Rap and hip hop

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Hip hop is a cultural and popular music movement that started as a mid-1970s Black cultural expression, first locally rooted to the South Bronx area of New York City, and which later became a world wide cultural phenomenon. As the mouthpiece of African-American and Afro-Caribbean youth, suffering from daily problems such as migration, a high unemployment rate, overall poverty and marginalization by the general White American population, hip hop developed its own distinct cultural voice by addressing social problems through both new expressions of the use of modern music technologies and a creative approach to publicity.

Thematic issues and historical development

Its key thematic issues have included local identity and the description of hip hop artists’ daily experiences of marginalization in society. Using the ghetto as a source of identity, members of the communities started expressing their opinions on the one hand by the use of graffiti tag writing, which was immediately recognized by the irritated higher American classes, and on the other hand through activities such as spontaneous breakdancing in prominent public places. Breakdancing was usually combined with musical break-beat deejaying (DJ-ing), which meant that lyrics, poetry or simply agitative calls of resistance against the prevailing misrepresentation were rhythmically spoken over reggae, disco and funk records. Figures such as the Jamaican born DJ Clive Campbell, acting under his pseudonym Kool Herc, and the disc jockey Grandmaster Flash, must be credited in this connection as having introduced particular new techniques of cutting and mixing music, leading to the invention of scratching, a manipulative technique in which two different vinyl records on two turntables are moved back and forth, producing unique sounds.

While hip hop mostly focused on the above-mentioned musical techniques, the emerging genre of rap became the most prominent movement of Black cultural expression in contemporary America. In it, the lyrics and so-to-speak the word itself was mainly the “key” to understanding the necessities of the African-American and Afro-Caribbean youth: Based upon underlying heavy rhythmic grooves, rappers now had the opportunity to immediately address their own social status, but also to underscore the danger of an emerging parallel society, in which problems of social handicapped people did not create any public attention. In its own distinct words and poetry, a complete new countercultural type of expression developed. Rappers’ lives, dominated by the values of a closed Black community in which rival gangs ruled social behavior, were now portrayed for the first time in a self-created musical style.

In contrast to the rock 'n' roll phenomenon or the blues movement, which was immediately picked up by the “white” music industry of the 1950s, almost “softened” of its original blues qualities and leading to the development of White-American artists such as Bill Haley or Jerry Lee Lewis adapting this genuine Black musical idiom, rap was able to stick to its roots for long time. Even the introduction of Music Television programs did not mean that rap was immediately displayed for a wide audience. Rather, it was initially ignored because of social concerns as to how the majority of the American audience would respond to this new cultural expression.

Social aspects

It was assumed that this would reproduce similar responses such as those which occurred in reference to the graffiti movement, where public opinion generally rejected this form of expression. In contrast, rap turned out to be a great commercial success, and became a world-wide-export, even to societies where no comparable initial social conditions to those of the Bronx ghetto existed. In some cases, it was re-transformed, as with the perception of rap as a means of expression for the Turkish population of Berlin-Kreuzberg.

Although the international perception of hip hop and rap was strongly influenced by two movie productions, Wild Style (1982) and Beat Street (1984), the opinion at the turn of the 20th century in academia was that one could differentiate between two paths. Whereas in the case of the first path, hip hop and rap artists received their inspiration through ongoing social inequality, wherever it occurred, in the second, both genres completely lost their countercultural origin, surviving as a pure commercial movement.

As rap mainly focuses on the identity and location of the male African-American population, it does reproduce certain stereotypes. In spite of the existence of female rappers, the female sex is often reduced to its role of simply supporting and fulfilling all their husband’s and male community members’ desires. This is fulfilled in the language of the “streets”, in tendentious, colloquial and often racist words, so that rap music, particularly in its lyrics, has often been censored or at least criticized by the public and by the academia of the late 20th century.

In conclusion, hip hop and rap must be seen as including some of the most successful cultural expressions of late 20th century America, and it continues to have unlimited influence.


Rap and hip hop has been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes, encouraging violence, and promoting materialism. In 2014, recording artist and poet Kid Cudi claimed hip hop was holding back black culture:

I think the braggadocio, money, cash, hos thing needs to be deadened. I feel like that's holding us back as a culture, as black people. It doesn't advance us in any way, shape, or form. We've been doing that same thing for years now. It's been, what, four decades of the same old bullsh*t.[1]


  1. Bella, Sarah. Kid Cudi: Hip Hop is 'Holding Us Back as a Culture', Music Feeds News, Music Feeds, 17 March 2014. Retrieved on 17 March 2014.