What is Hip-Hop and why does it matter?
“Stakes is high” – De La Soul
Our brand new Hip Hop and Rap HND pathway will kick off next academic year and we want to provide some important context ahead of time. In light of recent #BlackLivesMatter protests bringing to light racial inequalities, it feels vital to highlight hip-hop’s Black American roots. White audiences and society uses and commodifies, co-opts and even steals a Black culture a lot – and it is important we check ourselves wherever we can.
Students on the HND will also get a Hip-Hop Reading List alongside their primary course material, which outlines some great readings on the significance of hip-hop as Black pop culture – how it has been represented, received, and produced. The current Black Lives Matter protests evoke a familiar message that hip-hop has spoke since it began. For decades hip-hop has spoken truth to power and challenge the status-quo. Protest and resistance have been common elements of the music, evoking the fight for racial equality and communicating anger at socio-economic conditions that shaped the lives of many Black people. Today, not a lot has sadly changed and many of hip-hop’s messages are still incredibly relevant.
Since it emerged in the Bronx in the 70s and 80s, Hip-hop has become hugely influential – mainstream music, a “cultural and artistic phenomenon” and a multibillion-dollar global industry. It’s important to understand how hip hop came about within the historical context of the African American experience but it is also important not to fall into common cultural misconceptions and associations of hip hop. It can be interesting to examine how representations of Blackness operate in American pop culture and vital when approaching the subject as an area of study.
“Stakes is high” – De La Soul
A Hip-Hop History
“It's like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under”
– Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five
We owe many popular music forms to the Black community. Rock and Roll, Techno, Jazz, Disco – you name it. Some of these genres have been subject to ‘whitewashing’ throughout history, such as Elvis becoming known as the ‘King’ of Rock n’ Roll which was originally pioneered by African American musicians, or current fears that European electronic music is erasing its Black origins (read about the campaign called ‘Make Techno Black Again’).
Hip-hop is slightly different. For the most part it’s very much still read as ‘black culture’ – even synonymouswith black culture (which can be problematically essentialist). Hip-hop culture is a global culture – we use, enjoy, implement, and borrow from the culture in music, fashion and elsewhere. Hip-Hop was born in New York of Black, Latino and marginalised communities, and hip-hop in the mainstream developed to largely to be seen as Black. Developing an awareness of ‘hip-hop history’ can be important to understanding how the contemporary west treats and represents Blackness and how Black popular culture works in the mainstream.
Born in the Bronx, New York in the 1970s in African American and Latino urban neighbourhoods, hip-hop was a fusion of various cultural forces and influences. It emerged in a period of “urban renewal” for American cities, with a new kind of resegregation happening and white-flight to the suburbs; terms like inner city and underclass were reinventing America’s racial vocabulary. In this midst of what Professor Trica Rose calls the “post-civil rights era ghetto segregation”, a flourishing new youth culture emerged. “Hip Hop is an oppositional cultural realm rooted in the socio-political and historical experiences and consciousness of economically disadvantaged urban black youth of the late 20th century,” as Layli Phillps says.
“What began in basements, on street corners, in public parks, and throughout the still of the night would furnish young people fertile spaces for crafting new identities, explosive art forms, and later, whole industries.” – S. Craig Watkins
Hip-hop emerged in part, as a reaction to the socio-economic conditions in Black and Brown neighbourhoods. The culture was broad and not just about the music; beatboxing, DJing, street art, graffiti, dancing, braids, hairstyles all emerged as part of hip-hop culture. ‘Hip hop’ generally refers to the overall culture, while ‘rap’ (or MCing) referred to the rhyme creation and lyricism, originating in the battle raps that would take place on the streets.
Kickstarted by the likes of Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa, music at first was largely party anthems, often played in block parties and in the underground scene (see the 1982 film Wild Style). “It was Herc who laid the groundwork for everything associated with Hip Hop today” says The Independent, “the Jamaican-born DJ would often speak over a rhythmic beat – known within the music genre as toasting, and at parties in his high-rise apartment, he would extend the beat of a record using two players, isolating the drum “breaks” by using a mixer to switch between the two – or as it’s more commonly know: scratching.”
"Hip-Hop past all your tall social hurdles
Like the nationwide projects, prison-industry complex
Broken glass wall better keep your alarm set
Streets too loud to ever hear freedom sing"
– Mos Def, Mathematics
The music was a product of its socio-economic conditions and it grew to actively express these too, giving it a political edge. Protest rap or conscious rap grew in the 80s and 90s with the likes of Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, NAS, Mos Def, and N.W.A. – and would often make reference to the Black Power movement of the 50s/60s. It was a reactionary response to mainstream culture – an oppositional force. In the 80s early gangsta rap also emerged, (N.W.A., Ice T, KRS One, Eazy E, Westside Connection) and often crossed over into the political or protest.
