Hip-hop, the “fad” that parents, teachers, government officials and close-minded rockers couldn’t wish away fast enough 40 years ago, now has its own government-sanctioned month.
(Pictured above) A dramatic reenactment of the public hearing a hip-hop song for the first time.
Last year, Congress designated November as National Hip-Hop History Month, a sign not only of hip-hop’s significance but also an acknowledgment that the “fad” was really built to last.
Hip-hop’s emergence hasn’t been ignored by Broadway. Musicals such as Rent and Dreamgirls used hip-hop elements, while Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk matched tap and hip-hop dance styles. Using hip-hop was a natural for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, and if rapping was an anachronism in Hamilton, it was an entertaining one – the cast album topped the charts.
(Hamilton returns to The Straz Dec. 28-Jan. 22.)
Say “hip-hop” and most people will immediately think of a rapper – Kurtis Blow, Tupac Shakur, Travis Scott or any of the rhymers who’ve emerged over hip-hop’s six (!) decades.
Tupac’s iconic performance at the House of Blues (1996).
It wasn’t always so. Rapping, or MCing, was just one of four elements considered more or less equal in their importance as the foundation of hip-hop.
PBS aired a documentary in 1983 that revealed to its viewers a thriving new culture known by few outside New York City. It was developing primarily in the South Bronx, a poverty-stricken area politicians liked to cite as an example of urban decay.
The documentary, Style Wars, was just as focused (perhaps a bit more so) on graffiti artists as it was on the MCs and DJs creating the early hip-hop sound.
The Style Wars documentary is available to view in its entirety on YouTube.
Say “hip-hop” today and you’re talking about music. The links to graffiti and break dancing may still exist, but they’re considerably downplayed.
So hip-hop became a music genre and it’s easy to see why. Monetizing break dancing and graffiti didn’t come as easily as monetizing music. There already was a recording industry set to sign, record and release these strange but engaging sounds.
Graffiti and break dancing, though, proved themselves equally important in cultural influence.
Graffiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring began with spray paint on walls and subway cars. Both wound up in the galleries. More contemporary artists, such as Shepard Fairey and Banksy made their names with street art before reaching the mainstream.
Keith Haring’s graffiti art, seen on the side of this building.
Hip-hop dance moves caught the attention of choreographers, who began incorporating its raw physicality into their moves. Break dancing may be a novelty now, but the moves that went on around it now are standard for a modern choreographer.
Hip-hop now is considered a form of dance like tap or jazz.
Designer clothes signaled success and wealth to hip-hop heads, even if designer brands weren’t initially eager to associate with rappers. Those brands got quite a bit more friendly when hip-hop music overtook rock in popularity.
Some artists took the fashion labels’ snubs as incentive to create and market under their own names, hence Sean John (Diddy) and Wu Wear (Wu-Tang Clan).
Hip-hop’s influence on fashion can be seen in current fashion trends.
Unsurprisingly, hip-hop’s influence on music has been immense. Building a track beginning with beats is now standard recording technique for a number of genres.
And then there’s hip-hop’s impact on language, TV and film, music criticism, etc.
So celebrate Hip-Hop History Month. Hip-hop was always more than just the music, and its influence on culture is undeniable. Style Wars is an excellent place to start. After that, just follow the beat.