It is all around you from the clothes you wear to the way you walk-it’s hip hop. If you ask someone what exactly hip hop is, you are sure to receive a barrage of different answers. Yet there is always one that can be agreed on – a culture.
“Hip hop is a collection of cultural traits that include a few basic things,” said Derek Williams, a professor in Florida A&M University’s Department of Visual Arts, Humanities and Theatre.
Williams cited tagging, emceeing, B-boying, deejaying and fashion as hip hop’s original elements.
“Hip hop is not just the music, hip hop is a cultur,” he said.
In the 80s, it became just that and in the decade that followed, its popularity increased.
“[The creators] made very good creative use of the materials they had around them without a great deal of capital to do it,” said Williams. “That’s the best of hip hop.”
When the of era flat tops, shell-toed Adidas and leather African medallions slipped away, hip hop’s New York roots had extended its branches across the nation.
“Hip hop was just beginning to mature,” said 90.5 WANM Program Manager Gregg Bishop of the genre during the 80s. “It was growing at a steady pace and in the 90s it just exploded. We got a voice and we became important.”
Perceived as a tool for conveying the messages of young black Americans, many others became aware of the power in gripping a microphone and emceeing.
“The early 90s was like the Civil Rights Movement,” said Garius Ostudard, a sophomore music student from Washington, D.C. “Hip hop was like a Malcolm X on wax, a Martin Luther King on wax.”
Subsequently, boom boxes of the early 90s became flooded with music from the likes of artists and groups such as A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Digable Planets, and Arrested Development.
“That was a lot of the conscious hip hop,” said Khalia Joseph, a senior public relations student from Miami and 90.5 on-air personality KJ. “The early nineties was still ‘feel good.’ Then of course the west coast took over.”
Following his departure from Compton’s rap group NWA in 1991, Dr. Dre signed with Death Row Records, ran by Marion “Suge” Knight. It was on this label that he released his 1992 solo debut “The Chronic.”
“The Chronic” became the epicenter of 90s gangsta’ rap as its popularity increased. During the next few years, Death Row’s artists took over Billboard charts and radio airwaves across the nation.
But hardcore hip hop did not only revolve around the gang banging themes of the West coast. Musicians of this style had become musical journalists in their own right. They covered the streets of black neighborhoods. Prime examples are Houston’s Geto Boys and New York’s Wu-Tang Clan.
Gangsta’ rap told the real stories of hip hop,” said Ostudard. “It was good, but the government didn’t really want to hear that. They tried to make all of this [seem] bad when the people really were telling the truth.”
As Ostudard and two of his friends talked more about this style of hip hop, they agreed that many of the lyrics became over exaggerated by the end of the 1990s.
“How many war stories can you tell?” asked Julian Moore, 19, a junior African-American studies student.
While angry mobs were out to silence hardcore rappers, the gangsta’ rap era also had viable substitutes.
By the mid-90s different sounds from other regions of the country began to make more noise.
“Everyone realized, ‘All I need to do is pick this mic up and have good production and people will listen to me,'” said Bishop. “Then we saw different personalities coming out. So I think more emcees got an opportunity to express themselves.”
In that case, conscious rap made a strong comeback in the form of The Roots and Common Sense. The Midwest gave birth to tongue twisters Crucial Conflict and Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, while also lending the mellow style of Do or Die. Listeners down south saw the rise of UGK, DJ Screw, Outkast and Goodie Mob. And hip hop didn’t stop.
As each region fought for domination over the musical genre, the East versus West rivalry ensued between each coast’s most popular artists.
“The whole East versus West, 2Pac versus Biggie was just another mind control thing of divide and conquer,” said Jonathan Hill, 19, a business administration student from Atlanta.
The coastal brawl ended with the murders of 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. Seven years after they were gunned down, these two emcees remain ranked among listeners’ all-time top lyricists.
“To this day people are trying to emulate those two,” said Bishop who also didn’t hesitate to identify them as the major hip hop trendsetters of the nineties.
Following their tragic losses, East and West coast hip hop took a moment to regroup. Meanwhile, some listeners turned their ears to New Orleans’ Master P.
“I think the history of his emergence stems from ‘Pac’s death,” said Moore. “After that, people were trying to find that real voice and they turned to the south and found P.”
While many hip-hop heads are quick to admit he wasn’t the best lyricist, they still respected his entrepreneurial spirit. In 1999, Master P was ranked with Michael Jordan as the only two black Americans and only entertainer on Fortune magazine’s “40 Wealthiest Americans Under 40.”
“He was a brilliant businessman,” Hill said.
However, Hill also credited Master P’s popularity on his ability to master hip hop’s trends and turn them into formulas for instant success.
“Somehow he did that and the same thing [can be said about] P. Diddy and Jay-Z.”
So as the culture shuffled into the late 90s, it became a cash cow. The “Bling Bling” era as described by Bishop and Joseph marked the commercialization of hip hop and corporate America taking advantage of it.
“Once you have all these labels like Cash Money and Bad Boy making these million dollar deals, hip hop is everywhere,” said Williams.
As a result of artists dropping Madison Avenue brand names, the sales of some liquors and automobiles increased as well as hip hop’s influence on advertising.
“As much as black people loved Cadillac in the 70s and in the 80s, they’re back with the Escalade because of hip hop,” Williams said. “And as hip hop influenced the design of that vehicle, [it did the same for] the design of the Navigator.”
While the lyrics of the late 90s seemed to have been drenched with materialism, hip hop had a relevant underground less saturated by the decadent frills of commercial music. Rawkus Records was a big part of that.
With artists like Shabam Sahdeeq and Sir Menelik releasing singles each month and supplying the masses with the “Soundbombing” series, Rawkus was able to make a name for itself. When Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s “Black Star” album was released in 1998 the independent label received more attention.
“Rawkus saw what they were doing wasn’t working in the mainstream,” Hill said. “They tried to come out with a new idea, which was to try and commercialize (hip hop).”
For some hip hop fans, the late 90s was their breaking point with the music. Consequently, they walked away from it citing differences with the art, but a few found themselves coming back to it.
“It evolves,” Bishop said. “That’s the beauty of hip hop. It’s constantly changing. That’s the thing, hip hop is like Bebe’s Kids, ‘We don’t die, we multiply!’
Contact Monica Harden at firstname.lastname@example.org.