Despite its contemporary expansion and appeal across racial and cultural sectors, hip-hop is an unambiguously African-American cultural phenomenon that emerges within a complex amalgam of hybrid social influences. In passing references among those with little or no connection to hip-hop there is a recurrent tendency to isolate and emphasize the musical component “rap” at the exclusion of other factors and forces that comprise hip-hop as “a whole way of life.” In the often-quoted words of hip-hop veteran KRS-1, “rap is something you do and hip-hop is something you live.” His statement was originally a response to those who insisted on conflating rap and hip-hop, ignoring the elaborated cultural patterns and attitudes that produced an overarching sensibility within which rap was located.
Rap is the verbal and musical domain of hip-hop, an expressive oral form through which personal and social perspectives are amplified. It is a means of communicating a “new worldview” that is shared by an entire generation of African-Americans and, increasingly, non-Black citizens of the U.S. as well as a growing international cohort. While rap music displays diverse formal aesthetics, multiple discursive themes, and encompasses a wide array of topics it is also frequently derided among its detractors for its rhythmic intensity or tendencies toward vulgar, violent or sexist lyrical content, factors that are, of course, also evident in various other realms of popular music and culture.
In the worst instances, such negative judgments harbor a prevalent racism, simultaneously dismissing the music, the cultural underpinnings from which it is produced, and the black cultural workers and primary audience group that comprises its base. Rap and hip-hop are, then, inextricably entwined with race, cultural politics, ideology, and communication in contemporary America and in various moments since their inception they have, in fact, been at the center of heated debates in the nation’s notorious “culture wars.”
Hip-hop culture encompasses what are routinely cited as the four core elements: rapping (MCing), DJing, b-boying (break dancing) and aerosol art (graffiti). These original formal practices merged under specific social conditions (in the Bronx borough of New York City) and within a circumscribed moment in time (the late 1970s through the early 1980s); their reputation as foundational elements is associated with a moment of convergence when dispersed groups and artistic practices noticeably aligned in a tangible manner.
In more recent years hip-hop’s most ardent defenders have explored other positive and culturally sustaining elements including entrepreneurialism, linguistics, and, crucially, knowledge. As a facet of ideological orientation and formal practices, hip-hop’s cultural influences are widely evident throughout the art realm, crossing into cinema, dance, literature, painting, poetry, theater, and other expressive forms as well as being importantly linked to local community-based civic organizations and youth agencies.
Within hip-hop and the rap music sector distinctions have emerged between different discursive and ideological orientations that are directed toward vastly different socio-cultural perspectives and practices. In one frame of analysis, hip-hop and rap music are positioned within the tensions of a classic art versus commerce relationship, and within the dynamic of highbrow versus lowbrow culture. The original art forms associated with hip-hop were allied with the expression of urban identity and meaning among “organic intellectuals” that emerged outside of the institutional infrastructures where the arts are traditionally nurtured. It is time that the innovative paradigms and cultural contributions of these organic intellectuals and artistic heroes of the every person be recognized, valued, and studied in the way more traditional and institutional arts forms have.
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