Hip-hop evolves over decades from party music to social commentary

Connor Dziawura, Behind the Scenes Editor, Puma Press

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Hip-hop is a positive movement that mirrors the growth and cultural effect of jazz and rock”

— Keith Kelly

Since its inception in the 1970s and ‘80s, hip-hop has risen past being viewed as a novelty in its formative years, establishing itself as one of the most popular genres of music in the world. While many people associate hip-hop and rap with vulgar lyrics describing violence, sex and drugs, this is not always the case in what is a complex, diverse and even socially conscious genre. With artists like Public Enemy delivering socially conscious and politically charged lyrics back in the 1980s to rappers like Kendrick Lamar delving into topics like racism and even Macklemore discussing homosexuality in the hit single “Same Love” today, rap is demonstrating lyrical prowess in addressing social issues.

Some have lambasted hip-hop, and this has often overshadowed the positive social awareness that many artists are raising. Still, modern artists like Kendrick Lamar and Lupe Fiasco earn praise for their complex wordplay and socially relevant themes. Clearly, hip-hop has become complex and diverse as a genre and culture.

An American Movement

“I think hip-hop, by and large, has been an incredibly positive artistic (movement),” said Dr. Keith Kelly, who teaches a segment about hip-hop in PVCC’s Rock Music & Culture class. “It’s as American as jazz, it’s as American as baseball, it’s as American as the blues, (and) it’s coming from a lot of those same places.”

While hip-hop reached the mainstream in the 1980s, it is actually said to have been founded in the early ‘70s. In 1973, Clive Campbell, who would be known better by his name DJ Cool Herc, performed a DJ set at a party. By looping instrumental breaks from popular records, Herc essentially created the basis for hip-hop. While hip-hop eventually became a diverse and varied genre, it initially started as a party-based music and culture. Providing an escape for those without the means to purchase and learn typical musical instruments, there were four main elements to hip-hop: DJing, MCing, breakdancing and graffiti.

“What’s interesting about hip-hop is that if we change the noun to jazz or rock, it fits with any other genre in terms of its development, growth and progression — that it started in a particular location with a particular set of people that it was embraced by, a particular culture and then eventually became more successful and spoke deeply to a wider range of people than just in a neighborhood or of a certain race or class or ethnicity or gender,” explained Kelly. “We have hip-hop and rap that exists in every language that still has this idea that ‘this is my personal expression and I’m using these musical characteristics as what I’m drawing from.’”

Going Mainstream

Following the release of Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, hip-hop crossed over into the mainstream. With the commercialization of the genre, there was a rise in artists and styles. But as the ‘80s progressed, hip-hop began to diversify, providing an outlet for artists to demonstrate social commentary and worth in a genre that was then otherwise believed to be a fad.

In 1989, KRS-One started the Stop the Violence Movement. Together with MC Lyte, Kool Moe Dee, Doug E. Fresh, Just-Ice, Heavy D and members of Public Enemy, Stetsasonic and Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One released the song “Self-Destruction” to raise awareness of violence in African American communities, raise money for charity, and prove that hip-hop can be thought-provoking and socially positive.

On the other end of the spectrum, NWA was emerging in Compton, California at this time, expressing views that many in the mainstream media had not heard artists address. As the Los Angeles Times showed in 1989, the FBI condemned their lyrics, accusing NWA of encouraging violence against police officers.

Message Behind the Music

While violence in hip-hop is a common criticism, these lyrics are oft-misrepresented and misinterpreted. While there is some general violence, many artists are discussing the violence within a culture. Instead of focusing on whether or not the artists are really encouraging the acts in their lyrics, people should focus on why they are covering these topics. When artists come from poverty-stricken cultures, discussing themes of police abuse and drugs, maybe audiences should take a harder look at the bigger picture. Hip-hop also faces criticism for the large amounts of braggadocios lyrics that many artists are focusing on. However, as Kelly explains, this is not a distinct theme rampant in hip-hop alone.

“It’s not distinct to hip hop or rap. Not even a little bit,” explained Kelly. “The 20th century is the rise of the vernacular in pop music. Hip-hop is just the latest iteration of vernacular, everyday speech coming into popular music. What troubles people is, as an artist, are you allowed to express multiple things? I don’t know if we apply that criticism to other artists. I just wonder if the application of some of this criticism is unfairly biased because people have preconceptions about what hip-hop and rap are.”

A Sophisticated Genre

Outside of some artists promoting positivity and change in their lyrics, hip-hop can be viewed as a form of poetry. With many artists expressing thoughts through their lyrics, a strong grasp on language and writing is necessary.

In 2014, self-proclaimed “designer, coder, and data scientist,” Matt Daniels, compiled a website organizing rappers with the largest vocabulary, based on their first 35,000 words. While this list is mainly just in fun, it helped put an emphasis on the idea that lyrics are an essential component of hip hop. On Daniels’ list, 16 rappers were said to have larger vocabularies than Shakespeare, who placed with 5,170 unique words used across his body of work.

“I think contemporary hip-hop is diverse and fascinating and you have a lot of people who have contributed a lot of different points of view,” said Kelly. “It’s a sophisticated music. It’s complex. It’s interesting and thought provoking and stands up to multiple listens. And that, to me, is where hip-hop and rap distinguish. There’s the party thing and there’s the stuff that’s socially conscious — it stands up to multiple listens.”

Photo by Inkwell Design Group licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Hip-hop evolves over decades from party music to social commentary