Hip-hop turns 50, reinventing itself and swaths of the world along the way
Aug 9, 2023, 4:09 AM
(AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)
NEW YORK (AP) — Hip-hop was born in the break — that moment when a song’s vocals dropped, instruments quieted down and the beat took the stage.
At the hands of the DJs, that break moment became more: a composition in itself. The MCs got in on it, speaking their own clever rhymes. So did the dancers, b-boys and b-girls. Graffiti artists took it to the streets of New York City.
Hip-hop spread around the country and the world. At each step: change, adaptation. Art, culture, fashion, community, social justice, politics, sports, business: Hip-hop has impacted them all.
In hip-hop, “when someone does it, then that’s how it’s done. When someone does something different, then that’s a new way,” says Babatunde Akinboboye, a Nigerian-American opera singer and longtime hip-hop fan in Los Angeles, who creates content on social media using both musical styles.
Hip-hop “connects to what is true. And what is true, lasts.”
Those looking for a starting point have landed on Aug. 11, 1973, when Clive Campbell, known as DJ Kool Herc around the Bronx, deejayed a party. Campbell had started extending the musical breaks of records and speaking over the beat. It wasn’t long before the style could be heard all over the city.
And then in 1979, The Sugarhill Gang put out “ Rapper’s Delight ” and introduced a rap record that would reach as high as 36 on Billboard’s Top 100 chart list.
Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright says he knew the song was “going to be big. “I knew it was going to blow up and play all over the world because it was a new genre of music,” he tells The Associated Press.
And Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien says, “If you couldn’t sing or you couldn’t play an instrument, you could recite poetry and speak your mind. And so it became accessible to the everyman.”
Female voices took their chances, like Roxanne Shante, who became one of the first female MCs to gain a wider audience. Other women have joined her, from Queen Latifah to Lil’ Kim to Nicki Minaj to Megan Thee Stallion and more.
Over the years, hip-hop has been used as a medium for just about everything. Mainstream America hasn’t always been ready for it. though.
Coming from America’s Black communities, that has also meant hip-hop has been a tool to speak out against injustice, like in 1982 when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five told the world in “ The Message,” about the stresses of poverty in their city neighborhoods.
And Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” became an anthem when it was created for filmmaker Spike Lee’s 1989 classic “Do the Right Thing,” which chronicled racial tension in a Brooklyn neighborhood.
Some in hip-hop pulled no punches but often those messages have been met with fear or disdain in the mainstream. When N.W.A. came “Straight Outta Compton” in 1988 with loud, brash tales of police abuse and gang life, radio stations recoiled.
Hip-hop (mainly that done by Black artists) and law enforcement have had a contentious relationship over the years, each eyeing the other with suspicion. There’s been cause for some of it. In some forms of hip-hop the ties between rappers and criminal figures were real, and violence spiraled out, as in high-profile deaths like that of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and The Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. But in a country where Black people are often looked at with suspicion by authority, there have also been plenty of stereotypes about hip-hop and criminality.
As hip-hop spread, a host of voices have used it to speak out, like Bobby Sanchez, a Peruvian American transgender, two-spirit poet and rapper who has released a song in Quechua, the language of the Wari people that her father came from.
“I think it’s very special and cool when artists use it to reflect society because it makes it bigger than just them,” Sanchez says. “To me, it’s always political, really, no matter what you’re talking about, because hip-hop, in a way, is a form of resistance.”
When hip-hop first started being absorbed globally, it often mimicked American styles, says P. Khalil Saucier, who has studied its journey across the Africa continent. These days, homegrown hip-hop can be found everywhere.
“The culture as a whole has kind of really rooted itself because it’s been able to now transform itself from simply an importation, if you will, to now really being local in its multiple manifestations, regardless of what country you’re looking at,” says Saucier, a professor of critical Black studies at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
That’s to everyone’s benefit, says Rishma Dhaliwal, founder of London’s I Am Hip-Hop magazine.
“Hip-hop is … allowing you in someone’s world. It’s allowing you into someone’s struggles,” she says. “It’s a big microphone to say, `Well, the streets say this is what is going on here and this is what you might not know about us. This is how we feel, and this is who we are.’”
Hip-hop has also gone into other spaces and made them different.
For Usha Jey, hip-hop was the perfect thing to mix with the classical South Asian dance style of Bharatanatyam. The 26-year-old French choreographer created videos last year showing the two styles interacting with each other.
Hip-hop culture “pushes you to be you,” Jey says. “I feel like in the pursuit of finding yourself, hip-hop helps me because that culture says, you’ve got to be you.”
Hip-hop is “a magical art form,” says Nile Rodgers, legendary musician, composer and record producer. He would know. It was his song “Good Times,” with the band Chic, that was recreated to form the basis for “Rapper’s Delight” all those years ago.
“The impact that it’s had on the world, it really can’t be quantified,” Rodgers says. “You can find someone in a village that you’ve never been to, a country that you’ve never been to, and all of a sudden you hear its own local hip-hop. And you don’t even know who these people are, but they’ve adopted it and have made it their own.”
Associated Press Entertainment writer Jonathan Landrum Jr. in Los Angeles contributed to this report. Hajela is a member of the AP’s team covering race and ethnicity.