From its humble beginnings in Black communities in The Bronx, New York, to its global dominance as an art form, hip hop has become a force of artistic expression, social commentary, and empowerment. It is a musical and cultural movement. The first hip hop event occurred 50 years ago, on August 11, 1973. The party, organized by DJ Kool Herc and his sister, is considered a turning point in hip hop history. We now celebrate that date as the International Day of hip hop. Explore the evolution, honor the pioneers, and embrace the impact of hip hop as we commemorate its anniversary through its extraordinary 50-year journey.
What is Hip Hop?
Hip hop is often considered a synonym for rap music. However, it is about more than chanting rhymes to a beat or spoken word. Hip hop is a way of life comprised of multiple elements. While there is no universal agreement, most sources commonly cite DJing (aural), MCing (oral), Graffiti (visual), Breakdancing (physical), and sometimes Knowledge (mental) as the core pillars of hip hop.
Elements of Hip Hop
DJing – The term Disc Jockey (DJ) dates to the 1940s. It is the person in charge of selecting and operating recorded music for broadcast. However, in hip hop, a DJ is an artist who uses turntables to combine various sections of recordings to create new music. This approach was dubbed “breakbeat” and served as the foundation for the later development of rapping.
MCing – Masters of Ceremonies (MCs) are mostly rappers whose purpose is to interact with the audience, introduce additional artists or DJs, and maintain a high energy level throughout the event. MCs frequently participate in freestyling in addition to hosting and performing. Freestyling is the spontaneous creation of lyrics in reaction to a specific topic or event. MCing is said to have emerged during the 1970s but traces its origins back to African culture and oral traditions. The Jamaican practice of toasting (giving shout-outs and talking over the music) may also have had an influence.
Graffiti – Graffiti is a visual artistic expression used by several early hip hop artists, notably KRS-One and Fab 5 Freddy. It has since become a significant part of hip hop’s visual language and aesthetic expression.
Breakdancing – Breakdance, aka b-boying, b-girling, or street dancing, is a fusion of several dance genres. These include funk, soul, and martial arts performed to the break or breakbeat. Distinctive by its acrobatic moves, top rocks, freezes, and go-downs, it started as a dance style on the streets of New York.
Knowledge – Knowledge refers to understanding the core elements of hip hop and being socially and politically conscious. Hip hop is about giving voice and power to the disenfranchised. Consequently, it may be the most critical element. According to Afrika Bambaataa, an influential DJ in the early days of hip hop, a person cannot MC, DJ, breakdance, or make graffiti without having knowledge. Knowledge is the fifth element that “brings it all together.”
The Origins: History of Hip Hop
By the early 1970s, the core elements of hip hop gained momentum. Hip hop emerged in the late 1970s in the South Bronx and other black communities of New York City as a synthesis of several sources and inspirations, including funk, soul, jazz, reggae, and Afro-Caribbean music.
Keef Cowboy, a member of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is considered the creator of the term “hip hop.” Afrika Bambaataa, a DJ and hip hop pioneer, popularized the word by using it to describe the entire culture and movement. Over time, the term “hip hop” came to refer to the music and the associated dance, art, and fashion.
DJ Kool Herc is a Jamaican-American DJ and music producer generally regarded as a forefather of hip hop music and culture. Kool Herc mixed music on two turntables, looking for the track’s most rhythmically exciting and danceable parts. He then included these passages in his set and used them in loops. Playing them repeatedly gave dancers more time to dance. This mixing approach enabled Herc to produce a new sound that became the cornerstone of hip hop music.
The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” released in 1979, was the first hip hop song to break into the Billboard Top 40. That same year, MC Sha-Rock became hip hop’s first female MC. This paved the way for other queens of hip hop, from Queen Latifah to Salt-N-Pepa.
Early Eras of hip hop
Old School hip hop
Old School hip hop is the first era of hip hop music that lasted until about 1983. It typically has 2-3 beats laid on top of each other and uses easy-to-understand lyrics with a socially conscious message. Before copywriting laws, hip hop sampled heavily from funk, soul, and disco records. Looping these lyrics and sounds together created the basic beat that defined the genre.
