There are many who view the twenty-year-old Hip Hop subculture and its integral component, rap music, as a tenacious fad that simply has not gone away yet. The two are inextricably linked, and not perceived as an art form, but even those who either oppose or misunderstand its message to disadvantaged youth realize it is an elitist lifeline that speaks of its own American dream in its own special way.
But where did this Hip Hop subculture and rap music come from?
Hip Hop music could not be more intrinsically American if it tried. It was born in the United States and in the neighborhoods of Bronx, New York, to be specific. This subculture is marked by other aspects as well which include: graffiti, break dancing, and specific attitudes and dress codes.
According to Steven Haver’s book, Hip Hop; the Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti, the hip hop subculture was born as the result of three major events that occurred over the course of the last fifty years.
The first event was an expressway that was built through the heart of the Bronx back in 1959. This in turn fostered a relocation of businesses, factories and the disappearance of the many diverse middle-class Italian, German, Irish, and Jewish residents that called this area home. Supplanted in their place were poor black and Hispanic families and increases in crime, unemployment and drug addiction.
In 1968 under the direction of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, a 15,382 unit co-operative housing complex was completed. This project accelerated the evacuation of whatever was left of the Bronx middle class, as people vacated their well-kept and comfortable apartments in search other safer neighborhoods. Landlords acquiesced to the pressure of slum lords and the Bronx became a deteriorating slum with many vacant buildings.
The third event occurred also in 1968 and involved a gang of boys who called themselves The Savage Seven. They terrorized residents of the southeast Bronx. Soon, more boys joined and the gang changed its name to the Black Spades. They laid the groundwork for the many street gangs that seemed to appear out of nowhere, like a magician’s bad joke, on almost every street corner of the Bronx.
Out of this cultural maelstrom of bad influences, came one man who had an enormous influence on rap music and Hip Hop subculture. Afrika Bambaataa (aka Bam) was both a member and a leader of the Black Spades at one time. Many other rappers were gang members at some point in their lives as well. Bam found his voice, and it gave him the courage to both change and soar above even his own expectations.
He took his name from a famous 19th century Zulu chief, and it translates into Affectionate Leader. He ran a sound system at the Bronx River Community Center and became an ambassador and spokesperson for the Hip Hop culture. In 1975, he founded an organization known as the Zulu Nation, an organization that replaced gang rumbles and drugs with rap, dance, and the ‘Hip Hop’ style.
According once again to Hager, 1973 marked a peak year for New York gangs. The Black Spades began their inevitable decline as members got into drugs and were killed by rival gangs.
Gang graffiti left its mark on Hip Hop sub culture although it began many decades before. Some of the earliest graffiti occurred during World War II when one soldier wrote: “Kilroy was here” in many places throughout the world.
Gangs used graffitti in the 1950s to promote themselves and intimidate others. In 1969, this controversial art form morphed into a way of life with its own code of ethics, secret meeting places, slang and aesthetic standards. We may never know who invented graffiti, but the person who made it famous was TAKI 183, a Greek teenager named Demetrius.
This style of dancing evolved around rap music during its earlier days. It was known to stretch the body to its limits almost as Cirque de Soleil performers do. It caused many injuries and this dimmed its popularity. Very few students practice the art of break dancing today.
Break dancing featured a few popular moves. One was known as the Floor Lock. Dancers supported themselves on one hand while spinning their bodies around and simultaneously kicking out their legs. The most dangerous routine was the Suicide move. Here, dancers fell forward with their hands to the sides doing a complete flip landing flat on their back. If the dancer came through this alive, the next required stance was a freeze into a posture, which would indicate that the routine was finished.
Break dancing faded because the more original the moves were, the more hazardous they were to the dancer’’s health. The fad was replaced by electric boogie moves. Exemplifying this style of dancing were the Tick, the Mannequin or Robot, the King Tut, the Wave, the Pop, the Float, and the Moonwalk, which was made famous by the great Michael Jackson. In the early 1980s, the electric boogie moves gave way to a type of dancing known as free style in which dancers would improvise their own moves.
Hip Hop dress code
Although style and originality have always been an integral part of the Hip Hop subculture, so has imitation. Dance moves greatly influenced the dress of Hip Hop subculture, as whatever moves a dancer performed, he or she needed loose fitting clothing and comfortable shoes. The idea of young men wearing their pants down to their hips did not originate from Hip Hop dance styles, but was rather from the prisons where belts were removed from inmates and they were forced to wear their pants loosely. This style became popular without many young people knowing where the idea originated.
Although rap music is purely American, it was somewhat influenced by a style of Jamaican music known was known as toasting.
As defined by Dick Hebdige in his book, Cut ‘N’ Mix, this refers to a style of music in which the disc jockies talk over the music as it plays. Developed at ghetto blue dances, Jamaicans were introduced to R &B by both black American soldiers stationed on the island and by American radio stations in and around Miami.
Simultaneously developed with toasting was the technique known as dubbing, which occurred when record engineers would cut back and forth between the vocal and instrumental tracks while adjusting the bass and the treble.
The rap music industry today
According to the article, The Rap on Rap: the ‘Black Music’ that Isn’t Either written by David Samuels that was published in the November 11, 1991 issue of “The New Republic, despite the fact that rap is proportionally more appealing among blacks, its primary audience is white and lives in the suburbs.
Whether this is really true or not, Samuels states that the more violent the group, the bigger the white audience, attributing this odd fascination to an attraction to that which is taboo or forbidden. The real truth may be that once any type of music gains a foothold in society, it gains some respect even if that is on a sub-conscious and visceral level. The same thing could occur with an art form that is popular with mainstream white America that all of a sudden becomes popular in a minority community.
Nothing can bring about change quicker than a financial success, especially in the music industry where profit reigns as king. Even knowing that rap music is a billion dollar a year business, both black and white local radio stations are still reluctant to play it for fear of losing advertisers.
Perhaps there is still a lot more to understand about this controversial art form that is as dynamic as the audience it serves.
Time will tell on this as it does on all things.