Scenes - History - Analysis - Reference - Report


  Hip Hop Origins

Musically, hiphop can be traced to many different sources. Rapping is linked to several traditions, some dating back decades and even into previous centuries. “Signifying Monkey,” the star of a series of lewd rhymes originating from African folk tales, is character that is physically weaker than his foe, but is clever and always finds a way to come out triumph over any situation, usually involving the sexual conquest of his foe’s wife.  As writer David Toop has noted in Rap Attack #3, “the dozens” (also known as “toasting” or “signifying,” depending on the region of the United States) is a ritualized street game that has been played by African-Americans in cities since the Civil War era. The dozens consist of carefully crafted, clever insults that are traded between two or more people. These two traditions can be seen in many hiphop songs—the baiting insults aimed at rival rappers are direct descendents of the dozens, and the signifying monkey character is one that many rappers evoke when they speak about their conquests, particularly the sexual and monetary. Toop also cites rap’s possible origins in the “griot,” a West African singer who passes down history and spread news within his village. The most celebrated griots are praised for their cleverness, intelligence, and extraordinary ability to remember facts. Rappers whose lyrics disseminate popularly unknown information of historical or contemporary significance essentially serve purpose similar to that of the griots.

While the MC may be upheld as the bearer of oral tradition, the DJ can be understood in terms of his or her role as re-interpreter of musical history.  The sonic blueprint of hiphop music is built around the breakbeat, the climactic portion of a song in which the vocals drop out in favor of instruments and which is generally considered to be the “catchiest” part of the composition.  The innovative approach of hiphop lies in its isolation of the moments that are most gratifying to listeners and constructing a continuous, repetitive loop that keeps the audience in a perpetual state of engagement, be it through an chaotic wall of funk or a laid-back stream of hypnotic grooves.  From this jumping-off point, the hiphop artist is limited only in terms of his or her innovativeness.  The DJ may juggle multiple beats, sound out variations on a single beat, or even insert various vocal clips.  The earliest DJs, taking their cue from Grandmaster Flash, purchased two copies of a record and used a mixer to alternate between the sound sources. They could extend a fleeting breakbeat section for several minutes, sending the dance floor into a frenzy of action. These artists became adept at mixing together different styles of music, mixing vintage soul, rock and roll, funk, and early electronic music to create a sound that was unlike anything heard before. As more and more people begin to DJ, they each add their own element to the sound of hiphop; a DJ from Greece could add traditional bouzouki music to his sonic collage, while a DJ with a predilection for jazz might mix Sun Ra into her set. DJs can be seen as keeping a musical link to the past by deconstructing older songs to create new ones.

Despite the long-standing oral history that led to rap and the vast musical archive that facilitated the art of DJing, other forces helped to create the framework of hiphop. Like many cultural developments, hiphop's genesis was a crucial moment where traditions and pressures (both social and economic), combined with the natural desire to have fun exploded into a new form of creative expression that both reflected its roots and transcended them. In the later 1970s, the United States job market shifted from a mostly blue collar, working-class economic model into a specialized white-collar economy. Massive layoffs in mostly urban, working-class cities combined with the "white flight" to the suburbs left the inner cities impoverished and in want of even the most basic elements of public infrastructure. Hiphop music and culture gave young people a chance to do something fun that didn't require much money: dancing and rhyming is free, spraypaint is cheap, and although turntables and records require money, they were more accessible to inner-city youth who could not afford traditional music lessons like their suburban counterparts.

However, hiphop also packed a social message with its musical punch, whether it be Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's warnings about drug use on “White Lines” or Africa Bambaataa's “Zulu Nation Throwdown” a utopian vision of a nation filled with people who care for each other and take pride in their own accomplishments. According to Brian Cross in It's Not About a Salary... these sort of socially conscious messages were not unique to hiphop’s home in the New York scene; groups like the L.A.-based rapping poets Watts Prophets had been doing the same thing for years without DJs to back them up. However, when this street-level commentary was finally teamed with infectious breakbeats it spelled eventual success for hiphop music, both critically and for better or worse, financially.  This new sound soon spread to the entire world, taking the images of gritty life in the inner cities with it.  The reception of hiphop and the cultural baggage it carried proved to be problematic for outside listeners, be they mesmerized white teenagers in America’s affluent suburbs, angry black youth rallying against apartheid in South Africa, or marginalized Maori looking for a voice in Aoteroa/New Zealand.  Though at once locally situated, hiphop’s malleability facilitates its (always incomplete) translation across geographic and linguistic borders.  Its wide range of topical content places hiphop artists in both prurient and empowering lights.  It is many things to many people.  To a record mogul, hiphop is a cash cow; to panicky moralists, it is a social threat.  Casual listeners may treat it as a fashion statement, while those ravaged by economic and political hardships, hiphop is street poetry at its best, a call to action.  As the 21st Century begins, hiphop has undeniably emerged as one of the most popular and paradoxical cultural phenomena of the increasingly globalized world community. 


