Here’s to the little peace we have left. The genesis of hip-hop
The Mexican anthropologist Néstor García Canclini (2001), describes, in his wonderful book Culturas híbridas. Estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad, the concept of “hybrid cultures” and “processes of hybridisation” to, broadly speaking, refer to the linking that takes place in the globalised context of contemporary societies, of practices and cultural landscapes which are highly differentiated in their contexts and conditions of origin, which enter into dialogue with indigenous territorial practices and end up generating a hybridisation, a sort of fusion.
After all, the main point is that every cultural practice is not isolated from a specific (local) socio-cultural context, nor is it isolated from a global one. Hip-hop is clearly an excellent example in this field. How is it possible that practices that emerged in the Bronx, such as rap battles between migrant populations in the 1970s, can take place in Sevillian neighbourhoods such as the northern industrial estate, with the diversity of Senegalese, Moroccan, Nigerian and Seville’s own inhabitants? In order to answer this question, we will dive into the cultural origins and the socio-historical context in which hip-hop was born, to then try to trace the master lines of its expansion and its particular constant redefinition in the Spanish territory throughout its entry, development and current situation.
Mari Luz Esteban, a Basque anthropologist, wrote that “Music shapes our social and individual life, generates spaces of meaning, scenarios and realities, where all kinds of dreams, emotions and thoughts are possible. Music produces a direct and profound emotional intensity in each person, it causes affective and emotional alliances with the community” (Esteban, 2011:95-96) and Jesús de Diego, another scholar, states that “First of all, hip-hop is a set of strategies for social action in the urban space” (Diego, 200:54), who am I to avoid addressing the spaces of meaning, scenarios and realities that form the ghetto and its borders, as the strategies for social action that are deployed to take part in reality.
To begin with, it is worth mentioning that the world of hip-hop is made up of four main pillars. These coexist within it (although it is not totally necessary) despite having different origins respectively (this objective will be missed due to the brevity of the article). These are breakdance, graffiti, rap and the disc-jockey (DJ).
Hip-hop started in the Bronx in the early to mid-1970s. At the time, the streets of the Bronx had the impoverished black populations of the US: from African-American blacks to Central Americans, especially from Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and Jamaica. At the same time, although to a lesser extent, some impoverished European immigrants were also involved, above all Italians and Germans (Zuker and Toth, 2008:1). The socio-economic context that defines the reality of the ghetto is the shadow of extreme poverty, which has been there since the 1950s, but which is accentuated by both unemployment and high crime rates. This has led to an increase in the number and membership of what are known as gangs, and mainly composed of young people. Within this context, territorial rivalry among gangs begins to grow, as well as threats and violence for the control of territory and its defence. This rivalry will eventually affect the life of nightclubs (spaces for socialising and leisure). As these places start to become dangerous for people, other spaces such as parks, streets or school playgrounds are used to interact and share (Zuker and Toth, 2008:1).
This is where, in 1972, the first Blockparties or House parties led and organised by groups of young African-Americans (mostly Jamaican and Caribbean immigrants), which were defined as illegal parties held on public streets or in private spaces, where the DJs stood out, who mixed different types of music (mainly funk and soul) with two record players and amplification equipment that they illegally connected to the street’s electricity network or a street lamp (Zuker and Toth, 2008:1). There remained the competition, not in terms of violent territorial control, but in terms of artistic performance, that is, depending on which DJ attracted the biggest audience, had the best sound system and the best style. “These phenomena are what are known as style battles, which happen when two or more individuals challenge and try to outdo each other, proving who is better with the decks, the microphone, the dance or the spray cans” (Gonçalves, 2006:121-122). The DJ was an all-purpose figure, as he controlled the microphone and he himself urged people to dance, made proclamations and talked. It was not until Grandmaster Flash that the independent role of the MC (Master of Ceremonies) appeared, since due to the technical perfection of his work (the use of two decks) and staging, he needed both hands to control the apparatus, being unable to hold the microphone and having to delegate to a third party who was hired for the task (Gonçalves, 2006:124-125).
Regarding the question of social classes that also took shape in the very spaces of sociability and leisure, Zuker and Toth state: “There was a strong opposition between the performances of the DJs in the Bronx and those in the clubs: “There was a strong opposition between the performances of Bronx and club DJs. The separation between the two circuits was also related to the audience. Young black men from the Bronx and Harlem attended street parties and developed their dance skills as b’boys, while many of the disco clubbers were middle and upper class African-Americans. Clubs were disco’s own spaces, while Hip-hop’s place is the street‘ (Zuker and Toth, 2008:4).
For instance, Gonçalves (2006) explains the Jamaican influence of blockparties in his thesis: “The origins date back to the Jamaican scene of the 1970s. DJs like Laxsone Dodd, Prince Buster or Duke Reid had built their own mobile disco clubs aboard small trucks (…) they copied American radio broadcasters and spoke directly to the audience with their mics. Often, battles were organised among DJs who had set up on street lamps too close to each other, where they used to plug in their equipment. These battles competed to attract the audience. The winner was the one who played the best music, which generally prevailed over the strength of the most powerful equipment” (Gonçalves, 2006:123).
