Hip hop (or hip-hop, the two can be used interchangeably) began as a culture and art movement in the Bronx, where demographics were rapidly shifting in the early 1970s.

During the 1950s and 60s, many white, middle-class people left the cities to move to the suburbs. The African Americans and Latino Americans that were left behind in cities (or who moved to the cities in the intervening years) encountered many challenges in their neighborhoods, as budgets were slashed and resources diverted to the wealthier, whiter communities.

Faced with a lack of economic opportunity, as well as rising crime and poverty rates, the young people in the Bronx and nearby communities began creating their own kinds of cultural expressions. These forms of expression would come together to form the four pillars of hip hop.

The 4 Main Elements of Hip Hop Music

Most scholars agree that there are four main elements, or pillars, to hip hop music. These pillars originated in the 1970s and continue to represent hip hop culture today:

  • Deejaying: making music using record players, turntables, and DJ mixers
  • Rapping: rhythmic vocal rhyming style
  • Graffiti painting: also known as “graf” or “writing”
  • Break dancing: a form of dance that also encompasses an overall attitude and style

All four of these elements remain signifiers of hip hop as a larger cultural movement.

Hip hop is typically broken into three phases: old school, new school, and 21st century.

Old School Hip Hop

Old school hip hop typically dates from the origination of the movement in the early 1970s up until the mid-1980s.

The first major hip hop deejay was DJ Kool Herc. Mixing percussive beats with popular dance songs, Kool Herc was instrumental in developing the sounds that became synonymous with hip hop, such as drum beats and record scratches.

Influenced by Kool Herc and his peers, hip hop deejays developed new turntable techniques, like needle dropping and scratching. Kool Herc also popularized rapping, which drew upon the traditions of West African griots, talking blues songs, and black power poetry, among others.

Towards the end of the old school hip hop era, the movement began to gain national recognition. The Sugarhill Gang’s song “Rapper’s Delight” (released in 1979) rocketed up the national music charts, ushering in a new wave of musicians, artists, and performers, while also introducing people around the world to this new type of music.

New School Hip Hop

By the mid-1980s, hip hop had firmly entered its new school era. The names that headed up hip hop’s new school are more recognizable to a contemporary audience: Run-D.M.C, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, and Public Enemy. Each of these artists is responsible for making hip hop what we know today.

Run-D.M.C brought hip hop to a larger audience through performances on MTV. The Beastie Boys pushed deejaying further with their digital sampling. LL Cool J and Public Enemy pushed rap in new directions: LL Cool J by bringing romantic themes into hip hop and Public Enemy by using rap to push forward political ideology.

Other artists that came of age during hip hop’s new school era include Queen Latifah, who, along with Salt-n-Pepa, brought women into the genre, the Fresh Prince, aka, Will Smith, and M.C. Hammer, all of whom popularized hip hop music even more.

As hip hop grew in popularity, it expanded beyond its regional roots, too. In 1989, N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton became the most prominent hip hop album to emerge from somewhere besides New York City. The East Coast – West Coast divide evolved into a full-on rivalry between the two groups, which ended with the unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.

From the ashes of the rivalry between the East and West Coasts came late 1990s hip hop, which saw artists like the Wu-Tang Clan, the Fugees, and Diddy reach new levels of popularity.

Hip hop became a worldwide phenomenon at this point, too, with new audiences and artists emerging in places like Tokyo, Cape Town, London, and Paris. By the turn of the century, hip hop was the best-selling music genre in the United States.




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