The origins of the hip hop subculture and art movement stem from New York City’s borough of the Bronx in the early 1970s. It was during a time of political unrest due to a falling and changing US economy, the collapse of the industrial era, and the end of US mass manufacturing.

New York City was undergoing a massive shift during this time. Most predominant middle-class white families moved to the suburbs to escape the worsening conditions and crime in the city. Due to the economic downfall and migration to the suburbs, many businesses in New York City had to close their doors.

Most of these businesses were sources of entertainment and economy for the city’s various communities. The migration shifted communities, yet also caused segregation between them. These events caused the city’s youth to find recreation in the outdoors by way of music, art, sound, dance, sport — which formed what we know now as hip hop.

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The Four Key Elements

Nowadays hip hop is a phrase often used to refer to hip hop/rap music exclusively, yet the phrase describes a whole culture made up of four key elements. The four elements of hip hop are made up of emceeing, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti/visual arts.

Emceeing (also known as MCing or now known as rapping) is a vocal musical form that incorporates rhyming, rhythmical speech, and street vernacular. Emceeing/Rapping was normally performed in house parties and block party events around the Bronx. The vocal hip hop style was usually chanted in a variety of ways over a backbeat or musical component. Rapping closely resembles the spoken word of poetry and follows similar components.

The three components of rapping are content, flow, and delivery. Content refers to the material being said. Flow refers to the rhythm and rhyme quality. While delivery refers to the cadence and tone of the rap.

The beat of rap was typically delivered by a disc jockey (also known as a DJ), beatboxer, or turntablist. The DJ/turntablist got its name because of the various vinyl disc used to manipulate sounds and mix beats between two discs.

the visual art of graffiti
Although a controversial element of hip-hop culture, graffiti was an outlet for visual expression in the early 1970s. (Photo by Bryan Papazov on Unsplash)

Another element of hip-hop is breakdancing, also known as B-Boying/B-Girling. Breakdancing is the dynamic hip-hop dance style that developed during the culture's rise. It mixed rhythmic moves while mixing other moves from various cultures including 1930s era street dancing. Breakdancing moves also including those from cultures around the world including those from Brazilian Capoeira, Asian martial arts, and Russian folk.

The final element is the visual art of graffiti. Yet, some do not consider graffiti to be part of hip-hop culture, as they just do not get the correlation. Most of hip hop’s founding fathers find graffiti to be controversial and did not understand how graffiti intertwined with the hip hop lifestyle. Yet, others argue that graffiti was part of the hip-hop culture and the city youth lifestyle of the time.

These four elements summarize the culture that was taking form in the streets of the Bronx and the neighboring communities of New York City. Other elements of the hip hop culture are also considered to be essential including street knowledge, fashion, and beatboxing.

The Hip Hop Tool Kit

The early forms of the hip hop sound systems were introduced by the Jamaican culture. DJs and MCs would set up mobile sound systems at block parties and parks all throughout the community. By the 1980s the sound systems of DJs and MCs were revolutionized by how the assessable and cheap new sound equipment was.

A DJ's sound kit consisted of synthesizers, samplers, and drum machines. The introduction to Roland’s TR-808 rhythm composer was a DJs dream. The TR-808 allowed DJs to auto program their own original drum patterns and sequences without relying heavily on DJ breakbeats.

hip-hop sound systems
Roland's TR-808 Rhythm Composer allowed DJs to auto program drum sequences and beats. (Photo by Steve Harvey on Unsplash)

Samplers were the next big thing that emerged in the 1980s. Samplers allowed DJs to piece together song breaks rather than using turntables and manually turning the breaks. Samplers also allowed for music arrangement, beat editing, and mixing.

Turntables were still a common tech spec in a DJs sound system though. Yet, turntables also advanced which created the ability for DJs to create new sounds. Scratching records being one of the new sounds allowed DJs to create new sounds and effects while layering other sounds and arrangements using samplers and synthesizers.

This early sound system technology is what gives modern-day hip hop its backbone beat and sound. Although with an influx of new technology the musical beats of hip hop can still be heard in the background of most modern-day tracks.

Hip Hop Trailblazers

Keith Wiggins, a member of the Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, is said to be the pioneer who coined the term hip hop. The name is said to come from one of Keith’s sarcastic remarks to a friend joining the US Army. Keith started mocking his friend by singing the made-up words "hip, hop, hip, hop" to mimic the stomps of marching soldiers. Keith even worked the made-up mocking words into one of his emceeing performances and the rest is hip hop history.

The phrase hip hop and hip hoopers started gaining momentum in the Bronx scene. Yet, once the song “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang was released in 1979 the word hip hop became the reference to the music and culture once known as disco rap.

Several hip-hop artists are to be given credit for pioneering the hip-hop music culture. Yet three notable innovators are credited with the pioneering title known as the “Holy Trinity of Hip Hop”. Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, and Afrika Bambaataa are given the title of the Holy Trinity because they innovated the sound, rhythm, and culture standard of hip hop.

DJ Kool Herc is credited for introducing musical beat breaks, a DJ technique derived from Jamaican dab music that involved changing and mixing to a new beat. DJ Kool Herc used his beat-breaking technique to change from various musical genres including funk, soul, and beats with percussion elements.

Afrika Bambaataa is also known as “The Godfather” was a very influential person in the East Bronx neighborhood. He organized block parties and is credited to steer the city’s youth away from drugs, gangs, and violence. Afrika was also a pioneer in using samplers to create various musical sounds and helped the rise and popularity of the TR-808 in the hip hop music scene.

live hip-hop performance
Hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa was named "The Godfather" for his role in bringing the community together by way of block parties around the Bronx. (Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash)

Grandmaster Flash was a DJ elite who is credited to be the first DJ to introduce techniques including manipulated records in various counterclockwise and clockwise motions, scratching, cutting, back spinning, and so many more. He also organized a group known as the Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five who is credited to have taken hip hop to a musical forefront with their song The Message. The song included detailed lyrics depicting the realities of life in the Bronx, which shifted hip-hop lyrics from classic rhythmic chants to lyrics with deep messages of life’s realities.

These three pioneers paved the way to the Golden Age of Hip Hop, which started to widespread across the country reaching the California west coast. The Golden Age of Hip Hop brought a new wave of hip hop pioneers with their original sounds, beats, and techniques that evolved the musical genre to new heights.

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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.