The hip-hop culture has evolved since its inception in the early 1970s streets of the Bronx. Nowadays the hip-hop culture has spread across the world with what seems an everlasting musical genre. Yet what many forget is that hip hop is not just to describe the musical genre, but a phrase to describe hip hop’s whole culture.

The hip-hop culture started with four key elements, which some argue are five and even six total elements. The four elements include MCing, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Along with these four elements, some argue that street knowledge and fashion should also be included.

With these four key elements, it is easy to say that hip hop emerged as a way for entertainment in the early 1970s and not limited to just its musical genre. The four to five elements covered almost all the senses including visual, physical, oral, aural, and mental. Since hip hop’s inception over 50 years ago, the cultural phenomenon has evolved and grown out of its Bronx roots and onto a world stage of its own. Every culture has made hip hop its own, yet the early roots, sounds, and elements of the culture can still be listened to and seen in every rendition.

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Turntables + DJs

The word DJ was derived from the word disc jockey and was the newfound manipulation of sounds in the early 1970s. What made hip hop music and beats so avant-garde in its time was due to the innovative techniques introduced by some of hip hop’s pioneers.

DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa are both credited to have pioneered the DJ and emceeing combination of what we now know as hip hop. DJ Kool Herc is credited to have been the pioneer of block parties and community events around the Bronx back in the early 1970s.

hip-hop DJ turntable
Hip-hop sound systems were first simple turntables where DJs manipulated sounds and music sequences. (Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash)

DJ Kool Herc made the hip hop sound system a craft by bringing techniques that paved the way for what is now known as the hip hop tone. The ingenious beat break was first said to be heard from DJ Kool Herc, and his unique blend of various musical genres from James Brown to English rock made the sound as nothing heard before.

Afrika Bambaataa was another DJ that brought the art of the turntable to heights by way of mixing hip hop beats with electronic techno-pop funk pioneered by German artists like Kraftwerk.

The hip hop DJs are considered the element that incepted the other factors of the hip hop lifestyle. By way of the innovative hip hop breaks by the DJs, techniques created the longer musical 8-count drum loops of a song. These musical breaks laid the foundational looped drumbeats that gave break-dancers the beats to break into their iconic moves. Organized DJ block parties gave way for graffiti to be more prominent around the city’s walls, and so on.

Rapping

Although the hip hop culture is composed of four elements Rap music is one of the main elements of hip hop that is recognized today. Rap music is a combination of two of the four major components which are DJing and emceeing. Yet let’s dive a little more into emceeing first.

The word emcee comes from the abbreviation MC, which is short for Master of Ceremonies. MC was derived from Jamaica, which was the first place where rappers were given the title of MCs.

By the early 1970s, Jamaica brought emceeing to life in New York City by the form of verbal chants that mimicked the poetic form derived from the Jamaican and African culture and oral tradition. The rhythm, speed, and cadence are the components that were derived from these cultural traditions and are how rapping came to life.

hip-hop live performance
In the late 1970s hip-hop emceeing evolved into including messages with deeper social and political issues. (Photo by Harry Swales on Unsplash)

Emceeing brought various short chants over a range of mixed beats provided by a DJ. It wasn’t until Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released the song titled "The Message" in 1976 that emceeing began taking a new form that shifted emceeing to the new phase known as rapping.

"The Message" grew in popularity because of its addicting beat and powerful lyrics depicting life in the grimy streets of the Bronx and New York City. The song brought to life lyrics with a message that was more than just a quick collection of words, but a full length of the realities of life.

B-Boying + B-Girling

Breakdancing also known as B-Boying/B-Girling is the street dance the emerged among the Black and Puerto Rican youth in the Bronx. The hip-hop dance is a culmination of various cultural forms of dance including moves found in Brazilian capoeira, Asian martial arts, and gymnastics.

Hip hop dancers dancing to the then hip-hop music were known as b-boys/b-girls or breakers because of the connection to the breakbeats from the music the DJ played. The essence of b-boying came from moving once the DJ started breaking the beats showcasing the turntable and vinyl scratches known as the breakbeats.

breakdancing outside
B-Boying/B-Girling evolved from hip-hop DJ breakbeats. (Photo by Atharva Tulsi on Unsplash)

The breakbeats created prolonged loops of dance records which provided a rhythmic base for the dancers to “break” into an improvised dance move. B-boys/b-girls were an essential part of every block or house party which soon led to hip hop dance battles.

Dance battles began to bring together hip-hop dance crews. Some of the earliest dance groups included the SalSoul, Zulu Kings, and Crazy Commandos who each brought their Puerto Rican and African roots into the dance mix. The dance spread into every community in New York City and gained wider momentum across the US and the world.

Visual Arts & Fashion

The word graffiti comes from the Italian word graffio, which means scratch, and graffiti, the plural connotation meaning consistent inscriptions. Graffiti dates back to ancient times with markings having been found on ancient Roman, Mayan, and Medieval ruins.

Yet, the modern graffiti art that took flight during hip hop’s inception is at times a controversial element of the hip hop culture. Hip hop pioneers including Grandmaster Flash did not consider visual street art as part of the culture.

The 1970s youth who started the graffiti style of art started from just tagging around the city with primarily spray paint. But soon graffiti ranged from bright graphic images to stylized tagging or monogramming on buildings and the sides of subway trains around New York City’s landscape.

Hip hop fashion is a unique and distinctive style of dress originating from the Latino and Black inner-city youth of New York City and later from all across the US. Each city bringing its elements into the hip-hop style mix.

graffiti art
Graffiti started by way of street tagging and has grown to detailed street murals around the world. (Photo by Ben Elwood on Unsplash)

Late 1970s sportswear brands like Le Coq Sportif and Adidas established a connection with the emerging hip hop culture from the beginning. During the early 80s, hip hop fashion started to take form from bright colored tracksuits, leather bomber jackets, oversized sunglasses, Kangol bucket hats, and heavy gold jewelry. Soon fashion was one of the most important elements in the Golden Age of Hip Hop of the 1980s.

These four elements are still an important part of the hip-hop culture, although some of these elements have evolved to new renditions and heights. But, you can still catch a glimpse into the hip hops roots from breakbeats in new hip hop tracks or an accessory evolved from early hip hop fashion.

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Denise

A California desert-native who has a passion for baking from scratch, reading 1950-era novels, listening to soul/jazz, and learning about different cultures through travel.