Although hip-hop is one of the last musical genres to form it is one of the most listened to genres in music. The musical genre has had such a lasting effect because it does not only encompass music but a whole culture including visual arts and cultural expression.

The hip-hop culture emerged as an outlet for Black and Latino youth at a time where social and economic issues were at a volatile rise and fall. Since its inception, the musical genre and culture of hip hop have widespread not only through the country but the world. The elements that gave birth to hip hop come together to form a culture that gave inner-city youth an outlet and now the rest of the world.

The culture of expression is at the root of the hip-hop culture from issue-based rapping to the visual art form of dance, fashion, and tagging. Hip hop has not just impacted the music industry, but a whole diverse community giving voice to a society that once did not have a strong pedestal.

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The Rise of Issue-Based Rap

Music in the early 90s did not touch on the issues of what certain communities in America went through. Some songs were banned from being performed like Billy Holiday’s 1939 “Strange Fruit” which touched on the social injustices of African Americans in America.

Music lyrics from the early 1900s until the mid-1970s only touched on issues most particularly about love and happiness. Yet, since hip-hop emerged in the 1970s that quickly changed.

Hip-hop artists Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five pioneered hip-hop rap focusing on social and political issues with their critically acclaimed song “The Message” released in 1982. “The Message” was an early hit track that provided a social commentary about the stress of inner-city poverty and the realities of New York City ghettos. Tracks like these took hip-hop from the block party dance scene to the social platforms by which hip-hop music is today.

hip-hop live performance
Issue-based lyrics made the hip-hop culture more than just a musical genre, but also a global social impact. (Photo by Joshua Lee on Unsplash)

Alternative hip-hop pioneers A Tribe Called Quest, gave way to the 1990s social and political stance rap, yet with a jazz backbeat. Their debut album and secondary album gained national recognition for their track messages on the realities of social injustices in America.

The rise of gangsta rap in the 1990s become a platform for hip hop artists to spread social and political issues to parts of the country and world that were not aware of the realities and existence of the American ghettos.

Los Angeles-based rapper Tupac dominated the hip-hop culture on the West Coast with his debut album 2Pacalypse Now, which took gangsta rap to a new level and the mainstream. Tupac focused on social issues that had never been touched before in mainstream media including drugs, sex, violence, police brutality, and mass incarceration. Hip-hop began as an outlet for entertainment and visual expression but evolved into a medium that provides a voice for an underrepresented group.

The Distribution Line

Since hip-hop’s inception, hip-hop artists were dependent on live performances. Yet, the introduction of the mixtape allowed hip-hop music to quickly spread to new venues in the community and even across the country to the West Coast.

Hip-hop artists then started joining artists collectives like the Native Tongue formed by hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and Bad Boy Records founded by Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. This was a major push for the hip-hop style of music because from the early to mid-1980s most politicians, businesspeople, and music executives ignored the hip-hop movement and its growing power.

By the end of the 1980s, music industry executives started to listen due to the major growth of the culture in both the East and West Coasts. At that time major labels started to open new divisions for the hip-hop demand and commercialization began.

By the 1980s hip-hop style rap and culture were crossing genres and into the mainstream. Famous American pop/rock band Blondie included a rap section in their song “Rapture” debuting in 1981. The single reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, No. 4 in Australia, and No. 5 in the UK. The track was the first number-one song in the US that included hip-hop rap vocals and opened the doors to hip-hop music to other demographics.

hip-hop music
Live performances were hip-hop artist's life-lines in the early years until the commercialization of hip-hop kicked in the mid-1980s. (Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash)

By the mid-90s many hip-hop music pioneers claimed that hip-hop was dying due to the overly emphasized focus on sex and violence instead of the messages of marginalization in communities. Yet, many applaud the growth stating that commercialization did change the concept of community-based music, but allowed the genre to grow into a phenomenon worldwide allowing those that once didn’t have a voice now to have one.

Today, instead of signing with music labels or distributing physical mixtapes, hip-hop artists have been able to share their music across the country with the introduction of digital downloads. Chicago-based soul rapper Chance the Rapper rose to fame with two album projects that were released as free downloads on platforms like SoundCloud and Spotify as part of his free distribution format mentality. He quickly rose to fame with his first two digital mixtape albums being downloaded more than 1.5 million times.

Overall, the distribution scope of hip-hop has allowed many people to listen to voices that were not listened to before. Giving platforms for communities and issues that needed to be heard in the masses. Additionally, the hip-hop community was able to take care of their own, by signing with producers that came up within the hip-hop culture and not major record labels. This allowed hip-hop artists to cater their tracks and messaging to what they wanted, instead of fitting into a mold.

Fashion & Cultural of Expression

As mentioned above the hip-hop culture allowed Black and Latino youth in New York City to escape the struggles they were facing. It started as an outlet for various forms of expression from music to hip-hop dance. The rise of gangsta rap and political rap socially impacted those communities that had strife and allowed them a platform where they can speak up and out.

But music was not just the only platform where the hip-hop culture started to socially impact the world. Hip-hop visual expression started to morph into everyday styles. From the start of the Golden 80s, there was a shift, and some say the birth of hip-hop fashion. Many fashion brands and labels started to create close ties to the growing cultural movement including Adidas, Kangol, Le Coq Sportif, and Pro-Keds.

the hip-hop style
Hip-hop fashion began as an essential element in hip-hop in the 1980s. (Photo by Dom Hill on Unsplash)

By the late 1980s hip-hop fashion was an essential component of hip-hop artists. Artists like Big Daddy Kane and Kurtis Blow popularized the accessories including heavy gold necklaces and multiple gold rings. Female hip-hop groups like Salt-N-Pepa popularized oversized gold earrings and the use of Kangol bucket hats. Hip-hop fashion was an outlet for artists to suggest a sense of prestige and wealth.

Fashion is just one area in the visual expression arena of hip-hop culture. Graffiti, also known as tagging, was also a major component in hip-hop expression. Although graffiti got a bad reputation, it allowed many hip-hop visual artists to rise in fame for their cultural representations. Famous artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring started their visual art trajectory by experimenting with graffiti art first. Now over 30+ years, graffiti has taken a step forward with various murals around the world that have gained serious momentum.

Regardless of the form or element of expression hip-hop is here to stay. The hip-hop culture will keep evolving and generating a platform to voice social and political issues across communities.

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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.