Dubspot’s Rory PQ takes us through history back to the origins of hip-hop and explores the genres explosive cultural evolution.
Hip-hop is a culture born from the ashes of disco and the development of funk. During the early 70s, many funk groups began playing disco because at the time it was the latest trend. Drawing from disco production techniques, funk music started to become technology driven as it absorbed more electronic sounds from synthesizers and drum machines. By the mid-70s, funk became the new dance music in urban America.
Looking back to New York during this era we start to see an economic collapse. New York City was in a fiscal crisis, and the city’s economy was falling apart due to the decline of the manufacturing industry. Much of the white middle class began moving to the suburbs as well, and gang violence was on a rise. Many of the opportunities into the music industry and sources of recreation evaporated. Disco’s and night clubs closed their doors because there wasn’t enough money to pay for the entertainment. As a result, urban youth brought the party to the streets with mobile audio equipment called “Sound Systems” which was introduced by Jamaican culture.
During these block parties, DJs would play popular genres of music, especially funk and soul music. Similar to the style of disco DJs in their era, funk DJs would mix together percussive breaks in songs. Blending and mixing breaks was a common technique used in Jamaican dub music and was later introduced to New York mostly by immigrants from the Caribbean. These rhythmic reinterpretations became the most anticipated parts of songs where people danced to the most. A whole new style of dance based on the breaks emerged called breakdancing, or “b-boying.”
One of the most influential early hip-hop DJs was DJ Kool Herc, who has been called the “founding father of hip-hop.” Kool Herc would isolate the instrumental section of a record that emphasized the drumbeat, or “break,” and then switch from one break to another using a pair of turntables. He would also play two copies of the same record to extend the break. This breakbeat juggling style of DJing formed the basis of turntablism that heavily influenced the rise of hip-hop music.
To hype the crowd at these block parties, DJs were accompanied by a Master of Ceremonies, also known as an MC or emcee. An MC would present the DJs, entertain the crowd, speak or rhyme to the audience, and provide spoken vocals over the music. By the late 70s record labels such as ”Sugar Hill” started to cash in on the growing DJ and MC trend. Some of the first rap music records were recorded by live disco bands and an MC rapping over the music.
The Godfather of Hip-Hop
One of the most influential and important figures to emerge from New York’s street music scene was Afrika Bambaataa, also know as “The Godfather.” In many ways, Bambaataa was a visionary who helped guide the city’s youth away from gang violence and into the many expressions of hip-hop culture through DJing, rapping, beatboxing, breakdancing, and visual art. He formed Zulu Nation, a music-oriented movement of creative people who believed in unity through a positive hip-hop culture.
Check out “Planet Rock” and “Looking for the Perfect Beat” which are two of Bambaataa’s songs that have become hip-hop anthems.
Early Music Technology
Moving into the late 70s and early 80s music instrument manufacturers began designing more hardware instruments such as the legendary Roland TR-808, which was one of the first programmable drum machines. As rap music developed, we started to see live drummers being replaced by drum machines and an increased use of DJs who would scratch records to add a percussive element to the music. Around this time sampling technology emerged and drum machines became widely available to the general public at a cost that was affordable to the average consumer. DJs also started to become producers and began using sampling technology to piece together breaks in songs rather than using turntables. Legendary samplers like Akai’s MPC allowed producers to take a section of a song and edit it to play as an instrument in a sequence or add extra sounds and texture. Essentially, this technique was early remixing.
Golden Age of Hip-Hop
By the late 80s, hip-hop had spread across the country. Record labels recognized the genre as an emerging trend and started to invest a lot of money into the movement. New scenes and different styles emerged from city to city as the culture popularized. The music quickly developed and became more complex as well. The new generation of hip-hop producers had access to more advanced drum machines and samplers that allowed them to take sampling and layering sounds to the next level. This new era was labeled as the “Golden Age” of hip-hop and lasted throughout the 80s and into the early 90s. During this time period, hip-hop was largely experimental and was being characterized by its sound, diversity, innovation, attitude, and influences from different regions. New and innovative production techniques were being discovered leading to more advanced styles. Even the lyrical content from hip-hop rappers evolved.
Sampling and Copyright
In the early 90s, sampling was being heavy used in rap music. The original copyright owners of the music being sampled were hearing parts of their songs used in new rap music and realized they are not getting paid for it. After many legal actions, copyright enforcement laws were implanted requiring artists to clear all of the samples in advance to avoid lawsuits. Clearing samples was very expensive, and many record labels could not afford to clear all of the samples. Rap music began to take a whole new direction and producers had to start making their own sounds rather than relying heavily on samples. We started to hear a completely different sound because producers were no longer drawing from samples by funk, disco, and rock songs. The music began to lose much of its jazz, soul, and esthetics.
After the explosion of diversity during the mid-80s and 90s, hip-hop music became more commercial and was the top selling music genre by the late 90s. The popularity of hip-hop music continued through the 2000s and eventually found its way into mainstream pop and electronic music. To this day hip-hop is globally recognized and continues to influence music, styles, and culture around the world. It has become a lifestyle. In the words of KRS-One, “hip-hop is something you live, rap is something you do.”