  A look at the role of the Turntable in Hip Hop

The word “turntablism”, coined in 1996 by DJ Babu of The World Famous Beat Junkies, describes the tradition of using the turntable not just as a tool to play music, but as an instrument used to create music.

The roots of turntablism can be traced back to the 1930’s, when avant-garde composer John Cage started composing works for variable-speed phonographs.  In the following excerpt from Cage’s 1937 manifesto, “The Future of Music: Credo”, he makes it clear that the phonograph can—and should—be used as a musical instrument.

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, its disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments. Every film studio has a library of "sound effects" recorded on film. With a film phonograph it is now possible to control the amplitude and frequency of any one of these sounds and to give it rhythms within or beyond the reach of the imagination. Given four film phonographs, we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat, and landslide (italics mine).

Cage used turntables in many works, but the best known are 1939’s “Imaginary Landscape No. 1”, where he manipulated recordings of test tones by adjusting the turntable speed, and 1960’s "Cartridge Music", where he inserted various objects into amplified phonograph cartridges to make new sounds.  

Although it is doubtful that the original hiphop DJs knew of Cage’s experiments, their creations were definitely in keeping with his ideas.  The three DJs who were there when hiphop began—DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambatta—each had their own innovations to contribute to the art of turntablism.  Trying to extend the instrumental parts of his favorite funk tunes for wildly dancing crowds, DJ Kool Herc decided to buy 2 copies of each album, and use two turntables to keep those instrumental “breaks” going indefinitely.  Grandmaster Flash became a “scientist of the mix” (Brewster/Broughton 215) he created the world’s first cuing mixer, which allowed him to preview the songs on his turntables before the audience could hear them; he also developed a labeling system for records that let him know where the best breakbeats started and finished.  These techniques allowed Flash to cut breakbeats much more precisely.  Flash had another innovation—he released the first record that could be considered turntablism, 1981’s “Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”.

To those who heard [“Adventures of Grandmaster Flash…”] at that time—a record made from nothing more than other records, a record made by a DJ, a postmodern collage of existing texts, the scratch-filled proof that turntables could be real instruments—it was a revolutionary moment in the history of music” (Brewster/Broughton 243).

Afrika Bambatta gave turntablism its depth with his amazing record collection. “Taped TV themes and commercials, Hare Krishna chants, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Flying Lizards, even Gary Numan, all made their way onto his system” (Brewster/Broughton 221).  Bambatta didn’t choose a record for its genre or popularity; he chose a sound because it fit in his mix and made the audience dance.

Grandmaster Flash discovered a 13-year-old with a propensity for cutting records, and promptly put the youngster (Grand Wizard Theodore) to work.  Theodore’s contribution to turntablism would be the legendary scratch.  The strange sound was born when Theodore received a lecture from his mother on his loud practicing.  As she yelled, Theodore held the record in place so he wouldn’t get in more trouble, but he accidentally moved his hand back and forth on the record.  The sound that resulted was practiced and honed for months before Theodore actually put it to use, but has since become a vital ingredient in the DJ’s arsenal. 

In these early days, hiphop groups were built around their DJs (Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five, Afrika Bambatta & SoulSonic Force), but eventually the MC stole the DJ’s spotlight.  In the late 80s and early 90s, commercial hiphop saw the DJ move into the background—many hiphop groups didn’t even have a DJ (it became common practice for MCs to rap over a prerecorded DAT tape on stage), and when they did, their DJ was as likely to play a sampler as work the wheels of steel.  However, the art of turntablism didn’t die, it just kept on evolving.  DJ battles, once simply showcases that were won by whoever had the loudest system (usually Kool Herc), turned into something much more spectacular with 1987’s first annual Disco Mix Club (DMC) competition.  This contest, along with the more recent International Turntablist Federation (ITF), provided a showcase for dazzling scratching and body tricks (scratching with parts of your body that AREN”T your hands); crazy crossfader manipulation(the crossfader “fades” between the two turntables in a traditional DJ setup and is a main component of recent scratch innovations); and stupendous feats of “beat-juggling” (using the two turntables to play the same section of a record in rapid succession; often creating a syncopated beat as the crossfader flips quickly between the two turntables).  Although mainstream hiphop excluded the DJ, the DJ never stopped practicing—and in the mid-90s, when the DJ returned to hiphop’s spotlight, DJ skills were more honed than ever before. 

