Throughout the 20th century black and ethnic groups in America were marginalised and ghettoised; though segregation laws were repealed, on a practical level black people and white people lived separate lives and developed separate cultural identities. Despite progress during the post WWII Civil Rights movement African Americans continued to endure a systematic, sustained attack on their ability to enjoy the economic freedom and social status that the dominant white culture dictated as the norm.
The problems faced by black and ethnic communities in America are the result of centuries of prejudiced US domestic and foreign policy, combined with the legacy of the international slave trade; such economic disparity made these communities a nexus for criminal gang culture, drugs and the resultant health implications. Despite, or perhaps in spite of this, these communities have been responsible for some of the most significant cultural and political change in American over the last hundred years; from civil rights to poetry, dance, art, music and fashion, black culture has influenced and shaped dominant culture in an unprecedented manner.
This essay considers the first two decades of hip-hop culture, as both subcultural phenomenon and countercultural agent of change. The diverse sources from which hip-hop appropriates its codes and conventions will be contrasted with mainstream culture’s appropriation of hip-hop. Visual and historical examples will be used to demonstrate hip-hop aesthetics as both counter hegemonic devices and as major influences on mainstream visual culture. Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (2007) and Charnas’ The Big Payback provide extensive cultural detail and primary research and have been invaluable in the production of this text.
The development of the South Bronx expressway in the 1950’s and 60’s saw established, stable communities destroyed, soaring vacancy rates and the rise of slum landlords. Over the course of a decade construction forced the relocation of 170,000 people; businesses and the more affluent went north whilst the South Bronx became synonymous with urban decay, poverty and deprivation (Guins & Cruz, 2005, p406-407). Against this backdrop crime, street gangs and drug use quickly took hold; the youth of the South Bronx fought back with “an explosion of creativity – an earnest expression of the sufferers – rose above and conquered this seemingly insurmountable environment” (Fernando Jr, 1993, p.2). The South Bronx youth faced the same daily struggle to find meaning, purpose and relief from the grim reality of their environment. (Cohen, 1955, p.59) states that “the crucial condition for the emergence of new cultural forms is the existence, in effective interaction with one another, of a number of actors with similar problems”. In the case of the South Bronx the new cultural form was to be hip-hop.
figure 1 – Graffiti writers like TAKI183 (1971) and STAYHIGH149 (fig. 1a) (circa 1972) used the cityscape and transport systems to create a bricolage canvas, commercially available spray paints (fig. 1b) were re-purposed into emblems of individual agency.
The dissenting graffiti of the protest movement was appropriated by inner city kids for territorial and aesthetic purposes, first in Philadelphia and then by the early 1970’s in New York including the South Bronx; as (Chang, 2011, p87) describes, “Theirs were not political statements. They were just what they were, a strike against their generation’s invisibility and preparation for the coming darkness”. Drawing from the materials at hand, and repurposing them to meet their requirements, figure 1 shows the work of graffiti luminaries TAKI183 and STAYHIGH149 who used the New York urban landscape and spray paint, to create a bricolage canvas and artists pallet. Around this time gang subculture began to re-organise, around a competitive music scene and block parties became a regular part of Bronx life. (Chang, 2011, p.90). The DJ came to prominence as the central figure at such events, figures such as Kool Herc, Affrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash (figure 2) used their skill and knowledge of music to move the crowds whilst innovating new ways of using technology to develop their sound. This bricolage of vinyl music and turntables to create a new sound was soon augmented by a vocal presence; appropriating the rhyming jive of Radio DJ’s and introducing the most current slang. The Master of Ceremonies or ‘MC’ would hype up and calm down the crowds, as this new argot grew in influence and popularity it eventually came to dominate the culture in the form of rap. DJ’s developed new techniques and learnt to isolate and repeat the most popular drum patterns, a competitive dance culture based around these breakbeats began to develop and mature. Break-boys (or b-boys) were the bricoleurs of this new style – combining moves from kung-fu films, jazz dancers like Earl ‘snakehips’ Tucker and moves popularised by James Brown, DJ Afrika Bambaataa says that the song “Get on the Good Foot inspired crowds to imitate the singer’s dance moves”. (Del Barco, 2002); Rose (cited in Guins & Cruz 2005:p408) concurs, “hip-hop artists used the tools of obsolete industrial technology to traverse contemporary crossroads of lack and desire in urban Afro-diasporic communities”.
figure 2 – Grandmaster Flash (circa 1972) works with a bricolage of turntables and other artists records (fig. 2a) to create a new sound.
