What is hip-hop?

Friday, January 16, 2009 | 2:00 p.m. CST; updated 2:07 p.m. CST, Sunday, January 18, 2009

COLUMBIA — Three decades after its birth, hip-hop, which began as an artistic expression for black, urban youth, has come to be accepted and created by people all over the world. It conjures up its magic by celebrating its origins and continuing to express political, social and personal struggles.

Hip-hop emerged out of the social upheaval of the 1970s in New York's Bronx borough, writes journalist Jeff Chang in his 2005 book,  "Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation." Following the civil rights movement, blacks and Latinos in New York, particularly the South Bronx, battled with government neglect, high unemployment rates and slum-like housing. Chang writes that the response was similar to that of other disadvantaged people in other cities in America: rioting and violence. From the chaos, a generation of art evolved. 

Lyrics from a variety of hip-hop songs

Here's a sampling of violence/drugs/misogyny:

Artist: Flo Rida
Song: "Low"
Sample lyrics: Work the pole, I got the bank roll/ I'mma say that I prefer them no clothes/ I'm into that, I love women exposed

Artist: 50 Cent
Song: "My Buddy"
Sample lyrics: Infrared beam in the scope for distance/ The best company when approaching business/ He who ride with me to the end/ We all got a friend/ And mine is a G-U-N

Artist: 50 Cent
Song: "High all the time"
Sample lyrics: I don't need Dom Perignon, I don't need Cris/ Tanqueray and Alize, I don't need s---/ I'm high all the time, I smoke that good s---/ I stay high all the time, man I'm on some hood s---

Here's a sampling of activist/positive:

Artist: Mos Def
Song: "Love"
Sample lyrics: My folks said they was in love when they had me/ I take they love they made me with to make rhymes and beats/ Can you feel? The raw deal, it's all wheel-driven/ Contemplate the essence of beats, rhymes and living/ Speech in line with the rhythm, designed with the rhythm/ Ears and eyes keepin good time with the rhythm

Artist: Black Eyed Peas
Song: "Where is the love"
Sample lyrics: Overseas, yeah, we try to stop terrorism/ But we still got terrorists here livin'/ In the USA, the big CIA/ The Bloods and The Crips and the KKK/ But if you only have love for your own race/ Then you only leave space to discriminate/ And to discriminate only generates hate/ And when you hate then you're bound to get irate, yeah

Artist: Immortal Technique
Song: "Leaving the Past"
Sample lyrics: Hell is not a place you go, if you not a Christian/ It's the failure of your life's greatest ambition/ It's a bad decision to blindly follow any religion/ I don't see the difference in between the wrong and the wrong/ Soldiers emptyin' they clips at little kids and they mom

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"My own feeling is that the idea of the Hip-Hop Generation brings together time and race, place and polyculturalism, hot beats and hybridity," Chang writes. "It describes the turn from politics to culture, the process of entropy and reconstruction."

Hip-hop became a way to express dissatisfaction with society and call for change. DJ Kool Herc, known for creating the breakbeat, the basis for hip-hop, is credited as a pioneer of the genre. He was born in Jamaica but later moved to the Bronx, where hip-hop was born. Along came others, writes Chang, including Bronx's Afrika Bambaataa, who as a "post-civil rights peacemaker" and "hip-hop activist," introduced hip-hop music and culture to the "white art-crowd and punk-rock clubs of lower Manhattan." 

And so hip-hop spread in New York and beyond with the likes of Grandmaster Flash, Public Enemy and Wu-Tang Clan. As hip-hop evolved, cities across America joined the movement. California became a hip-hop hot spot with some of its most famous artists including Snoop Dogg and New York-born  California resident Tupac Shakur, whose poetic lyrics addressed issues such as racism and parental abandonment.

Other popular artists have helped place eyes on big city hip-hop scenes, like Nelly out of St. Louis, Ludacris out of Atlanta and Common out of Chicago.

