What Is Hip-Hop?

The term hip-hop made its first appearance at parties. Keith Cowboy, of the group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, started using the term around 1975, and it was then adopted by other popular rappers of the time.

Kid Creole, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

“On that term Hip Hop. A friend of ours named Billy was about to go to the Army, I think this was ’75. We had a party…. This was Billy’s last weekend before shipping out, and Cowboy was on the mic playin’ around doing that Army cadence: Hip/Hop/Hip/Hop. But he was doin’ it to music and people was diggin’ on it…. Cowboy was the first one I heard do that to music, as part of his crowd response.”

Grandmaster Caz, Cold Crush Brothers

“Hip-hop was a word that was first coined by Keith Cowboy and made popular by Lovebug Starski. It was like a bridge between what you were saying, like you’re saying a rhyme, and then you get to the end of it and you’re going, “to the hip, the hop, the hip hip, the hop, it don’t stop.”

The term was then picked up by the media covering the music at the time. Afrika Bambaataa applied the term to the entire scene, presenting the scene to members of the press as a fully formed movement.

Afrika Bambaataa

“[The term hip-hop] was really from my brothers Love Bug Starski and Keith Cowboy, who were using it in their rhymes. So when [the media] came to ask us what to call the whole thing, I could’ve said the go-off, the jim-jam or whatever. But I remembered the rhymes they were doing, so I said, “We call this whole culture hip-hop.” Because it was hip and you got to hop to the beat.”

Steven Hager

“Fab 5 Freddy introduced me to Afrika Bambaataa, and Afrika Bambaataa told me that the name of the culture was hip-hop. That’s the first time I ever heard the word hip-hop in my life. The first time it appears in print, as far as I know, is when I write my first article for the Village Voice on Afrika Bambaataa [in 1982].”

Hip-Hop Music

Hip-hop generally signifies the musical genre, and the term has spread around the world due to the proliferation of hip-hop albums and singles. Some of the world’s most popular and acclaimed music stars are hip-hop artists. When people express opinions on “the state of hip-hop” and “where hip-hop is going,” they are usually referring to hip-hop as a musical genre.

Lord Jamar, Brand Nubian

“Hip-hop is one of the most influential musics in the world…. There’s so many different genres of hip-hop now. There’s hip-hop that you hear on the radio, and there’s the hip-hop that you don’t get to hear, [where] the flows are dope and they’re moving hip-hop forward in a different kind of way. And there’s hip-hop that you get to hear all the time that’s not doing that, that’s dumbing it down, that’s making it more simple, and they’re not doing what I would like to see done.”

Buckshot, Black Moon

“Hip-hop is surviving, longer than a lot of music has. It’s surviving longer than disco, longer than [other genres]. Hip-hop has changed, but hip-hop is great, man, hip-hop to me is a beautiful, beautiful thing and in a beautiful place because … every time there’s a new young generation there’s a new form to give them, that’s still hip-hop.”

The two main elements that make up hip-hop music are rapping and beatmaking. These are sometimes referred to as simply beats and rhymes, where rhymes refers to rapping, while beats are the instrumental tracks that are rapped over.

Artists and fans often use the term beats and rhymes when they’re talking about the essence of the music. If a song is stripped back to just hard beats and rhymes, it could be considered more authentic than songs with elaborate choruses and melodies, which take the focus off the two central ingredients.

The term beats and rhymes is used often throughout the music, as in the title of A Tribe Called Quest’s album Beats, Rhymes, & Life, and in the lyrics of many other notable artists’ songs, such as Gang Starr’s “Stay Tuned,” De La Soul’s “Verbal Clap,” Queen Latifah’s “Ladies First,” LL Cool J’s “Can’t Think,” and Dilated Peoples’ “20/20.”

Rapping

Rapping, also known as “MCing,” refers to performing lyrics rhythmically to a beat as a type of vocal percussion, often with a heavy emphasis on rhyming and rhyme schemes.

Tech N9ne

“Having the rhythm to being able to stay on beat, it made me sort of like a percussionist. I always wanted to play drums, so if you listen to my flow it’s like I’m beating on bongos or something.”

Rah Digga

“I like all the phrases, the whole line, to rhyme if I can help it. Instead of just the last two syllables in the line and two lines that rhyme, I like to rhyme four, five, six, seven syllables, like the whole line if I could, for as long as I can.”