The birth of hip-hop as a unifying cultural term can be traced back to the late 1970’s, around the time of the song Rapper’s Delight with lyrics like “With a hip, hop, the hipit, the hipidipit , hip, hip, hopit, you don’t stop” (Fernando Jr, 1993, p.13). This umbrella name describing the urban, working class, afro-diasporic and hispanic cultural youth forms of b-boying, graffiti writing, rapping and DJ’ing became the label for a cultural phenomenon that continues to shape the world today. (Williams, 2011, p.2) describes subculture as “a resource from which to develop a positive self-concept, a confidence in non-formative thinking … and a network of support in a world that often feels alienating and unfulfilling”, these new subcultural forms were a pure expression of creativity by the community which they served, invisible to the dominant culture and out of reach of corporate America. The members of this street culture, aware of their marginalised place in society had found an outlet, a place to attain status and identity; the hip-hop subculture gave individuals the opportunity to stand out and achieve acknowledgement with a scene (Williams, 2011, p55). The success of Rapper’s delight exposed hip-hop culture to Black radio, global pop music charts; ironically this success landed at the feet of a manufactured group, The Sugarhill Gang. (Chang, 2011, p146) The notion of authenticity in hip-hop was tested for the first time and what is ‘real’ or ‘unreal’ would go on to become a central tenet of the culture.
figure 3 – Wildstyle, 1982. Charlie Ahearn’s seminal hip-hop film brought the code of the streets to the silver screen, creating a visual glossary of hip-hop culture. Visual conventions: wildstyle graffiti writing, breakdancing on cardboard, ghetto blaster, b-boy poses and the urban environment which continue to hold true to this day.
By the time hip-hop had emerged from New York boroughs like the South Bronx it presented a wealth of material for cultural mining, figure 3 show the motion picture Wildstyle, directed by Charlie Ahearn, who brought an authentic view of the scene to the masses, “the only hip-hop film and soundtrack that adequately conveys the communal thrill of merging with the tide, riding the lightning”, (Chang, 2011, p.201). Wildstyle brought the aesthetics of hip-hop into mainstream consciousness, injecting these new forms into the mass culture for the first time. At the other end of the spectrum the New York scene began an attempt to appropriate graffiti into the art world, artists like Michel Basquiat claimed ‘street art’, a form inspired by graffiti whilst art groups like the Co-Lab collective brought graffiti shows to central Manhattan where dealers pushed writers to create them more complex work and make statements. Numerous graffiti writers made the leap from street to the gallery and beyond, propelling the graffiti aesthetic into the wider visual language (Chang, 2011, p166-167). Decades later the graffiti art form occupies a duality between counter-hegemonic device and commercial tool, figure 3a shows demonstrates Hennessy’s counter-bricolage of the aesthetic to promote their cognac.
figure 3a – original New York graffiti artist FUTURA commissioned by Hennessy to design their 2012 limited edition bottle.
As the various facets of hip-hop gained exposure and popularity in the early 1980’s, several things began to happen. The creativity and innovation of the original subculture continued to thrive as pioneers grew their genres, pushing the boundaries of their form further and further. Many of the key figures began to enjoy commercial success whilst punk bands like The Clash and Blondie both made rap songs, bringing exposure to white audiences and in the case of Blondie’s Rapture (figure 4) becoming the first rap song to be played on MTV. Meanwhile, growing commercial influences played a huge part in continuing to popularise hip-hop, as record labels raced to sign acts and get a product to market. hip-hop’s commodification redefined the subcultural nature of hip-hop to become somewhat more trivial, as (Williams, 2011, p91) states “consumption is an apparatus of those in power to keep subcultural participants busy with their own culture rather than demanding broader social change”. Control over the profit making process quickly transitioned from neighbourhood black / hispanic ownership to white-owned multinational businesses; Rose (cited in Guins & Cruz, 2005, p412) draws a parallel between Hebdige’s work on the Punk movement, suggesting that at this point the hip hop subculture is assimilated by the dominant culture.
figure 4 – Rapture, Blondie 1981. It took a white, punk band to bring hip-hop to MTV; featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat and hip-hop luminary Fab Five Freddy. The video hinted at the heterogenous New York scene whilst foretelling the homogenising effect of hip-hop’s assimilation into mass culture.