And as hip-hop music spread in America, it spread across art forms, races and nations. Graphic art, or graffiti, became part of hip-hop, along with spoken word poetry and hip-hop dance, which includes break dancing, popping and locking. First, the white hip-hop group, the Beastie Boys, then white rapper, Eminem, helped paved the way for whites and other races to be more accepted as hip-hop artists. In Hong Kong, some local hip-hop dance competitions are televised.

On an international level, hip-hop has appeal, said Holly Hobbs, founder of Hip-Hop for Hope.

"On a purely aesthetic level, danceable beats mixed with catchy hooks and lyrical, poetic rhymes are cross-culturally appealing," she wrote in an e-mail interview. "On a sociocultural level, hip-hop is a music rooted in the real, while that 'real' is often exaggerated for effect (as in the glorification of violence or bravado, etc.), it is still a music rooted in the everyday experience of artists who have something to say about inequality or imbalances of power. And that is a sentiment that has no cultural barriers."

The mainstream popularity of hip-hop is especially evident in the U.S. "Notorious," a movie about the life of Brooklyn rapper B.I.G., who was killed on March 9, 2007, was set to be released Friday.

Of Billboard's Top 100 songs of 2008, hip-hop artists took the No. 1 and No. 4 spots. Flo Rida's No.1 song, "Low," spent 40 weeks on the Billboard chart. A New Orleans native, Lil' Wayne's song, "Lollipop," claimed the No.4 spot.

But hip-hop is doing more than generating millions of dollars for chart-topping artists. Reminiscent of its social roots, hip-hop is a tool for activism, a way to reach out to many fans of hip-hop — the youth. 

"Hip-hop is very important in New Orleans and using hip-hop, which especially the young people are involved in, it's a way to get young people involved in rebuilding their community," said Hobbs in a phone interview. "Young people are often considered liabilities when they should be thought of as resources."

Hobbs took a hiatus from her doctoral work in Folklore, Oral Tradition and Cultural Studies at MU to create Hip-Hop for Hope, a nonprofit in New Orleans that aids in the post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. She also co-founded New Media Network, a nonprofit in Columbia that teaches First Ward children about digital storytelling. She said she hopes for that project to expand to help children interested in hip-hop to cultivate their musical talents. 

Hobbs, whose academic research includes folk music and hip-hop, said that the commercialization of hip-hop has complicated its image. She said that what record labels often think sells records are songs about sex or money. She argues that hip-hop, because of its social roots and reach, has the ability to do much more.

That's why Hobbs thinks hip-hop has helped her New Orleans organization, which with the help of big-name artists, such as Lupe Fiasco, uses hip-hop to encourage community development. And community development can't happen without cultural development, she said.

"We're really strong supporters of organizations that don't just try to build roads but cultural development in terms of how can we rebuild this community to rebuild trust and social networks because those are the things that create cohesion," Hobbs said. "And if you look at what makes people have pride in their community, it's not money, it's coming together."

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Ray Shapiro January 17, 2009 | 12:59 a.m.

How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back
John H. McWhorter

Not long ago, I was having lunch in a KFC in Harlem, sitting near eight African-American boys, aged about 14. Since 1) it was 1:30 on a school day, 2) they were carrying book bags, and 3) they seemed to be in no hurry, I assumed they were skipping school. They were extremely loud and unruly, tossing food at one another and leaving it on the floor.

Black people ran the restaurant and made up the bulk of the customers, but it was hard to see much healthy “black community” here. After repeatedly warning the boys to stop throwing food and keep quiet, the manager finally told them to leave. The kids ignored her. Only after she called a male security guard did they start slowly making their way out, tauntingly circling the restaurant before ambling off. These teens clearly weren’t monsters, but they seemed to consider themselves exempt from public norms of behavior—as if they had begun to check out of mainstream society.

What struck me most, though, was how fully the boys’ music—hard-edged rap, preaching bone-deep dislike of authority—provided them with a continuing soundtrack to their antisocial behavior. So completely was rap ingrained in their consciousness that every so often, one or another of them would break into cocky, expletive-laden rap lyrics, accompanied by the angular, bellicose gestures typical of rap performance. A couple of his buddies would then join him. Rap was a running decoration in their conversation.

