With only 10 days to go until one of music’s biggest celebrations, what kind of streetwear brand would we be if we didn’t talk about 50 years of hip hop and how it’s influenced us all, whether we noticed it or not.
But before we get into that, let’s travel back to the 11th of August in 1973 to an apartment block in the Bronx where eighteen-year-old Clive Campbell, a Jamaican immigrant, along with his sister, Cindy, throw a back-to-school party for their friends and neighbours.
While jamming to the likes of Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and The Metres, Clive, also known as DJ Kool Herc, flipped the script on everyone when he tried out a different style on the turntables. Instead of playing complete records, Herc introduced the crowd to his distinct "Merry-Go-Round" method, stretching a record’s instrumental break for long periods of time. These prolonged "breakbeats" laid the early musical groundwork for break-dancers (b-boys and b-girls) to flaunt their skills.
And this, y’all, was the moment hip hop was born!
Powered by Poverty and Driven by Divide
What started as a music experiment that explored DJing, B-boying, MCing, rapping and graffiti art, was also a reflection of the negative impacts communities were facing in the 70s. New York’s economy was on its knees, its post-industrial decline and construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway left thousands of people displaced and suffering with poor health conditions. Property values plummeted leading to many of the white middle-class residents to move to the suburbs and create segregation with those left behind. This poverty-fuelled disruption to the neighbourhoods resulted in an increase in crime, violence and gangs.
As situations worsened, record shops closed, community centres ceased to exist, and young people were left to create their own entertainment. But hope was not lost. With so many abandoned buildings available, these quickly became the perfect backdrops to host block parties, welcoming DJs to set up mobile sound systems and transform cardboard boxes into raw dancefloors. The energy was high. Even with the rise of hardship, these spaces became environments of expression and a place to reshape racial barriers into creative works of art through music and dance.
Pioneering A Cultural Shift
Now a worthy inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, DJ Kool Herc has been a massive cultural force throughout hip hop’s growth, however he isn’t the only influential figure in this epic story. Along with Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, these three innovators are known as the “Holy Trinity” of hip hop.
Afrika Bambaataa, also recognised as “The Godfather,” emerged in New York during the late 70s as a visionary DJ and producer. His drive to support the city’s youths escape gang life, drugs and violence birthed Universal Zulu Nation, a music-centred organisation designed to promote peace and unity through the expression of hip hop.
One of Bambaataa’s most influential early hip hop songs was Planet Rock, released in 1982. This electronic masterpiece sampled German electro band, Kraftwerk, using the Roland TR-808 drum machine. By incorporating this impressive bit of kit into his music production, Bambaataa (intentionally or not) established hip hop’s staple sound.
Mixing up the motion between records, Grandmaster Flash was one of rap’s earliest innovative DJs from the Bronx ready to make his mark on hip hop. Cementing his distinct DJ techniques like the backspin, cutting, punch phrasing, and scratching, early in the movement guaranteed Grandmaster Flash’s place in the history books.
In 1976, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was formed. Widely acknowledged as one of the most influential hip hop acts, the group delivered a unique style of lyric battling between four rappers which was then blended over Flash’s DJ skills. Their compelling lyrics highlighting the grim reality of the ghetto resonated with a generation, securing a successful music career and eventually inducting the group into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, also making history again as the first ever hip hop to achieve this.
Golden Age of Hip Hop
Between the 1980s and early 1990s, hip hop was making huge waves across America. Noted as hip hop’s golden age, this era of unprecedented creativity was the turning point for diversity, stylistic flair, lyrical exploration and mainstream success.
Record labels finally took notice, radio stations begged for more and fashion brands began styling their models to suit the emerging trend. With rappers going on tour and films featuring hip hop being shown to audiences worldwide, it was only a matter of time before this cultural movement became a global phenomenon.
Just as hip hop was defining its characteristics with the free use of sampled music, artists were hit with copyright enforcement laws, meaning many record labels could not afford to clear all samples, limiting what could be released. This took hip hop in a completely different direction, resulting in a loss of jazz and soul influence. However, artists and producers were encouraged to create original sounds and experiment with different instruments. Many worked directly with local gospel choirs and benefitted from the acoustics within churches, while others turned to technology for further edit enhancements.
Mainstream Means Business
By the end of 2000, hip hop had fully integrated into the mainstream with rappers dominating the charts and earning the industry an astonishing $1.8 billion in sales, which was unheard of for urban music. Acts like Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg, Notorious B.I.G., Nas and Jay Z were household names. If their music wasn’t being played, then their clothes were being worn. Hip hop had become a beacon for style guides everywhere, turning sportswear into streetwear and giving items like the Adidas tracksuit a new lease of life. Designer labels left behind their tailored trousers for loose-fitted jeans and oversized jerseys.
Today, hip hop has surpassed its “trend” status and is considered to be a way of life due to its wider cultural impact. It is the most popular genre by consumption and its growth shows no sign of slowing down with its multi-billion-dollar annual turnover. Hip hop’s influence goes beyond the arts and has a significant part to play in political discourse by challenging injustice and giving a platform to underrepresented individuals and communities. It will continue to push past boundaries and blur the lines of conformity. It may be hip hop’s 50th anniversary, but the party is only just getting started.