This is done by a rapper or MC (“master of ceremonies”)—these two terms are usually used interchangeably with no difference in meaning, although some artists make distinctions. “MC” is sometimes used to imply a greater degree of live performance skill.

Buckshot, Black Moon

“A rapper is somebody who can rap on the mic and sound good and flow good and do it onto a beat and everything. An MC can grab that mic and control a party [like] Doug E. Fresh … he’s a master of the ceremony, he’s an MC.”

One Be Lo, Binary Star

“Okay, I’m gonna be real picky about this. To me it’s the difference between a rapper and an MC. Some people make amazing albums which makes them great, [where you say,] “He’s a great recording artist, but he ain’t a great MC, he can’t rock the crowd.” Most artists in general, I just think cats don’t know how to rock the mic [at a live event]. Even people that’s making amazing music, they still don’t know how to perform. A lot of these cats, regardless of their level of talent and skill or whatever, they just don’t know how to rock the crowds, so that’s some MC shit to me. MCing is something totally different to me and only very few people can do that.”

Another use of the terms is to suggest that “rappers” are more commercially focused and less skillful, while “MCs” are more genuine, authentic, and proficient.

KRS-One

“An MC is a representative of hip-hop culture. A rapper is representative of corporate interests. An MC can be a rapper, but a rapper will never be an MC. What we have today, are rappers.”

MC Lyte

“When you’re an MC, you completely know the difference, you know what’s real. You know what’s generated from the heart when you hear it. When I listen to [artists like] Nas, Jay-Z, those are MCs. But then you have rappers … they’re kinda skating along, they’re not risk takers.”

Contradicting this, however, is the use of the term rapper to describe artists who are credible and authentic, as described by equally knowledgeable hip-hop practitioners. This is usually because they are using rapper as a general term for someone who raps.

DJ Premier

“[Jay-Z or Nas] … they rhyme differently. I think Nas is a iller lyricist on the mic, where Jay, it’s not really an MC thing. Nas is an MC, Jay’s a rapper, to me. But he’s a good rapper though.”

Chuck D, Public Enemy

“I must point out that if you had to look in a book for the definition of a rapper you would probably see a picture of Jay-Z.”

The definitions of the two terms regularly change from artist to artist, along with who is an MC and who isn’t. Even though they are used interchangeably the vast majority of the time, there is still a lot of contention around the definitions of the terms and how they should be used.

Beatmaking

Beatmaking refers to hip-hop production—creating the musical backing that accompanies the rapping. This can be made in various ways: production equipment, “beatboxing” (where someone creates rhythmic drum sounds vocally), with a live band, or through a DJ manipulating records. There are some hip-hop releases that are actually just beats—this is generally referred to as “instrumental hip-hop,” as heard on DJ Shadow’s classic 1996 album, Endtroducing.

Tech N9ne

“The beats tell me exactly what to do [when I’m rapping]. If the beats are not knocking, it won’t motivate me to write anything. The beats tell me exactly what to do, the music moves me—the music makes me do it.”

Del the Funky Homosapien

“The marriage between lyric and music is paramount. This is why artists can get away with saying nothing basically and still have a hot song—the first layer of musical pleasure is the sheer enjoyment of the sound of the music itself.”

Beats are made by a beatmaker or a producer. In other genres of music, a producer’s job is generally to record a live band and make decisions about the overall sound of the record, often giving input into how the vocalist and musicians actually play the song. 

However, in hip-hop, the person who actually makes the musical backing is almost always credited as the producer, whether they provide this kind of input or not—the term producer in hip-hop is synonymous with the person who creates the music that will be rapped over. However, some hip-hop artists do make a distinction despite this widespread usage of the term producer.

Shock G, Digital Underground

“I don’t consider myself a producer, I’m just a musician who likes to mix and arrange stuff a bit. I never really “produced,” per se, meaning I didn’t shape or groom the other artists. I’d just take an idea as far as I could take it, and then leave the holes for the next rapper or musician to add their thing to it. I’m not the type to “shape” someone else’s career … real producers help with all that stuff. If telling whoever is in the booth “yay or nay” as to whether they should redo a vocal or not, if that’s considered producing, then everybody in Digital Underground was a “producer,” because we all did that for each other. Whoever was at the board when you’re in the booth was your producer, even the pizza guy. I wasn’t 2Pac’s producer, I was his piano player and keyboardist, his samplist, and so was Big D, who was also his DJ. Sure, maybe I stayed behind with the engineer to help mix the tracks that I laid, but does that make me a producer? Dr. Dre is a producer. Rick Rubin is a producer. Puffy is a producer for what he did with Biggie, because if you take Puffy out of the picture, a major hole is left in Biggie’s program. But if you take any of 2Pac’s beatmakers out of 2Pac’s equation, you’d still have the same glorious—and tragic—career, just different music. Therefore, 2Pac was essentially his own producer, making his rounds and gathering his tracks and collaborators.”

