Hip-hop, not to be confused with the musical genre, is a form of musical demonstration and artistic culture that has remained popular since its emergence in the 1970s. It can be categorized as a cultural movement that includes four primary elements: Disk jockeying (DJing), rapping (emceeing), break dancing, and graffiti art. It gave birth to a new musical genre known as “rap,” a rhythmic style in which lyrics are spoken or chanted. Over the last three decades, rap music has stirred up more vehement public debate than any other genre due to its influence on the youth. In the beginning, rappers used their music as commentary on social, cultural, and political issues in American contemporary society, but today, the genre has evolved into a form of music that primarily focuses on masculinity, crime, and violence. This paper explores the development of hip-hop culture and primarily focuses on the transformation of rap music from social commentary to the exploitation of the negative aspects of inner-city life and its influence on our culture and youth today. Identifying the origins of hip-hop culture is essential in understanding the progression of the movement and the impact it has had on the world and its youth over the past three decades. Hip-hop began in communities within the Bronx that consisted of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Caribbean Americans, and it included specific styles of visual art, dance, dress, music, and speech. The culture focused on areas that were most economically distressed due to federal budget cuts that caused a decrease in low-income housing and public services for inner-city residents (Starr and Waterman 382). Three major conditions and events are said to have stimulated the development of hip-hop culture and its generation. First, the construction of a new highway through the heart of the Bronx caused the middle class to relocate, leading to an influx of poor black and Hispanic families into this community. Coexisting with these poor families were crime, unemployment, and drug addiction. The second event occurred in 1968 when the construction on a co-op apartment complex near the highway was completed. The migration of the middle class increased rapidly, and as a result, the Bronx disintegrated into a neighborhood with many neglected and uninhabited buildings. The third contributing factor occurred when a group of seven teenage boys began to terrorize areas of the Bronx. This group would later be known as the Black Spades in which Afrika Bambaataa, a revolutionary hip-hop artist, was once the leader. This occurrence is important to recall because it laid the foundation for an escalation in street gang activity. The main objective behind the creation of hip-hop was to form a response to the poor living standards that the youth had to face in inner cities around the Bronx; it could also be viewed as an attempt by the youth to claim their roots in a divided and harsh environment such as the Bronx at the time. All of the primary elements of the cultural movement were forms of art that provided individuals with a medium in which they could satisfy their desires for expression. For example, the performance of break dancing and creation of graffiti art were first started as a form of exhibition in which each individual could express their local identity. The young adults that participated in such expression were organized into social groups called “crews” or “posses,” and each was associated with a certain neighborhood or identity (Starr and Waterman 383). Break dancing required the stretching of an individual’s body to its limits. It was popular throughout New York City and included dance moves such as “The Windmill,” “The Backspin,” and the “Floor Lock.” According to Henry Rhodes’ lecture, originality and style were the core of “break dancing” and other aspects of the “Hip Hop subculture.” Graffiti was a popular art form that allowed artists to manifest their identities and neighborhood pride throughout all of New York City. “Style is one of the most important aspects in graffiti writing. One could get respect and recognition by getting one’s name around in large quantities…” (Rhodes). Most graffiti artists were motivated by the fame and notoriety they would gain from “tagging” their names on subways, walls, and trains in the city. It is important to point out that the four elements of hip-hop culture were often intertwined. Most graffiti artists were also break-dancers, DJs, and emcees. This widespread participation by the “hip-hop generation,” as it is often called, has proven to be a catalyst for the emergence of hip-hop into mainstream. Up until 1979, the year the Sugarhill Gang released their popular hit “Rapper’s Delight,” hip-hop music was considered a local phenomenon. Sugarhill Gang was a crew based in Harlem that named themselves after Sugar Hill Records, an independent record label owned by African Americans. The release of “Rapper’s Delight” highlighted hip-hop music’s potential to become a commercial success within popular culture; it was the first hip-hop song to hit the top 40 list. One of Sugarhill Gang’s revolutionary contributions was their use of the word “rapper” as an equivalent for emcee. During this time, more emphasis was made on the DJ rather than the MC, but eventually, tables turned and the rapper became the main attraction. This point in time was critical in the development of hip-hop music. It would eventually lead to what we know as rap music today.
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