“I said a hip hop, the hippie the hippie
to the hip hip hop, a you don’t stop,
the rock it to the bang bang boogie say up jumped the boogie
to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat...”
Although to some it sounded like a foreign language, the Sugarhill Gang's 1979 ode “Rappers Delight” preached a new music phenomenon that would take the place of rock and roll as American youth's rebellious reprieve. During the early days of post-disco, a group of Jamaican and African youths gathered in the ghettos and put their poetry to samples of soul and funk hits like “Good Times.” They called this new music ‘rap’—as in talking. Slamming. Beat Boxing. Spoken word. Rap. And like any good revolution, this one needed a new style. In came hip-hop.
Something new was brewing on the urban streets of New York's Bronx and Brooklyn boroughs, where kids borrowed the drum machine and synthesizer beats of Afrikan Bambatta, pairing them with the art of Jamaican toasting, a spoken word over instrumental music. Their words were directed to the beat, pounding out a social commentary to the audience almost subliminally, but their presence was strong. This new form of 'rapping', as the street preaching would be called, invited a new dance style called 'breaking' or 'breakdancing', which helped expose this new style of music to the masses.
Hip-hop fashion took its look from the street and from the black cultures that fueled it. Jamaican Rastafarians inspired dreadlocks and rasta caps in Jamaican red, green and yellow; b-boys mixed it with logo track suits and hi-style sneakers; afrocentrics proudly displayed Kente cloth in bright colors and leather emblems of the homeland; and rappers took oversized clothes and heavy gold emblems to the extreme. Mix it all together—rasta, breaking, afrocentricity, rap—and what you've got is a very strong sense of what became 90's hip-hop style.
The father of rap, Clive Campbell, a.k.a. DJ Kool Herc, was spinning and mixing as early as 1973, to the beats of funk forefathers like James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton. Herc mixed the soulful funk as a ‘mobile DJ,’ a traveling musician bringing his music to the streets. These DJ’s (for Herc was but one of many) would call out to the crowd, and soon brought along their own MC’s when rapping gained it own popularity. DJ’s began experimenting with manipulating the records they were spinning, leading to inventions like Grandmaster Flash’s ‘backspinning’ and Grandwizard Theodore’s ‘scratching.’
DJ-ing was an art that demanded total concentration, and it was the MC’s who stepped to the forefront and became the rappers. This street poetry was put with fast and fractured rhythms, preaching about politics, life in the ghetto, and the mating ritual. Girls, known as ‘fly girls,’ also took to the mike, with Queen Latifah and Sista Soulja breaking barriers and battling it out against the best of the men.
By 1981, rap was leaving the streets, including a noteworthy appearance by The Funky Four + 1 More on Saturday Night Live, which helped introduce both rap and breakdancing to the suburban, middle-class world. Almost overnight, kids were donning oversized, shoelaceless adidas and gold dukie chains, jamming to Run DMC and LL Cool J. Rap would still be considered a black art until white rappers the Beastie Boys brought their own form of rap to the charts with “Fight for your Right” off of 1986’s Licensed to Ill. The hip-hop culture had successfully crossed racial barriers to become a major force.
As rap’s popularity grew, new artists emerged, splitting rap into different categories. Old-school rappers like Whodini, Kurtis Blow and Kool Moe Dee were having to compete with a new breed of entertainers like LL Cool J, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and girl groups like Salt-n-Pepa. Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing” sent the world spinning in 1989, and Vanilla Ice scored the first number one rap single with “Ice Ice Baby” in 1990.
These rappers borrowed their look from the fashionable street, taking everything over the top. Vanilla Ice’s shaved eyebrows and razored hair proved that even white boys could get in on the act, though Ice was hard-pressed to compete with Kid ‘n Play’s spectacular fades. Artists like Bobby Brown and MC Hammer showed off intricately razored hairstyles, and showstopping costumes like the big, baggy Hammer pants. Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav displayed oversized clocks hanging around his neck, and African diva Queen Latifah sported Nefertitti kente crowns to herald her heritage.
Early rap was commonly political, like Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” (1981), or the songs of KRS-One, but sometime in the late 80’s, a new rap arrived, angrier and brimming with violent imagery. This new gangsta rap, led by artists like Ice-T, NWA and Tupac Shakur, took the world of rap to an in-your-face extreme. These cats were filled with attitude, flashing their ghetto brother style like high-profile gangsters.
With all genres of rap infiltrating the masses, hip-hop fashion turned the world upside down, inside out, and even backwards for a time, as kiddie rap duo Kris Kross brought backwards fashion to the forefront. Oversized, baggy pants hung so low that waists had to be cinched tight around the tops of the thighs so they wouldn’t fall to the floor. Boxer shorts were the only thing that saved one’s modesty from complete exposure, when XXL t-shirts were hiked up in the front to show off the kids’ boxer shorts and low-riding pants. Colors were bright in Afrocentric shades of orange, green, yellow and red, and African emblems took the place of gold chains. Street labels like Cross Colors, Fubu, Enycee, X-Large and other young designers created street clothes specific to the hip-hop phenomenon.
Hip-hop now is a mix of old school tracksuits and sneakers, designer labels like Tommy Hillfiger and new school labels like Da Bomb and Stop Hatin’. Hip-hop is more than fashion, more than the music, or even the attitude. Hip-hop is the heartbeat of the urban street culture, beating to the rhythm of a nation that is not just black or white, but multi-cultural and diverse.