There are occasions where the term producer is used to suggest someone is more skilled than being “just” a beatmaker, though these terms are not as heavily contested as MC and rapper.

Hip-Hop Culture

While this guide focuses on hip-hop as a genre of music, the musical elements are often said to be part of a broader hip-hop culture which contains additional “elements.” As well as rapping and beatmaking (sometimes referred to as “DJing,” because beatmaking evolved from DJing), it also includes the form of dance known as b-boying (commonly referred to as breakdancing by those outside the b-boying community) and also graffiti art.

Afrika Bambaataa, along with his Universal Zulu Nation, is widely acknowledged as having grouped these four elements together under the name “hip-hop.”

Afrika Bambaataa

“Hip-hop is different elements dealing with music, rap, graffiti art, b-boys, what you call break boys, or b-girls, what you call break girls. 21 The Zulu Nation has pushed [hip-hop] under the whole culture and we’re the ones that brought it under the elements—the DJs, the MCs, the graffiti writers, the b-boys and b-girls—so we could make this whole cultural movement that’s called hip-hop.”

This idea of the culture of hip-hop was then spread by the media, particularly in the early 1980s. As shown earlier, journalist and author Steven Hager is noted as one of the first journalists to write about hip-hop.

Speaking with Afrika Bambaataa led to his use of the term hip-hop to describe the culture and the elements in one of the first published articles on hip-hop in 1982, as well as writing the book Hip-Hop in 1984. The grouping of these elements featured heavily in many early ’80s movies and books, such as Wild Style and Style Wars.

Steven Hager

“Bambaataa was smart enough to realize that they needed an overarching name to describe the culture—what it was. And so he used the name hip- hop. But the name hip-hop had never been used by anybody else.”

Jeff Chang

“Hager made explicit what most other journalists had not, that the subcultures of b-boying, rap and graffiti were related. He wrote a book called Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti, tying together the [elements].”

The idea of hip-hop culture and its four elements of MCing, DJing, b-boying, and graffiti has been widely adopted by many people, including other notable hip-hop artists.

Grandmaster Caz

“Graffiti is just as important in the culture of hip-hop. B-boying. What the media calls break-dancing … b-boying is not a multibillion-dollar industry because they don’t know how to market it that way. But rap? MCing? Oh yeah, it just went through the roof. But it’s only one element of the culture.”

R.A. The Rugged Man

“There are different aspects to hip-hop: graffiti, DJing, the beat-making. For me, as a lyricist, I don’t live all of that other stuff. I see other MCs sign their autographs and make their signatures look like graffiti…. I live my entire life for the lyricism in hip-hop. The culture is so much more broad than just what I do, but that’s my entire life—lyricism and MCing.”

However, there are also people who have been heavily involved with the elements who don’t subscribe to grouping these art forms all under the heading of hip-hop. Prominent 1970s graffiti artists such as BLADE and FARGO suggest that the media spread the idea of the elements, even though it did not accurately represent reality. Pioneering hip-hop DJ and icon Grandmaster Flash has also questioned graffiti’s inclusion as an element.

FARGO

“I don’t see the correlation. The correlation between hip-hop and graffiti, that’s a media thing. And breakdancing—they put that all in one package, so they can identify it, put it in a box. There is no correlation between hip-hop and graffiti, one has nothing to do with the other.”

BLADE

“They put hip-hop, breakdancing, and rap music and graffiti and all this stuff together, because it’s something I guess they thought they could market [for] whatever the hell reason. But it has nothing to do with the original stuff, when [graffiti] writing came along in 1970. It’s got nothing to do with anything … that’s all ’80s stuff.”

Grandmaster Flash

“You know what bugs me, they put hip-hop with graffiti. How do they intertwine? Graffiti is one thing that is art, and music is another.”

An example of the packaging of the elements can be seen in the classic 1983 hip-hop movie Wild Style. The film had a big influence on people’s perception of hip-hop and was one of the first places where all the elements were shown together. However, Charlie Ahearn, who directed the film, states that it did not represent reality.

