The Origins of Hip Hop Music

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You hear it when you tune into your radio.

You see it fashioned when you’re walking through the streets.

You listen to it being spoken through slang words people speak.

Love it or hate it, you certainly can’t deny it, Hip-Hop is everywhere.

This relatively young music genre which started in America has now taken over the entire globe. 

Rising up from the shadowy underground to the mainstream spotlight through it’s relentless journey.

How hip are you to the beginnings of this now house-hold genre though?

Do you know exactly where it was started, the many influences it originally drew from and who the pioneers of the music are?

Unless you are a true Hip-Hop head, you probably don’t know how this breakthrough genre came to be and the fascinating grass-roots story behind it.

Let’s rewind to the origins of Hip-Hop so you can keep your musical knowledge fresh as a flat top fade.

The Borough That Birthed Hip-Hop

“So you thought that hip-hop had its start out in Queensbridge? If you pop that junk up in the Bronx you might not live!” – Krs One, Legendary Hip Hop MC

The revolutionary sound of hip-hop was born in the Bronx borough of New York.

Now there has been endless debate about the validity of this, even sparking off heated feuds between rappers who claim differently.

However it is now widely accepted in the Hip Hop community that the Bronx is where it originally started.

The First Hip Hop Show Ever

The story of the first Hip-Hop performance has since become a legend, almost mystical.

Again there is a lot of debate on the exact details of how it went down which may have been lost in translation over the years.

This is how it has been written in Hip-Hop history though:

A Jamaican born Bronx resident by the name of Clive Campbell, DJ name of Kool Herc put on a party for his sister Cindy on August 11th 1973.

It was a back to school party that they hosted in the recreation room of their apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, South Bronx.

The venue was small and stuffy with enough space to squeeze up to around 300 people.

first ever hip hop concert kook herc 1973

Dj Kool Herc had been heavily inspired and influenced by both his father who was a musical technician and his upbringing in Jamaica Kingston.

His father Keith Campbell was very involved with music. He was a part of a band, had a huge record collection plus musical equipment that his son would later become skilled with.

Clive’s child-hood in Kingston Jamaica surrounded him with the sights and vibrations of street sound-systems that boomed the rhythms of dub, reggae and dancehall. He watched eager-eyed as DJ’s would set up parties in the street and bring people together through the music they played.

This left a burning impression on the young Clive Campbell, planting the seeds that would become the catalyst of a new sound that he would help spark.

Just as street DJ’s and travelling sound systems of Jamaica spread the sound of their popular music, Dj Kool Herc adapted this idea and was the first to set up a sound-system party that blasted a whole new kind of music. What would come to be known as Hip-Hop.

With two trusty vinyl turn-tables hooked up to a amp, Kool Herc rocked the party at Sedgwick Avenue. It would be the first of many “jams” in the Bronx.

Herc had also pioneered a certain DJ-ing technique that is still definitive of Hip-Hop Music to this day: break-beating, (breaks for short).

He would play the same record on two turn-tables and keep spinning one of the records back to break of the drum-beat.

This would extend the sound of the drum beat, the part in the song that he noticed people loved the most.

Break-beating became the backbone of hip-hop music which other pioneering DJ’s such as Afrika Bambaata would also use.

It also fuelled the popularity of an emerging type of dance known as b-boying or break-dancing as it would later be named.

This off the wall and wildly energetic form of dancing identified itself with the music and became one of the corner-stones of Hip-Hop culture.

The Early Influences of the Genre and Further Innovations

As Hip Hop parties became more regular in the Bronx, with DJ’s setting up their systems in rec’ rooms, abandoned buildings and local parks, more original techniques were invented and included into the sound of Hip-Hop.

Perhaps the most famous one being “Scratching”, invented by Theordore Livingston who went by the DJ name of Grand Wizard Theodore. The Grand Wizard came up with the technique whilst experimenting at home on a Technics SL-1200 turntable.

He noticed that the record would automatically return back to the correct RPM even when he jigged it back and forth on the plate with his fingers. Something that a lot of previous turn-tables didn’t do.

He thought the sound that the record made when being scratched was fly’ and started doing it at his shows. Scratching soon caught on and trended amongst other DJ’s who developed the technique even further.

They would battle it out against each other in live performances to see who could scratch a record in the most impressive and ear pleasing ways.

Scratching has been used in hip-hop and other sub-genres ever since and is the most recognizable DJ technique associated to Hip-hop music.

Another DJ-ing technique to become an integral part of the genre is known as cutting. Invented by Grandmaster Flash another Bronx resident who was most famous for his hit record “The Message” with his group the Furious Five.

Flash also invented this technique when experimenting with his equipment at home.

Cutting is the technique of playing the same record on two turn-tables and pulling each record back and forth to repeat a certain lyric or piece of music in the song.

This produces the looping effect known as cutting. A technique that has had audiences hooked to Hip-Hop ever since.


Asides from DJ’s and the new innovations they were bringing to the music, MC’s (commonly spelt emcees) also started to come into the picture. 

Short for Master of Ceremonies, these were the guys and gals who would speak into the microphone whilst the DJ played. Also inspired from the reggae and dancehall music of Jamaica where there would be a “toaster” who would chant over the music the DJ was playing to hype up the crowd.