Rappers have been criticising the violence of the police and law enforcement on Black people, particularly Black men, since the emergence of political conscious rap in the 80s. Hip-hop reflected and responded to various racial inequalities such as the American Prison Industrial Complex, where Black men are disproportionately incarcerated (what Michelle Alexander calls quite convincingly the ‘New Jim Crow‘), white police brutality against Black bodies, and the socio-economic conditions of Black urban communities leading to factors like Black on Black crime.
A Commodified Culture
“In exchange for global celebrity, pop prestige, and cultural influence hip hop’s top performers had to immerse himself into a world of urban villainy that by the new millennium had lost sight of the line between pop life and real life.”
– S. Craig Watkins
Once hip-hop entered the mainstream it became increasingly commoditised and increasingly consumed by white audiences. The ‘gangsta image’ was seized on in pop culture, and in this became a popular and essentialist way to view this generation of Black youth.
Hip-hop has a lot of important things to say. But as the culture became commodified and popular to the masses, certain things – like references to violence, ‘Thug’ or ‘gangsta’ lifestyles, and even misogynistic lyrics – were heightened in order to sell more records. Problematically these were often taken as literal representations of Black life and Black people often too got seen as synonymous with hip-hop. Many have argued that there is a lot more to be taken from hip-hop than these base-level assumptions and stereotypes.
“Many critics of hip hop tend to interpret lyrics literally as a direct reflection of the artist who performs them. They equate rappers with thugs, see rappers as a threat to the larger society, and then use this ‘causal analysis’ (that hip hop causes violence) to justify a variety of agendas: more police in black communities, more prisons to accommodate larger numbers of black and brown young people, and more censorship of expression. For these critics, hip hop is criminal propaganda. This literal approach, which extends beyond the individual to categorise an entire racial and class group, is rarely applied to violence-oriented mediums procured by whites,” says hip-hop scholar Tricia Rose.
“The embrace of guns, gangsterism and ghetto authenticity brought an aura of celebrity and glamour to the grim yet fabulously hyped portraits of ghetto life. From the gangsta-inflected anthems of the nineties to the thugged-out caricatures of the new millennium, hop hop, or more precisely, corporate hip hop, played its role with chilling precision. But there was nothing glamorous about the problems that characterise America’s decades-old urban crisis.”
– S. Craig Watkins
Women in rap – hip hop’s sexual politics
“Hip hop, including rap music, is a complex and contradictory arena in which regressive and oppressive elements sometimes complicate and at times even undermine what fundamentally remains an oppositional and potentially liberatory project.” – Layli Phillips et al
Aspects of rap lyric and video content are continually criticised in the mainstream for its representation and treatment of women, although several critics (such as Tricia Rose and Imani Perry) have worked to reclaim black women’s positioning within the genre. There are many female participants in hip-hop culture – and have been since it first emerged. Studying the work of female artists can open up a space for more transgressive and nuanced interpretations of hip-hop culture, they say.
It is true that much of hip hop’s sexual politics (from male producers) involve demeaning representations of women, but the dialogue and interaction of the sexes in hip-hop is complex. Moreover, black female rappers have asserted a prominent space in hip hop and this deserves particular attention. From the start rappers like MC Lyte and Queen Latifah exploded onto the scene with empowering, assertive tracks like Ladies First and U.N.I.T.Y.
Conscious artists like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu have been hugely acclaimed and work to celebrate Black womanhood, and even the ‘female Gangsta rappers’ like Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown arguably created some transgressive space for Black female performers in hip-hop. Overall several scholars have argued for a articulation fo women’s role in early hip-hop and for highlighting the oppositional and empowering stance many of them hold.
In her book Black Noise, Tricia Rose explores rap’s sexual politics, looking at the ways black women rappers negotiate—either by resisting or unwittingly perpetuating—dominant sexual and racial narratives in American culture. She puts female rappers in dialogue with black male rappers, and argues that there is a conscious and race-specific negotiation of cultural terrain taking place.
Literature by black female writers such as Hazel Carby, Angela Davis and bell hooks also speaks to the complexity of black female expression and specifically the black American female experience – Rose sees this complexity as operational in mainstream hip hop spheres, and argues black female rappers have a voice worth exploring critically.