Many writers and thinkers see a kind of informed political engagement, even a revolutionary potential, in rap and hip-hop. They couldn’t be more wrong. By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks, and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly “authentic” response to a presumptively racist society, rap retards black success.

The Exploitation of Women in Hip-hop Culture
By Ayanna

Hip-hop is the latest expressive manifestation of the past and current experience as well as the collective consciousness of African-American and Latino-American youth.

Hip-hop culture is frequently condemned for its misogynistic exploitation of women, but this misogyny has its roots in the culture in which we live. Hip-hop but can be explored and used as a valuable tool in examining gender relations. It brings to surface the issues that face many young people, such as discrimination, peer relations, and self-worth, that can be considered in order to bring about change in the misogynistic aspects of hip-hop culture and American culture, in general. For young people that do not hold sexist ideals, mainstream hip-hop may influence them to do so as it spreads and continuously gains popularity. And others are directly and indirectly supporting an environment that allows sexism to continue.

(Report Comment)
Mr. CynicAl January 17, 2009 | 8:34 a.m.

Rap makes black youth irreverent, according to some crusty guy eating at a KFC. That's laughable.

Thanks to the author for bringing up artist like Immortal Technique and Lupe - two representatives of different movements.

stop all the raycism.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro January 17, 2009 | 8:53 a.m.

Mr. CynicAl, (if that is your real name), it's not raycism if it's a compilation of conclusions, opinions, observations, statistics and reality.
(I do dig your coinology of "raycism" as it has an entire whole meaning on to itself.)

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro January 17, 2009 | 9:21 a.m.

Pick your poison:
Rap Music Linked to Destructive Teen Behavior

Study links risky teen behaviors to heavy dose of rap music videos

Risky behavior and a heightened incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among African-American female adolescents may be linked to high exposure to rap music videos, according to a study,

Although there has been considerable concern about the themes and images expressed in rap music videos, there has been limited research on the impact of rap music videos on adolescents? behavior, the article says. Gangsta rap "is explicit about sex and violence, but rarely shows the potential long term adverse impact of these risky behaviors."

Gina M.Wingood and her colleagues from Emory University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, assessed the risky behaviors of teens who regularly watched rap videos.

After a twelve-month follow-up period, they calculated the adolescents involvement in such behaviors such as: hitting teachers, fighting, being arrested, using alcohol or drugs, and having multiple sex partners. The adolescents were also asked to report condom use and were tested for three STDs (chlamydia, trichomoniasis, and gonorrhea).

The study was conducted on 522 unmarried African-American female adolescents (aged 14-18 years) who lived in non-urban, lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. They were recruited from school health classes and county health department clinics. The adolescents had to have been sexually active in the previous six months.

The researchers found that adolescents with high exposure to rap music were 3 times more likely to hit a teacher and more than 2.5 times as likely to have been arrested, compared with their peers who had less exposure to rap music.

Adolescents who frequently watched rap videos were also twice as likely to have multiple sexual partners and more than 1.5 times as likely to acquire an STD, use drugs, and use alcohol during the 12-month study.

"At this stage in their socio-psychological development, adolescents want to be autonomous and independent from parental controls, an act that can be viewed as somewhat defiant. They may also be modeling what they see as the norm. They pattern themselves after their peers and the women they consider to be role models on the videos," Dr. Wingood says. "On the other hand, it may be an attempt to defy the white mainstream popular culture. Since rap music is more ethnocentric, it is more closely associated with their social factors."

Researchers determined the level of exposure to rap music videos based on the number of hours that rap music videos were viewed on an average day multiplied by the number of days in the week that the rap videos were viewed. They also assessed the adolescents music viewing characteristics by determining the primary type of rap music video and with whom and where the videos were watched.

(Report Comment)

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