These Hip-Hop Emcee’s would become known as Rappers. Singing stylistic rhymes over the beats that the DJ’s spun.

One of the first hip-hop MC’s at the time was Coke La Rock. He was the Master of Ceremonies when DJ Kool Herc played his shows, shouting out people in the audience and stringing simple rhymes together that flowed with the beats.

Mc’ing added another original element to the music that would gel within the genre. Later as competition between MC’s grew, more complex lyrics and robust rhyming styles developed. Even though Hip-Hop music and MC’ing were joint to the hip, you could now class MC’ing as an art-form in itself as it begun to take a life of its own.

Apart from the DJ’s and MC’s that helped to shape Hip-Hops unique sound there were numerous musical influences from other genres that also played a big part in creating Hip-Hop.

Leading up to the time when Hip-Hop began to surface, Disco, Soul, funk, R+B and Motown were the popular genres during the 60’s and early 70’s.

Artists like James Brown and the Jackson 5 were topping the charts. Hip Hop DJ’s would take tracks from these genres and infuse them with the beats and the DJ’ing techniques they invented. The new sound that they produced was Hip-Hop.

The greater affordability of drum machines and other electronic music equipment during this period also helped to boost Hip-Hops explosive growth in popularity.

More and more people wanted to be a part of this new wave of music and now they could now easily become a part of it.

DJ’s, MC’s and Breakdancers started to pop up everywhere. It was a craze that bubbled from the Bronx and spilled over the rest of New York.

Hip-Hop’s Social Roots

The Bronx in the 1970’s was a very socially deprived area. Many of the buildings were derelict, violent gangs roamed the streets and a local municipality hardly existed.

The middle class that existed there before had uprooted and moved to the suburbs, taking most of the local economy with it.

On top of this the nationwide recession had hit the area hard and the industry that existed there previously had drastically declined.

Unemployment rates were at all time highs and so were the amount of people on welfare.

The majority of locals who lived in the area were of African and Hispanic decent.

Times were tough and the people had to get by with very little and not much to do. Which is why they often turned to crime.

It’s important to note that conditions such as these were the social and physical environment that birthed Hip-Hop at its roots.

The forgotten younger generation of the time expressed themselves through this new art form almost out of a sense of desperation.

They created something truly special out of the fragments of a broken society.

The environment around them was grim and their future prospects bleak but Hip-Hop gave them a vibrant new outlet.

The parties that DJ’s threw united the local people and gave them something fun to enjoy.

It was a current of artistry that they owned.

A culture that they could identify with.

An escape from the everyday turmoil that they were surrounded by.

Party Songs

The first Hip-Hop songs were very much feel good party songs and tongue and cheek self-boasting songs by Emcees. Music that everyone could get down to. That was what Hip-Hop’s original ethos, fun, unity and having a good time through positive expression.

It was only later in the 80’s where Hip-Hop artists started to include social commentary in their lyrics that it took a more socially conscious tone. The original being “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious 5.

Generations of socially and politically minded Hip-Hop acts would then follow. This did something profound for the people of the genre, who were mainly out casted by the rest of society due to their socio-economic class, it gave them a voice.

Now they could share their points of view, living standards and depict their life experiences through their music and audiences from all backgrounds were listening.

In this way, Hip-Hop became a platform from which they could raise awareness and influence societal change.

The “fad” that never faded

Back in the 70’s when it first hit the public, many of those on the outside looking in didn’t think this new think dubbed “Hip-Hop” was going to last.

They thought it was just a new fad that the younger generation were in a craze over.

They didn’t really acknowledge it as an actual music genre, probably because it was so different from anything else that had come before it.

They expected it to be here today and gone tomorrow.. but it didn’t.

Like a tornado twisting out of control and swallowing everything in its path, this thing called Hip-Hop was unstoppable.

It spread across New York like wildfire. DJ’s, MC’s, Break Dancers and Graffiti Artists were found in every Borough of New York.

Street Parties, Club Nights and Underground Venues would stay playing Hip-Hop until the early hours of the morning all over the city.

People would travel hours from Borough to Borough to see their favourite Hip-Hop artists perform.

Dj’s and Mc’s from different neighbourhoods would spur each other in competition in order to produce the hottest new sounds or freshest new lyrics.

They continued to mould the music in ever more diverse ways, experimenting with new sounds, techniques and styles.

It was a very exciting time for the genre, as the vast melting pot of those involved constantly mixed and elevated the music in new ways. 

From the Big Apple To The Big Wide World

Since it’s beginnings in the Bronx Hip-Hop has now become a World-Wide phenomenon which is still going strong to this day.

From the favellas of Rio De Janiero to the Streets of Seoul you will find Hip-Hop culture in every corner of the globe.

Whether that is Hip-Hop DJ’ing, Mc’ing, Breakdancing or Graffiti Writing. Each and every aspect of Hip-Hop is never to far away.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an Inuit head-spinning in an igloo somewhere or dropping some sick flows.  Oh wait…

Though the Hip-Hop music that we see in the mainstream in this day and age may look and sound a lot different that it’s original forms, as it has lived through many different types of styles and sub-genres. 

All the original elements that built Hip-Hop music still exist under the surface. Dj’ing, Mc’ing and expressing yourself through raw, street-born rhythm and sound.

Now you can stay Hip to the origin story of this amazing art-form and keeping Hopping to the beat.

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