The turntable was being used in ways so creative that John Cage would never have recognized it.  Multi-DJ “crews” had emerged, with San Francisco’s Invisibl Skratch Piklz and New York’s X-ecutioners (nee X-Men) leading the way.  These “supergroups” performed live with each member playing a separate pair of turntables—the members (Mixmaster Mike, Qbert, ShortKut) of the Skratch Piklz were able to separate into individual instruments (one would scratch the drums, one would scratch the horns, etc), improvising like a jazz combo.  Legendary jazz drummer Max Roach described the possibilities, stating “Hip Hop lives in the world of sound, not the world of music, and that’s why it’s so revolutionary” (Brewster/Broughton 245).  The DJ was becoming g popular again—DJ-related compilations like Bomb Records’ The Return of the DJ and Om Records’ Deep Concentration series sold in record numbers.  DJs were everywhere—scratching made its way into TV commercials for Sprite and Wrigley’s chewing gum, inspired two documentary films (1997’s Battle Sounds and 2002’s Scratch), and even infiltrated heavy metal—popular groups like Limp Bizkit and Slipknot started adding DJs to their lineup.  A vocabulary of scratches became standardized—DJs from Maine to Mesa would know what you meant if you asked them to “chirp”, “flare”, “transform”, or “orbit”.  Phoenix’s DJ Radar, a classically trained musician, took this vocabulary a step further when he developed a notation system that allowed DJs to document the rhythm and melody of their scratches and beat juggling.  This new system was put to the test on March 7th, 2001, when Radar premiered Radar’s Concerto for Turntable, first movement, featuring Radar on solo turntable with accompaniment by Arizona State University’s 80-piece orchestra.  Radar described his accomplishment, stating, “It’s supposed to fuse two generations together.  That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.  The classical scene used to be about young people…” (Ratz). 

Sixty-something years later, the world is coming to realize the truth expressed in Cage’s Credo, as echoed here by X-ecutioners DJ Rob Swift—the turntable is an instrument.   “With the turntable you can create your own rhythms and sounds.  In other words, the turntable can adapt or mimic the violin, the drum, the guitar, the bass.  The turntable can morph into almost any instrument.  Out of the turntable you can coax high pitches, you can coax low pitches, there are notes involved.  If you move the speed a certain way you can create slow noises and fast noises.  There are so many things you can do with the turntable, it’s definitely an instrument.” (257)

Works Cited:

Brewster, Bill & Broughton, Frank.  Last night a dj saved my life: the history of the disc jockey.  New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Cage, John  "The Future of Music: Credo" (1937)

Ratz, Steven Jr. Profile: DJ Radar. DMA magazine online, Saturday, June 23, 2001.


  Women in Underground Hip Hop

Think of three people involved with hiphop culture. They can be DJs, MCs, graf artists, breakers, or producers. Now, how many of the people you just named were women? For the majority of people, they were probably all men. How and why did women get pushed to the rear of the hiphop bus? Women have been involved with hiphop since the beginning (Sylvia Robinson’s Sugarhill Records released the first nationally popular hiphop record, “Rapper’s Delight,” The Funky Four + 1’s “+1” was a female rapper, and Sequence, the first all-female MC crew to release a record debuted back in the mid-1980s), yet in recent times, the most visible role for women in commercial hiphop was that of the skimpily clad backup dancer. While underground hiphop has a slightly better track record with its higher proportion of women MCs and DJs, women in hiphop are often overlooked and marginalized.

Male musicians are seen as musicians first, but female artists prove a bit harder to categorize. One of the biggest questions in hiphop is “where do female artists fit in?” Are they musicians who happen to be female, outspoken feminists, or simply critics responding to male musicians’ often-misogynistic viewpoints? The “best” way to attempt an answer to these dilemma regarding female hiphop artists is to incorporate all of the above factors.