(Hebdige, 1979, p94) calls this process recuperation, a point where subculture becomes a “diverting spectacle in the dominant mythology” – his theory proposes a two stage process, firstly the conversion of subcultural signs (music, dress, art) into mass produced objects; and secondly in the labelling and re-definition of deviant behaviour by dominant groups. With the effective means of production in hip-hop already moving to the control of the dominant culture, the path was clear to begin to label deviant behaviours. Becker (cited in Williams 2011, p110) theorised that deviant behaviour, rather than being something that occurred in societies at all times was in fact “only deviant to the extent that such behaviours were labeled as such by those who held power”.
figure 5 – The commodification of hip-hop: Run DMC’s bricolage of Adidas shoes stripped of their laces and heavy gold chains became synonymous with hip hop. Adidas and Nike’s (fig. 5a) appropriation of the hip-hop aesthetic proved to be extremely profitable for both companies.
The mainstream adoption of hip-hop offered access to unprecedented amounts of money and exposure, offering a “precipitous rise in Black entrepreneurship” and realising “the Black Nationalist dream of economic independence” (Charnas cited in Huff, 2011) whilst simultaneously turning hip hop into a spectacle to be recuperated; this is made clear by Hebdige (1979, p96) who notes that as the key signifiers of a subculture become commodities they are codified and made readily understandable, becoming both public property and profitable merchandise. Through their patronage the Rap band Run DMC (figure 5), turned Adidas in to a hip-hop brand and a million dollar plus endorsement contract followed; similarly Nike’s counter-bricolage of the aesthetics of Spike Lee’s movie She’s Gotta Have It propelled the company’s sales past Reebok, the market leader. (Chang, 2011, p431). The dichotomy between subculture and adoption in to the mass culture is considered in Macdonald’s A theory of mass culture (cited in Storey, 2001:p29) which proposes that folk art spontaneously occurs, originating from authentic, grassroots expressions of the people. Conversely Mass Culture is said to be a fabrication of business’, presenting audiences with the choice of buying or not buying, exploiting the cultural desires of the masses to maintain class rule.
Although the boundaries of hip-hop culture, and more specifically rap music had previously been tested by the likes of Blondie and The Clash, a collaboration between Run DMC and Aerosmith (figure 6) cemented the crossover between white rock music and black rap, between mainstream and subculture. Forman (2002:p150) takes the position that this crossover was engineered and timed to coincide with a resurgence of interest in rock music, where images and aesthetic codes of hip-hop culture were carefully merged with the “outlaw stances of white rockers”, and that as inherent differences between the two become blurred, their constructed boundaries began to weaken or collapse. Light (cited in Forman & Neal, 2004, p140) suggests that the crossover was achieved “without compromising what made rap so special, so vibrant”. Irrespective of the motives and mechanics of the crossover rap was in its ascendancy, taking an increasingly prominent role within the mass culture and becoming an increasing area of concern for the neoconservatives of the Reagan and Bush administrations.
figure 6 – Run DMC and Aerosmith played a significant role in bringing hip hop culture into the mainstream consciousness. The 1986 “Walk This Way” video offered a new visual experience, black artists and white artists on stage as equals, the turntables as an instrument, Run DMC’s ubiquitous unlaced Adidas shoes and thick gold jewellery.
With roots in slavery, segregation and civil rights activism, hip-hop was no stranger to politics. The likes of Gil Scott Heron (1969) and The Last Poets (1968) defined rhyme and rhythm as a mode of dissent a decade before the first rap music, hip hop subculture was one of defiance and rappers made this clear in songs like The Message by Grandmaster Flash and Run DMC’s Proud To Be Black. Against a backdrop of inequality rap music became increasingly politicised, the idioms of the civil rights movement were transposed into lyrics with increasing militancy and purpose, Neal (cited Forman & Neal, 2004, p307) suggests that the political potency of hip-hop may have peaked in 1988 with Public Enemy’s It Take a Nation of Millions… and Boogie Down Productions’ By All Means Necessary; both artists used strong visual messages and politicised identities (figure 7) alongside charged lyrics, and made no attempt to hide their counter-hegemonic views. Lusane (cited in Forman & Neal, 2004, p351) proposes an elongated timescale, positing that that duality of hip-hop as a “voice of the alienated, frustrated and rebellious” and as “the packaging of and marketing of social discontent” made rap and rappers an “explosive issue in the politics of power that shaped the 1992 U.S elections”. By the late 1980’s America was in the grip of the Reagan administration’s fiscal and welfare reforms, budgets shifted federal funding from combating poverty to bolstering the military, tax reforms benefited elites whilst 80% of households saw their net worth fall (Chang, 2011, p.236). Whilst Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions voiced dissent from New York, the heartland of Hip Hop, a separate group of artists began to make waves within the West Coast hip-hop scene.