Indeed, three DJs are remarkable in the origins of hip-hop and the organisation of these parties, such as Afrika Bambaataa (born in the Bronx, but with West Indian parents), Kool Herc (Jamaican) and Grandmaster Flash (Barbados, Caribbean country) (Zuker and Toth, 2008:1).
Another key aspect of the beginning of what would later become known as Rap within the productions and shows that were being produced was the creation of Dub and toasting. According to Zuker and Toth: “The almost complete elimination of vocal lines in Dub remixes was intended to give a place to toasting; the addition of spoken phrases and rhymes over the music, initially aimed towards encouraging the audience to dance. The vocal contribution could consist of boastful comments, sung rhymes, rhythmic chants, shouting, etc. (…) The contents of the different toasts also included social and political topics. Dub and Toasting have a strong influence on the development of Hip-hop and Rap“. (Zuker and Toth, 2008: 2)
The emergence of social content in toasts was directly influenced by the context that was being generated in the 1970s around the force of the black nationalist movements, the black panthers, the civil rights movement, and figures such as Martin Luther King and Malcon X. This came to be materialised in the ZULU NATION (Peacy, Unity, Love and Having Fun), created in 1974 by DJ Afrikaa Bambaataa. This materialised in the ZULU NATION (Peacy, Unity, Love and Having Fun), created in 1974 by DJ Afrikaa Bambaataa. The aim was to expose the common oppression of African-Americans, by promoting the organisation and defense of rights and also by creating a black identity culture. Beyond territorial differences, there was a common similarity: racism, exploitation and oppression of the black population, regardless of other criteria, and that with music, all social, cultural and ethnic barriers would finally be overcome. Its three fundamental principles were: knowledge, prudence and understanding, as an affirmation of its trust in freedom and equality (Gonçalves, 2006:122). Planet Rock by Afrikaa Bambaataa was the hit record that spread the message of the ZULU NATION in 1982, which began to expand throughout the USA and beyond (Zuker and Toth, 2008:6).
This phenomenon will lead to an important occurrence: the spread of rap beyond the borders of the Bronx. By the late 1970s, hip-hop went beyond the ghetto, both through the occupation of public space (parks, schools, streets and buildings), at the same time as the music industry started to make room for it and the common identity around racism and black nationalism, giving priority to what is shared rather than what makes them different (which could be expressed in the rivalry between gangs).
Commercialisation and the relationship with the industry then caused the expansion of this phenomenon, the proliferation of groups, as well as its arrival and opening to non-African American audiences too, such as white populations (Zuker and Toth, 2008:3). In 1979, Kim Tim III‘s Personality Jack was recorded and marketed. At the same time, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five‘s Super Rappin’ No. 1 was also released. Although it was the impact of The Sugarhill Gang‘s bomb track ‘Rappers delight’ which made the record industries increasingly interested in rap (Zuker and Toth, 2008:3).
Thus, this exit from the ghetto and the community feeling that would be expressed through rap are reflected in the compositions themselves. On a political level, during the 1970s, the lyrics made direct and explicit reference to the misery, crime and inequality associated with the local reality of the ghetto. The political content is clear in the 1980s lyrics, with harsh and acid criticism and it was also a call for the need to group together in defense of Black rights. X-Clan and Public Enemy stand out from this period. Nevertheless, despite the message of equality that is claimed, this phenomenon is extremely masculine with sexist and misogynist tendencies. The lack of female presence is a clear sign of this aspect, highlighting Funky Four Plus One, the first group to have a female MC. Later on, The Sequence, an all-girl group, emerged.
However, it was not all union, cooperation and solidarity. In the mid-1980s and early 1990s, what began to be called gun rap or gangsta rap developed, where topics related to the violence of the ghettos in different US cities, the true reality of black Afro-Americans, drugs, money and opulence were discussed (Gonçalves, 2006: 125). This is the beginning of censorship for sexist and gory content. An interesting example is the case of Ice-T and his song Cop killer, which raised controversy about the hatred towards the police and the defence of the normalisation of this hatred in the black Afro-American population.
It was from the 1990s and into the first decade of the 21st century that hip-hop was already present in almost every corner of Western countries, with all the local adaptations and specific socio-historical processes corresponding to the different territories. The Spanish example is highly interesting, but that will be continued in another article.
DIEGO, Jesús de (2000). Graffiti: La palabra y la imagen. Barcelona: Libros de la Frontera.
Esteban, M (2011). Crítica del pensamiento amoroso. Barcelona, Bellaterra.
García Canclini, N. (2001) Culturas híbridas. Estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad. Barcelona, Paidos.
Gonçalves De Paula, PD. (2006). Graffiti hip hop femenino en España a finales del siglo XX: la singularidad como significancia [Tesis doctoral no publicada]. Universitat Politècnica de València.
Laura Frasco Zuker y Fernando Toth (2008). La génesis del Hip Hop: Raíces culturales y contexto sociohistórico. IX Congreso Argentino de Antropología Social. Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias Sociales – Universidad Nacional de Misiones, Posadas.