Tracing the 50-year evolution of hip hop, from South Bronx block parties to the Black Power movement and MTV
This year marks the 50th anniversary of hip hop, which emerged as a musical genre and cultural phenomenon in 1973.
Hip hop became a way for disenfranchised youths to voice their frustrations and call for change.
It continues to be a powerful, politically-charged art form for Black and brown communities.
Hip hop as music and culture emerged in the 1970s, when block parties were all the rage, particularly among Black, Caribbean, and Latino youth living in the Bronx.
At one back-to-school party on August 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican American DJ, spun hard funk tracks by singers like James Brown. Then, he did something a little different: He mixed drum breaks from different songs, creating the syncopated beats that would become the bedrock of hip hop.
The effect was electric. Other elements of hip hop, like breakdancing, rapping, and graffiti-writing, swiftly took form and spread across America. Hip hop's core message, centered around the experiences of working-class youth, took hold of the imaginations of many Americans, especially those from disenfranchised communities.
"Hip hop would not have been as formidable as a music genre if it were not produced or vocalized by this demographic," Aisha Durham, a communications professor at the University of South Florida, said. "Some of the most innovative hip hop formations that you see today still come from those communities that may feel alienated, disaffected, or in some ways vulnerable — economically, socially, or politically."
A disenfranchised youth
Deindustrialization in the 1970s, when major manufacturers like Ford withdrew from cities, caused double-digit unemployment rates and inflation in places like New York City, disproportionately affecting already marginalized communities.
Rough economic conditions led to an expansion of underground markets. Many hip hop songs discussed inflation, unemployment, incarceration, sex trafficking, and sex work as a result, according to Durham.
Hip hop also emerged during the Black Power period, on the heels of the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. Along with the influx of migration from the Caribbean, this created a powerful social context in which Black and brown communities across the diaspora reckoned with how they belonged to the nation. Hip hop was one way to voice this.
The genre received some pushback in its early days for the ways it called attention to the failures of the older generation, even from the likes of MTV, Durham said.
"It wasn't your mother's civil rights or Motown music. There's a kind of respectability politics that hip hop is not invested in," Durham told Insider.
The evolution of hip hop
The golden era of hip hop in the late 80s through the 90s was characterized by greater diversity, innovation, and influence.
While some artists had been socially conscious but not very commercially successful, groups like Public Enemy and singers like Queen Latifah "provided a kind of blueprint for how you can be marketable with a message," Durham said, describing the tension that existed between producing youthful music people liked to dance to, versus music that was politically aware.
This new wave of hip hop artists followed the steps of pioneers like Sylvia Robinson, who drew from disco and funk to "package a culture into a marketable and economically viable industry," according to Durham.
Robinson had navigated the inherent sexism of the industry to spearhead the massively influential label Sugar Hill Records, which signed some of hip hop's greatest groups, including The Sequence, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and Funky Four Plus One.
Gangsta rap also emerged during the golden era, catapulting hip hop into one of the most profitable music genres of the 90s. But it also reiterated stereotypical representations of "the violent, aggressive Black man and the oversexualized Black woman," especially among non-Black consumers who were likely unaware of the underlying social issues like substance addiction, the war on drugs, police brutality, and housing insecurity, Durham said.
Renewed political significance
After a decline in sales in the early 2000s — causing some to question if hip hop was dying — the genre took on renewed political and social meaning in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which was formed in 2013 after Trayvon Martin's killer was acquitted.
"People like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Mumu Fresh are also speaking to issues of violence — some of the same conversations we were having with Sugar Hill Records, thinking about racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination," Durham said.
Hip hop follows a long history of protest in Black American music, like blues and jazz, that similarly talked about issues of police violence and inequality, according to Tyina Steptoe, a history professor at the University of Arizona.
Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, songs like Lil Baby's "The Bigger Picture" and T-Pain's "Get Up" explicitly discussed themes of oppression, police brutality, and protest.
"Even as hip hop has moved outside the immediate site of the South Bronx, at its heart, it is still thinking about the ordinary, everyday experiences of communities of color," Durham said. "Hip hop still resonates today because people around the world continue to deal with issues of inequity… At its very root, hip hop is the voice of the people."
Read the original article on Insider