figure 7 – BDP, 1988 employed the visual signs of Don Hogan Charles’ photograph of Malcom X; Hip-hop had begun to overtly incorporate, the politics of the Civil Rights era appropriating it’s leaders and slogans. Public Enemy, 1988 (fig 7a) incorporated the political rhetoric of the Nation of Islam into their lyrics and dealt with “political experiences of an urban-based African-American constituency” (Neal cited in Forman & Neal, 2004:p374). Following in the tradition of bricolage in hip-hop PE’s Flavor Flav wears a large clock as jewellery.
The band NWA and rapper Ice T (figure 8) used hip-hop music to represent west coast gang culture, romanticising the criminal lifestyles of drug dealers, stick-up kids, pimps and gangsters. In this mode rappers extended American folk lore of the “wild west”; appropriating the gun slinging cowboy and re-situating his story to the modern urban frontier, substituting the corrupt town sheriff with the Los Angeles Police Department. Songs like NWA’s “Fuck The Police” and Ice T’s “Copkiller” were responses to increasing police brutality and racial profiling; in 1991 Los Angeles was made the centre of the world’s media attention as four LAPD officers were captured on video attacking a suspect; the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial and acquittal of the officers led to city wide riots, hegemonic structures were under scrutiny and west coast hip hop was propelled into the national consciousness and into the political arena (Charnas, 2010). The combination of Gangsta Rap’s violent tropes combined with emerging political and afro-centric rhetoric presented hip-hop as a countercultural agent of change. Concern grew amongst moral guardians that children were being corrupted by rap’s message, which ironically the news media never hesitated to repeat, William’s (2011:p113) points out that “Through news reports and subsequent adult gossip … interested youths are informally given a beginners guide to subcultural participation, thus helping to secure a subculture’s survival”. The resultant moral panic and outrage led politicians and lobbying groups to align behind an agenda of pressurising corporate sponsors of hip-hop to censor or drop the work of their artists, Storey (2001, p17) notes “Those with political power have always thought it necessary to police the culture of those without political power, reading it ‘symptomatically’ for signs of political unrest; reshaping it continually through patronage and direct intervention”. Dominant ideologies were under threat and the recuperation of hip-hop into mass culture looked to be in danger of collapse.
Figure 8 – By appropriating the idioms and styles of gang culture, gangsta rappers like NWA and Ice T (fig. 8a) presented both a mirror and a theatrical production, a new interpretation of the wild west myth. Real life police brutality (e.g. fig 8b. LAPD’s assault of Rodney King) ensured that boundaries between fact and fiction remained blurred civil unrest followed. Gangsta rap became hip-hop’s most salable product, but also its most toxic, a paradox as corporations funded its counter hegemonic viewpoint.
From the embryonic block parties of the South Bronx to the global phenomenon of gangsta rap, hip-hop has acted as both a lens and a mirror on the lives of many in black and ethnic communities in urban America. As dominant ideologies of the pre-civil rights movement came under pressure, the country struggled to redefine relationships in previously segregated communities; fiscal and social policies served to further the divide between rich and poor. These conditions created a perfect storm for the emergence of hip-hop as a cultural force; the united elements of graffiti, rap music and breakdancing offered a renewed sense of self and identity to the youth of embittered neighbourhoods whilst codifying the black urban experience into a commercially appealing structure. Through a process of cultural osmosis the style and aesthetics of hip-hop permeated mainstream fashion, art, music and film; advertisers sought to leverage the genres popularity and the media industry sought to infiltrate the production and distribution of rap music as a means for capital growth. Throughout it’s history hip-hop appropriated the language and forms of almost every other cultural source, a bricolage of styles and objects repurposed so successfully that the hip-hop interpretation often became the dominant one. Similarly mainstream culture employed it’s own strategies of appropriation and counter-bricolage in an effort to commodify the black urban experience, monetising the suffering and celebration of communities which often fell outside of the dominant ideology. By hip-hop’s 20th birthday the subculture of a minority had grown in popularity to define the dominant culture, despite this the form resisted assimilation into the mainstream and managed, if only for a brief time to undermine the political and commercial hegemony of the worlds richest nation.
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