John Hartley states “the addition of just one film to the Western genre… changes that genre as a whole” (1994, p. 128) and this showed to be true for hip-hop in the 1990s. During this time, not only were these artists establishing their own unique sounds but also they were establishing and reinventing the genre of hip hop. During this innovation era, a sub-genre of hip hop began to appear in the West coast – a subgenre known as Gangsta rap. Gangsta rap was a more aggressive and explicit style of rap that had not been seen yet and sought to reflect the harsh realities and violent lifestyles experienced by inner-city African-American youths (Adaso, 2016). Pioneers of this genre are noted to be Schoolly D and Ice-T, though reached the mainstream with the success of the group N.W.A. The violent, confrontational, and overly explicit lyrical content caused great controversy. N.W.A. received a letter from the FBI in regards to their song “Fuck tha Police”, and both presidents George Bush Senior and Bill Clinton criticized the genre (Phillips, 1992). Due to the success and attention of these artists, since its birth Gangsta rap has been seen as a product of the West coast.

The 1990s served as another decade of mainstream success for the genre. Billboard editor Paul Grein refers to 1990 as “the year that rap exploded” (Jones, 1990). MC Hammer exemplified this success with his album “Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em”, which reached #1 on the. MC Hammer is one of the most successful rappers of this era and is arguable one of the first hip-hop, household names. His success provided hip hop music with a new popularity. A monumental year for hip hop was a few years later in 1992 when Dr. Dre, former N.W.A. member, released “The Chronic”. This album established a new style and a new sub-genre known as “G-funk”. This style was further expanded through the works of Snoop Dogg and his 1993 album “Doggystyle”. The emergence of G-funk illustrates Daniel Chandler’s idea that “each new work within a genre has the potential to influence changes within the genre or perhaps the emergence of new sub-genres” (1997, p.3) Due to all of the success in this era, in 1999 hip hop served as the highest selling music genre in the U.S. In the late 1990s the Wu-Tang Clan, Puff Daddy, Dr. Dre, the Fugees, and the Beastie Boys primarily controlled the hip hop scene.

It was in this era of the early 1990s that the East vs. West Coast rivalry emerged. The G-funk style displayed by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg gave the West coast a unique style and was prevalent in the mainstream for many years. The West coast label, “Death Row Records” signed Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Tupac Shakur and entered a rivalry with New York City rappers. The Wu-Tang Clan had established their role as the hardcore rap group of the East coast, and the commercial success of the Notorious B.I.G. and Nas solidified the East coast as a real threat, providing the West Coast with real competition. The rivalry between the East and West coast eventually turned personally resulting in the tragic deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.

Geographical location has played an important role in hip-hop, and similar to the unique sounds of the East ad West coast, Southern rap also emerged in the 1990s. Notable Southern rap acts are The Geto Boys, UGK, and Outkast. Unique sounds began to appear all over the U.S., in Miami, St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Detroit. It was also in the 1990s when hip hop elements began to appear within other genres. Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit reached mainstream success through the subgenre of rap rock and rap metal (Ambrose, 2001). Up to this point, hip-hop consisted of predominantly African-American artists. The Beastie Boys had reached great success and had gained the respect of the hip-hop community, though the success of Eminem beginning in 1999 with the “Slim Shady LP” was a surprise to the hip-hop world (Erlewine, 1999).

The rise in popularity of hip-hop showed no signs of slowing down in the 2000s. Dr. Dre served as a prominent figure in the genre as he produced Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP” and 50 Cent’s “Get Rich or Die Tryin’”, which both reached #1 on the billboard charts. In addition to the mainstream success of Eminem, 50 Cent, Nelly and others, the U.S. also saw significant success from alternative hip-hop acts such as The Roots, Mos Def, Atmosphere, and Dilated Peoples. Later, in the mid-2000s, the success of Outkast, Kanye West, and Gnarls Barkley fully secured hip hop’s position in mainstream music. As I mentioned earlier in the paper, the rise of technology played a huge role in the evolution of hip-hop, in regards to the instrumentation and the recording equipment. Though later in the 2000s the rise of music distribution through the Internet had an impact on hip-hop music. Free online mixtapes became a popular aspect of hip hop, and various artists, for example, Kid Cudi, have been able to reach mainstream success though the initial free releases on this platform.

Tzvetan Todorov says “a new genre is always the transformation of one or several old genres” (Swales, 1990, p. 36). This is especially true in hip-hop, as it has many influences. There are Jamaican dub roots and disco influences in the beats, jazz poetry in the lyrical style, 4/4 time signature, and call and response patterns of African-American religious ceremonies. Today, hip hop is still rising in popularity and continues to dominate the mainstream music. Innovators and pioneers of early hip hop such as Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West and many others continue to impact the game, while new artists such as Chance The Rapper and Kendrick Lamar continue to bring new sounds to the genre. Through the years, hip-hop has found it’s place in the mainstream, and its elements continue to be found in various types of music.


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