New School hip hop
The genre evolved into New School in the mid-80s, using more complex rhythms and rhymes, typically with 6-8 beats per track and much faster lyrics. Those lyrics focused more on personal experience, wealth, and fame. As music technology, like drum machines, synthesizers, and other electronic instruments, became more widespread, hip hop artists also started to sample from the rock genre.
Golden Age of hip hop
New School gave way to the Golden Age of hip hop with the release of Run DMC’s Raising Hell and The Beastie Boys License to Ill. It ended in 1997 with the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG. Hip hop music became mainstream during this era, defined by its diversity, quality, innovation, and influence.
Hip hop has continued to evolve over the past five decades, and several subgenres have emerged. Some contemporary ones include Trap, Mumble Rap, Country Rap, Drill, Grime, and Conscious hip hop, among many others. There is often a blending between subgenres, and artists can focus more heavily on a subgenre from album to album. Some mainstream artists from each genre include Megan Thee Stallion (Trap), Young Thug (Mumble Rap), Little Nas X (Country Rap), Chief Keef (Drill), Skepta (Grime), and Kendrick Lamar (Conscious hip hop).
Litefeet is a vibrant dance style that emerged from hip hop in the early 2000s on the streets of Harlem, NYC. It’s commonly associated with the subway system, where performers known as “litefeet dancers” entertain passengers with their fast-paced footwork and acrobatic moves. The dance style incorporates hip-hop moves, as well as acrobatics or shoe and hat tricks, while adding a unique flavor. Litefeet gained popularity through viral videos on platforms like YouTube and social media, propelling it into the mainstream. Today, it continues to evolve and thrive. Dedicated Litefeet dancers showcase their skills in competitions, performances, and community events, preserving the spirit and energy of this urban dance form.
Impact on Society:
As we approach the 50th anniversary of hip hop, we can look back and see its impact. Hip hop has influenced almost every aspect of mainstream society over the past 50 years, from fashion, art, dance, and language to politics and social change.
- Fashion: Early hip hop fashion influences include baggy clothing, sneakers with oversized laces, and bomber jackets. Hip hop artists frequently collaborate with clothing brands, which influences streetwear.
- Art: Graffiti has existed since ancient times and is integral to many countercultures, including hip hop. Tagging and bubble lettering with spray paint grew as part of the hip hop movement. Important artists like Basquiat and Fab 5 Freddy have changed the world with graffiti art.
- Dance: Hip hop dance started in the streets and at block parties with b-boys/girls breakdancing. It has now become as mainstream as tap or ballet and instructors worldwide teach it to their students.
- Language: hip hop primarily draws from African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and several words have made it to mainstream culture. Some examples include dog/dawg, referring to a person; chillax, is a combination of chill and relax; and bling, expensive, flashy, and ostentatious clothing and jewelry.
- Politics and social change: As a powerful form of expression, marginalized communities use hip hop to address social injustices, inequality, and systemic issues. Groups like NWA, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine are known for their anti-establishment messages. Hip hop lyrics often reflect the lived experiences of the artists and their communities. They shed light on topics such as racism, police brutality, poverty, and political corruption.
Three tips for using hip hop in your creative projects:
- When putting together a hip hop set know what era you want to invoke with original tracks from Pond5. A sound like Old School hip hop Instrumental 30 by Carlsbro sets the tone for a historical street-style piece. Alternatively, the sound of Stylish Trap hip hop Beat Vlog & Grime Boom Bap Urban Street Background by HeadlineMusic has a more modern feel.
- Use historical hip hop footage for a documentary project or any time you need to create a realistic hip hop vibe. An example is this video of Tupac at the Soul Train Hall Of Fame Awards 1995, Los Angeles – 02 Nov 1995
- Don’t underestimate the power of strong background art for a music blog or as a transition between segments of a show or series. Consider something like Ghetto Blaster Hifi Urban Street Music.
Hip hop is about more than music and it is more than the spoken word. It is a state of mind and a way of life. A Pond5 subscription gives you access to original hip hop tracks, stock photos, and videos. You’ll also find the music inspired by the artists we’ve highlighted here and more of the world’s top musicians.
Visit the Pond5 Playlist to explore more niche and unexpected music. Each month will feature a different genre, and a new free track is available for your next project!