The seeds of Hip-Hop were sown long before its apocryphal August 11th, 1973 birth date. The stew from which Hip-Hip derived its flavor brewed throughout the tail end of Jim Crow and the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the violence of urban riots in the 60s, the Vietnam War, Nixon’s War on Drugs, and Reagan’s trickle down economic policies of the early 80s. That 30 + year stretch left African Americans and other minorities economically destabilized and scattered along the East and West Coast of America.
White flight had begun in the postwar period, taking with it commerce, industry, and jobs. As a result, once thriving professional neighborhoods descended into decay. In New York, municipal mishandling, corruption, and massive layoffs, eventually left the city on the verge of bankruptcy and fiscal collapse. By the 70s, gang culture engulfed urban living; the outer boroughs were rife with poverty-driven crime and violence, while Manhattan became a playground for pimps hustling wayward girls and runaways.
In times like those, the most vulnerable of the population always get hit first and hit hardest, and African-Americans and other minorities took those blows squarely on the chin. But, life is persistent. Even in the face of tumult, the people will survive as the lowliest of weeds amid the mightiest of oaks. And so, the urban underclass took poverty, crime, and all that came with it - and birthed the culture of rap music.
Led by the charismatic Afrika Bambaataa, a former warlord of the Bronx street gang the Black Spades, gangs that fought for neighborhood and regional supremacy slowly made peace and gave way to crews who battled with dance instead of weapons, ushering in B-boying in the process. Jams would seemingly form out of nowhere in New York’s public parks and participants would often use streetlights to power their equipment with makeshift cords, displaying their ingenuity. Though graffiti existed independent of Hip-Hop, it was annexed as its visual expression.
With no city money to support music programs, DJs created entirely new compositions with the use of two turntables and a device called a mixer, which allowed them to segue between both turntables at different points of a record. They initiated a call and response repartee with the crowd and eventually assumed the lead role in shaping the culture. That is, until the youngest element of the art form - the MC - came to the forefront and breathed new life into the culture.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” is, if not the first, definitely one of the most famous instances of Hip-Hop being used to voice the common people, moving past its break beat-fueled origins. In it, lead rapper and lyrical pioneer Melle Mel described a post-traumatic hood disorder, encapsulating it with exasperation:
Broken glass everywhere
People pissin' on the stairs, you know they just don't care
I can't take the smell, can't take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away but I couldn't get far
'Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car
But Mel was not done. Further putting his pen to paper, he took the struggle global on his second verse from the often forgotten, but incredible “Beat Street Breakdown.” The song was featured on a soundtrack to Beat Street (1984), which was one of the first film forays into capturing the Hip-Hop aesthetic. The first verse of the song references the movie, but in the second is where Mel tackles subjects that are still relevant over 30 years later, such as African famine, wars in the Middle East, genocide, government corruption, and so much more:
The cheats, the lies, the alibis
And the foolish attempts to conquer the sky
Lost in space, and what is it worth?
Huh, the President just forgot about Earth
Spendin' multi-billions and maybe even trillions
The cost of weapons ran in the zillions
There's gold in the street and there's diamond under feet
And the children in Africa don't even eat
Flies on their faces, they're livin' like mice
And their houses even make the ghetto look nice
Huh, the water tastes funny, it's forever too sunny
And they work all month and don't make no money
A fight for power, a nuclear shower
A people shout out in the darkest hour
Sights unseen and voices unheard
And finally the bomb gets the last word
Christians killed Muslims and Germans killed Jews
And everybody's bodies are used and abused
This was only the beginning. The mid 80s brought the crack epidemic. Criminality moved from robbery to drug dealing, which flooded the streets with illicit cash; but, it also provided an opportunity for many who were on the outside of society looking in, to feed themselves and their families. As drug dealers became faux Robin Hoods to their communities, they influenced the next wave of rappers, who were exposed to their fast lifestyle.
Rakim became the lyrical standard of this era. His videos mirrored the day and his luxurious high- fashion outfits crafted by Dapper Dan, who took symbols that represented affluence that was out of reach for most and affixed them to custom new designs. In his breakthrough song, “Paid in Full,” Rakim, along with Eric B., rapped:
Thinkin’ of a master plan
‘Cause ain’t nothin’ but sweat inside my hand
So I dig into my pocket, all my money is spent
So I dig deeper, still coming up with lint
So I start my mission, leave my residence
Thinkin’, “How can I get some dead presidents?”
I need money, I used to be a stick-up kid
So I think of all the devious things I did
I used to roll up, this is a holdup ain’t nothing funny
Stop smilin’, be still nothing move, but the money
But now I learned to earn, ‘cause I’m righteous…
Rappers became increasingly lyrical and their music put societal pitfalls at the center of their craft like never before; the latter half of the 80’s typified themes of hustling, the temptations of crime, and finding salvation. But, as time went on and the economy improved, the art brightened as well. The drug dealers were mostly swept away and rappers took center stage atop the hood hierarchy.
This elevation carried with it new rhymes, spinning tales of extravagance and excess. No longer were they wishing for a better tomorrow, their emphasis was on living the good life today. The Notorious B.I.G. (1973-1997) exhorted his fans to “throw your Rolies in the sky.” Meanwhile Jermaine Dupri and Jay-Z put out slick rhymes like:
In the Ferrari or Jaguar switchin’ four lanes
With the top down screamin’ out, “Money Ain’t a Thang!”
Bubble hard in the Double R [Roll’s Royce] flashin’ the rings,
With the window cracked, hollar back, “Money Ain’t a Thang!”
The ensuing years became an ongoing pendulum, swinging between gritty street narratives and opulent luxurious tall tales, both rooted in lifestyles that most of the rappers weren’t living. The music and the culture expanded out of their traditional boundaries, giving other regions a chance to tell their stories through their own Hip-Hop lenses. The West Coast added gangster tales smoothed out with bass heavy melodies; the South West added drug-driven tales weaved around car culture and game.
More recently, the music has grown and its practitioners have evolved from themes of life and death to quality of life issues and more nuanced fare. Rappers like Murs have crafted rich, textured stories about non-binary love affairs (“Animal Style”) and fixing your strained marriage (“So Close So Far”). Even Hip-Hoppers once deeply immersed in opulence and flossing started addressed far more humane pursuits. Southern rapper Rick Ross notes on his somber track, “We Gon Make It”:
Lil homies livin' like it's no tomorrow
Caught a charge smokin' large in a stolen car
He called his mom, guess he figured she would post his bond
Times have changed and she really runnin' low on funds
Hung up the phone, in the cell still in his Foams
Reekin' of the weed, that's all his money blown
While each generation misses its good old days - as new styles manifest, emerging artists become prominent, and eras rise and fall - the art continues to reflect the lives of its audience, and to some extent its makers. And, as both have matured and became increasingly sophisticated, the music has evolved from near nursery rhyme proficiency to complex multi-syllabic compositions of varying speeds.
Today, most of these rappers are in their 40s; a few have survived into their 50s. Each new wave adds a new thread to the tapestry of Hip-Hop. Despite the sorry state of mainstream outlets like radio and MTV, technology has allowed many to cut the strings of the old record label model and move closer to the people, who now have more regional representation than ever. The genre moves as the people advance. How could the music do anything but reflect this climb?