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Roots of hip hop

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Roots of hip hop

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Hip hop culture, including rapping, scratching, graffiti, and breakdancing, emerged from 1970s block parties in New York City, specifically The Bronx (Toop, 1991). In the 1930s more than a fifth of Harlem residents were from the West Indies, and the block parties of the 80's were closely similar to sound systems in Jamaica (Toop, 1991). These were large parties, originally outdoors, thrown by owners of loud and expensive stereo equipment, which they could share with the community or use to compete among themselves, who began speaking lyrics or toasting.

Rap music emerged from block parties after ultra-competitive DJs isolated percussion breaks, those being the favorites among dancers, and MCs began speaking over the beats (Toop, 1991); in Jamaica, a similar musical style called dub developed from the same isolated and elongated percussion breaks. However, "most rappers will tell you that they either disliked reggae or were only vaguely aware of it in the early and middle '70s." (Toop, 1991)

Lastly, most existing hip hop acts were shocked when King Tim III's throwback to radio DJs rhyming jive and the Sugarhill Gang's appropriation of rap on their remake, not sample, of CHIC's "Good Times" were released, as most DJs and MCs knew each other and many had been attempting to record (Toop, 1991). Early rap records are a mix bag of quality material by party veterans and poorer material quickly produced for a profit.

Lil Rodney Cee, of Funky Four Plus One More and Double Trouble, cites Cowboy, of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, as, "the first MC that I know of...He was the first MC to talk about the DJ." (Toop, 1991)


The historical conditions contributing to the origin of hip hop

The reasons for the rise of hip hop are complex. Perhaps most important was the low cost involved in getting started: the equipment was relatively inexpensive, and virtually anyone could MC along with the popular beats of the day. MCs could be creative, pairing nonsense rhymes and teasing friends and enemies alike in the style of Jamaican toasting at blues parties or playing the dozens in an exchange of wit. MCs would play at block parties, with no expectation of recording, thus making hip hop a form of folk music (as long as electronic music is not excluded from being folk). The skills necessary to create hip hop music were passed informally from musician to musician, rather than being taught in expensive music lessons.

In Washington, D.C., go go also emerged as a reaction against disco, and eventually mixed with hip hop during the early 1980s, while electronic music did the same, developing as house music in Chicago and techno music in Detroit.


Hip-hop was both rooted in disco, and a backlash against it. According to Kurtis Blow, the early days of hip-hop were characterized by divisions between fans and detractors of disco music. Either way, it is indisputable that disco had an effect on hip-hop music and culture, due to the fact that the first commercial rap hit "Rapper's Delight" by Sugarhill Gang in 1979, was flush with tenants of disco, from the funk laden beat to the televised exploitation involving the clothes, dancing, and corny special effects, all associated with disco.


Originally a multiethnic effort [1], Punk rock's honesty and concision was naturally inclined to shelter against Disco and its Rock counterparts: Soft, Progressive and Arena Rock.


Minimalism --and more significantly Electronic Minimalism-- resorted to calmly, methodically --and sometimes even organically-- remove the extensive mess of ornamentation existent in both Popular and Classical Music; cleaning the palate and paving the autobahn for the discovery of new rythms.

From 1977 to 1982 on WGPR, followed by three years at WJLB; a black Detroit FM DJ named Charles Johnson --better known by his on-air name, the Electrifying Mojo-- presided over the Midnight Funk Association, broadcasting a diverse anti-format with special attention given to the German minimalist electronic group Kraftwerk. Having fished Autobahn out of the "discarded" bin at a previous station, and soon after having acquired a copy of Trans Europe Express, when the 1981 album Computer World came out, Mojo played the entirely virtually every night, making a lasting impact on impressionable young listeners.

Ghetto DJs

Librarians of lunacy and analog alchemy, Ghetto DJs found solace in experimentation. A generation that refused to be silenced by urban poverty, teenagers with little cash but plenty of imagination began to forge new styles from spare parts.

In an interview for David Toop's book 'Rap Attack 3', Afrika Bambaataa said that

"The Bronx wasn't really into radio music no more. It was an anti-disco movement. Like you had a lot of new wavers and other people coming out and saying, 'Disco Sucks'. Well, the same thing with hip hop, 'cause they was against the disco that was being played on the radio."

and in a reference plastered countless time on the internet, known as 'The History Of Rap' by Kurtis Blow, he writes

"You have to understand that disco music was the hottest thing out -- it was a craze that infiltrated all of American society. We were the rebels who couldn't relate. We weren't going for it. The B-Boys were from the ghetto, while disco was for the middle class and the rich. But there was hip-hop in both worlds. It was the hip-hop tug-o'-war -- disco rappers versus the B-Boys."

Doug Wimblish (bass), who together with Keith LeBlanc (drums) and Skip McDonald (guitar) took over the Sugarhill Records production and arrangement responsibilities from Positive Force and label arranger Jiggs Chase, says

"Jiggs had done an arrangement that was pretty slick but it wasn't the raw stuff they wanted. One of them was almost in tears, 'cause they though they were going to have to do it. And then Rodney [Cee] was just, 'Man, this sounds like it's for an older crowd. What is this shit?' So then we cut 'That's the Joint' and they liked that much better. You couldn't do those boring disco tracks -- everything was four-on-the-floor all the way through. The rappers, they wouldn't have that shit."

Punks, minimalists and DJs; all suppressing the fear of ridicule, all mindful of the delicate balance between challanging and alienating listeners, and all proud of their ability to understand increasing amounts of technical knowledge in light of the creative independence it reaped; have crosspolinated with and from eachother since their infancy.

Urban Socioeconomics

Along with the low expense and the demise of other forms of popular music, social and political events further accelerated the rise of hip hop. In 1959, the Cross-Bronx Expressway was built through the heart of the Bronx, displacing many of the middle-class white communities and causing widespread unemployment among the remaining blacks as stores and factories fled the area. By the 1970s, poverty was rampant. When a 15,000+ apartment Co-op City was built at the northern edge of the Bronx in 1968, the last of the middle-class fled the area and the area's black and Latino gangs began to grow in power.

Earlier styles that contributed to hip-hop music

West African griots, wandering poets and "praise-singers"
spirituals and other forms of Christian music, as well as certain Protestant preachers' sermons
Voice instrumental, long-standing tradition in world music of many varieties and across peoples
scat singing, using the voice to imitate a musical instrument.
toasting, traditional African-American and Afro-Caribbean entertainment, long, rhymed tales of great heroes, Stagger Lee and Jack Johnson among others (see dub)
Dirty Dozens, stylized exchange of insults.
"Signifying Monkey", long series of rhymed tales in which the weaker monkey triumphs through tricks over the more powerful beasts of the jungle, a ruder version of the Brer Rabbit stories.
talking blues, popularized by Woody Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, and others, featuring rhyming talking with ironic asides to the audience.
Late 1960s and early 70s at least proto-rap poets such as Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets
jump rope and schoolyard rhymes, such as the following:

One bright day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight.
Back to back they faced each other,
drew their swords and shot each other.

Jazz vocalese and pop/R&B Doo wop, using voices to imitate an entire band (dating back at least to the Mills Brothers).
U.S. Male, a song recorded by Elvis Presley in 1967, can be considered a prototype to rap.


  • David Toop (1984/1991). Rap Attack II: African Rap To Global Hip Hop. New York. New York: Serpent's Tail. ISBN 1852422432.
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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

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