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Music is an integral part of Black American culture. Today, Clint Smith will teach you about rap & hip hop, and the cultural significance of artists including Public Enemy, Wu-Tang Clan, the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, N.W.A., Queen Latifah, and Missy Elliott. And he just might break dance while doing it.

Clint's book, How the Word is Passed is available now!

Janell Hobson and R. Dianne Bartlow eds., Representin’: Women, Hip-Hop, and Popular Music (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008).
Brittney Cooper, Susana M. Morris, and Robin M. Boylorn eds., The Crunk Feminist Collection (New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2017).
Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: Free Press, 1994).
James Haskins, One Nation Under a Groove: Rap Music and its Roots (New York: Hyperion Books, 2000).
Adam Woog, From Ragtime to Hip-Hop: A Century of Black American Music (Detroit: Lucent Books, 2007).

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CC Kids:
Hi, I’m Clint Smith, and this is Crash Course Black American History.

And today we’re talking about the origins of rap and hip hop. On the streets of Harlem and the South Bronx in New York City in the late 1970s, rap and hip hop emerged as a direct response to two things: 1) the rampant economic and political inequality of the post-1960s Civil Rights era and 2) the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Performers tackled a range of subjects, from pure braggadocio to parties to race, class, gender, and the unfolding political crises in the Black community. By the 1990s, hip hop counterculture emerged into the mainstream and in doing so created upward mobility for individual artists through their fame and wealth, and subsequently lifted many of them out of poverty. Many artists also embedded social and political analysis into their work in an attempt to critique different aspects of American society and disrupt the status quo.

They used their lyrics and platform to explore issues like state surveillance, drug addiction, crime, unemployment, and racism. Soon hip hop became a billion dollar industry that pioneered new forms of musical production that continue to evolve and revolutionize the music industry to this day. So as we learn about the rise of hip hop and rap, we’ll look at the resulting cultural conversations this important genre of music inspired.

Let’s get started. INTRO Rap and hip hop began in the 1970s on the streets of New York City, specifically in the Bronx. It started as a form of pure showmanship at block parties or other social gatherings at places like recreation centers and parks.

Disc Jockeys (more commonly known as DJs or emcees) would compete with each other by layering and remixing beats at their turntables, and rhyming over the beats while friends battled it out in informal break dancing competitions. After the Civil Rights victories of the 1960s, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black communities experienced a decreased interest in their political and economic well-being from the government and policy makers. The result was a lack of investment in Black communities and their social infrastructure, resulting in staggering poverty rates, increased police surveillance, and ambiguous messaging from former allies of the Black liberation struggle.

At the same time, the country was seeing the burgeoning Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which emphasized radical visions of re-imagining Blackness through music, visual art, poetry, theater, and literature. Hip hop was in many ways, an extension of this artistic project. And in the years that followed, Black communities turned to hip hop counterculture as an outlet for self-expression and freedom dreaming.

The origins of hip hop music can be roughly categorized by four main pillars -- although we should note that it contains multiple forms of artistic expression that don’t fit neatly into any specific category, especially as the genre has grown and evolved over time. But let’s take a look at these four pillars in the Thought Bubble. The first is DJing or making music and beats using record players, turntables, and DJ mixers.

This, had never been done before, and completely revolutionized the sound and texture of the music. It also allowed DJ’s to become sort of orchestrators, basically using their turntables like a conductor would use their baton. The second pillar is rapping or making rhythmic vocal rhymes over the beats created by DJs.

Both DJing and rapping have diasporic roots within the Black community, drawing on traditions of African American gospel call and response, West African storytelling, and Jamaican remixing and music sampling (just to name a few). The third pillar is graffiti painting. Movies like "Wild Style" and "Beat Street" helped to popularize the connection between hip hop and graffiti.

Sometimes graffiti gets a bad rep, and is tied to images of social decay and urban blight, but the truth is that many graffiti artists are incredibly talented, and some of the work they create serves as a direct challenge to the idea that beautiful art can only be found in a fancy museum or a gallery. The fourth and final pillar is break dancing, a style of dance that encompasses attitude, style, and oftentimes acrobatic agility. Now, real life Clint would never dare try this on camera because my knees would be paying for it tomorrow, but animated Clint doesn’t have to worry about sore knees, and is always down, to break it down.

Thanks, Thought Bubble. Now we can’t talk about hip hop and rap without talking about the people and personalities that made the music. Groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were pioneers of the genre and they laid the groundwork for folks that would come after with their lyrical dexterity and social commentary.

One of the most politically charged music groups in history, Public Enemy, came onto the scene in the late 1980s. They employed the rhetoric of Black Nationalism and Black militancy and embraced revolutionary ideas like overthrowing the government. Their hit single “Fight the Power” was released in 1989 and featured in director Spike Lee’s classic film “Do the Right Thing.” The song tackled racism head-on and called on Black people to challenge and fight back against white supremacy.

Other groups and artists that were contemporaries of Public Enemy include Run-DMC, Eric B and Rakim, Salt-N-Pepa, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, and A Tribe Called Quest. Each of these artists brought a complex mix of style, lyrical prowess, and artistry to their work that looked to challenge social norms. And these artists brought further innovation to the airwaves by pioneering new forms of music, sampling, and mixing.

But early hip hop and rap stage competitions also often sparked heated rivalries that sometimes took on the form of gang rivalries. For example, Wu-Tang Clan brought together artists, some of whom were formerly affiliated with rival gangs, to represent their neighborhoods in competitions against other rap groups from hubs like Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. Wu-Tang painted vivid pictures of urban life using the language of the streets.

