Friday, October 15, 2010

A Short History of American Hip Hop

By Gamal Hennessy

Earlier this week I posted an article about the erosion of hip hop heritage and the reasons behind it. Now I’d like to follow up with a brief history of the hip hop genre to put the art form in perspective. This history is primarily based on my own experience and memory (because I‘m pretty old) but I don‘t claim that this is definitive. I’m also not saying one era is better or worse. I just want to highlight the history and evolution of the genre to show how rich and complex it actually is.

Classic or Old School Hip Hop (1978-1983) This is the recognized beginning of the genre when Caribbean dance hall toasting merged with DJ’s spinning records at block parties and house parties to create a new form of music. Recognized artists from this period include Kurtis Blow, The Fearless Four, Salt & Pepa, the Sugarhill Gang and UTFO. This period roughly begins with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and ends with the rise of Eric B and Rakim.

Golden Age Hip Hop (1984-1995) This is the age when rap adopted a radio friendly four minute structure and production qualities of the records increased. Rap began to branch out here, with one set of artists (like the Beastie Boys and the Fresh Prince) becoming more accepted in the mainstream and another camp (Public Enemy and X-Clan) becoming more antagonistic to the social status quo. This was also the period where local rivalries bubbled over into more violent exchanges. Well known acts from the Golden Age include A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, NWA, Naughty by Nature, Tupac, and the Wu Tang Clan. This period generally begins with Eric B and ends with the death of the Notorious BIG.

Regional Hip Hop (1995-2007): At this point, hip hop was a universal genre in American music. The rap video was a staple on MTV and rap artists began to dominate the music charts. Artists from different parts of the country began to establish their own flavor of hip hop to compete with the music coming out of New York and LA. Cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, New Orleans, St. Louis and other urban hubs all produced successful hip hop acts and redefined the sound. Critics point to this as the period where image and packaging became more important than lyrical talent and originality, but its commercial success can’t be discounted. This period included artists like Common, Eminem, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Ludacris, Nas, Nelly, OutKast, and Snoop Dog. This era generally begins with the rise of Puff Daddy and ends with the emergence of T-Pain.

Mainstream Hip Hop (2007- ): Hip hop now goes beyond its own genre and has become an almost required element of popular music. Many pop, R&B, reggae, and rock songs feature a hip hop artist collaborations as a way to boost sales. House and techno mixes of hip hop songs are common. Far from being a passing fad in entertainment, hip hop is now a recognized spring board for an artist to branch out into acting, music production and even corporate management. Drake, Kid Cudi, Lil Wayne, Lupe Fiasco and T.I. have found success in this period which might be the most lucrative era in all of hip hop. The mainstream period starts with T-Pain and shows no sign of slowing down.

As I said earlier this week, I don’t mean to suggest that the rappers listed in each category only were only successful in one era. Many artists have had long term careers. I am suggesting that hip hop has a rich history spanning more than three decades and a cultural influence that is just as strong, if not stronger than other forms of American music. That music deserves to be studied and preserved in the same manner as the music of Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and the Beatles. Anything else is a rejection of what hip hop means to nightlife culture specifically and American culture in general.

Have fun.

Special Thanks: Alysse Jordan, the head of the Social Work Library at Columbia University and a reader of New York Nights, informed me that contrary to my assertion earlier this week, there are historians and scholars working to preserve hip hop music. Anyone who is interested can find more information at these sites:

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