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What is Hip-Hop?

Hip-hop is a vibrant cultural movement that transcends music, encompassing a rich tapestry of rap, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti art. Born in the Bronx, it's a voice for the voiceless, a platform for storytelling, and a force for social change. Discover how hip-hop revolutionized expression and continues to shape our world. What impact has it had on you?
Brendan McGuigan
Brendan McGuigan

Hip-hop is a cultural movement best known for its impact on music in the form of the musical genre of the same name. It has its origins in the Bronx, in New York City, during the 1970s, mostly among African Americans but with some influence from the Latin American population of the area as well. The culture has gone from being a relatively underground style to being a major style throughout the world, and it has been commercialized and popularized, especially in the United States. The four traditional pillars of hip-hop are DJing, rapping, breakdancing, and graffiti art. Five additional pillars are sometimes added: hip-hop fashion, beatboxing, hip-hop slang, street knowledge, and street entrepreneurship.

Hip-hop music incorporates a number of iconic elements, most notably DJing and rapping, along with things like beatboxing, sampling, and juggling beats on turntables. In early forms of the music, DJs would loop portions of songs, highlighting the interest percussive patterns found in them, to create their own new, emergent beats. These beats were eventually coupled with a rhyming, chanting style of singing, referred to as rapping.

The DJ is a prominent element in hip-hop culture.
The DJ is a prominent element in hip-hop culture.

Beatboxing was a hip-hop movement that broke from the machine-oriented DJs, replicating their sounds and breaks with the human vocal apparatus. Early drum machines were referred to as beatboxes, and early beatboxing simply replicated these drum sounds. Later, it became a much more complex art form, with the human vocal system mimicking even the most complex of instruments, and often even layering beats over one another by using a form of overtone singing. Some later beatboxers, notably Rahzel of the Roots, even sing at the same time.

Graffiti became an important aspect of hip-hop expression.
Graffiti became an important aspect of hip-hop expression.

Along with the musical scene of hip-hop, the culture also originated its own form of dancing, called breakdancing. It began in the South Bronx, along with the music of hip-hop, and is sometimes called Bboying. Breakdancing involves a frenetic, but incredibly controlled, style of dancing that highlights strength and dynamic movement of the body, matching the precise beats laid out by DJs or beatboxers. Often, breakdancing is done in a battle format, with various competitors facing off by showing their skills and trying to one-up each other.

Hip-hop arose out of the 1970s inner city street culture.
Hip-hop arose out of the 1970s inner city street culture.

Graffiti art became an important cornerstone of the hip-hop scene as well, helping to incorporate elements of the culture in a visually-stimulating way. Although graffiti had existed since time immemorial, and was widely spread in the United States among activists and gangs during the 1960s, hip-hop culture took hold of it and redefined it to create a visually distinctive style, most notably the bubble letters and wildstyle of writing now associated with the form. Graffiti art is in many ways viewed as the visual manifestation of hip-hop, in the same way breakdancing can be viewed as its physical manifestation.

Breakdancing originated from hip-hop.
Breakdancing originated from hip-hop.

In recent years, hip-hop has become ever more commercialized, while at the same time battling to keep its free and independent spirit. While mainstream ad campaigns appropriate aspects of the culture, major rappers become multimillionaires, and aspects of hip-hop slang trickle down into a society unaware of their origins, a constant revitalization occurs at the grassroots level. The exporting of the hip-hop scene around the world has led to a new global hip-hop, incorporating traditional musical arrangements and native languages into the forms. At the same time, hip-hop in the United States continues to innovate at the street level, constantly rejecting and challenging a consumer culture that more and more accepts it.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the core elements of hip-hop culture?

Gang culture is a popular theme in hip-hop songs.
Gang culture is a popular theme in hip-hop songs.

Hip-hop culture is built upon four foundational elements: DJing, which involves music mixing and scratching; MCing or rapping, the rhythmic vocal delivery of rhymes and wordplay; breakdancing, a style of street dance; and graffiti, the visual art aspect. These elements encapsulate the creative expression and voice of the urban youth, particularly those from the Bronx in the 1970s, where hip-hop is said to have originated.

How has hip-hop music evolved over the years?

Hip-hop culture came out of the Bronx.
Hip-hop culture came out of the Bronx.