But this was more than just slang for them; they created a new lexicon that weaved together rhetoric with diverse influences including the Five Percent Nation (an offshoot of the Nation of Islam), philosophy, Asian cinema, and food. So these groups and artists were engaging in a complex nexus of intersecting identities and influences even as they were pioneering their own new forms of expression. As hip hop began to take over the mainstream as a dominant countercultural voice by the 1990s, some rappers and Black record label owners became millionaires seemingly overnight.

Rap artists like Notorious B. I. G., Tupac Shakur, and their supporting record labels Bad Boy Records (led by Sean “Puffy” Combs) and Death Row Records (led by Suge Knight) epitomized the infamous East Coast vs West Coast rivalry.

Biggie and Bad Boy represented the original New York City-centric roots of hip hop while Tupac and Death Row represented the expansion of hip hop outside of its regional New York roots by offering a distinctly California sound. In the late 1980s rappers Too Short, N. W.

A, and Ice-T had already pioneered hip hop on the West Coast. Coming out of economically depressed areas in Los Angeles and Oakland, their lyrics often reflected personal experiences. Some of N.

W. A.’s most popular and most controversial songs served as a direct response to the police brutality they witnessed in their own neighborhoods and questioned the very legitimacy of policing, an institution that many felt was only there to surveil and harass Black people. Regional differences played a major role in the evolution of rap styles and content.

But the coast to coast rivalry centered largely on Tupac and Biggie’s interpersonal conflict. The rivalry had much to do with competition among their record labels, media coverage, and two talented lyricists with a penchant for quick and rhythmic comebacks on their records. Unfortunately, the conflict between them ended in tragedy and the still-unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur in 1996 and the Notorious B.

I. G in 1997. As hip hop moved further and further into the mainstream, older Americans (both white and Black) often viewed it as a symbol of everything that was wrong in Black, working class communities.

This negative association affected all aspects of Black America. Some of the animosity toward hip hop in the 1990s centered on discomfort with the controversial lyrics which painted an explicit picture of what many people called “ghetto” life, in addition to hyper-sexuality, violence, and misogyny that denigrated women while simultaneously glorifying the image of gang life. One of the strongest opponents of rap music was long-standing civil rights activist and politician C.

Delores Tucker, who campaigned against what she saw as the “threat” of hip hop music to Black communities. Even more discomfort grew out of the lyrical use of the N-word and unrestrained profanity in hip hop songs. Hip hop artists worked to reclaim and repurpose the N-word in their songs by replacing the “er” at the end of the word with an “a”' as an act of rebellion against the racial slur.

But this argument of reclamation and repurposing wasn’t always persuasive, particularly to older Black communities who had witnessed the word’s use as a much more common slur in the early half of the 20th century. In fact, in 2007 the NAACP would even stage an actual “funeral” for the N-word, pushing to eliminate it from the American lexicon altogether. But rap and hip hop in the nineties wasn’t entirely focused on battles of the coast or hypermasculinity of male emcees.

It also saw significant output and innovation from Black women emcees. Black women stepped into the male-dominated genre and offered fresh perspectives and musical revolutions of their own. They shifted the tone of rap music away from antagonizing and objectifying women to foregrounding Black feminist messaging and bringing those revolutionary politics to a broader audience.

Female rappers like MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Queen Latifah, Da Brat, and Eve all evolved as artists by refuting and denying the sexist and misogynistic scripts offered to them by their male counterparts. They articulated fresh perspectives on sexual, racial, and class politics through their music. For example: Queen Latifah’s 1993 “U.

N. I. T.

Y.” was a commentary on the state of Black women in society and gender politics. The lyrics focus on sexism, sexual harassment, and the public pressures that women in hip hop were often forced to conform to. Similarly, Sister Souljah’s “The Hate That Hate Produced” in 1992 evoked Black power rhetoric and called for the eradication of white supremacy.

While some Black women rappers focused on a radical politics of unity and community engagement, others revolutionized the way that Black women were viewed as sexual objects by taking control of their own hypersexualized representation in popular media. Rappers like Lil' Kim and Foxy Brown focused on a more sexualized feminine image, but projected an aura of dominance, control, and lyrical prowess that kinda flipped the script of Black women being passive receivers of the male gaze and into one of being in control of how that gaze was directed and deployed. And artists like Missy Elliott offered an even more complex and queered image of Black womanhood at the turn of the 21st century.

Like their male counterparts, Black women emcees also garnered widespread commercial and critical acclaim. Hip hop artist Lauryn Hill, formerly of the rap group The Fugees, became one of the most well known examples of hip hop and Black feminism’s wide reach. Her first solo album “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” released in 1998, won critical acclaim, worldwide sales, and five Grammy awards.

From the coastal wars to the culture wars of the 1990s, hip hop and rap had a lasting influence on American popular culture and music, as well as on diasporic expressions of Blackness throughout the world. As hip hop and rap evolved to encompass other demographics outside of the Black community in New York City, the artform became an expansive language that encompassed a variety of cultural critiques and shifts. From its days on the streets of the Bronx, to its place as a global cultural juggernaut today, hip hop has continued to evolve and expand.

It’s now a global phenomenon that has been adapted and embraced by a wide variety of cultures. It has gone from the fringes of society to the center of American culture, with hip hop artists even headlining the Super Bowl Half-Time Show for the first time in 2022. Today, as hip hop becomes even more mainstream, it’s important to remember its cultural roots as a method of self-exploration, rebellion, and anti-white supremacist advocacy.

And while the genre continues to grow and evolve, we shouldn’t forget its origins, and how Black rappers used the artform to fight against social ills and racism, all while highlighting the creativity, innovation, and activism within the Black community. And it’s these lessons and forms of self-expression that still carry over to many artists today who explicitly see themselves as a part of that revolutionary hip hop lineage. Thanks for watching.

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