One of my passions is hip-hop. I’ve always loved it but I struggled to understand why since there is so much hip-hop music out there with themes of misogyny and violence. When I started studying the origins of hip-hop, I realized that one of the reasons that I love hip-hop is because it’s a culture that values authenticity as much as I do. Do you know how hip-hop came about? If not, I’d love to share this with you.
In the early 1970’s, no one wanted to live in the South Bronx. It was filled with poverty, drugs and unemployment. It looked like a war zone. In order to make money from the insurance companies, slum lords were burning down 43,000 housing units a week. When the recession hit, the first programs that the government cut were the arts programs. Worse than that, the government took on the public policy of “benign neglect” and basically abandoned the Bronx. The youth living in the Bronx were desperate for some way to escape the harsh realities of life. Most people in the Bronx didn’t have the disposable income to go to clubs or discos so instead, they started partying in the streets and at local parks. They needed DJs to provide the music and that’s how hip-hop culture began. The graffiti movement came next.
DJing and graffiti created artistic communities that gave inner city kids a sense of belonging and allowed self-expression in a society that had marginalized them. Graffiti communities gave rise to codes of behavior, secret gathering places, slang, and aesthetic standards. Similarly, the DJing community had a set of rules and traditions only known to those involved in the movement. Within these artistic communities, a sense of competition arose. In the DJing community, DJs were constantly pushing one another to come up with new techniques at block party battles. As a result of this emphasis on competition, obscurity in music selection became popular and respected in the DJing community. DJs would soak their records in water in order to remove the record’s label so that it would be impossible for other DJs to know the track that they got a break from. This meant that DJs had to spend an immense amount of time scouring record stores for a five second break. This was an incredible amount of work because a break was only a small riff or drum beat that sounded good within a three-minute song. DJs would spend an entire day listening to older records in order to find the five seconds of a song that could be a good break. The graffiti communities were brimming with this same level of competition as new techniques were constantly forcing graffiti writers to come up with new methods to stay relevant within the movement. While members of graffiti communities compared notes, lettering styles, and methods for eluding the transit police, graffiti writers worked hard at infusing their art with their own unique style. In the graffiti community, competition was fierce when it came to how many tags an artist could put up, but creativity and innovation was most important. There was such an emphasis on originality within both graffiti and DJing communities because both movements were a response to the conformity of a society that was seeking to marginalize them. Despite the intense amount of competition within these artistic communities, youth in the Bronx were able to find a place in their society with people who shared their common interests.
Moreover, leaders within these communities of graffiti writers and DJs began to emerge that influenced the actions of teenagers in the Bronx. Within the DJing community, Afrika Bambaataa had a major effect on the amount of gang related violence occurring in the Bronx. Bambaataa, who was originally a leader of The Black Spades street gang, “consciously tried to redirect the energy put into gangsterism into hip-hop” (And You Don’t Stop) once he began DJing. He encouraged youth in the Bronx to channel their aggression into music instead of into gangs which resulted in DJ battles at block parties. Bambaataa was able to have an impact on the youth in the Bronx because he had actually lived a life that involved gangs. He was someone who was attached and involved in the culture and for that reason he had credibility and could yield influence over young people. In the graffiti movement, artists such as Seen and Taki 183 served as inspiration to other graffiti writers that were just starting out. Seeing their work all over the city meant that there was the possibility of their voice being heard as well.
Contrary to popular belief, DJing and graffiti provided an outlet of expression for youth who felt voiceless and lead to a decrease in the amount of gang activity in the Bronx. Graffiti reduced the level of physical aggression in teenagers in the Bronx by channeling that energy into a form of uncensored expression. Because graffiti writing was a skill that needed to be cultivated and practiced by the writer, teenagers that were involved in the graffiti movement didn’t have time for gang-related activities. It was a common misconception by people separated from the movement that because graffiti was illegal, graffiti writers were committing other crimes as well. There was never any evidence that proved a correlation between graffiti and violent crimes to begin with. In DJing, teenagers that had been alienated and ignored now had a way to catch the attention of society with their unique work. Afrika Bambaataa was so popular for this very reason. His selection of music was so eccentric.
While both graffiti and DJing were initially disregarded by the masses, these movements, which formed as a result of marginalization, became widely recognized within society. Graffiti moved from the streets to art galleries and writers began to make money for their work. With the single ‘Rapper’s Delight’ DJs realized that they could make more of a profit recording records than playing at parties and clubs. Both of these movements have profoundly affected and are a significant part of popular culture today. Society would be immensely different today had these movements not formed as a result of teenagers from the Bronx seeking some way to make themselves heard in a society where they were trying to be silenced.
Seeing the complexity of hip-hop’s origin made me realize that the main reason I love hip-hop so much is because it gives a voice to the voiceless.
And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip-Hop. Dir. Richard Lowe & Dana Heinz Perry. Bring the
Noise LLC, 2004.
Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop. Picador: NY, 2005.
Orejuela, Fernando. Rap and Hip Hop Culture. Oxford UP, 2015.