African-American and Latino teens with turntables and time on their hands in the 1970s invented hip-hop — a musical style born in the United States and now the center of a huge music and fashion industry around the world.
Hip-hop began 30 years ago in the Bronx, a borough of New York City and a neighborhood that seemed to exemplify the bleakness of poor urban places.
Using turntables to spin old, worn records, kids in the South Bronx began to talk over music, creating an entirely new music genre and dance form. This “talking over,” or MCing (rapping) and DJing (audio mixing and scratching), became the essence of rap music, break dance and graffiti art, according to Marvette Perez, curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, which launched its collecting initiative “Hip-Hop Won’t Stop: The Beat, The Rhymes, The Life” in 2006. “Out of this forgotten, bleak place, an incredible tradition was born,” Perez said.
“It’s important for young people to know that their stories matter,” said Jade Foster, an English and humanities teacher at Ballou Senior High School in Washington, which hosted a summer program in 2009 encouraging students to express themselves through hip-hop. “It’s important for young people to know that their stories are relevant to their lives and their histories.”
From the beginning, style has been a big element of hip-hop, Perez said. “Hip-hop tells the story of music, but also of urban America and its style.”
“With the significant contributions from the hip-hop community, we will be able to place hip-hop in the continuum of American history and present a comprehensive exhibition,” Brent D. Glass, director of the museum, said.
Most important cultural contribution
The museum’s multiyear project traces hip-hop from its origins in the late 1970s, as an expression of urban black and Latino youth culture, to its status today as a multibillion-dollar industry worldwide. Perez said they have received collections from hip-hop artists including Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Kool Herc, Ice T, Fab 5 Freddy, Crazy Legs and MC Lyte.
“Hip-hop is the most important contribution to the American cultural landscape since blues and jazz,” said hip-hop artist and promoter, filmmaker and producer Fab 5 Freddy, born Fred Brathwaite.
“It is dominant in every youth culture in every country.” According to statistics gathered in 2009 by Russell Simmons and Accel Partners, today’s global hip-hop community comprises 24 million people between the ages of 19 and 34, including a range of nationalities, ethnic groups and religions.
Hip-hop cuts across racial lines
“One thing that is applicable to every generation of teenagers is urgency,” music producer and film director Mark Shimmel said. Everything about hip-hop — the sound, the lyrics, the style, the language — conveys that sense of urgency.
The sociological and cultural impact of rock ‘n’ roll pales in comparison to what hip-hop has been able to accomplish, Shimmel said. “Hip-hop is the singular most important melding of black and white cultures that has ever existed in the United States.” Urban music, like Motown, “worked for white audiences,” he said, but you did not see blacks and whites together at live concerts.
Hip-hop changed that because it was about fashion and language from the beginning, and — most importantly — captured a sense of urgency that teenagers in the suburbs and in the cities could relate to, he said. “When hip-hop artists wrote about the world they saw in the inner city, black and white teens recognized that the isolation of suburbia was not much different.”
Fab 5 Freddy, host of the television show Yo! MTV Raps in the 1980s, said hip-hop is successful because the music is “infectious” and because it allows people to express themselves in a positive, dynamic and consciousness-raising way. “Hip-hop is for everybody with an open ear,” he said.
In 1985, when Run-D.M.C.’s King of Rock became the first hip-hop record to “go platinum,” an award given by the Recording Industry Association of America for the sale of 1 million records, it was apparent that hip-hop had crossed over from African-American and Latino urban music into white culture, Shimmel said. In 2005, OutKast’s Grammy Award for Album of the Year was a first for a hip-hop album.
Shimmel said hip-hop today has not strayed far from its South Bronx roots. “Every musical form evolves,” Shimmel said. “Hip-hop started in New York, and it was interpreted differently in Los Angeles, and then the South added another element. It has evolved, but it hasn’t changed.” Today hip-hop music, poetry and art prepare teens for every avenue in life, teacher Foster said. Hip-hop helps develop speech and build confidence, she said.
Looking past anti-social elements to global impact
Perez said some hip-hop music is notable for its disrespect of women, and the museum does not plan to dismiss this aspect of hip-hop. The so-called “gangsta” rap in the 1990s, with lyrics promoting drug use, violence and tagging, a form of graffiti used to mark gang territories, is a component of the hip-hop culture that cannot be ignored, Perez said, but “on the whole, the majority of hip-hop is creative and positive.” Hip-hop’s influence both musically and culturally is global, Perez said. “The technique resonates throughout the United States and the world.”