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Hip-Hop: From the Streets to the Mainstream

9 December 2013

Hip-hop is more than just music. The term encom­passes a whole culture, and that helps explain how it has become one of the most influ­ential elements shaping global entertainment and youth self-expression. All over the world, hip-hop is a tool for explaining the complexities of daily life and speaking truth to power, whether through spoken lyrics, graffiti art, dance or disc jockey mastery.

Not to be confused with commercial rap — which often glorifies mate­rial excess, violence and misogyny — hip-hop was born in the South Bronx, New York, more than 40 years ago as an alternative to self-destructive gang culture. Hip-hop gave disaffected youth in impov­erished neighborhoods an oppor­tunity to channel their frustrations into art rather than violence.

In a rented Sedgwick Avenue rec­reation room on August 11, 1973, a Jamaican-born DJ named Kool Herc debuted the art of separat­ing the breakbeat from recorded songs and extending it using two turntables that were playing the same record. Herc's friend Coke La Rock began rapping over the infectious beats. The sound sparked an instant revolution, and it was soon being recre­ated at parties all over the South Bronx. The extended breakbeat also encouraged the evolution of break dancing, in addition to rap­ping, and graffiti artists offered a visual complement to the musical and dance performance.

"Culture doesn't begin on a single day, but events can hap­pen on a single day that put a lot of things in motion," says Ben Ortiz, assistant curator of Cornell University's Hip Hop Collection in Ithaca, New York. The univer­sity has been preserving hip-hop artifacts and recordings since 2007 and boasts the largest col­lection of its kind in the world.

Cornell's curator of rare books and manuscripts, Katherine Reagan, says the university not only is preserving the story of hip-hop's beginnings, but also giving its orig­inators and new artists a chance to tell the story to students and com­munity youth organizations, as well as musicologists. "We want to give this living culture a voice because the originators of that cul­ture are by and large still alive and we want to include them in this process of documentation while we still can," she said.

Cornell has recruited hip-hop pio­neer Afrika Bambaataa as a visit­ing scholar. The South Bronx DJ and founder of the hip-hop aware­ness group the Universal Zulu Nation chose the term "hip-hop" as the name for the culture and iden­tified its core elements as rapping or emceeing, breakbeat deejay­ing, break dancing (b-boying and b-girling) and graffiti art.

"The fifth element that Afrika Bambataa described is knowl­edge, and hip-hop's art forms are the tools to achieve it," Ortiz said. "Knowledge, in this case, means an awareness, a consciousness and understanding about the world and understanding of yourself, your history and heritage and the heritage of other people."

Hip-hop grew to include tech­niques such as vocal percussion, known as beat boxing, and vinyl scratching, and through record­ings such as the Sugarhill Gang's 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight," its fan base began to expand from the urban African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Latino communi­ties of the South Bronx to include suburban American kids of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Today, without question, hip-hop is a global phenomenon. Break dance moves have spread to coun­tries that only recently have been connected to the Internet, and rap lyrics are being spoken in nearly every language. Easily adapting hip-hop to their own cultures, young artists worldwide are using it to express themselves, as bluntly or as eloquently as they prefer, making statements on anything from love and abandonment to poverty and corruption.

Noting hip-hop's amazing growth from its roots in the South Bronx, Bambaataa said the culture "has brought more people together than all the politicians on Earth put together."

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