On August 11, 1973, DJ Kool Herc threw a party at his apartment building in the South Bronx called the “Back to School Jam.” At the time of the party, he was just 18, and there he introduced a breakbeat technique, where he would spin two of the same record and then switch between the two, extending the break.
Kool Herc named this style of breakbeat “The-Merry-Go-Round.” The break, which is the percussion section of the song, had everyone in the audience hooked on this unheard-of style, and it quickly became a catalyst for the rise of what is now known as hip-hop. Kool Herc’s famous party was just one of many that filled the streets of New York and named him the founding father of hip-hop.
Despite the widespread global influence of modern hip-hop, this genre and subculture had humble beginnings. In the early 1970s in the New York City borough of the Bronx, African Americans, Latinx Americans and Caribbean Americans came together to lay the groundwork for hip-hop as we know it today.
At the time, these communities faced economic depression and urban despair. This struggle contributed to an increase in poverty. As a way to escape from these struggles, the groups had block parties as forms of entertainment and spaces for self-expression.
These parties were typically led by DJs and MCs. Soul and funk music were played from sound systems and cardboard boxes were laid down for breakdancing. These community gatherings were the birthplace of hip-hop.
Hip-hop is one of the most popular and influential music genres of all time. The rhythmic beat and hard-hitting lyrics, which often comment on political issues and economic struggles, have left a lasting impression throughout generations.
But hip-hop is not limited to music — it is a movement that has infiltrated many aspects of popular culture including fashion, technology, dance and other music styles like….
Cal Poly Ethnic Studies Department Chair Dr. Jenell Navarro has studied the medium of hip-hop for many years and wrote the book “Don’t Believe the Hype: the Radical Elements of Hip-Hop,” which breaks down each element of the subculture and explains its role as a voice for marginalized people.
“There’s not really an area of pop culture within the United States that is untouched by hip-hop culture,” Navarro said.
It is more clearly defined by its four main pillars: DJing/turntablism, rapping/MCing, B-boying/breaking and graffiti art. These pillars have developed over many evolutions of hip-hop, due to the creativity and originality of different artists. It began as a form of creative expression, and it still remains as an outlet and space for minority groups.
Similar to Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash pioneered DJing into what we know it as today. He was the inventor of a technique that spun records in a forward, backward and counterclockwise way. His work was a refinement and extension of the groundwork laid by Kool Herc. Eventually, he started a group called Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, which quickly became a well-known and highly regarded hip-hop act. Four other individuals would rap back and forth accompanied by Flash’s DJing to form a cohesive musical act.
Their lyrics depicted the personal struggles of a poverty-stricken lifestyle and upbringing. “The Message” includes lyrics that paved the way for other rappers to follow and remains one of the first to incorporate social commentary into hip-hop:
“You’ll grow in the ghetto, living second rate
And your eyes will sing a song of deep hate
You’ll admire all the booktakers
Those pencil pushers and big moneymakers
Driving big cars, spending twenties and tens
And you wanna grow up to be just like them.”
An influential rapper who rose to fame during the era of hip-hop known as the “Golden Age” was Rakim. He was pivotal in the advancement of rhyming and flowing within rap lyrics. He shifted the focus of rap to create quality lyrics and bars infused with deeper, poetic meanings.
Rakim formed a groundbreaking duo with Eric B and they released their debut album titled “Paid In Full” in 1987. This album reflects a multi-syllabic writing structure that was the first of its time. The storytelling ability of Rakim provided an example for a younger generation of artists such as Jay-Z and Nas.
The hip-hop group Public Enemy was another main contributor to rap music in the ‘80s. Formed at Adelphi University in Long Island, New York, this group’s prominent members include Chuck D and Flavor Flav.
Public Enemy used their lyrics as a form of activism to challenge racial politics at the time. Their 1990 single “Fight the Power,” off of the album “Fear of a Black Planet,” displayed their message of black pride by referencing civil rights and African-American culture. They also created and heavily defined what became known as rap metal, which fuses rapping with heavy metal guitar riffs.
“Hip-hop still calls a lot of attention to forms of hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy and forms of poverty that are unjust, and really disproportionately affect communities of color,” Navarro said. “It still is absolutely a platform and cultural production that can really uplift and speak truth to power for marginalized communities.”
Hip-hop was flourishing on the East Coast due to its New York City roots, but the rise of the West Coast sound was also developing in its own way thanks to artists such as Dr. Dre and N.W.A.
Dr. Dre was the producer behind multiple hits including “California Love” by Tupac and “Gin and Juice” by Snoop Dogg. The production of his music launched the G-Funk sound, which is characterized by a slower base and synthesizer.
Dre was also a part of N.W.A., which formed in Compton, California in 1987. This group pioneered the gangsta rap subgenre, whose lyrics speak heavily on gang life and include themes such as crime and drugs.
N.W.A.’s lyrics were often criticized for their explicitness and misogyny, but much of their work was political — they did not shy away from expressing their dislike of the police system in the United States.
N.W.A was disbanded when group members Dr. Dre, The D.O.C. and Michel’le left for Death Row Records, a Los Angeles-based record label founded in 1991. This label became a force in the hip-hop scene, as it signed popular West Coast artists at the time, including Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur.
However, the label also entered a rivalry with Bad Boy Records based in New York City. Prominent individuals in the feud included Tupac and CEO Suge Knight of Death Row Records on the West Coast and Notorious B.I.G. and Sean Combs “Puff Daddy” with Bad Boy Records on the East Coast. This feud is one of the most notable events in the history of hip-hop.
Attitudes of superiority filled the East Coast hip-hop scene because of its New York City origins, but in California, those in the hip-hop scene refused to be seen as inferior. The rivalry included diss tracks and public digs at each other. It ultimately led to the deaths of both Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. Their murders still remain unsolved.
Hip-hop has undergone multiple evolutions since its founding in the 1970s, and still remains a dominant influence in American culture today. Check out the playlist below to listen to some of these renowned artists and newer hits.