Music in Global America



Hip hop culture encompasses vocal and instrumental music, poetry, visual art, dance, and fashion. The first period of rap, now known as old school, arose among young Blacks and Latinos in the South Bronx and extends from 1974 to 1986. The impact of digital technology on rap began in the 1980’s when samplers became commercially available. A sampler is a device that allows the user to digitally store, manipulate, and play back sections of commercial recordings (or any other recorded sounds). Sampling replaced turntablism, and producers replaced DJs.  In the 1980's the sounds and styles of hip-hop entered the mainstream and hip hop became a dominant cultural and economic force nationwide. By the early 1990’s rap was the largest-selling popular music in the United States. Today rap and hip hop culture are global phenomena. Anyone with a computer can produce a complete song and post it on the Internet.


Video Presentation: Globalization of Rap and Hip Hop 1 - Rap and Hip Hop in the USA


Old School hip hop has four essential components described as the four  "pillars" of the culture —


In the mid-1970s the role of the DJ (disc jockey) was to provide a sound system and play vinyl recordings at informal outdoor parties and at dances in rec rooms and underground clubs. Within a few years  DJs were spinning records for dances in established venues such as the Diplomat Hotel near Times Square. 

Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, Jazzy Jeff, and Grand Wizard Theodore invented the basic techniques of turntablism: cutting between two records, blending records, and scratching (manually moving the record back and forth on the turntable to create rhythmic patterns with "scratchy" timbres). Grandmaster Flash also added synthetic drum sounds and other effects to his mixes of the early 1980s. Today producers have taken over the role to achieve the same effects using digital technology.

The DJ's other main role was to create instrumental accompaniment for MCs (today's rappers) from recordings. The essential structural principle of the accompaniment is the breakbeat, an eight-beat cycle made by "looping" the break in a funk or disco song. (A break is a short part of a song when the band drops out and the drummer plays a solo.) The breakbeat is the defining principle of old school turntablism and is still the major influence in rap and hip hop productions. 

Filipino-American turntablist Q-Bert demonstrates how old school DJs created breakbeats with analog technology.  


MCs were the "masters of ceremony" at dance events. Before rap was known as a genre, MCs spoke over microphones while records were played. The practice originated with Jamaican DJs  “toasting” — calling out friends’ names — and “boasting” — touting the superiority of their own sound system and DJ skills. (Toasting can also refer to prison-culture stories of violence and crime.) Rap as a mature genre emerged when rappers like Grandmaster Caz began to mold their poetry into extended forms by rhyming over breakbeats. 

Rap is spoken poetry stylized in terms of rhythm, pitch, and timbre. An individual rapper's distinctive stylization of speech is his/her flow. Unlike the unpredictable rhythms of everyday speech, rappers fashion their recitations into sharply defined rhythmic patterns that are in constant interplay with the repeating polyrhythmic patterns of the breakbeat or similar instrumental accompaniment. Rap differs from singing, which by definition is vocalization on fixed definite pitches. Speech does however have rising and falling contours that affect flow — a rapper may chant in monotone, rap within a limited relative pitch range, or employ noticeable pitch contouring verging on melody. Rappers exploit timbral qualities to varying degrees, often depending on the role a rapper may take to speak from a particular perspective —comedic, erotic, political, dramatic, etc.


These two excerpts are contrasting in terms of pitch contour, rhythm, and timbre. Rhythmic patterns are indicated by symbols for poetic feet:  ˘ short syllable    ¯ long syllable

"Drop It Like It's Hot" by Snoop Dogg featuring Pharell Williams

Rhythmic pattern      ˘       ˘      ¯           ˘   ˘    ¯      ¯           ˘    ˘   ˘    ˘     ¯
Lyric                         When the pimp's     in the crib ma     drop it like it's hot 

"Fight the Power" by Public Enemy

                                     ˘    ˘    ˘    ˘      ˘       ¯             ˘       ˘     ˘      ˘     ˘      ¯
Lyric                        mu-sic hit-ting your heart     cause I know you got soul 


Graffiti art in its "wild style" phase in the late 1970s and into the 1980s featured bright colors and highly stylized letters along with other graphics such as cartoon characters. Graffiti art was executed on a large scale, illegally, on the sides of subway cars using the new medium of spray-can paints.  


Breaking is a dance form created by Black and Puerto Rican New York teenagers. Breakers also refer to themselves as B-Boys and B-Girls, but scorn the more popular term breakdance. Breaking is characterized by intricate footwork, athletic spinning, and stylized poses. The name of the dance comes from a break in a recorded song, when the band drops out and the drummer plays a short funky solo. DJ Kool Herc is credited with "inventing" the breakbeat by noticing that kids started to dance only during the song's break. The invention of the breakbeat was actually a way to extend the song's break indefinitely, and keep the B-Boys and B-Girls on the dance floor. 