Grandmaster Caz

“I believe that Wild Style is the first time that all the elements of hip-hop were represented.”

Fab 5 Freddy

“I had read somewhere [that] for a culture to be a complete form, it had to have art, music, and dance. That was the grain of what became Wild Style. I felt that seeing breakdancing, graffiti, rapping, and DJing in a film would only make the culture stronger. I helped explain to people that graffiti was part of hip-hop. It was always something I saw as one cultural movement.”

Charlie Ahearn

“In the summer of 1980, I was making an art show in an abandoned massage parlor in Times Square. Fab 5 Freddy started talking to me about making a movie about graffiti and rap music [which became Wild Style]. Wild Style is like a fantasy, it’s not a documentary. Everything in Wild Style was made for the film, it was to project an image. And people saw that image and they carried it forward and built on that, but that wasn’t really happening, that was just happening for the film.”

Ahearn suggests that the elements were a lot less integrated in reality than people may suggest in retrospect.

Charlie Ahearn

“There were interconnections, but there were no visible signs of it. Like in the whole year that I was in the Bronx before the movie, I saw no b- boying—it simply wasn’t there. It was going on somewhere else. B- boying was considered passé and out of fashion in the Bronx. People remembered it, but when I mentioned that it would be in the movie people would go, “Aww, that’s been played out so long ago!” The MCs really were not into it. The b-boys were not really on the scene at the parties and events except Frosty Freeze. Likewise the people who were down with the graf scene weren’t at those parties. The only one I saw was PHASE 2, because he did the flyers. Lee Quinones was a b-boy when he was a kid bombing trains [with graffiti], but he never went to the parties.”

Of particular contention is the specific inclusion of graffiti as an element of hip- hop. Graffiti icons such as LADY PINK (one of the stars of the film Wild Style) suggest that graffiti should be seen as an independent art in its own right and not just as an element of hip-hop.

LADY PINK

“I don’t think graffiti is hip-hop. Frankly I grew up with disco music. There’s a long background of graffiti as an entity unto itself.”

It is noted by many of the prominent early graffiti writers such as COCO 144, PHASE 2, BLADE, and FUZZ ONE, as well as others throughout graffiti’s history, that many graffiti writers did not and do not listen to hip-hop music. They also assert that modern graffiti’s history pre-dates hip-hop—while hip-hop is widely considered to have been created in 1973 with Kool Herc’s innovation in playing records, graffiti had been developing for a number of years prior to this.

STAY HIGH 149

“I started [writing graffiti] in ’69, man, there was another guy out there, his name was TAKI 183, another guy from the Washington Heights area [of New York]. He was a Greek kid and he started a little bit before I did.”

COCO 144

“I was listening to jazz, Latin jazz, and rock. This was before hip-hop was created. Anybody that does their homework would know graffiti came first.”

PHASE 2

“Fact … there is no way in the world that aerosol [graffiti] culture was spawned from hip-hop … it was going on years before that. Aerosol culture was there before anyone even conceived of a thing called hip- hop. Many [graffiti] writers never listened to rap, many writers were more partial to headbanging than head-spinning and a huge amount of rappers, breakers [dancers], and so-called “hip-hoppers” couldn’t tell you the first thing about [graffiti] writing.”

FUZZ ONE

“Graffiti came first, before everything else…. Before 1978, the graffiti soundtrack was more Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull, Ted Nugent, Black Sabbath, [Bachman Turner Overdrive], the Eagles, and Lynryd Skynyrd.”

BLADE

“When I was writing [graffiti], there was no hip-hop, there was no … there was none of that stuff. When we came along, we were listening to Sly & the Family Stone.”

A number of graffiti writers and scholars suggest that while graffiti and hip-hop have interacted with each other at various points, this does not necessarily mean that graffiti is an element of hip-hop.

Buddy Esquire

“The only connection I could see is rap and graffiti are both from the ghetto, a lot of the original writers from back in the days came from the ghetto, so maybe that is why they can identify it as such. But also since every writer is not from the ghetto, not every writer is going to associate themselves with [hip-hop].”

Joe Austin

“The lack of a common hip-hop formation before the early to mid-1980s means that [graffiti] writing has more than a decade of history before rap broke onto the popular music scene, and their later development, while connected, is by no means determining.”

B-boying has also distanced itself from hip-hop as a genre of music. B-boys often prefer to dance to other genres, such as the records that the original hip- hop DJs played and sampled from, rather than to music made by hip-hop artists.