Today – Black Lives Matter, Neoliberalism, and the Hip-Hop Mogul
“Hip hop emerged from underground subculture to mainstream during the same years that saw the rise to dominance of liberalized capitalism” – Eithne Quinn
Since hip-hop has become such a global entity, it’s produced some of the world’s biggest stars. Many prominent artists like Ice Cube, Queen Latifah, Jay Z, Kanye and Will Smith have become what we could call a ‘mogul’ often crossing over into other industries like fashion or Hollywood and creally creating a brand out of their star identity, becoming incredible successful business people . Other creators in hip-hop like Russell Simmons (Def Jam) have become known as hip-hop moguls – entrepreneurs who are understood as coming from the ‘hip hop generation’.
These producers emerged during the period in which hip-hop became mass commodified, which eventually coincided with a political context of Neoliberalism. America’s Neoliberalism also introduced the concept of a post-racial society (prominently in the US, but also mirrored in the UK) – reinforced and/or determined in America by the election of President Obama, the first Black president. Illusions of a post-racial society worked alongside successful Black figures to creative an illusion that the US was rid of racial injustice – systemic or otherwise. In fact, long-standing racial inequalities still exist and many of hip-hop’s original arguments are still very much relevant.
“Many academics have argued that hip-hop was ‘complexly determined by some of the worst social trends associated with neoliberalism: soaring inequality, extreme marketisation, mass criminalisation, and chronic unemployment.’ While many political rappers adopted oppositional stances to these trends, mainstream hip-hop culture often celebrated materialism and enterprise with all the gusto of individuals who have ‘made it’ against terrible odds” says hip-hop scholar Eithne Quinn.
Today, hip-hop still has a political edge, arguably continues a return to the consciousness and resistance of some early protest hip-hop, and a step away from the hyper-commodified, hyper-sexualised versions of the music in the 90s/00s. Hip-hop is and was more than a music form, and has an enduring and particular significance. It became the voice of a generation – a generation who now lead the way with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“The hip-hop-savvy radicalism of #BlackLivesMatter has liberated commercial rap from its default modern setting — the one that birthed the breezy millennial perception that “hip-hop” was a synonym for a consumer market where rowdy, rhyming negro gentleman callers and ballers sold vernacular song and dance to an adoringly vicarious and increasingly whiter public – a fair portion of whom are undeniably apathetic to race politics and the New Jim Crow, per Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking study of present-day judicial abuses,” commented Rolling Stone in 2015.
There’s so much to unpack in hip-hop, it’s impossible to cover it all in a short article – be it whiteness in hip-hop, it’s sexual politics, prosecuting rap, a hip-hop education or hip-hop filmmaking, we hope this has provided a small start to doing just that. While hip-hop must not been seen as the ‘blueprint’ for ‘describing’ the Black community or all African American people collectively, however it can be important to understand the impact and production of hip-hop in these specifically racial terms, and connect it to it’s history – and the arguments hip-hop has been making about the treatment of African Americans and Black people in the U.S (and UK) for decades.
This article was written by Isobel Trott, our social media editor. Isobel has an MA Degree from the University of Manchester where she specialised in hip-hop culture, African American representation and film.
“From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism, and Feminism“ – Patricia Hill Collins
“Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional”: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America“ – Robin Kelley
“Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop“ – Imani Perry
“Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America“ – Tricia Rose
“The Hip-hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip-Hop and Why It Matters“ – Tricia Rose
“Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement” – S. Craig Watkins
“That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader“ – Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal, ed
“Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap” – Jeffrey Ogbar
“Nuthin’ But A ‘G’ Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap” – Eithne Quinn
“Occupy Wall Street, Racial Neoliberalism, and New York’s Hip-Hop Moguls” – Eithne Quinn
“A Furious Kinship: Critical Race Theory and the Hip Hop Nation“ – Andre Douglas Pond Cummings
“Oppositional Consciousness within an Oppositional Realm: The Case of Feminism and Womanism in Rap and Hip Hop” – Layli Phillips, Kerri Reddick-Morgan, Dionne Patricia Stephens
Representing: Hip-Hop Culture and the Production of Black Cinema – S. Craig Watkins,
The Spike Lee Reader – Paula Massood, ed.
Black Talent and Conglomerate Hollywood: Will Smith, Tyler Perry and the Continuing Significance of Race – Eithne Quinn (2013)
“What is this ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture” – Stuart Hall
Reel to Real – bell hooks
Wild Style (1982 film, Dir Charlie Ahearn)
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