In 1968, Jimmy Norman releases an upbeat Jazz number called “Gangster of Love.” In 2013, Jay-Z samples ‘Gangster of Love,’ to create a track called “Somewhereinamerica,” which appeared on his Grammy nominated album, Magna Carta Holy Grail.
In 1991, N.W.A creates history by becoming the first rap group ever to release an album that tops the Billboard 200 with Niggaz4life. In 2017, Hip-Hop is the most popular genre in the world, Kendrick Lamar has won a Pulitzer, star-rappers like A$AP Rocky, Kanye west and Nicki Minaj are controlling fashion trends and seemingly everybody on the planet has dabbed at some point.
This domination is truly spectacular given Hip-Hop’s harsh, humble beginnings. Essentially born out of oppression and a need to rebel and find freedom, Hip-Hop was artistic expression at its most pure. Originally an underground scene pioneered by the likes of DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash that was exclusive to New York’s burrows, Hip-Hop grew to firstly influence all of America and eventually became the global phenomenon it is today. Essentially a genre that was created to resist mainstream culture has become mainstream culture, but where did it begin and how much has changed?
The only place to start is, naturally, the start. Hip Hop’s birth is a topic that’s been covered numerous times, whether in eloquent articles or on the big-screen through projects like Baz Lurhmann and Nas’ The Get Down. Most agree that Hip-Hop began in a 1973 block party hosted by DJ Kool Herc, while some claim rap owes its creation to poets like Gil Scott-Heron and artists like James Brown. There is some research that even suggests the first rappers were West-African musical historians, commonly referred to as Griots.
Perspectives are varied, yet one description is common throughout each publication, that of the culture accompanying Hip-Hops’ initiation.
Four traditional elements are always mentioned, DJing, Graffiti artwork, breakdancing and, of course, emceeing (rapping). Such things are lovingly recreated in The Get Down, but an aspect that gets just as much attention is the hardship and oppression that faced African-Americans in the early 1970’s.
Scenes like the show’s teenage protagonists struggling to watch as a Cadillac sinks to the bottom of a river with a dead body in the trunk are truly eye-opening. Storylines such as Zeke’s (Jutice Smith) life-changing choice between following his dream of being an MC or taking up an internship with a rich white man serve as compelling narratives that are indicative of both the hardships experienced by African-Americans of the time as well as systematic racism still present in modern society.
Justice Smith in his role as Zeke ‘Books’ Figuero seen next to some of the Get Down’s Iconic Graffiti
The award-winning Netflix original addresses these themes visually and in commendable detail, yet more context can always be found.
Authors like Bakari Kitwana (The Hip-Hop Generation), and Reiland Rabaka (Hip-Hop’s Inheritance), make reference to something called “The Hip-Hop generation,” the first generation of African-Americans to come of age in post-segregation America.
They were born into a world of great injustice, disparities in education, housing, health-care, employment opportunities and wages were obvious. Perhaps more importantly they had almost no mainstream representation and little in the way of leadership or an outspoken voice.
Kitwana attributes this to “America’s unfulfilled promise of equality and inclusion,” and links the adversity and oppression to the creation of Hip-Hop culture.
It was an entirely new form of expression, true empowerment that manifested itself in street parties and a generation of pioneers.
That feeling of power and freedom is something that modern rappers still seek to convey today. Isaac Woodley-Phillips, drummer of Melbourne-based Hip-Hop/Funk/Jazz fusion band Platy-pus references that feeling as the thing that originally drew him to the genre as a quirky New-Zealander adolescent.
Woodley-Phillips unashamedly chuckles as he recalls his first love affair with Hip-Hop, “I remember mowing my neighbour’s lawn and blasting Yonkers by Tyler the Creator and thinking it was the sickest moment … I felt like such a Badass, in reality I was such a little wimp but it felt good at the time … like I had a musical identity.”
That a song can make somebody have “that sense of freedom,” for the first time in their life is a testament to its reach and impact.
Some would say that a white teenager rapping along to a Hip-Hop hit is problematic, Woodley-Phillips insists that music created to empower, provide perspective and tell a story can be appreciated and respected by everybody.
Whether it’s Joey Bada$$ describing a black man getting shot down by police today, or Grandmaster Flash holding an illegal party in Central Park in the 70’s, Hip-Hop has always had a story worth listening to.
The genre’s first mainstream success, N.W.A’s chart-topping NIgaz4life was created by the same group who earned fame through preaching “Fuck the Police.” They achieved mainstream success by shedding light on African-American hardship at the hands of a brutal police force.
That album was released in 1991, the decade that saw Hip-Hop’s first real foray into the mainstream. There had been popular songs like Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” but the 90’s saw rappers consistently crack Billboard’s top 100 for the first time. Research claims that the rise of Hip-Hop was “the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts.”
Yet, despite being thrust into the spotlight, rappers continued to tell their stories, despite often being criticised. For every Vanilla Ice there was a Chuck D and for every Soulja boy there was a Lupe Fiasco.
Perhaps that amalgamation of mainstream success and genuine storytelling is why Hip-Hop controls the airwaves and streaming numbers today. Someone could hear 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” and think it’s a banger, be inspired to listen to “Many Men,” and learn things they never thought they’d learn.
You see that slight dichotomy in modern rap too. When you’re driving reluctantly to work you’re likely to hear a Drake Hip-Pop song followed by Kendrick Lamar openly criticising Trump’s leadership and raising awareness of gang violence in Black America.
That the latter topped Triple J’s hottest 100 last year is proof that a rapper with a powerful and insightful story to tell will always be popular.
Childish Gambino released a song indicting modern America and it’s currently the hottest song in the world. Suddenly it’s cool to be “woke” as a sort of rebellion against Trump’s presidency. Meanwhile music’s sonic evolution has made it easier for rappers to find fame mumbling over exciting beats.
Woodley-Phillips suggests that “if oppression disappeared, there would be a significant decline in good Hip-Hop.”
While that may not be true, themes of struggle and empowerment have been ever-present in Hip-Hop’s short history. The raw messages, albeit aided by various successful attempts at making pop-hits, have always, and will always play a part in the genre’s success.