Before rap entered into the established entertainment industry, portable cassette players and souped-up sound systems in cars provided robust routes of dissemination for the music throughout the city. DJ  Afrika Bambaataa promoted hip hop culture through parties and other events spread by word of mouth and at venues throughout New York City. But it was the success of Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight” issued on a small independent label in 1979, that brought rap to national attention and gave the genre its name.  
Old School Rap developed in three directions, which continue to the present day in America and worldwide.  

1. Party Rap, or Pop Rap, is epitomized by the good-time feel of “Rapper’s Delight” — light, danceable, often humorous. Party rap quickly became a crossover genre, generating a string of national hits by artists including Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and Salt-N-Pepa, the first successful female rap group.

PARTY RAP: Cold Crush Brothers from the movie Wild Style, with b-boys from Rock Steady Crew
2. Socially conscious rap: The first example of conscious rap is Melle Mel's “The Message,” released on the Grandmaster Flash album in 1982. This branch of rap reemerged in the 1980s in the U.S., and soon became a major vehicle for political expression in societies across the world.

SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS RAP: Grandmaster Flash with Melle Mel, "The Message"
3. Rock rap: a hybrid genre, combines the vocalizations of rap with the sounds and rhythms of rock bands. Hip hop trio Run-DMC brought the genre to national prominence in 1986 with “Walk This Way,” a collaboration with rock band Aerosmith.

ROCK RAP: Run-DMC and Aerosmith, "Walk This Way"

THE GOLDEN AGE OF RAP — 1986 - 2000

By 1986 hip hop culture had entered the mainstream, and rap had become the most successful popular music in the U.S. The Beastie Boys, the first white rap group, topped Billboard's Pop Album chart in 1986 with their debut album Licensed to Ill. The year 1988 was an important turning point for rap. The first magazines devoted to rap and hip hop appeared. The first nationally televised rap music videos on Yo, MTV Raps! brought hip-hop images and dances to national, then to international, attention. New music and dance came  increasingly from the West Coast, South and Midwest. 

A more modern style of rap dates from 1986 when MC Rakim and DJ Eric B introduced a flow and production that were rhythmically more complex than old school styles, in songs such as in "Eric B Is President."
Rappers in the new style employed irregular poetic meters, asymmetric phrasing, and intricate rhyme schemes.

The accompaniment for rap also became more complex and varied. The New York production team Bomb Squad layered multiple samples to create dense, harmonically rich textures and grating “out of tune” combinations of sounds. West Coast producers developed G-funk by using live instrumentation and conventional harmonies associated with funk. 

In 1988, new sub-genres of rap emerged, partly in response to worsened social conditions in black urban communities during the Reagan years. Adverse economic conditions, the decline of manufacturing jobs, and drastic cutbacks in social spending (especially in education) fell disproportionately on young African-American males. As crack cocaine and increasingly deadly weapons flooded black urban centers, gang activity and violence increased dramatically, and police forces adopted military tactics. Draconian drug laws were put in place, and the prison population exploded. 

POLITICAL RAP was led by KRS-1, with Boogie Down Productions. Their 1988 album By All Means Necessary explored police corruption, violence in the hip hop community, and other controversial topics. KRS-1 led the Stop The Violence Movement. Political rap became a major vehicle for youth to express political views in every open society on earth.

Black nationalism informed the political lyrics of Public Enemy (Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, and DJ Lord) whose debut album It Takes a Million to Hold Us Back earned top spot on Billboard’s R&B/HipHop Album Chart in 1988. The success of Public Enemy’s Fight the Power (1989) and Fear of a Black Planet (1990) proved the crossover appeal of the new wave of political, socially conscious rap. 


On the West Coast, N.W.A (Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, DJ Yella, and MC Ren) were cultivating harsh timbres and a raw angry sound for nihilistic tales of Los Angeles police violence and gang life in Straight Outta Compton, the first gangsta rap album. N.W.A.’s second album, Niggaz4Life (1991) shot to number one on the Billboard charts despite a national radio boycott and a total ban in the U.K. due to lyrics’ extreme violence and misogyny. N.W.A.'s "Express Yourself" , which samples the original funk tune by Charles Wright, is a less abrasive side of the crew. The recording industry welcomed and promoted gangsta rap. Sales records for N.W.A. and gangsta rap in general show that its major audience, by about 7seventy percent, was young white suburban males.

N.W.A. soon splintered. Dr. Dre founded the highly successful Death Row Records with Suge Knight in 1992 and produced Snoop Dogg’s multi-platinum album Doggystyle the following year. Ice Cube moved to New York and released six albums, beginning with the critically acclaimed AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted in 1990. (He presently stars on a TV sitcom.) The same year, The Geto Boys, from Houston, made their album debut combining ultra-violent fantasies with cutting social commentary in a blues-inflected style that came to characterize the “Dirty South” sound. Hardcore rap in New York City was regained by Wu-Tang Clan, a Staten Island crew, with their album Enter the Wu-Tang in 1993.

Some of the new-school rap generated controversy due to explicit language, violence, misogyny, homophobia, and/or anti-Semitism. Finally, spurred by the prosecution in Florida of Miami-based 2 Live Crew over charges of obscenity in their album Nasty as They Wanna Be (1990), Congress held hearings that led to the adoption of a warning label system by the recording industry.     

