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Hip-hop turns 50: How a musical genre became a ‘cultural phenomenon’

by nytime
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Aug. 11, 1973, is considered the birth of hip-hop. On this day, DJ Kool Herc threw a “Back-to-School Jam” at his apartment building, located at 1520 Sedgwick Ave. in the Bronx. Herc set the atmosphere from behind two turntables, mixing songs, when his friend took the microphone and started to rhyme over the records.

That changed the game.

Fast-forward to today, hip-hop has grown into a global powerhouse. In 2017, it surpassed rock as the most popular music genre in the U.S., according to a Nielsen Music report. Now, as the genre turns 50, hip-hop legends, fans and more are helping to mark the musical milestone. Here’s why.

Hip-hop is everywhere

“To look for hip-hop on the charts these days — to look for it in film, in fashion, in visual art — is to find it virtually everywhere. The most important Black-pioneered art form of our time, hip-hop began as — and to some degree remains — a product of the street, accessible to anyone, even as it’s grown into a global industry that now generates billions.” — Los Angeles Times

Not everyone thought it was built to last

“‘Considering when we got involved with it, it was supposed to be a fad,’ [Ice-T], the rapper, 65, says with a laugh. ‘It’s a huge milestone. They said hip-hop wouldn’t last, but we knew it was a culture, just like the rock era. It was a moment in time when new music was born. Now, I say hip-hop has gray hair. When you meet somebody that says, ‘I grew up on rap,’ they could be in their 60s, they could be in their 70s. You can meet a lady looking like my grandma, and she says, ‘I used to break dance.'” — People

There are hits, and deep cuts

”Rapper’s Delight’ will always be considered the song that introduced hip-hop to the masses. The Sugarhill Gang classic with its tongue-twisting opening — ‘I said a-hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie to the hip hip hop-a you don’t stop the rock’ — and heartbeat bass line was a novelty in 1979 and deserves its standing as one of the most sampled and revered in the then-burgeoning genre. Since then, hip-hop has spawned a mass of subgenres — gangsta rap, crunk and trap among them.” — USA Today

It’s origins have been documented on the big screen

“Wild Style isn’t a documentary. It does have a loose plot, following Bronx teen and celebrated yet anonymous graffiti artist Raymond, aka Zoro (real-life celebrated graffiti artist Quiñones), around the city as he deals with rival artists, mixes it up a rap jam and meets a journalist (Patti Astor) who introduces him to the downtown art world. The story is a microcosm of hip-hop, traveling from the predominantly Black and Latino high school gymnasiums and block parties of the South Bronx to the hip, largely white galleries of the Lower East Side before it ultimately became commercialized. [Filmmaker Charlie] Ahearn filmed it like a hybrid narrative-documentary. The parties, the clubs, the battles, they were real. And there was no script.” — Yahoo Entertainment

In more ways than one

“From Biggie Smalls to Bugs Bunny, hip-hop has made an indelible mark on Hollywood. The cultural phenomenon, which turns 50 this month, has soundtracked some of the most beloved movies of the last half century, from sports dramas (Sunset Park, Above the Rim) to family films (Space Jam, Black Panther) to critically acclaimed classics (Do the Right Thing, Wild Style). Rappers’ life stories have also taken center stage in recent years, with a slew of biopics about the late Notorious B.I.G. (Notorious), 50 Cent (Get Rich or Die Tryin’) and Roxanne Shante (Roxanne Roxanne).” — USA Today

It’s a form of protest

“Hip-hop was a response to social and economic injustice in disregarded neighborhoods, a showcase of joy, ingenuity and innovation despite a lack of wealth and resources. The music emanating from the DJ’s equipment might tell partiers to ‘move your feet,’ and in the very next set, tell them to ‘fight the power.’ Hip-hop has been an integral part of social and racial justice movements. It’s also been scrutinized by law enforcement and political groups because of their belief that hip-hop and its artists’ encourage violent criminality.” —The Associated Press

Its impact on sports

“Today, basketball games are like a playground for the sounds of hip-hop — the unmistakable music genre infused with rhythmic beats and vivid storytelling. Just as a movie soundtrack helps viewers follow the action of the narrative through each plot twist, hip-hop has done the same for the NBA. Over the past five decades, the genre has inserted lyrics, beats and culture into the sport’s DNA. Now, as hip-hop reaches its 50th anniversary, the two are inextricably intertwined.” — NBC Sports

And in fashion

“Hip-hop’s roots were planted among Black and brown working-class communities where Army surplus and workwear stores served items including camouflage fatigues, Dickies dungarees, Carhartt and Timberland. In hip-hop fashion’s earliest iteration trends weren’t set by the artist, the artists reflected their community. ‘For me, it wasn’t like there was an artist driving the fashion track. I think a lot of folks seem to forget that. Hip-hop is a culture,’ Elena Romero, co-author of Fresh Fly Fabulous: 50 Years of Hip Hop Style, says. ‘We were all young kids. So many of us were just reinterpreting the styles that were popular at the time and we were just making them our own.'” — USA Today

But there is still room for change

“As artists and hip-hop giants mark the 50th anniversary of a multi-billion dollar global industry this month, the original birthplace of the movement remains the poorest section of New York City. The Bronx has yet to capitalize off of the culture it created in any significant way. At the time of hip-hop’s inception, the Bronx had the highest poverty rate of not just New York City, but of all 62 counties in New York state. Fifty years later, it holds that same status.” — The Associated Press

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