The Def Jam Generation
The Emergence of Hip-Hop
Hip-hop culture emerged out of an atmosphere of disappointment and disillusionment. By the '70s, the era of the Civil Rights Movement had definitely ended, but for African-Americans in many parts of the United States, the struggle for full civic and economic participation was not finished. Political progress was evident: black legislators served at every level of elected government, mayors like Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson and Detroit’s Coleman Young signaled and instituted significant changes in the south and the north, and affirmative action policies sought to address the legacy of centuries of closed opportunities. But the crack epidemic was decimating cities all over the country, with African-Americans as its major casualties; integrated schools and neighborhoods were slowly re-segregating as white flight from the cities intensified, removing economic opportunities to the suburbs; and the specter of the welfare queen, invoked by politicians reasserting free-market policies, hid the truths of black families shackled by generational poverty. If you looked, you could see that the rising economic tides heralded since the end of World War II had left black refugees in the troubled urban centers.
Out of one of these troubled urban centers came hip-hop. Specifically, it came out of the Bronx, New York City, which had become an unwilling symbol of modern urban dystopia when a national audience watched the borough smoldering in the background of the 1977 World Series. In the '70s, the Bronx was burning, but it was also creating a cultural movement that was about to set the world on fire.
Hip-hop was born in the neighborhood, where young people gathered in parks, on playgrounds, and on street corners, to speak poetry over mechanical sounds and borrowed melodies. Rapping and DJ-ing were at the center of this emerging culture, but hip-hop was always bigger than just the music. Hip-hop was also break dancing, the gymnastic dance style that valued improvised, angular athleticism over choreographed fluidity. And hip-hop was fashion: hats, jackets, gold chains, brand sneakers. Hip-hop was graffiti, too-a new form of expression that employed spray paint as the medium and subway walls as the canvas. The police called it vandalism; the people called it art.
From the beginning, hip-hop was aggressive and oppositional, a break from the musical traditions it followed. Jazz had refused to be on time, rock and roll had refused to be quiet, and hip-hop refused to be melodic. Rappers didn’t have a band, they had a turntable; the music was not about the skillful arrangement of instruments but about the skillful production of sounds. When rap music included traditional melodies, they were more often compositions that others had made, “samples” from funk or R&B, borrowed from black music predecessors like James Brown. Most hip-hop music today is made up of more than the rapper and a DJ that made straight “rap” music back in the day— the most popular songs have a hook, a catchy chorus that breaks up the rapped verses. But then as now, hip-hop music is about the manipulation of sounds, the layering of beats, bass lines, sound effects, the voice of the MC, the melody of the hook.
In today’s hip-hop, the producer has replaced the DJ as the key music-maker, and the studio has overtaken the park. But some things, like attitude, have stayed the same. An example of hip-hop today: 'Forever,' featuring newcomer Drake and three of the biggest stars in the game, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Eminem.
Hip-hop has always had a chip on its shoulder: From its beginnings, the music had been defined by the artists’ anger. Anger at being poor, black, disenfranchised, abused, stereotyped, blamed, mistreated, ignored. Hip-hop music has been built, too, on the rejection of middle-class values; the refusal to be incorporated into larger (white) society; and an insistent allegiance to the rules of “the streets,” where despite the problems, people live without the hypocrisy and corruption endemic to “the system.” Of course, hip-hop is often joyful, silly, amusing, even exuberant. But for thirty years, this music has served as the primary mode of artistic expression for poor, urban blacks, and anger has been a major defining characteristic.
Many audiences, especially within the older generations, disapproved of this new subculture, though their disapproval could not stop hip-hop from spreading. This resistance to the music grew in the late '80s with the arrival of “gangsta rap.” Gangsta rap was hardcore, no question; rappers talked about drug selling and smoking, sex and prostitution, gang violence and thug life. Most infamously, N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” (1988) drew a lot of attention in the media, which interpreted the songs as encouraging violence against authorities. But N.W.A. and other artists were unapologetic about their music and their messages; in their view, they were being real about life on the streets. Though this was only one strand of the culture, all of hip-hop came to be viewed as glorifying violence, drug use, and other behaviors that encouraged impressionable youths to rip apart the social fabric.
In the case of N.W.A., the group’s antagonism would prove prophetic. In 1992, it became clear that the Compton-bred group had accurately articulated the fury about police brutality against blacks in their neighborhood, as the world watched L.A. burn in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. At the time of Def Comedy Jam’s introduction in the early '90s, the hip-hop featured most in the media was the music at its scariest: irate, hedonistic, belligerent. Rap was defined by aggressive outsiders who would destroy the inside before they would be integrated into it. They declared, in 2Pac’s words: “I got nothing to lose—it’s just me against the world.”
The gangsta rap trend intensified another aspect of hip-hop culture that continues to draw legitimate criticism: misogyny. Rap music has been male-dominated from the beginning, and hip-hop culture has tended to build up black men at the expense of black women. In lyrics and in music videos, women are often envisioned as either obstacles for male prerogatives (bitches) or receptacles for male desire (hos). Women inside and outside of the industry have pushed against the misogyny in hip-hop, from Queen Latifah’s 1990 single that put “Ladies First,” to Spelman College and Essence magazine’s 2005 “Take Back the Music” conference and campaign, which insisted that women deserved a bigger space in hip-hop than just as video girls. Certainly, many female hip-hop artists have been as big as the biggest male rappers: Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-n-Pepa, TLC, Lil’ Kim, Eve, Missy Elliott. But these women continue to be the exception. Moreover, the shortage of women in hip-hop goes all the way up the chain, from rappers through to industry executives: Plenty of women listen to hip-hop, but too few make it.