This past weekend marked the 40th birthday of one of Reservoir’s nearest and dearest: hip-hop.
Originally a form of expression across many media–rap music, for sure, but also graffiti artwork, DJ’ing, b-boying, and emceeing–hip-hop’s journey has been a long and winded affair, with a once vibrant underground culture eventually taking a backseat to the more mainstream-accesible product of major label-produced rap.
While team Reservoir is always supportive of new expressions in music, including the fun, frivolous turn that rap music has taken since hip-hop took off, it’s nice, at times, to look back at the genre’s origin, if only to better appreciate why it’s enjoyed the cultural impact that it has.
A retrospective written by Dart Adams chronicles the evolution of hip-hop culture from its origin to its current mischaracterization as a synonym for “rap”. Read the entire article here, from NPR:
Today marks the 40th anniversary of the day Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell threw his first party in the function room of 1520 Sedgwick Ave in the South Bronx. While that Kool Herc back-to-school party marks the official beginnings of the global culture we call hip-hop, what the mainstream media at large now calls “hip-hop” is a far cry from the creative culture that emerged following the gang truce between the warring tribes of the South Bronx. When most people say “hip-hop” what they’re actually talking about is rap. Even then, they’re usually referring to mainstream rap music by rappers on major labels, which are currently experiencing what might be their overall low point in both quality and creativity. Rap was a force that united people, spoke truth to power and entertained at the same time. Now it exists almost solely to maintain the status quo and promote moneyed interests.
Hip-hop has a number of fathers based on your understanding and knowledge of it; Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa were the two young men in the South Bronx throwing jams in the parks, schools and community centers, but Pete DJ Jones was the man in the clubs. Many credit him with being the first to have a rapper/emcee (TJ Hollywood, before Coke La Rock began rapping as a Herculord) and the first to play two copies of the same record. The formation of Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation in 1973 aided in the spread of the culture throughout the Bronx and the outer-boroughs of New York City. The four original elements of hip-hop culture were all in existence by the time of Kool Herc’s party, but the mainstream media acknowledged them each separately.
The original flyer for what became the birth of hip-hop.
Graffiti was first written about in a July 1971 New York Times article headlined “Taki Spawns Pen Pals.” It wasn’t until late 1979 thatrRap music was written about in the music trades after the breakout success of “Rapper’s Delight.” Michael Holman’s January 1981 East Village Eyeinterview with Bambaataa was the first mention of “hip-hop” and its culture to ever be printed. It took Sally Baines and Martha Cooper’s March 1981 Village Voice article “Physical Graffiti: Breaking Is Hard To Do” to expose New York, and later the world, to b-boying. Hip-hop existed for a decade before it’s seminal films Wild Style and Style Wars were first screened.
What happened next was inevitable. Hip-hoppers of all disciplines (graffiti, DJ’ing, b-boying and emceeing) toured Europe and Asia bringing Wild Style and Style Wars with them. Shortly afterward the culture spread all around the globe. Then came Hollywood and the first wave of hip-hop themed films and television shows. Madison Avenue came calling and all of a sudden you saw b-boys or rappers all over the place. They were in commercials, television shows and film until corporate over-saturation forced b-boying to go underground in 1985. What was called “breakdancing” by the mainstream media lost its luster with the youth when middle-aged balding men began going to the floor whenever that new Kenny Loggins jam came on.
The mainstream media had become enamored with the concept of scratching, but rap was by far the favorite aspect of hip-hop among the masses. The key reason being it was the easiest one to market, promote, mass-produce and sell. Unfortunately, the more popular the musical aspect of hip-hop culture became, the more the lines became blurred and rap music and hip-hop became one and the same to those it was marketed and sold to. Here we are 40 years later and the overwhelming majority of rap listeners fully don’t understand that the corporate-driven, mainstream rap music they hear on the radio has very little in common with the culture that originally spawned it.
It’s no mystery why rap music has gradually lost its teeth and become more and more corporate. First the fallout from the LA Riots in spring 1992 led to Ice-T‘s “Cop Killer” controversy and the Time Warner boycott back in June of that year. Several conscious and controversial rappers were dropped or released from labels owned by Time Warner. Next came the signing of the Telecommunications Act Of 1996, which made it possible for Clear Channel and Emmis Communications to buy up stations all across the country and create Hot and Power franchises across the country — all with nearly identical playlists regardless of region.
During this time, the only remaining conscious groups were either on indie labels (i.e. Public Enemy), releasing their final albums on major labels (i.e. Poor Righteous Teachers andBrand Nubian), with the lone exception being dead prez, who signed with Loud Records in 1998 and didn’t release their debut album until 2000. By the time Dead Prez released their debut LP Let‘s Get Free they were the only group making the kind of conscious rebel music that was common during rap’s first Golden Era (1986-1989). It would end up being their only album on a major label as the folding of Loud Records coupled with the signing of the Patriot Act post-9/11 served as the final nail in the coffin for major label conscious rap. All of the remaining emcees that regularly do social commentary or are critical of those in power are making music independently, since majors won’t touch them and radio refuses to play them (i.e. Immortal Technique, Akir, Hasan Salaam, Jasiri X, etc).
The last attempts at social commentary in mainstream rap have typically appeared in election years when it neared voting time. After the election is over, it’s right back to making commercials for products or lifestyle brands set to music. Unfortunately, this is what passes for “hip-hop” nowadays. The indie/underground rap that actually possesses the last vestiges of diversity, consciousness and lyrical content — that reminds rap fans why they fell in love with the genre in the first place — is largely ignored by mainstream rap magazines and terrestrial radio. Forty years after hip-hop culture was created and the first emcees recited simple rhymes that were overpowered by the music it sounds like things have come full circle. And the problem with that is that nowadays the overwhelming majority of hip-hop culture is being purposely suppressed in favor of its most critiqued aspect; mainstream rap music.