Hip-Hop Turns 50

4 min read

| By J. Robert Parks |

It may strike readers of a certain age as almost impossible that we could be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the birth of hip-hop music this month. “It hasn’t been around that long, has it?” is not too far off from the reflection “I’m not that old, am I?” Whether you were at the back-to-school party in the Bronx on August 11, 1973, where DJ Kool Herc was deejaying, you came to hip-hop through artists such as The Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, or you are a relative newbie to the genre, Gale In Context: U.S. History has a wealth of information for anyone looking to learn about hip-hop and its evolution. Teachers and librarians who want to educate their students will find plenty of resources.

DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) is often considered the originator of hip-hop. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and immigrated to the Bronx in the late 1960s. When he deejayed at his sister’s party on that August 11, 1973, occasion, he was inspired by reggae music to isolate the percussive breaks in songs. He did so by using two different record players to extend the beat of a song and added what became known as scratching. It wasn’t long before Herc and other MCs (masters of ceremonies) were rapping and singing over the music to add even more creative possibilities.

The desire to determine that eureka moment when a new genre is born is understandable, but it can obscure the cultural underpinnings of a movement as well as other pivotal figures who contributed. Oneka LaBennett provides “her stories” to show how other people—especially women—were significant in the genesis and early years of hip-hop. In their entry from Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, William Boone and James Peterson describe four reasons why the block and yard parties of the 1970s provided such rich soil for hip-hop to grow: deejays used easy-to-dance-to soul classics and popular disco tunes as foundation for their music; the looped breakbeats allowed opportunities for break-dancers to show off their skills; MCs became the voice of the culture through shout-outs and party announcements; and the parties were cheaper to attend than dance clubs. Exploring Gale In Context: U.S. History can lead to discoveries that deepen your connection to pivotal pop-culture movements.

One of the keys but also challenges to understanding hip-hop is exploring the part race has played in its development. An entry in Gale’s Encyclopedia of Race and Racism explores that dynamic and points out that “the relationship between hip-hop and race has been fragmented, decentralized, and, in many ways, fluid.” Many progenitors of hip-hop, such as DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, came from Latin America and the Caribbean. The music took root in the Black and Hispanic neighborhoods in New York City and then quickly spread across the country.

This led to distinct regional styles in hip-hop. Because the first hip-hop records weren’t released until 1979 and didn’t become popular until the early 1980s, the genre branched off organically in a variety of different directions rather than coalescing under one or two identities. This led to fertile experimentation and creativity, but it also provoked friendly and not-so-friendly competition between artists and record labels—the most notorious being the feud that supposedly led to the death of Tupac Shakur.

Gale In Context: U.S. History can help make connections across various fields that were transformed by a singular innovation rooted in everyday events. As hip-hop entered the mainstream, it created ripple effects through various parts of U.S. culture, including fashion, media, and theater—especially with the incredible breakthrough of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton. As with rock music, hip-hop has tried to be the music of the young, but its history and influence show that it can be thought of as mature, just like many of its listeners.

About the Author

J. Robert Parks is a former professor and frequent contributor to Gale In Context: U.S. History and Gale In Context: World History who enjoys thinking about how our understanding of history affects and reflects contemporary culture.

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