Joseph Schloss

“Due to the nature of the movements, the music cannot be significantly sped up or slowed down without altering the form of the dance. In fact, when the tempo of hip-hop music began to slow down in order to better emphasize the words of its MCs, b-boys collectively decided that, rather than change the dance to fit the new tempos, they would actually reject hip-hop music. To this day, dancers rarely break to contemporary hip- hop … [this] has reinforced the dance’s estrangement from rap music.”

Phantom, Ready to Rock, Mighty Zulu Kings

“I was introduced, basically, to James Brown, Jimmy Castor Bunch, and the rest of my life listened to that music and enjoyed that music and did the dance that went along with it … that’s the original essence of the dance. It was inspired by that music…. You gotta keep doing it…. We were passed down those records, and now it’s our time to pass those records down.”

Hip-Hop Vs. Rap

Another area of contention, similar to rapper vs. MC, is the use of the terms hip- hop and rap. When someone makes a distinction, they sometimes use hip-hop to refer to the culture and rap to refer to the music, or to just rapping, as an element of the culture. In this context, “rap” doesn’t have a negative connotation, it’s simply being used to describe one part of a bigger whole.

Grandmaster Caz

“Rap is one thing; hip-hop is something else. Hip-hop is the entire culture, and rap is just one element of it.”

Afrika Bambaataa

“Rap is part of hip-hop, hip-hop is not part of rap. People have to understand that. We put the term on it, the music “hip-hop,” but now when you say “hip-hop,” people just think, “Oh, you’re talking about a rap record.” And they’re forgetting about the b-boys, the b-girls, graffiti artists, the MCs, and also the knowledge part of hip-hop.”

A variation of this is where hip-hop refers to the culture and the music, as long as it’s music that represents the culture properly, while rap music is used to refer to more commercialized music. In this context, rap takes on a more negative meaning—music that is simply made for profit with no grounding in the culture.

K-Os

“What I hear on the radio … I think it’s rap. I don’t think guys are hanging out with b-boys, checking graffiti, and listening to DJs … you’re not really a part of a hip-hop ecosystem, per se. And that’s a big difference … someone like Mos Def, he made some line about “I used to want to be a b-boy.” All that kind of knowledge changes making songs … I think there’s a love there, you know.”

However, most hip-hop practitioners use the two terms interchangeably to simply refer to the music, and often use the term rap even when talking about very critically acclaimed artists such as Rakim and Run-D.M.C., in direct contrast to the notion that rap describes more commercial music. In this context, hip-hop and rap both just mean the genre of music, with no negative connotations for either.

Big Noyd 

“I grew up around rap music all my life, listening to Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap … and I used to write down a lot of their rhymes.”

Kool G Rap 

“I had to be about nine, ten years old when I first started hearing hip-hop music being played out in the parks.”

2Mex 

“I learned from listening to other rap records like Slick Rick and Run- D.M.C., Doug E. Fresh and Dana Dane, KRS-One … I would just memorize every rap song that I liked.”

Lord Jamar, Brand Nubian 

“Every rap song that I thought was hot back in the day, [I memorized]! “Super Rhymes” by Jimmy Spicer, of course “Rapper’s Delight,” some songs by Spoonie G, “Love Rap,” joints back in the day.”

In fact, artists will often use the two terms within the same sentence to refer to the genre of music.

Tech N9ne 

“There’s something out there for you in the rap world, I love the state of hip-hop.”

Planet Asia 

“Run-D.M.C. is the greatest rap group of all time, I don’t care what nobody says, they put the stamp on what hip-hop was.”

Some hip-hop artists object to the co-opting of hip-hop as a catch-all term, as it is often applied to things that have little or no relation to the music.

Questlove, the Roots

“These days, nearly anything fashioned or put forth by black people gets referred to as “hip-hop,” even when the description is a poor or pointless fit. “Hip-hop fashion” makes a little sense, but even that is confusing: Does it refer to fashions popularized by hip-hop musicians … or to fashions that participate in the same vague cool that defines hip-hop music? Others make a whole lot of nonsense: “Hip-hop food”? “Hip-hop politics”? “Hip-hop intellectual”? And there’s even “hip-hop architecture.” What the hell is that? This doesn’t happen with other genres. There’s no folk-music food or New Wave fashion, once you get past food for thought and skinny ties. There’s no junkanoo architecture.”

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