Hip-hop music has undergone significant evolution since its inception. It started with DJs creating beats for block parties, leading to the emergence of MCs. The genre has since diversified into various styles, from the politically charged lyrics of Public Enemy to the gangsta rap of N.W.A. Today, hip-hop continues to evolve, incorporating elements from different genres and influencing mainstream pop music, fashion, and culture worldwide.

What impact has hip-hop had on society and culture?

Hip-hop has had a profound impact on society and culture, serving as a voice for marginalized communities and influencing fashion, language, and lifestyle. It has raised awareness on social issues, such as racial discrimination and poverty, and has been a platform for political activism. According to a Nielsen Music report, hip-hop/R&B became the most dominant music genre in the U.S. in 2017, underscoring its significant cultural influence (Nielsen Music, 2017).

Can hip-hop be considered a tool for education and empowerment?

Yes, hip-hop can be a powerful tool for education and empowerment. Its narrative style and relatable themes make it an effective medium for storytelling and conveying messages. Educators have incorporated hip-hop into curricula to engage students and teach subjects like history, literature, and social studies. Moreover, hip-hop's emphasis on self-expression and identity can empower individuals to voice their experiences and advocate for change.

What distinguishes hip-hop from other music genres?

Hip-hop is distinguished by its unique elements of beat-making, sampling, and rapping. Unlike other genres, hip-hop heavily relies on the skill of the DJ to manipulate sounds and create new music from existing recordings. The lyrical content often reflects urban life, social issues, and personal struggles, delivered with a distinctive flow and rhythm. Additionally, hip-hop culture extends beyond music to encompass a broader artistic and lifestyle movement.

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Discussion Comments


Real hip hop is not on the radio and that's word up! that's because hip hop is real and the new crap that's on the radio doesn't keep it as real like before. There is still real hip hop on earth but you don't hear it much because is underground. Keep the real hip hop in your heart and mind.


@anon132872: it isn't. What people call hip hop today isn't hip hop at all. real hip hop artists and lovers of hip hop don't embrace this imitation of hip hop.


Last line of this paragraph is the biggest piece of crap i have read in a long time on hip hop. Rejecting consumer culture? Who are you kidding? It has embraced it and its quality has degraded and gone underground to preserve its authenticity.


@ Aplenty- That sounds like a good show. I like going to underground hip hop shows myself. In the last few years I've seen Immortal Technique, Collie Buddz, Jedi Mind Tricks, Atmosphere, Slum village, various members of the WU, Talib Kweli, Nas, and of course the Roots (I guess they’re not all underground). Probably my most memorable shows were Nas and Kweli, Method man, The Roots, Immortal, and Collie.

If I could only pick one artist or group to see over the next five years, I would have to go with the Roots. I've seen their show three times, and it is outta here. I love going to hip hop shows. A good performer will leave a lasting memory.


One of the best hi-hop shows I have seen was a duo with Mix Master Mike and Rahzel. Mix Master Mike is a well-known DJ who has worked on albums with The Beastie Boys, Joss Stone. He has even appeared on Yo Gabba Gabba (my kid's favorite show). Rahzel is just as well known, and he has appeared on Yo Gabba Gabba too.

The show was a two-hour marathon at a small venue called Higher Ground. The entire show was a beat box battle, pitting Rahzel's vocal talents against Mike on the tables. Rahzel did some things with his voice that I didn't know were humanly possible. Mike scratched his way through about five crates of records. At the end, the artists sold CD's and signed autographs. If they ever tour together again, I'm there.

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    • The DJ is a prominent element in hip-hop culture.
      By: hurricane
      The DJ is a prominent element in hip-hop culture.
    • Graffiti became an important aspect of hip-hop expression.
      By: Katrin Lantzsch
      Graffiti became an important aspect of hip-hop expression.
    • Hip-hop arose out of the 1970s inner city street culture.
      By: BEAUTYofLIFE
      Hip-hop arose out of the 1970s inner city street culture.
    • Breakdancing originated from hip-hop.
      By: Nikita Buida
      Breakdancing originated from hip-hop.
    • Gang culture is a popular theme in hip-hop songs.
      By: Monkey Business
      Gang culture is a popular theme in hip-hop songs.
    • Hip-hop culture came out of the Bronx.
      By: cesar
      Hip-hop culture came out of the Bronx.