The Melding of Hip Hop with Pop and R&B

The 1990s also saw collaborations between male rappers and female R&B singers, a market ploy that softened rap’s hardcore content somewhat while retaining the edge of black street culture. Rappers launched parallel careers as actors and fashion designers. The "New Jack" look was stylish, sophisticated and brand-conscious.

Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were the most critically acclaimed and best-selling rappers during the middle of the 1990’s. Shakur was murdered in 1996 and Notorious B.I.G. in 1997. In the eyes of many fans, hip hop had lost its two greatest artists.

"Young Black Male," "Trapped," "Something Wicked,"  "Rebel of the Underground" -- these titles from Shakur's 1991 debut album 2PacalypseNow accurately reflect the socially conscious, political bent of Shakur's work. Tupac's parents were members of the militant 1960s/70s Black Panther Party and instilled in him a strong sense of social justice, an awareness of the institutional nature of racism, and the courage to speak out about abuse by law enforcement -- topics that have never been absent from the story-telling, poetry, and song lyrics of African-American artists. The  notoriety of 2PacalypseNow prompted politicians to take one more step toward Congressional hearings that attempted to censor rap. 

In the middle of his career Shakur turned to R&B-influenced rap. The songs of 2PacalypseNow are hard-edged, militant, and fast. The later albums are softer in tone, subtler in message. R&B samples, and featured singers position the music as intended for a mainstream, radio-friendly audience. Explicit lyrics disappear. Tempos tumble to 60-80 BPM. Tupac's biggest, most non-controversial hit, comes at the end of his career. "California Love," a 1996 collaboration with Dr. Dre, is, at least on the surface, a feel-good dance floor song.

The Notorious B.I.G.'s single "Juicy" (1994) is considered by many to be the greatest rap song of all time. "Juicy"'s message is not one of consumerist brand-name bragging; rather, "Biggie" presents a hopeful narrative in which overcoming adversity was the means to his commercial success. His autobiographical story line of "Juicy," and Biggie's evident devotion to his daughter and mother in the song's lyric make "Juicy" uplifting . Girl group Total sings the chorus, an early example of contrasting a male rapper's verses with a sweet female R&B chorus

Eminem, the first white solo rapper to cross color lines with his debut album in 1996 is the best-selling artist of the 2000s, with 200 million albums sold globally. Jay-Z, who premiered in 1996, is now worth over $900 million. Rapping during a song became part of the repertoire of white commercial rock bands —  Rage Against the Machine, Linkin Park, Kid Rock. Though recordings and tours were still dominated by artists from New York and Philadelphia in the 1990s, regional styles were beginning to develop in Los Angeles, Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, and other major U.S. cities. Independent labels gained ground and rap was incorporated into the established recording and distribution industries that control worldwide distribution.  


In the 1990s Queen Latifah's songs such as "U.N.I.T.Y." and "Ladies First" framed a feminist response to the macho and misogynistic lyrics of male rappers. She introduced samples from jazz in her productions, and spearheaded a revival of Afrocentric fashions and imagery along with her sometime collaborators in the hip hop collective Native Tongues.
MC LYTE, born Lana Moorer in Brooklyn in 1971, was the first female rapper to release a solo album, opening the door to other solo female rappers. Lyte as a Rock (1988) was followed by a string of hit songs celebrating the assertiveness and sexual confidence of women. Lyte, like Latifah, later pursued an acting career. [Wikipedia]

LIL' KIM is another Brooklundian who became a famous figure in hip hop. She has numerous gold and platinum records, several #1 hits, a long list of awards including six Grammy's. She began her own record label, toured as a model for designer lines, and appeared in movies and on television.  She is associated with the New Jack style which emerged in the early 1990s. [Wikipedia]

MISSY ELLIOT was the highest selling female rapper of all time till toppled by Nicki Minaj in 2015. Missy's career as a performer took off in 2000 with a series of pop dance hits including “Work It” and “Lose Control.” 

"The Night Is Still Young" exemplifies Nicki Minaj's transition from hard-edged rap to a more pop style — slickly alternating between soft-flow rap and and a stunning vast refrain, sung without relying on R&B melismatic clichés.


Nelson George, Hip Hop America, Penguin Books, New York, 1999.

Bakari Kitwana, The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture, BasicCivitas Books, New York, 2002.

Jeff Chang, Can't stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, St. Martin's Press, New York, 2005.

Jeff Chang (ed.), Total Chaos, The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop, BasicCivitas Books, New York, 2006.

Tricia Rose, The Hip Hop Wars, BasicCivitas Books, New York, 2008.

Gwendolyn D. Pough et al. (eds.), Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminism Anthology, Parker Publishing, Mira Loma CA, 2007.

Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn, Yes Yes Y'All: Oral History of Hip-Hop's First Decade, Da Capo Press, 2002.

Joseph G. Schloss, Foundation: B-Boys, B-Girls, and Hip-Hop Culture in New York, Oxford University Press, 2009.

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