Hip-hop was born in New York in the 1970s. There’s some disagreement over the first use of the term “hip-hop” or “rap” to describe the burgeoning music, but it’s widely agreed upon that it was started by African-American DJs in the Bronx in the late 1970s. DJ Kool Herc is often credited with first using two record players to create the beats and breaks we associate with hip- hop. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five coined the term “hip-hop,” and The Sugarhill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight,” putting “rap” on the map.
Hip-hop is a distinctive American art form.
There’s bravado, bragging, one-upmanship. And it’s beautiful. Who is the best? Who sold the most? Who is most respected? Who is not to be trifled with? It’s the musical equivalent of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants. It’s so American it could only have been founded here.
So many rappers write odes to American cities that their names become linked with the place. Jay-Z, New York. Kanye West, Chicago. Ludacris, Atlanta. Eminem, Detroit. The Roots, Philadelphia. Dr. Dre, Los Angeles. And so on. They tell the tales of those cities — broken and unhappy or glistening and successful, sometimes all of those at once.
A common thread in hip-hop music is the biographical story told by each rapper. They’re not all the same story, though they do often follow a similar theme.
The lyrics speak of triumph over adversity and very much living the American dream. So much of hip-hop is about starting at the bottom and climbing to the top. No one has a hip-hop career handed to them. There’s no way not to have to work.
Recent rap phenomenon Cardi B got her start on the reality show Love & Hip Hop. On the show, her producer doesn’t take her seriously, and she frequently has to fight to be heard. There’s no way to skip the line to hip-hop success. Nearly everyone on Love & Hip Hop, which has franchises in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Miami, is trying to make it in the business of hip-hop. So far, Cardi is the biggest star to emerge. Most of the others never will.
Every few years, a cable news segment or an article will hit alleging that rap music negatively impacts American culture. That’s nonsense.
Bill O’Reilly has famously targeted hip-hop acts, from Ludacris to Jay-Z, in his segments, at one point arguing that hip-hop was responsible for the decline of Christianity in America. Perhaps he’s watching Kanye West’s Sunday Service and rethinking now. The album West released last year, Jesus is King, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart.
On his hit song “DNA,” Kendrick Lamar samples Geraldo Rivera saying, “Hip-hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism.” How can music be more damaging than dehumanizing discrimination? The very idea is offensive.
Most complaints against rap, however, sound like they are stuck in the 1990s. Hip-hop is hardly still the land of thuggery. There aren’t gangland shootouts between the coasts anymore. Tupac Shakur was killed on September 13, 1996, nearly 24 years ago. Notorious B.I.G. died six months later. It’s time to let go of the narrative that hip-hop and violence are somehow intertwined.
It’s long past the time to accept hip-hop as part of mainstream American culture.
Today, some of the biggest hip-hop artists never rap about drugs or guns. Kanye West may be producing church music now, but even before his shift none of his albums were ever about shootouts or how much crack he was slinging. Drake, one of the highest-selling rappers of his generation, never raps about how many guns he totes. Lizzo, arguably the biggest star of 2019, is all body positivity and living your best life.
That’s not to say that “beefs” don’t happen in hip-hop anymore. Of course they do. But they are solved lyrically. One of the most famous ones, between Nas and Jay-Z, was squashed when Nas was signed to Jay-Z’s record label and they appeared on a song together. The continued maligning of hip-hop as violent music is unfounded.
And yes, it is music. Hip-hop is just the latest of genres to have to defend itself from the accusation that it’s not “music.” The 2006 song “That’s How We Do It” by British rap group US3 includes this thought:
The same critics talking trash and dissing rap
Listen to jazz, rhythm and blues and classical gas
Maybe they never studied the past or just don’t mind
That jazz wasn’t considered a music at one time.
Rock ’n’ roll wasn’t always “music” either. My grandmother would yell to turn off that “dog howling” when my father would listen to the Beatles.
It’s long past the time to accept hip-hop as part of mainstream American culture. In 2018, hip-hop surpassed rock to become the most popular music genre. Like any genre, it’s not for everyone. There are certainly some bad words, some bad themes. But the same can be said for rock or country, two styles rarely smeared as inappropriate. Embracing hip-hop doesn’t mean endorsing those themes any more than listening to Johnny Cash means you think it’s all right to shoot someone in Reno just to watch them die or listening to the Grateful Dead means you support Casey Jones driving that train, high on cocaine. It’s just music, and that’s OK.
Karol Markowicz is a writer in New York City. She can be followed on Twitter: @karol.