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What is Hip-Hop?

If you search Hip-Hop on the web, you’ll come up with a variety of definitions. According to Google’s dictionary, Hip-Hop is “a style of popular music of US black and Hispanic origin, featuring rap with an electronic backing.” Merriam Webster says it’s “a subculture especially of inner-city youths who are typically devotees of rap music” or “the stylized rhythmic music that commonly accompanies rap.” And according to Urban Dictionary, Hip-Hop is “a social-political movement created in the late 70’s. Hip-Hop is a culture to give people who grew up in the ghetto a voice, songs in Hip-Hop are spoken from personal experience.” While sources like these are accurate to some degree, they don’t do justice to the depth of Hip-Hop culture.

Funny enough, it turns out that Wikipedia has one of the more comprehensive and well-sourced definitions of Hip-Hop. Perhaps it’s because both Hip-Hop and the Free Encyclopedia have democratic origins.

“Hip hop or hip-hop, is a culture and art movement that was created by African Americans, Latino Americans and Caribbean Americans in the Bronx, New York City…The main elements of hip hop consist of four main pillars. Afrika Bambaataa of the hip hop collective Zulu Nation outlined the pillars of hip hop culture, coining the terms: “rapping”, a rhythmic vocal rhyming style; DJing, which is making music with record players and DJ mixers; b-boying/b-girling/breakdancing; and graffiti…

…The fifth element, although debated, is commonly considered either street knowledge, hip hop fashion, or beatboxing.”

This may be a bit much to digest all at once, so let’s dial it back a bit.

Setting the scene

The year is 1973 and we’re in New York City. Black and Latino ethnic  groups have been marginalized by social and political developments, and the Bronx is suffering from economic collapse. Due to rising poverty levels and the rent crisis, gang activity is growing.

A few years earlier, in the 1960’s,  people started “tagging” walls, trains, and other surfaces with spray paint–we know this medium as graffiti. Recently, youth have been “MCing” (now called “rapping”) at house parties and block parties, both as a form of self expression and to pump up the audience. A man calling himself DJ Kool Herc discovered how to loop percussion “breaks” by using two turntables, giving birth to “DJing” or turntablism. Later in the 1970’s, kids begin to dance on the floor–literally on the floor–stepping in circles and spinning on their backs, among other things. This dance style is called “breaking” or “b-boying.”

The four elements

These four distinct activities were united by their participants and contemporaneous socioeconomic environment. In that time, an MC might also break, or a graffiti writer could likely be a DJ as well. The four elements of Hip-Hop, as coined by Afrika Bambaataa, became the pillars of a cultural movement that would spread across the world. (Bambaataa added the fifth pillar, knowledge, later on.)

Since their beginnings, the four elements have grown into independent disciplines, most notably rap or Hip-Hop music. It is now a multibillion dollar industry that continues to grow. DJing faded out of Hip-Hop music in the 1990’s, and became a primarily underground subculture focused on turntable techniques. Breaking is also a subculture nowadays, although it is seeing some mainstream exposure due to its inclusion in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. Graffiti has been legitimized and thereby commercialized to some degree. Although, its underground form still exists.

Getting involved

The first step to getting involved in Hip-Hop is finding a community. Whether you’re interested in MCing, DJing, breaking or graffiti, look for a local group specializing in that activity. Engaging with peers and experts is the best way to learn the discipline and the values of Hip-Hop. Don’t worry about being shunned and don’t be afraid to be yourself–Hip-Hop was founded with the principles of inclusion and individuality. That’s part of the reason why Hip-Hop has taken root all across the world.

At the end of the day, it’s not about how nice your bars are, or how fast you can spin. It’s about peace, love, unity, and having fun. It’s about authenticity, self expression, and community building. These are some of the universal values of Hip-Hop, ones that all devoted practitioners strive to embody. And it’ll take more than a Google search to learn what they mean.

Jason Pu is a New York based writer who blogs about dance (mainly breaking), gets down with his crew (Ginyu Force), and does analyst things (currently consumer insights). Jason has been dancing for 10+ years and b-blogging for two. You can find more of his articles on Medium, and connect with him on Instagram

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