Hip-hop music, pioneered by African-American and Hispanic youth in New York’s South Bronx in the 1970s, quickly caught on across the U.S. and eventually around the world.
Early on, fans were mesmerized by creative hip-hop artists who produced this new sound based on music that was already there, said University of Oregon professor Loren Kajikawa.
“By using turntables, drum machines and digital samplers as musical instruments, hip-hop musicians unlocked the potential in pre-existing musical recordings,” said Kajikawa. “They pioneered a whole new way of composing: transforming music recorded for and sold to consumers into raw material that can be recombined in infinite ways.”
Hip-hop artists “were really pioneers of this digital, remix world,” he said.
Alain-Philippe Durand, a University of Arizona professor and author of a book on hip-hop, says hip-hop isn’t just music.
It’s a culture composed of various elements, said Durand, the most prominent being rap music: DJ-ing (sampling) and MC-ing (rhyming), along with graffiti/tagging and hip-hop dance.
The music caught on in other countries when people listened to American artists and began writing hip-hop songs in their own languages, reflecting their own traditions.
The genre evolved in unique ways. For example, said Durand, “French, Québécois and Francophone African rappers [often] use several languages” in their music, and “the Senegalese rap group PBS may use French, English and Wolof in a single song.”
“An artist like Shingo Nishinari from Japan can talk about his neighborhood in Osaka and ‘represent’ — basically, tell his story and share his struggles with listeners in ways that are similar, but not identical, to U.S. artists,” said Kajikawa.
Hip-hop is popular because it’s a powerful form of expression with universal themes: social justice and the search for identity, said Durand.
“The practicing and mastering of hip-hop culture is very accessible and affordable,” he added.
Aspiring rappers don’t have to pay for lessons or musical instruments, Durand explained. “Anyone can try to write rhymes and rap a cappella, free of charge.”
Kajikawa named the late Tupac Shakur (1971–1996) as the most influential hip-hop artist, because Shakur’s songs about street life have made him “an icon” to fans worldwide.
Durand paid tribute to Dr. Dre, whose technological innovations continue to drive hip-hop forward.
So, which young artists are worth following? Kajikawa recommends Kendrick Lamar, “arguably the most virtuosic rapper of all time.” Lamar uses his voice to evoke the sound and rhythm of a jazz horn player.
Durand predicted Native American rappers will take hip-hop in new directions while focusing on “what they see as the true nature of hip-hop: supporting and representing one’s local community.”