The main question to address is the schism between traditional, middle-class, white feminism and African-American women (who comprise the majority of female hiphop artists, although there are many artists of different racial backgrounds).  Feminism as a movement does not take into account the different social and economic issues at play in a typical African-American woman’s life (Tricia Rose, Black Noise).  As almost everyone is aware, African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens for many years, and this treatment still persists in various arenas of American life. During the time when this discrimination was more explicit and widespread, African-American women were often seen in two distinct roles: as the helpful, submissive domestic servant, or as an object that exists purely for sexual gratification. Thankfully, the first stereotype has been erased to a great extent, but the second one still persists, particularly in commercial hiphop with its aforementioned backup dancers and sexually graphic lyrics. While traditional feminists fight over things like equal wages, the reality for African-American women who are involved with hiphop culture is that some people do not even think that they are capable of having thoughts or ideas.

These views are often expressed in song lyrics or the imagery prevalent in many music videos. Some artists feel a need to respond to male artists’ records, and this may contribute to the view of female artists as outspoken feminists. While such “response records” may compromise a small part of an artist’s total output, they are often more popular than the rest of their catalog. For example, both Salt N Pepa and Roxanne Shante were first skyrocketed in to the national consciousness because their reply records—Shante’s reply to U.T.F.O.’s “Roxanne, Roxanne” sold half a million records, and Salt N Pepa’s “Tha Show Stoppa (is stupid fresh),” (David Toop, Rap Attack #3) a response to Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s “The Show,” helped make them bankable stars. Response records can also be seen as the ultimate in hiphop taboos- “biting,” or ripping off another artist’s creation—which is tacit admission of an inability to create your own, unique sound. While a female artist’s friends may be proud of her response to a particularly anti-female song, the artist herself still has to deal with the rest of society. This may be one reason why some female hiphop artists are perceived as angry feminists who express an unpopular viewpoint stating that perhaps women are not meant to merely please men and intimating that men need to treat women better (this is what Roxanne Shante’s response record stated). Such exhortations may be considered by some as a direct affront to male MCs.  Yet female MCs find themselves cast into this role because they are responding to the overt sexism they see in the male-dominated world of hiphop. Then again, there are also female MCs who express their own sexuality in a fashion similar to male MCs.  In the late 1990s Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown made their mark on the commercial rap world by unabashedly flaunting their sexuality in their lyrics and videos.  The tables had been turned – men were now the ones of be objectified and judged according to their ability to gratify their female watchers.  The techniques employed by Kim and Foxy were not immune to criticism, belying an apparent double standard in pop music. Male MCs are ‘allowed’ to say anything they want about women (and can brag about their own sexual prowess), but female MCs cannot say the same things.  Are these artists taking charge of their own sexuality or are they simply perpetuating prevailing stereotypes by portraying an image of sexual availability?

While this misogynistic double standard is most widespread in the world of commercial hiphop, the underground hiphop provides a somewhat safer space for women MCs and b-girls. The Native Tongues collective (a New York hiphop alliance that rose to prominence in the early 1990s and emphasized creativity and social consciousness through the works of members such as De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Queen Latifah) and similar groups began to concertedly combat the negative images that had infiltrated hiphop.  This campaign included the condemning the use of imagery derogatory towards females and employing rhymes that celebrated (specifically black) women and their many accomplishments. This attitude helped foster an environment where many girls could embark on a career as a DJ or MC.  While the accomplishments of socially conscious rap artists in the early 1990s is just starting to be realized as the artists inspired by these groups mature and begin to release records, they did have a slight immediate impact on the culture of hiphop in general. While b-girls were present in the early hiphop scene, by the late 1980s they had been pushed to the fringes of the culture. B-girls were not accepted when they did anything else besides observe and encourage the participation of their male counterparts in hiphop culture. However, in the mid 1990s, women began to feel accepted into hiphop culture again, thanks to a new generation of MCs who did not insult women or insinuate that they were obliged to do whatever a man bid them to do. In large numbers, women began to come back to the dancefloor, picked up spraypaint, and got back into making music.

Currently, while women are still underrepresented in underground hiphop, their numbers are growing, and their many voices are beginning to be heard with increased acceptance. Female MCs are able to rap about almost any topic they choose, female DJs are still a slight shock but are not as rare as they used to be, and female graffiti artists are getting respect from around the world. Women in hiphop are still not as celebrated as they should be but the climate is becoming more conducive to their participation.  When women are seen as equals and not just as complaining man-haters, they are accepted into hiphop culture much more readily. On the commercial front, this can be seen in the immense success enjoyed by artists like Eve and Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, whose music exudes a brash confidence that incorporates but does not solely derive from their female sexuality.  Likewise, as underground hiphop continues to promote an environment of social consciousness, women in hiphop will be become more prominent, until it is no longer an anomaly to see a female rapping or DJing or breakin’ it on the dancefloor.

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