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Hip Hop

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Essay title: Hip Hop

“hip hop culture” has permeated popular culture in an unprecedented fashion. Because of its enormous cross-over appeal, the hip hop culture is a potentially great unifier of diverse populations. Although created by black youth on the street, hip hop's influence has become worldwide. Approximately 75% of the rap and hip hop audience is nonblack. It has gone from the fringes, to the suburbs, and into the corporate boardrooms. Indeed, McDonald's, Coca Cola, Sprite, Nike, and other corporate giants have capitalized on this phenomenon. Although critics of rap music and the hip hop culture seemed to be fixated on the messages of sex, violence, and harsh language, this genre offers us a paradigm of what can be. The potential of this art form to mend ethnic relations is substantial. In the 1950s and 1960s the “Beat Culture” challenged the status quo in ways that unified liberals and prompted change. In the same vein, the hip hop culture has challenged the system in ways that have unified individuals (particularly youth) across a rich ethnic spectrum. This paper will discuss the development of the hip hop culture, the cross-over appeal of hip hop, and the potential of this culture to mend ethnic cleavages in our society.

Today, hip and rap is the fastest growing music genre in the U.S., accounting for more than 10 percent of the $12.3 billion music sales in 1998. 1 Rap music has become the linchpin of the hip hop culture. The overall hip hop culture has been established by this musical art form. The language (street slang), dress (baggy pants, caps worn backwards, expensive sneakers), and style of the hip hop culture have all evolved from rap music.2

To illustrate raps widespread popularity, according to Soundscan, a company in Hartsdale, N.Y. that monitors music sales, at the end of 1998, 9 of the 15 albums on the pop chart were rap. At the end of 1998, three of the top selling albums were rap acts: Jay Z, Outkast, and A Tribe Call Quest. According to Neil Strauss, rap is replacing rock and roll as the most popular genre of music among youth.3 Ten years ago, in the suburbs you heard teenagers blasting music from such rock artist as the Byrds, Doors, the Eagles, Van Halen, and Guns 'N' Roses. Today, teenagers are blasting rap music from such artist as Jay Z and Outkast.4

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, rock music accounted for 32.5 percent of the industry's $12.3 billion in sales during 1997. But this figure is down from 46.2 percent a decade ago. Meanwhile rap music's share of sales has increased 150% over the last ten years and is still rising.5


Busy Bee Starski, DJ Hollywood, and DJ Afika Bambaataa (founder of the Zulu Nation in New York) are the three New York artists who have been credited for coining the term “hip hop”.6 This genre began in the'70s with funky beats resonating at house parties, at basement parties, and the streets of New York.7 According to Geneva Smitherman, the foundation of rap music is rooted in “Black oral tradition of tonal semantics, narrativizing, signification, playing the dozens, Africanized syntax, and other communicative practices.” 8

One can trace the commercial history of rap back to 1979 when the Sugar Hill Gang produced the enormously successful song entitled, Rapper's Delight. The raw begginings of contemporary rap music can be traced to the Bronx in the mid 1970s.9 Rap music was a way that urban black youth expressed themselves in a rythmic form. Rap music, along with graffiti and breakdancing was the poetry of the street.

As the interests in rap music grew, so did its message. The collective message of rap told candid stories of the urban streets--stories of drugs, violence, and crime. No matter how hedonistic the message, urban youth found a platform to outwardly express their rage towards the system. To them, the police embodied the system; they were indeed a reflection of America's attitude towards

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